One could say that from the beginning, Imogen Heap has favoured a colourful palette from which to create her music.
Classically trained first in piano, then the cello and clarinet, Heap taught herself guitar, drums, the array mbira and the Hang in her teens. It was also in her teens that she utilized computers to hone the skills of sampling, sequencing, production and engineering — making her quite the powerhouse of talent by the time she signed her first recording contract with Almo Records. The results — the critically lauded I Megaphone — were the seed of the technological explorations to follow.
Following her collaborative years with Guy Sigsworth as Frou Frou (best known for Garden State soundtrack standout “Let Go”), Heap released Speak For Yourself. A soundscape of piano-driven works swirling in a computer-conducted orchestra one moment and heavily vocoded in the next, Speak For Yourself seemed to establish not only the ideal sound for her, but also an appreciation of her fans as not only listeners, but inspiring collaborators for her musical journeys.
The germination of this notion — that the audience feeds the artist as much as the art feeds the listener’s spirit — has been nurtured to its full potential on Heap’s fourth album, Sparks. Initially conceived of as a project approach to song, wherein she would set an idea in motion that would lead to a song in three months’ time, Sparks ultimately is an exercise in collaboration that proves that our collective human experiences ultimately tell the story of us — with no need for direct narration.
While the songs born of these myriad projects were released as they were completed, they are rearranged into a new order on the album. Demonstrating an intuitive sense of arraying her work akin to snapshots in a photo album — and perhaps moved by personal events offering new interpretations to the stories told — Imogen manages to shape a loose narrative of love, loss and the search for identity in adulthood.
Perhaps it is because I am only a few years younger than her, but all the same, there is a deep emotional resonance to be found with the universal theme of Sparks. “Who am I now?” Heap asks in the autobiographical and haunting “The Listening Chair” — a track born from the usage of a literal ‘listening chair’ that recorded hours of video from people of all ages, responding to the deceptively simple question of what topic needs a song written about it. Within the divergent replies, Heap found cohesion within stages of life and conversely, understood what was missing: herself. With each minute composed to explore a 7-year period of her life, the music shifts from the bubbling promise of youth to the paralyzing confusion of the thirty-something.
Who we are — within and without relationships — is further explored through songs like album opener “You Know Where To Find Me”. Performed utilizing 13 different pianos in Edinburgh, the nuances of sound that reveal the signature voice of each instrument lend a subtle chorus to the poignant ballad. “Be still with me,” Heap softly coos to a long-time love, the rollercoaster ups and downs and life shoved aside for the simple truth of a bond. Contrast this with deadmau5 collaboration “Telemiscommunications”, a breathy, disheartened examination of how our busy lives that can tear us apart from our loved ones, reducing the tenderness of touch and shared space to desperate snatches of connection over crackling lines. “Did I tell you I loved you today?” Heap almost frantically repeats, building to an isolated space of ambiance.
Physical exploration, too, plays a powerful role in the composition of Sparks. During a trip to Hangzhou, China, Imogen coordinated a whirlwind of activity for her birthday, capturing the sounds of each planned activity and threading them into a stunning track. “Xizi She Knows” is perhaps one of the most ambitious of the original “heapsongs” as they were known, capturing the sounds of dance, song, schoolroom exercises and the water. A love song to the people and the land, it carries a warning: “Slow down/You’re in a terrible hurry to change…Xizi she knows that once it’s gone, then it’s gone.” One sense that Hangzhou is a symbol of a woman searching to find her future.
What makes Sparks more than a great album, but a historically significant one, is the use of technological tools in ways that will push artists to redefine musical possibility. Be it “Run-Time” and its musical capture of an actual run, “Me The Machine” — crafted using the artist’s music gloves and delving into where machine ends and human begins — or the power of crowdsourced sounds and imagery, Heap dares to interact, to playfully embrace the internet as a unifying force for the creative good. The results: astonishingly organic sonic snapshots of our world and us within it.
“Lifeline” is perhaps the pièce de résistance of the entire album, which is intriguing since it was the very first song to arise from the journey. Gathering sounds, images and other inspiration sourced from her fans and created before her audience via uStream, “Lifeline” kicks off with the strike of a match and is driven by the heartbeat of her niece in utero — a literal lifeline. By drawing from a word cloud — aggregating the popular choices, some of which were as mundane as “teaspoon”; others related to the Japanese tsunami that had just occurred — the song became a true collaborative venture. Heap even paid those whose samples played prominent roles in the instrumentation as session artists for their volunteered elements. The end result transcends the initial inspiration of world events and even the raw source material to a fight-or-flight, quietly frenetic contemplation of mortality. It also transcends music itself as we expect it — connecting artist, fans, and the world at large through technology.
Sparks is Imogen Heap‘s finest artistic hour: a perfect intersection of her impassioned storytelling, her keen observation of the world and the electrical surges along her Macbook’s wires. Unafraid, uncompromising, unabashedly human, Sparks is the powder keg of our shared narrative, ignited.
Luckily for us, the flame has been captured forever.
Highlights: “Lifeline”; “The Listening Chair”; “Xizi She Knows”; “You Know Where To Find Me”
Final Grade: A+