Imogen Heap never stopped going in
The boundary-pushing electronic artist on her work on the new Harry Potter score, being covered by Ariana Grande, and building a platform for artist’s rights.
“In my life I've surrounded myself with music and technology,” Imogen Heap says over the phone from Malta, where she’s in the middle of her Mycelia world tour. “I've always felt that on my previous tours I'd only really been sharing half of what I get up to.” And she gets into quite a lot. The electronic artist and life-long tech enthusiast, now 40, has composed music for TV and film, created a crowd-sourced album, worked with a special team to develop a wearable tech glove that lets you make music out of thin air, and, more recently, begun developing a blockchain-supported platform to help musicians be better compensated and credited for their work.
In Heap’s eyes, everything, from music to family to tech to the politics of her industry, is connected. It’s perhaps that outlook that’s allowed her music to spread, with genuine ease, far beyond her. In recent years, standout tracks from her seminal 2005 album Speak For Yourself have found home on songs by the likes of Lil B, Wiz Khalifa, and longtime Heap fan Ariana Grande, whose version Heap sang a bit of over the phone.
As of 2016, her tracks have found new life, several songs and side projects from her back catalog like “Headlock” and “Hide and Seek” reworked into the score of the West End and Broadways production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Heap herself. Today, that score was released as an album. When we caught up earlier this week, she was excited to share how her many worlds have come full circle, putting her in the position to more passionately jump into her next obsession, whatever it may be.
How did the opportunity to work on the Cursed Child score come about?
Steven Hoggett, really. He is the movement director of the Harry Potter play. He’s also very good friends with John Tiffany, who is a director and they often work as a pair. I learned that before they even start work on a play, they often begin with music. Lucky me, around six years ago they were having these conversations and I was on their mind back then. The first I heard about it was three months before I started the project when Steven rang me up as I was pushing my newborn baby through some very muddy fields in the village where I live, and he said, “Imogen, how's it going? Just wanted to let you know that I'm working on this project. We're workshopping some scenes for this play and it's really, really working with the music. Are you OK for me to just like, nicely, carefully, respectfully mess around with your music?” And I was like, “Yeah, cool.”
I've worked with Steven in the past once before. It was one of these projects that didn't pay me any money but I really loved it so I spent a little time on it. It was a play, a kind of physical theater piece, just after Speak For Yourself came out. That was the only other play that I have ever been involved in and that was [with] him. A couple months later I was like “What is [the play]?” He said, “I can't really tell you because it's a bit secret, but it's about a boy with a scar.” Then I quickly went back home and typed in Harry Potter and Steven Hoggett and there were the beginnings of the play already online so I got quite excited and I was very surprised. I never imagined these two worlds could meet but they fit so amazingly well. I half-think somehow when I was writing these pieces, some of them 15 years ago, the magic of Harry Potter was kind of channeling somehow magically through. Even through the future and back into the past — I don't know. It's just weird, it's uncanny how some of the music felt like it was written for the play.
What was the process like writing music for this type of project?
I've never been in the theater making music for a play before, and from what I understand, that is quite unusual. I had to come with tons of material in a very short length of time and the best way to get me to work fast is to put me under pressure and actually have feedback live in the room, so I chose to work in the theater and in the workshop space where they were literally developing the play.
I have a little mobile set-up that wasn't mobile at all, it just sat in the theater literally for three months. I had my computer, my headphones, a little mic, a pre-amp. That's it. Then I just had my two secret weapons, my first one was Alexis Michallek, my assistant, I could literally never have done it without him. He knows my music inside-out and he was making sure I had all the stems uploaded into sessions ready to go so I could start editing and chopping and reversing and slowing down and speeding up and adding sounds to it.
Then the next thing that I had was an entire collection of 12 instruments that I love in my studio, that are my signature sound, and I made a virtual instrument out of them with a company called Soniccouture. You can actually download this, it's called Box of Tricks. It's got my mbira, it's got a choir of me so I can play on the keyboard, it's got body percussion, it's got my cocktail-kit, whirlys, waterphone, vibraphone, cellos, all the things that I play in my studio, then I basically have them at my fingertips.
What was your biggest takeaway?
The thing that I really learned was to not be precious. Because in the studio you've only got yourself to answer to. But [in this situation] you'll probably never going to see scene again, before there's a thousand people in the theater and then you've just got to let it go. Not that [the music] was any less to standard, [but] It's working so let's just go with it. That didn't happen when I was working on the album [version of the score]. I worked really hard to get the record [version] sounding to the standard of how I would release another record. The thing about working so quickly in the theater was that there were loads of things that I didn't notice or people didn't notice because of the size of the room and the approximation to the speakers. You just don't hear things like clicks and pops and muddiness of areas because the theater had a certain sound to it. When I pulled [the music] back to the studio it really was quite painful to take away from this massive speaker system and make it work on closed headphones.
I know you’re working on a blockchain project for artists. Can you tell me a little about that?
Four years ago I got very excited with blockchain technology. After I shared an idea of what I hoped would happen to the future in music industry in an article in Forbes, my life pretty much changed overnight. There was too much interest in how we would like to see the future music space shape itself around musicians, more than [it does] at the moment, [where] it caters very well for lots of industry organizations but it's not really supporting that ground layer as it should.
We've been developing a technology we call the Creative Passport, and we hope that by next year we will have the beginnings of a music maker database, a data layer which will in turn enable [artists] to receive offers of work or direct payment, or to be able to at least acknowledge our works when they are on DSPs such as Spotify, as a way to show who we are. And not just for the likes of people like me who have records out, but for lots of people who work with me. They’re going to get acknowledged for any work that they do. Back in the day we used to have liner notes but we don't have that anymore so how can we fill that gap for all the music makers that help in the process of making a record?
What drew you to experimenting with electronic sounds in the first place? And what continues to draw you to the point where technology and music intersect?
I actually wonder now more and more when I look to people who are extremely famous, and how much time goes to being famous. That's when one of the best things that's ever happened to me — that I never really got really famous, because I never wanted that. I always wanted to really make music and I feel like I've found myself in this amazing place where I can follow the dreams and passions of the projects I really want to follow because I have space in my life. I don't have expectations from people to make another hit record in a certain order. I attribute it to that really and just being able to follow the things which I love and am intrigued about. Certain projects that I've done have helped me financially support those dreams and projects like the Mi.Mu glove, and now with the Creative Passport for Mycelia.
The biggest unexpected thing that's happened in my life is that actually all of that music which I followed and worked with, all these projects that I've passionately wanted to be involved in — a lot of it has ended up enabling me to make the music for the Harry Potter play. Because I've got such a massive catalog of work which isn't just another song, after song, but a big body of orchestral work and a load of stuff that rarely saw the light of day that ended up enabling me to put together, in a few months, two and a half hours of quite diverse music for the play.
It's funny how things have come about as a result of this. The thing which is actually financing a big portion of my life right now, including giving me the ability to go on and do a tour like this, which isn't financing itself, is the Harry Potter play. It's Broadway. It's London. The incredible success of the show, [I’m] just incredibly fortunate to be asked to do it. That it's actually paying back all those years when I didn't get paid for that work, but it's also funding these projects now, is just amazing.
“This is an amazing gift, for somebody like Ariana to put a song on her record, completely releasing it to a whole new audience.”
I want to ask you about Ariana Grande featuring her version of “Goodnight and Go” on her new album Sweetener. Did you have a hand in that at all when it was coming together?
No. It was a surprise to me. We kind of text each other, but we don't talk on the phone like, “Hey how's it going?” all the time. I saw on Twitter that she did a little cover, and I thought, Wow, that's really good. She has got a really good voice and I thought, That's so cool. It didn't click at all that she might put it on her record. When I heard that people were [asking her if she’d] done the rest of the song as a cover, I was like, Alright maybe she is doing it, and then her brother sent [me the song] because she's quite shy. He was like, “Ariana has done a version of 'Goodnight and Go,' she would love for you to hear it. What do you think?” It was in the morning, I had just woken up. He was in the States. I listened to it and I was just so excited because this is an amazing gift, for somebody like Ariana to put a song on her record, completely releasing it to a whole new audience. It really feels like a proper gift. It was incredibly generous of her and I'm really happy about what she's done.
A lot of other artists across genres, like the rapper Lil B, have sampled your music and referenced it. What's it been like to hear songs of yours have these second or third lives breathed into them for newer, younger audiences?
Young L — yeah. I find it funny because I'm like this middle class white girl, but I think it's really amazing that [my music] can have this life and touch different spaces with different energies. I feel like there's a bit of magic there, too. Actually, it's kind of part of the reason I'm doing what I'm doing with the Creative Passport, because a lot of the time I discover things [others using my music] second-hand or third-hand, they don't ask me directly. 99.9% I'm like, “I love it. I would never not let you use it.”
The only thing that upsets me sometimes is when people don't mention things like this. They don't say where [the music is] from because a lot of the times people are worried that I'm going to ask them to take it down or take them to court, or they are not going to be able to [use it]. I feel that as a community I think people know that I like [them using my work] so they feel like it’s safe, so they do it more.
Like, I've never taken anyone to court [and] would never do that. I just feel like respect, it's just nice to say where this song is from. So normally if somebody has sampled something then I would just try to get in contact and say, “I actually really like it and I'm very happy for you to use it, just please mention where it comes from so that if people are interested and they do what to find out then they can.” They can go to the source if they want to.The Creative Passport, the whole idea is around having an identity for music maker, and that we can all connect with each other. We need to make it easy for people to find each other to get the answers they need to be able to do the right thing.
Have you talked to Lil B or Clams Casino or Young L directly in regards to your music? Have they reached out or have you reached out?
I have been in touch with Young L, on Twitter quite a lot in fact. He did do a remix of mine, ages ago, because I asked him to, and then in the end the label that I was with at the time was just like, “No, we don’t want to do this.” It got a bit awkward, but it was really good so maybe we’ll find a way to release it now. I think re-recordings are allowed. But I also got introduced to a load of different music, different genres that I wasn't aware of, and that was kind of cool.
I saw in a recent interview of yours that for your next Imogen Heap project, you'd like to collaborate more and branch out in other genres.
If I'm doing a collaboration, I want to be taking all of these crazy places and see what happens to my creativity. When I worked with Harry Potter, this happened, or when I worked with [Frou Frou] this happened — each time I do it I learn more about what I love and maybe what I'd like to do more of. It just challenges me, that's the reason. I just got a bit bored being in the studio on my own.
You're on this tour and the Cursed Child soundtrack is out — what’s next for you?
Quite soon is a song called “The Quiet” for a game called The Quiet Man from Japanese game company Square Enix, and that's coming out in a couple weeks. Then there's another thing, which is Guy Sigsworth, who’s the other half of Frou Frou, has a record coming out next year called Step and I've sung a few pieces on that. I've got the release of the Mini.mu gloves, which is the kids version of Mi.mu gloves. We've got the release of our app called Glover, which will happen next year.
We're going to have, on December 9, which happens to be my birthday actually, the soft launch for the Creative Passport. It will be on this thing called Test Flight where it will ask people to basically put their flag in the sand and just be like, “I'm here, I believe in the future and we've got to verify each other peer-to-peer, to start to collect these networks.” Hopefully, if we can get enough excitement and maybe a few famous names who say that they really support it, then we can start to shift the industry to think about what it would be like if we had a music maker layer and what good it would bring for the industry at large.