MusicJust a friend
6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 1
House of Blues,
Judging by the heavily processed nature of UK native Imogen (pronounced “Emma-Gin”) Heap’s music, both on her critically acclaimed solo albums and as one half of the duo Frou Frou, which was a one-album side project with producer Guy Sigsworth, one would assume Heap herself would be a cold, distant figure, a warm voice surrounded by layer upon layer of sweeping, cinematic strings and digitally manipulated to resemble a translation more than a soul.
From her breakthrough into the public consciousness with Frou Frou’s electronically melancholy song “Let Go,” which played a major role in the film Garden State, to her omnipresence in other films, TV shows and commercials, the Grammy winner’s haunting whisper has been known as one protected by a barrier of studio work. But that perception could not clash more with her personal approachability, even if her friend list includes elites from all walks of life.
“I met Nick Clegg,” says Heap excitedly in the days after the Liberal Democrat leader’s loss in the UK’s general election. “I was invited to the House of Lords. My friend, [legendary musical innovator] Brian Eno, was putting together the guest list, so he invited me along and I met Nick. Just like anyone else, you have instincts about people, and my instinct was, ‘I like this guy and want to invite him out to dinner.’ So that’s why I voted for him, ’cause I wanted to take him out to dinner.”
Even this admission, however, is misleading: Beyond famous friends, Heap’s daily, direct interaction with her fans often verges on obsession. Heap drew criticism earlier this year for her long, between-song conversations with her Coachella audience, and for her current tour in support of last year’s Ellipse, her third album filled with eclectic tonal shifts and occasional jazz-drenched confessionals, Heap has upped the ante of audience connectivity. Through her website and her heavy Twitter presence, she invited fans to submit auditions to join her on stage at each tour stop for a sing-along, and she even let followers vote on her set list for every performance. As if that weren’t enough, each night of the tour she will improvise a new track during the performance, taking suggestions from the crowd on everything from the musical key to the tempo to instruments and harmonization.
“For each show, I have a local charity that fans have voted for or sent in, [and] each night, I make this piece of music and mix it at the end of the night while I should be sleeping,” says Heap. “I upload it onto my website, and they can download it for a dollar or however much they want to donate and it goes to a local charity. [The fan-driven workload] is completely mad. I’ve got so much work ahead of me as a result of setting the set list up there, ’cause now I’ve got 20 songs to learn in a week.”
Heap’s outreach was born of a genuine need: Her first clarion call to her audience came about because she needed a specific font for her album artwork and one of her fans was able to come up with it. That, along with an admitted love of watching people dance to her music on YouTube opened Heap up to the possibility of being the people’s indie princess.
“Maybe before YouTube, they danced in the mirror and that’s that, but now there’s an extension of them online and it encourages people to maybe get better or perfect something that they’re good at. You can get a small fanbase. I just thought there are so many people out there who are creative and want to get involved, and there’s so many things I can’t do on my own, so why not find people who like the music and can do it as well?”
Perhaps because of that openness, an unexpected community has recently discovered Heap’s music: hip-hop. Soulja Boy sampled elements of her song “Just For Now” for a mixtape track called “2Milli,” and R&B singer Jason Derülo’s No. 1 single, “Whatcha Say,” is almost completely based on, and samples, one of Heap’s best-known songs, the nearly completely digitized “Hide and Seek.”
“I’m not fussy, ’cause I really believe when I finish a piece of music it does its own thing,” says Heap. “It has its own life. I don’t want to obstruct it in any way. I want it to go off and be happy and make me friends with whatever rapper or TV program wants to get involved in its life.”
Not that Heap is always plugged in to everywhere her songs might end up. TV.com recently named “Hide and Seek” its No. 1 song that the website wants to see performed on Glee.
“On what?” asks Heap, who doesn’t own a TV.