Imogen Heap has had an atypical career. Unlike the vast majority of artists who start playing to perhaps a handful of curious onlookers, at her very first gig, Heap played to 150,000 people in London’s Hyde Park for the 1996 Prince’s Trust Concert.
After releasing her debut album iMegaphone (an anagram of her name) in 1998, she teamed up with ex-Madonna and Björk producer Guy Sigsworth to form Frou Frou, which released one album, the lush, electronic Details. Thanks to the single “Let Go” appearing on the Garden State soundtrack, Frou Frou built up a little cult following centred on the unusual vocalist that is Heap. Fast-forward to 2006. Frou Frou has disbanded and it’s Heap’s second solo disc Speak For Yourself which is lifting her to even greater acclaim. One of the biggest sleeper hits of the past year, Speak For Yourself shows no signs of slowing down, and she’s a hit in Toronto, having performed three sold-out shows in this city in the past year. She returns for an all- ages gig at the Guvernment on Sat, May 27.
Heap is not a traditional singer/songwriter; she uses sound technology to create wondrous slices of electronic pop interwoven with strong melodies and unusual structures. Her approach is best exemplified on Speak For Yourself’s haunting track “Hide And Seek.” Is it an attraction to the synth sound that propels her to create such songs? “Not really,” she says. “It wasn’t necessarily the synths I was fascinated with. It was more what I could do with the record button. Ideas come to me a lot of different ways, often when I’ve left the studio, going home even, an idea would come to me cycling home on my bike. So I’ve got lots of recordings of me… sort of singing into my mobile phone.”
While “Hide And Seek” is a truly eerie and compelling track, the album meanders through diverse musical territory including highlights “I Am In Love With You” and the infectious dance-rock of “Daylight Robbery.”
“I originally wrote ‘Daylight Robbery’ for an ad agency. I always get these [requests]. They wanted this kind of music for some kind of ad and I don’t usually do those, but I was testing out some new software.” She ended up keeping the track for her album — it’s too good of a song to be wasted on advertising.
At first listen, it would be easy to trace the musical inspiration for Speak For Yourself to someone like Björk. Not an assumption with which Heap agrees. “I didn’t listen to much pop music. I listened to a lot of classical music just because that’s what was in the house. But more than anything I just played piano. I’d play all day, just improvising. I really enjoyed just letting go.”
Heap is an unusual live act, performing on stage, alone, surrounded by banks of electronic gear, a vocoder and her laptop computer. She could be just a typical electronic act, but there’s a big difference: With Heap, if you stripped away the electronic tricks, the songs beneath would still radiate purpose and soul.