As the big-time looms, rocker Imogen Heap ponders whether the fame she courted on the Internet is really what she wants.
Headed for the mainstream
Imogen Heap is the future of rock n' roll. Or at least the future of the music industry. She may be not be a household name in her native UK, but the 31-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has forged a successful career outside of the mainstream using social-media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. Now, as she releases her latest single First Train Home, culled from her new album Ellipse, the one-woman-synthesiser-orchestra is on the brink of large-scale success. The only problem is, she is not sure she wants it.
"I am quite scared," she says in her refined, boarding-school English accent. "If my career suddenly blew up it might shake me out to the little bubble I am in. And to be honest, I am happy with the way things are. " She may have no choice. While her native UK has been slow to grasp her to its bosom, the twice Grammy nominated star has been successful in America where her net-savvy activities - blogging, Tweeting and filming her studio work and posting it onto YouTube - has won her an enthusiastic following. She has been number one on iTunes, has over a million followers on Twitter, and has scored more than 40 million plays on MySpace. Ellipse hit number five in the US Billboard chart when it was released in August.
Much of Heap's US success has been achieved by licensing her music to TV shows and movies. (She wrote the theme song to the film The Chronicles of Narnia). As The New York Times remarked, "if Imogen Heap's goal was to reach a generation of maudlin, tech-savvy twentysomethings, she could hardly have done better than lending her voice to the final sequences of the film Garden State and television's The OC.
"The CDs and the tour hardly make any money at all," she admits, shyly. "Those soundtracks put food on the table." Heap's ascent has not been a swift one. The child of divorced parents from Romford in Essex, she played classical piano at boarding school. When she was 15 she persuaded her parents to allow her to attend the Brits School for performing arts in Croydon near London, where she learnt how to build intricate soundscapes using unusual instrumentation. At 17 she signed to a major-label but did not find the experience a happy one.
"I never liked the way the record company got between you and the audience, " she says. "That's why I like Twitter; you can speak to your audience directly." Heap enjoyed her first taste of real success with the Madonna collaborator Guy Sigsworth in the electronica duo Frou Frou. Their single Let's Go was used in the soundtrack of Garden State. Yet, despite gaining a new audience, she quit the duo and released her second solo album Speak For Yourself in 2005. Her signature track, Hide and Seek, typified her penchant for Kate Bush-style wintry atmospheres - what The New York Times has called her "exquisite sonic detachment".
Her most recent album, she says, was two years in the making and was profoundly influenced by her new home. Or rather, her old home. With money from her soundtrack work, she bought her old family house in Essex. "After my second album my dad said you should take on the house," she explains. "It's very dear to us all. We couldn't lose it." The house, which is Georgian and elliptic in shape, is registered with the National Trust. It gave Ellipse its name.
"It needed renovating so it was a big financial commitment but loads of good stuff has happened since I bought it," says Heap. "Last Christmas was the first time in 15 years that my family has been all together and it wasn't completely awful." A self-confessed perfectionist, Heap spent an entire year assembling her new album in the basement studio that used to be her playroom. Does she feel like a child when she goes down there now?
"Yes," she laughs, "a petulant child. Making music like this is 50 50: half the time you are feeling really confident and the other half you feel the opposite. There were some days I didn't want to walk down the steps and into the studio. I couldn't face it." It didn't help that she was alone, she says. "This is the first album I have made without a boyfriend. The thing about being with someone is that it calms you down. I found I really needed some companionship. It's nearly impossible to rest my brain. Maybe that's why I tweet so much.
This experience has also made Heap rethink exactly what she wants to do next. "Three albums does seem enough," she decides. "I think I would like to try something different now. Maybe some more soundtracks with an orchestra. That was my dream when I was a little girl."