This Best New Artist Grammy nominee may have been making music for the better part of a decade—both as a solo artist and as part of electronic duo Frou Frou—but Imogen Heap’s unique sound made its way to the public in a major way this past year. Her songs have been featured in key scenes on TV shows like the O.C. and on movie soundtracks, most recently The Holiday, the Cameron Diaz/Jude Law romantic comedy she scored with Hans Zimmer. Heap is equally comfortable making music out of instruments and household objects, and she even refinanced her own home to make her latest CD. She shares these stories and more with the Retailer.
The Music &Sound Retailer: On your Myspace page, you say your sound is like no one else’s. How did your sound come about, exactly?
Imogen Heap: It’s a very difficult question because each sound is created in a different way. Generally, I don’t tend to use synthesizers. I don’t try to use pre-made sounds. I like to kind of carve sounds, sculpt sounds out of…it can either be starting as a voice or as a metal gate or as a kid’s squeaky toy, and then end up as a drum machine or end up as a bass line. I mean, some of the sounds people think are a bass line are actually created out of a door slamming, and then tuning it down, and then extending [it]. So sometimes the whole process of creating the sounds is very weird, but they end up sounding sometimes quite ordinary. I like the mixture of the hard, kind of quite blippy every now and then, drums. I like a drum kit but I like it very rigid. I like it to sound like it’s been sliced up. And then the musical side, the kind of top end, like the strings and the harps…
M&SR: You play all of the different parts yourself?
Heap: Yup. I mean, on the instrument side of things, some people may not see it as an instrument but the computer is an instrument these days. You can play pretty much anything into it and you can create on a computer, like you can on an instrument. So, for me, it’s just another instrument. But I do arrange. I don’t actually physically play harp; I don’t own a harp. But I understand how a harp works and I understand not to play it like a piano, because you don’t play it like that. So when I program, I’m still playing it but I’m playing it on a keyboard. But I do play the drums. I play the clarinet. I play the cello. I play the double bass a little bit. And I play my mbira, glockenspiel, triangle. Lots of things. I mean, I don’t play all of them like concert standard. But I’m good with the computer; I’m good with programming. I’ve been programming on the computer since I was 12, so I know how to make something sound good even if it’s played terribly [laughs].
M&SR: It must be difficult to find some of the unique instruments you play.
Heap: Well my strangest instrument is this thing called a nail violin, which is a wooden box, the size of a medium-sized suitcase, with a hollow inside. And then it has these huge nails that have been hammered vertically into this box. It’s kind of set up with this strange scale that this guy in San Diego calls the array. He made the scale. And you play them by brushing over the heads of the flat nails, with your fingertips. You have to use a bit of rosin. You put a little of that on your fingers and they sound like these little flutes or recorders or something. So that’s my strange instrument. Actually, I got given that by the guy who makes my other strange instrument, called an mbira, which is what I play live. That’s like a kind of big toy piano, a thumb piano. You just pluck these metal prongs. There’s a huge version of that and I found that through my friend, who’s an incredible artist. She had one in her bedroom. [I’ve] used my old Hoover tube—a vacuum cleaner tube, like a ribbed thing. I whizzed it around my head. The wind rushes through it and it kind of whistles. So I used that on “Closing In.” All kinds of things. Sometimes they’re not instruments. Sometimes they’re bits of metal or an old PC, like making a nice sound out of the grate of the PC.
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