Imogen Heap is a Grammy Award-winning British vocalist and songwriter (as well as multi-instrumentalist and producer). To contemporary a cappella singers and fans, Imogen hardly needs an introduction: between her three solo records and her work as half of the duo Frou Frou, Imogen’s songs like “Let Go” and “Hide and Seek” are ubiquitous in high school, college and professional a cappella. Imogen chatted with CASA writer Marisa Debowsky about singing, songwriting, and her recent project, surrounding the song “Earth”, which has generated a wave of energy as well as exposure to new fans for many a cappella groups in the past year.
Imogen Heap’s musical life began with singing, and throughout her career, her albums have been layered with creative vocals. “I always treated my voice like an instrument,” Imogen recalls. “My singing style comes from a cross between classical and learning instruments and how to accompany. Rather than thinking of vocals as the lead, I might think of a vocal line as accompanying something on piano… I like making sounds with the voice, as well as making lyrical lines.” Going one step further: both Imogen’s last record (“Speak For Yourself”) and her newest record (“Ellipse”) feature entirely a cappella tracks.
“My first a cappella song was Hide and Seek,” says Imogen. “It’s three takes of vocals (one at the beginning, two in second chorus, three at end), and then I played the harmonies through the keyboard.” By contrast, “Earth” is a heavily layered and complicated vocal track. Like a poet looking to deepen her focus by putting free verse on the shelf and setting her pen to a sonnet, Imogen approached the song with the intention of using her voice as the only instrument: “I decided to do “Earth” a cappella as well. I had written a b-side called “mic check”: it’s just me saying “mic check” with various drum beats, and I enjoyed that challenge. It’s good fun: I like giving myself limitations — it makes me be creative in different ways. For example, writing a song with only piano: I might use the sustain pedal as kick drum, or tapping of hammers as a rhythmic part. So when I recorded “Earth”, I got to make all kinds of sounds that I couldn’t possibly do myself.” The result is an energetic, imaginative, beautifully-engineered track.
In concert, Imogen often performs complicated vocal arrangements (and even improvisations) using live looping, but recreating the studio version of “Earth” was never the goal: instead, the concert version of the song became a collaboration with other singers around the globe.
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