This feature was written for the winter 2015 edition of BASCA’s The Works
There are too few artists like Imogen Heap: creative talents who’ve had the space to experiment without worrying about where the next big hit will come from. It wasn’t always so simple, but the singer/songwriter’s tumultuous relationship with record labels at the beginning of her career made Heap realise that fame and big bucks weren’t the recipe for a fulfilling career in music. Since then, she’s been driving her own success and wants every other artist to have that same freedom.
It’s something Heap is trying to make possible via her work with the Blockchain technology. The Blockchain is an online system that takes information of transactions happening worldwide between people and checks that they are valid before storing them. It does away with the need for banks and all the money received is done so through a cryptocurrencies, which can then be used to fund other transactions.
Heap explains: “It’s called the Blockchain because it builds upon itself each day with a memory of the past days worth of accounting through what are called ‘blocks’. With this technology comes an amazing new era of possibilities for all kinds of systems to not be centralised, enabling global commerce between people without the need for top-down authority.”
This model has the potential to put the artist, songwriter and composer at the top of the music industry food chain, instead of being the last ones to receive a small fraction of the income their music generates. They would be the ones to upload their content and decide who gets a percentage of its earnings dependent on contribution, as per conditions set within a smart contract (essentially an online set of rules). A few new companies in music have been using the Blockchain, including PeerTracks, Bittunes, OCL, and, the firm Heap has been working with, Ujo Music. The aim is to provide a solution to problems like
disparities and complications in global royalty distribution and licensing as well as enabling new ways of making money from music.
Heap found out about the tech via musician Zoe Keating and has since created an independent concept called Mycelia, an idea which could be used to represent artists’ rights. Written for Sennheiser’s Re-shaping Excellence project – a campaign held to celebrate sound and innovation for the audio brand’s 70th anniversary – Heap’s latest track Tiny Human (with lyrics inspired by her very own tiny human, one-year-old daughter Scout) is available online via Mycelia as a digital contract on the internet.
The page looks like a spider’s web with every contributor and rightsholder named and it takes just one click to buy licences and samples for the music and access any other information the artist wishes to share. Instead of getting money up front, this is a way for people to invest and share in the artist’s profits. Says Heap: “It leaves a lot more creative space for the artist, and people who like them, to share in their good fortune and invest.”
Heap’s interest in music and technology started when, aged seven, she’d record herself on a cassette player playing piano while “beatboxing really badly and playing some whisks or something in the background.” Then, after finding herself an outcast at boarding school, she found solace with an Atari computer, working out how to programme sounds inside it.
“That was really when my romance with music and computers began. I realised how much it would liberate me from having to write everything out all the time. I learned theory and arrangement, writing musical pieces down on manuscript paper – but there is no way for you to hear it unless you magic an orchestra out of nowhere. When I realised I could just play things on a keyboard, hear them back and get a flute, violin, and some other really bad sounds, it was just magnificent.”
Since the age of 20, Heap has released four solo albums; iMegaphone (1998), Speak for Yourself (2004), Ellipse (2009) and Sparks (2014), plus one with Guy Sigsworth as musical duo Frou Frou, Details in 2002. Thanks to her relationship with a music supervisor Heap had known during her time as Frou Frou, Hide and Seek from Speak for Yourself appeared in US TV series The O.C. and Frou Frou song Let Go was placed in Zach Braff’s cult indie film Garden State in 2004.
In 2010, Ellipse won a Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Album. That same year, Heap won an Ivor Novello Award for International Achievement. Solo career aside, she’s also known for innovative and tech-focused creations like her Mi.MU musical gloves, a crowd-funded project that allow the user to produce music and manipulate sound by waving their hands, recordings for TV and film such as The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Criminal Minds and CSI Miami, and her work as a songwriter for others, including Taylor Swift.
Swift’s latest album 1989 closes with a track written with Heap, the downtempo and melodic Clean. That project happened when Heap’s manager read that Swift said Heap was her dream collaborator. He got in touch, and Swift came down to her studio/home in rural Essex for a “crazy creative nine hours”. “I just knew that we were going to write a song, I hadn’t prepared anything,” Heap remembers. “I didn’t know very much about her other than she was a huge name and had a couple of songs that were very big on the radio. I didn’t know she wrote those songs herself. I suffered with the perception that girls don’t write or have any interest in production – even though I know that’s not true because I am one. That goes to show how strong that message comes across.
“She came in looking immaculate, sat down next to the fireplace with me and said, ‘Can I play you a song idea?’ She pretty much already had the song and I thought it was brilliant. So we recorded it and very quickly had the structure. There was a point where the weird Imogen Heap that likes five middle eights tried to muscle in on her songwriting skills and she was like, ‘I think we’re going to lose people there .. .’ That’s why she sells millions of records and I don’t! We met in the middle and created this really lovely song.”
The secret to landing high-profile writing projects, whether in film, TV, advertising, or for other artists is reliability, says Heap. “The best advice I can give, which came from my dad, is always fulfil your promises. If somebody says, ‘We want you to do this song by this date,’ just do it, even if it’s not perfect. People rely on reliability and if you can stick to your word they come back to you time and time again.”
In the beginning, Heap’s songwriting process was simple: sit in a room at a piano and write. That process then moved into the studio where she would put sounds around her voice and the piano based on what was available. As technology became cheaper and Heap mastered editing on Pro Tools, her music became much more sculptural. Tiny Human was an extreme version of that – it was made using Scout’s rattle, the breast pump and the play gym (largely due to being resourceful when occupied by an energetic baby). While Speak for Yourself was made alone in a studio, Ellipse was based around sounds from Heap’s house like rustling leaves and acoustics. Every song on Sparks was constructed around a different project, including a jogging app, reactive music and a spoken-word piece about a neglected wall garden.
Nowadays Heap finds being open and inclusive most useful when writing. “In the beginning I thought I had to shut everything out to make music. Now I’m opening everything up because I’ve realised that the more open I am, the more fun I have, the more people get involved, and the more I’m pushed into doing something different. I get unhappy when I’m left to my own devices for long periods of time. I thought that’s what songwriters had to do, be a little bit depressed, go a bit crazy, and I spent many years doing that and not being social at all.
“Now I want to be around people and make music with them, create videos and gloves and talk about Mycelia, and I’m much happier. Now that so much revolves around Scout so many things have come alive because it takes the pressure off you, the focus has always been on me since I first signed a record deal. Now it’s about Scout, people, family, collaboration and openness.”
Aside from the Blockchain, the other project that’s taking up most of Heap’s time is writing the score for a Harry Potter play that will debut on London’s West End in June. And now finding herself completely independent, with no label, management, publishing or licensing deal, and no pressure, writing more music could be on the cards in the near future.
“On the one hand I want to do a really simple piano voice album. I’ve never done that and it would be a real challenge for me to just use a piano because I love all the noises and sounds. But there is another side of me that wants to write the weirdest totally electronic music out there, maybe under a completely different name so no one knows it’s me. I love beautiful music, classical music, but I also love music that just bangs you over the head like a big saucepan.
“It’s nice to feel like there’s no limitation. It’s kind of like I’m freefalling at the moment and seeing whose hands I grab on the way down. So far, it’s been amazing. I’ve met the most incredible people. And I’ve been able to imagine a new architecture, a new direction, and dream of a positive future for the music industry.”