#ThrowbackThursday: The Elliptical World of Imogen Heap


In 2009, we talked to Imogen Heap about her two Grammy nominations, building a home studio, and recording her newest release, Ellipse.

Imogen Heap may not be a household name, but that could soon change with her latest release. Ellipse (RCA, 2009) is a stunning album produced in the recording studio she recently built in her home outside of London. Just 31 years old, she is an accomplished singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist who has been nominated for two Grammy Awards, one for Best New Artist in 2007 and another for Best Original Song Written for Film.

Two years ago, Heap bought and moved into the house she grew up in and announced that she would soon start recording her next album there. She began by refurbishing the home and converting what had been her childhood playroom into a recording space built to her specifications. She uploaded the first of 40 video clips to YouTube, detailing her struggles and accomplishments in roughly 10-minute installments. Devoted fans tuned in regularly to check on her progress. Heap expects these clips and some additional material to soon be released as a DVD detailing the making of Ellipse.

Her following on the Web is especially impressive, with nearly 1 million followers on Twitter and more than 350,000 MySpace friends on the day of the album's release. As the songwriting and recording of Ellipse progressed, Heap often turned to her fans for advice, soliciting their opinions about whether she should include a song on the album, for example, or which version of a recording they preferred. She streamed live piano performances on Ustream. tv and invited anyone following her Tweets to collaborate on her official biography (see Web Clip 1). She even asked fans to submit samples of their artwork and photography, and then chose the most impressive to contribute to the album art and packaging. All of this group participation gave her audience a sense of ownership and personal investment in Ellipse.

I interviewed Heap on the same day that she performed at TEDGlobal (July 21 to 24, 2009; Oxford, England), a gathering of movers and shakers in the worlds of technology, entertainment and design.

Did recordingEllipsetake longer than you had expected?

Actually, no, it didn't. What took me longer was getting in the studio; actually doing the work was less time. Deciding to move into the old family house was quite a big financial decision, and then building the studio took eight months. The plan was to take one month, and I naïvely underestimated the time it would take to build the studio because I project-managed it myself and just had a few people working on it.

What can you tell me about your studio?

Well, you walk into the room and you'll notice that it's curved. I live in an elliptical-shaped house — hence, the title of the album. [The studio] was my old playroom. I didn't want you to feel like you're in a sterile environment, which I feel when I go to a lot of studios. [That] always baffles me because music is not about clean lines and flashy silver things. Music, when you get creating it, is kind of messy and a little bit higglety-pigglety.

There's a massive [Digidesign] ICON desk when you walk in that kind of dominates the room, which I don't tend to use very often, but I do like sitting at it because it makes me feel like a professional. On the left of the ICON desk is my Perspex piano, a clear plastic piano I built for my live shows. That's what [holds my computer display], my Nord and my little looping thing. On the right is the vocal booth, with multiple instruments.

Did you consider other mixing desks before you decided on the ICON?

I've used unautomated mixing desks, a Neve, like when I was 17; that's what I learned from. I've never actually considered having a desk again until I went into Jed Lieber's studio in the Sunset Marquis, and he sold me his ICON. I just fell in love because I thought it was so beautiful. It had all these beautiful sparkly lights, and it looks really nice, aesthetically. So I just thought, “If I'm going have a desk, it would be that because I want to keep it digital.” The whole record is all digital, even the mastering. I don't really want to affect the sound using a desk. I like knowing that what goes in, that's what it is and it stays there.

I [record] a lot of acoustic instruments and just process them as audio [data] in [Digidesign] Pro Tools, and manually toy with them like Play-Doh. I don't use much outboard gear at all. You go into some studios and you see racks and racks and racks of gear, but all I actually use is my Avalon 737 for any singular mic stuff, and then if I'm miking up anything else, I use my Focusrite Liquid Channel.

I don't like reverb very much; I much prefer delay. You put loads of reverb on everything and it just fills up the track. I can't get the detail that I like when I'm working with so many tracks. I just try to get the sound right before I put things like reverb on. As far as vocals go, I'll process it if I want really long, backward, messed-up vocals. Then I might use a bit of reverb, but I generally use Waves [SuperTap] 6-Tap delay. I'll make a copy of the lead vocals, and then go in and manually take out every single sibilant, even single t and s and d and anything that will sound like a delay when you hear it in the mix. It basically does what a reverb does, but it has more space and more structure to it.

What microphone did you use for vocals onEllipse?

Always the same one: a Neumann TLM 103.

That's the same mic you've used for your previous albums.

Yeah, exactly. The last three records — the Frou Frou one, this one and Speak for Yourself — all the same mic. And then the same preamp/compressor, the Avalon 737.

What synthesizers do you use?

I don't have that many. I've got my trusty Ensoniq TS-12, which occasionally I might fire up. I've got a little Nord Rack 3 and the [Korg] Electribe MX.

Any software instruments?

I've got Massive and all the Native Instruments stuff, and I like [Apple] Sculpture very much. I like things you can really bend and shift. I love just processing [audio] in Pro Tools. When I really start having fun with sculpting sounds, it's about 6 or 7 or 8 in the evening and everything's settled down and nobody's bugging me. I'll continue through the night if I'm having a good session. I really don't remember how I do things because I get so lost in it. It's like, if you're driving home from somewhere and you just know your way so well that you get to your front door, you've got the keys in your hand, and you're going, “Oh, how did I get here?” That's what it's like.

You're absorbed in the process.

Yeah, I totally don't remember the process. [I know I must] have some kind of process, but I'm so involved in it that I couldn't really relay it to you.

My friend Justine [Pearsall] has filmed me on and off over the last couple of years, as I've been building the studio and as I've been making the record. That's not going to be available [on DVD] until November because she's only just started editing it and she's got 350 hours of footage. That won't be like a super-techie, what-plug-ins-type thing. It's more like the building block of an album — [from the] seed of a song to building a studio to then finally staying up late at night and picking out all kinds of random sounds.

[She filmed me] going through the house and recording everything from the tap dripping to the banisters, and using that as my starting point. There are a few songs, like “Canvas,” where I really started on the computer, building sounds inside Logic, but then mostly I start with something that's acoustic, like the hang drum or the mbira or the piano or banisters or the light ceiling panels in my studio — which make a very nice timpani sound — and wine glasses at the beginning of “First Train Home.” And then it's really the way that I process them, edit them and mess with them [that] makes it sound not like where it started.

How do you go about writing songs?

With this album, I took a different approach. The last album, I built sounds in [Steinberg] Nuendo and in Pro Tools, and then wrote the song over the tops of tracks I'd built with loops and things. But with this one, I made a conscious decision to write the song first, in the old-school way, because I didn't want to get into the issue of writing a backing track and then spend two months trying to crowbar in a melody over the top of this thing I built that I loved, only to just take it all apart anyway to fit a vocal in. I really tried to get the song first, which is very different from the way I've been working for the last eight years. I wanted to just go and write the songs, which is what I did.

I went on a little writing trip, and I wrote most of the songs. The songwriting, in the beginning spark of the idea, that's really exciting because you're inspired to get in the studio and get working on it. But then there's the slog of writing the lyrics. Sometimes they don't come easy. I wanted to do that side of it in a beautiful place so I wasn't frustrated. I did all the writing away so I could just get to the fun bit of making the music when I got into the house.

That's why you've been traveling so much?

Yeah, well, partly because I needed to get my head emotionally around the fact that I was going to take on the family house. I didn't have a workable studio at the time, and I've never actually traveled, outside of work, on my own and gone to places I've actually wanted to visit. I've done touring — lots of Japan, lots of America, lots of Europe — but it's just the same routes that you go on. I just thought, well, I was 29, and I really haven't been anywhere on my own and just traveled.

It worked out great because I was in quite remote places. I'd have to figure out the language because I was sometimes in the middle of nowhere in, like, the countryside of Japan and trying to find food that I recognized from the local shop. In a way, that was great because it took the pressure off of me just sitting in a room every day, saying, “Right, I've got to write a song.” It was like, “Right, I've got to go down and get some breakfast; how am I going to do that?” (To hear Heap explain the inspiration behind the song “Bad Body Double,” see Web Clip 2.)

The instrumentation on the song “Earth” is absolutely stunning. It sounds as if all the instruments, including the bass and drums, are your voice.

They are indeed, yes. I could have gone the route of really processing the vocals to make them not sound like vocals, but I just thought that defeats the object. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get the best sound out of my voice. And I spent ages editing them together. There's over 100 tracks of vocals on it, and it was absolutely completely doing my head in, just hearing the sound of my own voice for, like, three weeks nonstop. But I really had this vision, what I wanted it to be. It was really good fun to write that one.

I wrote the song called “Aha!” and I needed something to go after it because I felt like, in the running order of the album, it wasn't really working. So, I thought, I'm going to listen to “Aha!” and then I'm going to the first instrument that feels like it wants to be on the record. I went straight to the mbira and I played a chord. It started off being something completely different, but I knew I always wanted it to be vocals because I needed an a capella [track] on the record. So the vocals were written really, really quickly, and I went back and kind of perfected the sound of them.

That's where the [sings] “Da-da, da-da-dah” comes in. I wrote that in the shower. And then I was going, “Da-da, da-da-dah” as I was getting dressed and running down to the studio. A lot of really good ideas happen in the shower. I think it's the only time where, because you can't be in your studio, you're not distracted by all the other millions of things you have to do. Long showers — not very good for the environment, but good for creativity.

You orchestrate your vocals in more intricate detail than any singer I've ever heard. Are you more influenced by your knowledge of orchestration than by other singers?

I was never really interested in vocal music as a kid. I learned the piano, so I learned harmony [and] counterpoint through that. And then I learned the clarinet [and] cello, so I understood different parts of the orchestra and how they work with each other. And I studied composition and arrangement, not to a great degree, not even to degree level, just for the love of it.

I like creating something with lots of personality, lots of depth and lots of things that you can hear over and over — things that you don't notice at all until the 50th listen, that most would say, “Why are you still in the studio working on that damn song?” I want to get the detail that you couldn't possibly take in on your first, second, third, fourth listen. And I'll probably forget that they're there. In five years' time, I'll go, “Ooh, that's a nice sound! How did I do that? I forgot about that.” I want to be able to experience music like that, because otherwise people just go, “Okay, I've got that.” Well, I would, anyway. I like music I can listen to over and over again. I don't listen to my own music, but that's the kind of stuff I like, with details and lots and lots of parts going on, but at the same time trying to keep a focus.

That's why I always record the vocals first, try to put as little music behind me as possible, record the vocals so they sound amazing, do all the harmonies and make all the parts, even before there's any music — just the bare bones. Then, and only then, start creating the music around it. I spent about a month just doing vocals. I didn't do anything else. I did 10 tracks of vocals when I got into the studio. It was absolutely maddening, but I just wanted to get it out of the way because for me, that's not really the fun bit. The fun bit is making sounds and just getting lost in the audio.

It sounds like you have a very strong sense of balance onEllipse.

Every song is in a different key, and there's six major, six minor. One of them is improvised; six of them were written on the writing trip; six of them were written in the house. Tempos range from 54 to 177 [bpm] because I wanted to get a full sweep of tempos. It's also trying to find spaces to be creative within because if I just had an empty canvas, it's absolutely impossible to do anything. Where do you start? What color do you use? What kind of brush do you use? It's overwhelming. So I needed to make myself have these bookends to work within, so I'd choose, like, I have to have this kind of tempo and this kind of key, and this type of major-minor whatever because I haven't got it on the record. And sometimes that would be what decided the tempo or key of the beginning of an idea.

With all the work you've been doing wrapping upEllipse, have you found time to get involved with any film projects lately?

No, I haven't had any time at all to do anything. I've had very little sleep. I came straight out of the record, and I got thrown into the album art [and] press images. The only thing I'm doing tomorrow and the day after is TED[Global], and I'm so looking forward to just taking in what's happened for the last two years because it's been absolutely nonstop. The kind of weight and the pressure of this album, waking up every morning, going, “Oh, I've got to do the record,” you know. It still hasn't really sunk in. I still feel like I wake up in the morning, and go, “Oh! No, I don't have to do it.” But I've got to do everything else. So I'm really looking forward to these next few days.

Congratulations on making it this far.

Thank you. I didn't think I was going to for a while there.

Senior editor Geary Yelton has been writing for EM since its first issue in 1985. He lives in North Carolina and commutes downstairs.

Career Highlights

After recording her critically acclaimed debut solo album, i Megaphone (Almo Sounds, 1998), Imogen Heap teamed with producer Guy Sigsworth (Björk, Madonna, Britney Spears) to form Frou Frou and release the duo's only album, Details (MCA, 2002). Her second solo album, Speak for Yourself (Megaphonic, 2005), reached Number One in Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart and number two in Billboard's Top Electronic Albums chart, and yielded a string of popular singles such as “Headlock,” “Goodnight and Go” and the Vocoder-infused “Hide and Seek.” Her songs have appeared in movies such as Garden State and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and on TV shows that include The O.C. and Heroes. Heap is also in demand as a guest performer, singing with Jeff Beck on the DVD Performing This Week: Live at Ronnie Scott's, for example, and on IAMX's album, Kingdom of Welcome Addiction.