Listen to this article
Weirdly, there are two “Roundhouses” occupying the attentions of Imogen Heap this summer. One is the famous London venue, where she is curating this year’s Reverb festival, a celebration of contemporary classical music with, as she puts it, “heavy leanings” towards technology.
The other is her home: a splendid Regency dwelling, perfectly circular in form, in rural Essex. She welcomes me here with a herbal tea and a quick tour. The homely rooms are festooned with paintings and books but also with many machines that are connected to each other with an improbable number of leads. The boho-techno look, as an interiors magazine might describe it, if it had seen anything quite like it.
This, she says, is her private home and where she “makes stuff”; the other Roundhouse is a public space where she “shows off” her stuff. She speaks quietly and contentedly at the unexpected symmetry. She is dressed severely in black, the only colour in her outfit coming from some vaguely-applied apricot nail varnish. She is also six months pregnant, and visibly elated at the prospect of motherhood.
Heap, 36, was a natural choice to take the helm of the biennial festival in Chalk Farm. She appeared there in 2012 with a typically left-field and ambitious project, performing her own freshly composed a cappella soundtrack with full choir to the French surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928).
“It sold out and went pretty well,” she recalls, so the venue’s organisers turned to her for Reverb’s next edition. She promises another gathering of “weird and wonderful people”.
They are adjectives routinely ascribed to Heap herself, whose eclectic range of talents and innate sense of experimentation have conspired against her acquiring a more widespread reputation. Contradictions seem to abound: she has received a formal classical education in three musical instruments; she has sung with Jeff Beck. She is a singer-songwriter; she loves doing anything but sitting in a room on her own crafting new tunes. She is highly techno-literate, bombarding the boys-in-their-bedroom world of electronica with an entirely different set of values: machines, for Heap, are there to become more like human beings, not to provide role models to help solemn types – think the joyless stage visage of Gary Numan – to find their inner robots.
Talk to Heap for any length of time, and the word you will hear more than any other is “connected”. The artful way in which she uses social media to disseminate her music is rooted in a philosophy that is anti-individualistic, and frequently draws on the wide community of her fans. Just a couple of weeks ago, her latest “Message from Immi” on her website asked for volunteers to help with the logistics of one of her installations at Reverb, offering free tickets in return. She holds parties at her house for early subscribers to her online products.
Her curatorial approach to Reverb was similarly organic in its methods. She started by tracking down a single musician, the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, whom she was thinking of signing up to the festival.
“He was funny and open and engaging, and it is not often you come across such a diverse ability set,” she says. “I asked him if he would be the first person to commit to the festival, and he said, ‘I’d love to’, and he also knew who I was, which was nice.”
From then on, Heap tracked down her prey one by one, each musician supplying a recommendation of his or her own. She wasn’t disappointed: all have agreed to appear at Reverb. Asked what they have in common, she says: “They are from northern Europe, they are under 45, they all like each other. And they are all quite unheard of. And that makes it really exciting. I hope people will come to hear them because I don’t know if they will see such a constellation in the same building again.”
Also appearing is the electronica musician Tim Exile, whose “fluid” ways with his machinery have influenced Heap’s own compositional style. This, she says, is the great challenge for using electronic equipment in music. “It is thought to be this very rigid, pre-planned, difficult-to-improvise world. But what is exciting about it is when you are able to be in the moment, to be fluid with time signatures and bar lengths, to move between melody and harmony.
“It’s not that electronic music is cold. But it is relatively easy to make because there are so many tools at your disposal. To make really good electronic music, that rips your soul out – that is difficult, but possible. And seeing Tim do it in live performance was really amazing for me.”
Exile’s innovatory “flow machine” helped her to recalibrate the relationship between her and her equipment. “I wanted to draw the technology towards me, really grab it, instead of using all these faders and buttons.”
Her experiments led her to the invention of her famous “Mi.Mu” gloves, which have become something of a showstopper. Heap explains (in layman’s terms, I plead) how they work: packed with electronic sensors, the gloves read their wearer’s movements, so that sounds can be created live by preprogrammed gestures. The device helps her “draw the control out” of the technology, “and bring the element of surprise back in”. Her demonstration on YouTube, from a 2012 Wired conference, performing an entire song, “Me The Machine”, with the gloves is a tour de force.
“I definitely went to the extremes with that one,” she says.
The whole enterprise looks and sounds incredibly complicated, I say, shortly after she mentions quaternion equations. “It’s only as complicated as you want it to be. They don’t do anything without you! If it is an intuitive programme, you don’t need to think about it too much. It is obvious: if you move this way, the sound gets louder or more distorted.”
The beauty of the gloves project, she says, is that she can imagine and perform sound in three dimensions. “It’s not, ‘What should be the bass line’, it’s, ‘How shall I play this bass line?’ So I may decide I want to play it like a slow-motion basketball dribble. It comes very naturally. I think we all have this ingrained gestural language.”
The gloves, in the meantime, have been developed commercially for others to use. “I have taken on a monster,” she says, adding that her gloves team is now seven people strong.
Another important date this month is the release of Heap’s album Sparks, which has also been compiled, wouldn’t you know it, in unorthodox fashion. She started the album three years ago, releasing one song online every three months, each corresponding to a personal project. Trips to India and China are among them, as is “The Listening Chair”, in which she asked passers-by to sit in a futuristic space-seat equipped with video cameras, and invited them to say which neglected subject they would like to see tackled in a song.
She hoped to find a common theme from the answers but was unable to do so. Instead, she used the exercise as a metaphor for charting her own journey through life, producing a song and video that used a minute of music for each seven years of her life. She says she plans to keep adding to the song at each seven-year checkpoint. “It will never be finished, until I die.”
Her new website, also to be unveiled this month, will ask all those involved in any of her projects to upload information. “Each song is a story, so we want to hear all sides of the story,” she says matter-of-factly.
We barely have time to talk about Imogen Heap the pop star: to a certain generation, she is best known for her tasteful contributions to the soundtracks of television’s The OC and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe movie. Almost the least noted thing about Heap is that she has a nifty way with a melody, and in a pop world that was not so petrified by original thinking, she would be known to a far greater audience.
No matter. As we walk around the house, she shows me a recently converted barn she wants to use as a rehearsal and performance space, and talks of wanting the space to act as a social centre of some kind. By the time we have completed a single circle of the grounds, she has all but launched a new festival on the site. The more music-laden Roundhouses, as she might have said, the better.
Imogen Heap’s Reverb, Bloomberg Summer at the Roundhouse, London, August 21-24. roundhouse.org.uk
Photographs: James Duncan Davidson; Dezeen