A quiet place
It's late Autumn in London Fields. School gates swing open for afternoon playtime, freelancers cuddle flat whites in the cafes encircling the park. And, sat ringed by a low sun in the dining room of her studio, Imogen Heap has just got back from a walk.
“See, that.” she says, gesturing across the road. “I would have never before done that... just 'go for a walk'. I know that I'm gonna do a better interview, I'm going to feel calmer if I take ten minutes. I mean – you might not have felt better, you might have been pissed off!” – she laughs – “but the outcome would have been better, and I will have got a few more steps in my day. Y'know... you find ways.”
Imogen Heap has been writing, producing and engineering for over two decades. Whilst budding singer songwriters continue to find inspiration in the sweeping melodrama of “Hide and Seek” and “Goodnight and Go” – the most recently identified, and perhaps surprising, devotee being Ariana Grande – her cinematic take on pop has lately steered her into soundtracking. In June, she lent the shivering piano ballad “The Quiet” to Square Enix's game The Quiet Man – and before that, her magical score for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child debuted on the West End. Then there's the entrepreneurship – the musical gloves, the industry-challenging data products – and that most crucial, life-eating of duties: motherhood.
An outsider might imagine Heap's days overstuffed with responsibility. Shortly into our chat, I find this was until very recently the case. “It did reach the point of, 'this can't go on any more'...” Heap admits. “My boyfriend [told me] that you can't stay awake until three or four in the morning, you can't live on that amount of sleep. And I always thought I could, but now I realise that I can't. There was a ... not-very-nice period...”.
For a long time, Heap describes having been in a state of “latent panic”, chasing milestone after milestone on a treadmill of musical projects. “I was just always on the go, always always always, next thing next thing next thing. Never being in the moment, except for when I'm writing music. And that's what I've done my whole life. At school, we are taught, 'Oh... next year you can do this' or 'when you're older you can do that' … it's always about what's ahead. And when you're constantly developing things that are in the future, there's always this delayed happiness.”
“You think the happiness will happen when you're there. But when you're there, there's always another thing.”
Much has changed in Heap's life over the past few months. It's a culmination of a few things, one of which is the influence of her daughter, Scout, now five. Today marks the seventh day that Scout has been to big school, and Heap reflects on how having a dependent has gradually bought the things that matter back into focus.
“I ask myself now, well, how is this little person that you're with doing? Are you happy just to sit there quietly and talk and not look at your phone and not try to do other things? And it's hard... it can be really hard. But it's also been a really good check-in – to be thinking, am I present? Am I listening to her? Am I saying the right things? And am I being honest?”
“I almost have had to learn this for the first time...” says Heap. “Ever since I was 17 I've been in the music industry and it's all about working and promoting and this and that and The Future.” Trying to swerve a collision of unfriendly schedules and work commitments has also been tough. “Even on the tour, it was just... trying to get everything to focus around giving me enough time with Scout so I'm really, really with her and that we have mealtimes together,” she sighs. Heap confides that eating together as a family wasn't something she ever really experienced as a child: “I never had it. We went to boarding school, and then we never really had mealtimes. Where you take meals seriously. Just always about work. So... yeah.”
Heap's prescription for herself – “to live better, breathe better, be more present” – sounds not unlike those sunset-backed mantas you see littering the profiles of Instagram's wellbeing gurus. But it's this brand of cold, filtered perfection that Heap is trying to escape. Right now, she's toying with clocking off from social media entirely – even though, as she admits, her accounts are mostly delegated to members of her team.
“I was just talking to someone about the noise of the internet – people posting pictures about themselves 24/7, about what they're doing. There's so much information. Because we fear if we switch off or turn off the camera, everything will come tumbling down. And I … I've never found that comfortable.” Having always jumped head-first into new technologies, Heap took fast to platforms like YouTube that gave her an unprecedented ability to connect and create with her fans. “But when it became, 'what are you doing between?' and 'what are you doing this morning?' and 'how do you respond to that political thing?' – I just... I don't have time for it, I don't have interest in it.”
“I suppose my energies aren't in posting pictures of myself, but that makes me feel more and more inadequate. I feel like if I do just go, 'I'm not doing that', they will ask, 'Where's Imogen? Maybe she's dead?'” she laughs. “I do feel like I'm honest, and I'm being myself when I'm online. But sometimes, by not being present, by not talking about Brexit, by not responding to this big disaster that's just happened... you're saying something anyway. Some people need entire teams of people to respond to all the people talking to them, whether it's LinkedIn, Facebook or YouTube. And by not responding, it's sometimes seen as, 'She doesn't care, she's not interested'.”
Heap wants to find a way to say she is interested. She hopes for a “people-centered internet”, where the merits of technology – the ability to communicate across vast swathes of time and space, the speed of creation – are at the fore, and the noise is somehow relegated. In characteristic fashion, she's dreaming up a digital tool might help make this a reality. “I want to explore what it's like to go offline for a bit. There's something about this 'data self', like a personal assistant. Maybe something you train over time to be your AI accompanier, that understand your values so that you don't have to see the marketing and the ads. Like, I'd like to have responses … that maybe generate if someone @s me. Something that says 'Imogen Heap is not here, she's here' – and it points to a place, or my data self, my thoughts, whatever that might be.”
“And in time, I might train an AI – a knowledge base of me – to respond to questions. And sometimes I might be there in person, sometimes it might be an AI.” It all sounds a bit Black Mirror, I say, but Heap is eternally positive. “If we can relax in having our passions, projects, interests, friends in one place that's manageable on a human scale... that would be great.”
This entrepreneurial spirit has dominated Heap's public image of late. Back in 2012 a crowd of developers and tech enthusiasts watched her demo her “magical musical gloves” at WIRED festival – an earlier prototype of the Mi.Mu glove that has now evolved from an unkempt system of wires and harnesses to a slick piece of wearable tech. More recently, she's been working on the research and development of The Creative Passport. To stop musicians losing out on both listens and royalties, her and her team are designing a centralised tool – a “single point of truth” – where artists can control their own data. The end goal for The Creative Passport is that you only have to update one place with your new music, your bio or the credits for your latest video, and everywhere – from streaming services to those all-important licensing bodies – would know. The tool also posits an opportunity for fans to have a guaranteed location where everything about their favourite artists is stored and up to date.
Like the gloves, Heap says she came upon the idea because she simply wanted this kind of tool for herself. “And in the future, I want to be able to make a piece of music, put it up online and know that it's completely empowered with all the data that it needs to do business with anyone,” she says. “I want to know that my data everywhere is up to date and working on my behalf and has my best interests in mind … And then can go and be human! And make music and be with my family and have conversations and read books and do what life is about.” Again, we're back to the idea of delegating to machines for the benefit of our mental health. And, as part of her project to be a bit more present, Heap's begun to delegate to other talented humans too.
“Lots of things happened [with Mi.Mu] because I've had to learn to let go,” she admits, explaining that after years of leading the project, she's finally handed it over to CEO and software designer Adam Stark. “I learned to say 'Yes, it was my baby, and we did create this thing and it is important to me, but other people are better at doing that other bit than me'.” The Creative Passport has enjoyed four years of research and development – the stage that Heap says she's most passionate about: “But now, it's like, how do we form a product? How will we fund it? Who are we going to hire? I mean... I could learn to do it, but I've learned from Mi.Mu that I'm not very good at that. The ideation and the sharing and the development of process and meeting with musicians, that's the bit that I love...”
Another major focus of Heap's creative energies has been the aforementioned commissions for the likes of JK Rowling's West End smash. As we speak, a new component to one of her most widely-known commissions is due to launch: a fully-animated video for the “The Happy Song”. The adorable, giggle-filled nursery rhyme has become a reliable pacifier for parents the world over. But why drop a video three years after the initial release? “Well, C and G originally put a video together with babies dancing to the song, with an overdub of loads of them making raspberry noises,” she tells me. “But they took it down after two years, and all the parents were like” – she adopts a hilarious panicked parent voice – “'Oh my God where has it gone!?' So we've been dying to put together a video for it.”
The original music was created based on advice from a musicologist and child psychologist from Goldsmiths University, about what kinds of sounds would really connect with toddlers. For the video, Heap got back in touch with the pair, “and they said the same for the music – repetition, simple, bright, colourful, clear.” The animator, Trevor Hardy, a relative unknown who beat out about 50 other competing artists after Heap asked for ideas via crowd-sourcing platform Genero, made the entire video out of felt. “It's so cute,” she grins. “The only thing I said to him was, 'Can you sneak in a badger?' Because Scout's favourite toy is a badger. So I sent a picture of Bowjy and she now features in the video.” I ask about the toy's name, which sounds quite sophisticated in its phonetic make-up. “Oh no... It's like 'badger', but when Scout was little she just couldn't say it,” she laughs.
Heap makes no bones of the fact that “The Happy Song” is her second most successful, and profitable, single since “Hide and Seek” – mainly because it's not tied to a major label. “It actually brings in more money because it's a direct deal and the distributor doesn't take any percentage. I get 100% of the income from the services. The reality of “Hide and Seek” is that it goes through Sony: I don't know where the money comes from and I get much less money from it because of the splits and the... opacity in the system.”
I wonder if seeing the streaming numbers for “The Happy Song” might encourage Heap to make more music for kids. “What I would actually like to do is make an album with other musicians. I found a great album” – she reaches for her phone – “ and it's all done by one band. They're called Big Block Sing Song. Really funny, well-produced songs in different styles – about dogs, teeth, things kids can get behind. The teeth one Scout sings when she's brushing her teeth... 'up, down, all around'... so I'd like to explore that more. There are so many songs I'd like to write for Scout – like, about your first day at school, or losing your scooter, the first time someone steals from you... Because there are so many specific things that are big feelings for her. ”
There was a point, Heap explains, where she was thinking of making children's versions of her own songs for her MyCelia tour. Sadly, she ran out of time. With such quintessentially adult themes dissected in her solo efforts – the disappointment of physical ageing (“Bad Body Double”), the death of relationships (“Run-Time”), reams and reams of songs about all-consuming infatuation – how does she envision transforming her work for littler ears? “I don't know... I don't know what I would do differently. It takes an ear of an adult to take in a lot of the detail on my songs now. But I wouldn't dumb it down loads. I just listened to “The Happy Song” a minute ago – and it's really sparse... you can hear everything. It's the opposite of my records.”
The other reason “The Happy Song” is so successful is because it has, in Heap's words, “tagged itself”. “Not digitally tagged,” she explains. “...like where you'd add extra metadata to a song by way of something like The Creative Passport. But “The Happy Song” has been very successful because parents know it's about making their baby happier.” Cogs whir as Heap envisions a future where all music was thoroughly indexed, and a sleep-deprived mum can shout to her Alexa for a fitting soundtrack. “Say, you could say 'Play me some music about Colic' and [my song] “Tiny Human” would come up, alongside a bunch of other songs that musicians have written around this stressful time with the baby. And you could get very defined results, related to weather or emotions or history.”
This kind of search engine, that pairs songs with feelings, might be the perfect mine for Heap's own music. Whilst her arrangements – typically elaborate, almost classical in nature – might create some otherworldly distance, her lyrics confess neuroses, anxieties, and personal failures. They offer a textbook example of a cathartic listen – stories that are uncannily relatable, even when describing intimate details. I ask Heap whether she ever uses music in this way – to draw a particular poison to the surface.
“I mean, I don't generally go to music to pair up with emotion or to take me out myself,” she admits. “I guess I haven't really done that since I was a teenager. But with Scout, there are definitely songs we have a relationship around. I met Rae Morris when I was in Paris recently. We both had an evening together as we were playing the same concert. I hadn't heard of her before, but I heard this song called “Do It” – and it's so amazing, her voice is just so great. So when I came back from Paris, I said, 'Hey Scout, check out this girl' and showed her the video of Rae just dancing around and she loved it. So now we have this artist that we both love, and we listen to quite a lot of Rae Morris together.”
This said, Heap is rightly conscious of forcing her own musical obsessions onto her daughter. As a child, her own love of piano was unavoidable for her parents – “There was one in the middle of the living room, I'm the middle child, I'm going to make lots of noise!” – but with Scout, she's concerned she doesn't “see interest quick enough”. “The trouble I find is that there are so many distractions. And so I worry that I'm not seeing the times when she's bored and she goes to something. I know she likes drawing, she likes Lego, she likes magnets...” Scout has shown a tentative interest in piano, but, like a lot of childhood preoccupations, it's hard to tell whether it'll stick.
“I asked her the other day when we were chatting if there were any songs she'd like to learn on the piano, and she said [Rae Morris's] “Someone Out There”. So I learned a very simple version, and we'd gotten to a point where it didn't look like mummy was being pushy or anything like that, it was the perfect time – and then the doorbell rang.” Heap stifles her disappointment. “And the other day we went to a little place in the Cotwolds, just me and her. They had a keyboard there and I didn't know, and I was just getting ready upstairs and I started to hear her playing the piano. I was like” – she gasps – “'She's playing the piano!'. Part of me wanted to race down the stairs and be like 'Oh, that's so beautiful' and give her lots of love. But then it becomes – are you playing because you want to get love and praise and... why are you playing? So I don't know. I haven't quite figured out how to do it yet. I would quite like to put the piano in the living room... and she's always singing, and she's got a lovely voice... but I'm not going to...”
If this recent getaway didn't help to blossom her daughter's musicianship, it did spell a rekindling of Heap's. Her last long player, Sparks, was released in 2014 – an album created using a fan-sourced sample pack of sounds from dishwashers, matches and bicycle spokes. In the Cotswolds, Heap wrote four new songs – “they just came out” she says, with an air of mild shock – and she's looking into winter with a renewed desire to create.
“It's been such a beautiful summer, and we're in a house opposite a park. So it's going to feel a bit different when it's cold and wet and there's less distraction. In the winter, it is quite a creative time – the nights are long, it feels nice to just sit.” She leans back to point out through the sheet glass window behind her, at a snug on the first floor. “I like that little room up there with that little electric piano in it. It'll be nice to play music without any pressure – cause there really isn't any. Nobody's expecting.... In a way, I'm out of people's heads. Which is a nice place to be, because then I can be like, 'Wellll maybe I will make music!”
If this is to happen, though, Heap knows she must hold steady on that commitment to “to live better, breathe better, be more present”. When I ask about next year, she starts up, reeling off the projects that will come into fruition – the launch of the passport, a new community project she's setting up in Havering, hopefully the release of new music. It seems that tension – between a brain that just wants to make things, and a body that requires, however frustratingly, sleep, silence, space – will always be present. The difference today is that Heap knows this. “Mike and I are trying to find more of a balance of when we take Scout, just so we can have more time to be ourselves. I need to find my own space, outside of work, outside of Scout, to find out... what's in here?” She points at herself. “And then, it'll probably be like what I was doing when I was … five … or twelve... I'll use that space to go and make music.”
It seems the quiet of the season ahead may still beckon some wonderful noise into the world.