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IMOGEN HEAP

January 1, 2006
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British-born Imogen Heap landed in living rooms across America courtesy of The OC. When the sparse single “Hide and Seek” scored a climactic shooting in the season finale, viewers rushed straight to Apple iTunes and catapulted the song to No. 32 on the Billboard “Hot 100 Download” chart in the first week.

This classically trained pianist's voice was already familiar to listeners, though. Joined by Guy Sigsworth (Madonna, Björk) as Frou Frou, Heap sang through Garden State's trailer and closing credits in the single “Let Go” (from Details, [MCA, 2002]). But when label problems forced the end of the formal Frou Frou collaboration, Heap decided to start work on her sophomore solo album, a follow-up to I Megaphone (Almo Sounds, 1998). Before starting to record Speak for Yourself (Megaphonic, 2005), Heap ignored the labels courting her and remortgaged her London flat so that she could rent studio space and fill it with the setup she wanted. Booking her mastering session for exactly one year later, Heap began writing, recording and producing the album entirely on her own.

Heap nestled into a decidedly unhip neighborhood in London's docklands and filled her studio with keyboards, two pianos, a Freakenspeak circuit-bent Speak & Spell and a small vocal booth outfitted with a Neumann TLM 103. She worked primarily in Digidesign Pro Tools, which suited her admittedly anal preference that her music be aurally and visually precise. Although she usually deferred to East West Symphonic Gold Orchestra for virtual instruments, many of Heap's favorite sounds were simply those that were the most fun to play.

“I was cycling past a carpet factory near my studio, and there were these cardboard tubes they'd discarded,” she explains. “My grand plan was to create an organ so that I could have every note I needed. I didn't end up doing it, but on ‘Closing In,’ in the background you hear a sound, dut-dut-dut. It's quite low and sounds quite electronic, but that is the carpet tubes. Even if these things start off organically, they end up being mangled beyond recognition in the computer.”

Heap's paradoxically free-spirited and rigidly structured approach to music writing often led her to use classic instruments in unorthodox ways: “The Moment I Said It” began as her attempt to build a song entirely from noises she picked up from her piano. “I cheated a little bit because I needed strings,” she admits. “But the sound of the kicks is me hitting the sustain pedal and it reverberating through the piano. I pinpointed the frequencies of the notes and took them out so you just get the clicks of the hammers hitting the strings. I used different microphone spacing from the piano — one outside the door, one in the vocal booth, one in the main room — recording and then clicking between them gives you that feeling that you're going in and out of different places.”

Heap's multifaceted personality permeates Speak for Yourself in delicate piano melodies and lush electronic textures. Containing only her vocoded voice, “Hide and Seek” is an unlikely first single born in a flash of inspiration. “My favorite computer blew up on me,” Heap explains. “But I didn't want to leave the studio without having done anything that day. I saw the [DigiTech Vocalist Workstation] on a shelf and just plugged it into my little 4-track MiniDisc with my mic and my keyboard and pressed Record. The first thing that I sang was those first few lines, ‘Where are we? What the hell is going on?’ I set the vocalist to a four-note polyphony, so even if I play 10 notes on the keyboard, it will only choose four of them. It's quite nicely surprising when it comes back with a strange combination. When it gets really high in the second chorus, that's a result of it choosing higher rather than low notes, so I ended up going even higher to compensate, above the chord. I recorded it in, like, four-and-a-half minutes, and it ended up on the album in exactly the structure of how it came out of me then. I love it because it doesn't feel like my song. It just came out of nowhere, and I'm not questioning that one at all.”

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