More than just a made-up face

Imogen Heap
Girlishly geeky: British electro-rocker Imogen Heap has braved poverty and questionable hairstyles to bring her musical vision to the masses.

“The older I get, the more comfortable I am just in simple clothes,” announces Imogen Heap, the Brit-pop musician known as much for her complicated, flower-adorned hairstyles and elaborate dresses as her indie-synth sounds.

“I can’t just get out of bed and put my hair up like that,” she adds. “It took hours to do that crazy Mohican.”

The Mohawk in question (check out myspace.com/imogenheap to see it) is a concoction of big hair and red feathers that Heap wears in her “Headlock” video. She also wears gold stilettos, crinolines, pearls, an aardvark suit and pedals a bike with a fake crow affixed to the handlebars. In fact, the synth artist comes off like an overgrown girl playing dress-up. But, self-described as, “Part cool ‘n’ collected statuesque beauty, part thrilled 8-year-old,” it’s an image Heap isn’t fighting.

After all, the pouffy skirts, wild coifs and costume jewelry didn’t hurt Stevie Nicks or Cyndi Lauper, and Heap has plenty of talent to back her flights of fancy.

Risk factor

You probably haven’t heard Heap on the radio, but you have heard her. The singer leaped into pop consciousness via the Garden State soundtrack. Half of the duo Frou Frou (a one-time collaboration with producer Guy Sigsworth), it’s Heap’s soaring vocals on the sweeping song “Let Go.”

Where radio failed Frou Frou and Heap as a solo artist, television and the Internet have stepped in. The musician’s songs are linked with teen drama The O.C., and her single “Hide And Seek” made her the top electronica act on the Billboard Hot 100 Download chart. The same track (from Heap’s recently released album, Speak for Yourself) sold 9,700 copies in a single week on iTunes — a pretty good run for an independent release.

“Once I finished the record, I couldn’t bear to hand it over to a major label,” the musician confessed to Penthouse. “I kept ownership of the record, but I’m licensing it to RCA.”

And though Stomp and Stammer flippantly called it “chick-pop of varying degrees of effectiveness,” reviewers seem united in chalking the singer’s latest offering up to a new model of music-making. Because not only did Heap write, perform, record and produce the album herself, she also re-mortgaged her London apartment to finance the project rather than take orders from label execs.

“I haven’t paid [the loan] back yet,” Heap admits, “But as a result [of borrowing the money] I’ve come into all these fantastic things, like [writing music for] films. In the long run, it was definitely worth it.”

She adds, “But you don’t start making money right away. After finishing the album there was a period of about six months …”

Dot-community

Not that Heap (as her neo-glam fashion sense attests) spends a lot of time racked with self-doubt. There’s a story about how, as a teenager in boarding school, the musician was a bit of an outcast. So, instead of trying harder to fit in, she poured her energy into learning to use the school’s recording software and composing music. Which is probably why Heap released her debut album, iMegaphone at the tender age of 17.

These days, her innovative tendencies run not just to synthesizers and software but also to marketing and networking. For her U.S. tour this year, Heap sent out a bulletin to her 200,000-plus Myspace friends to find opening acts for her shows.

“That started off because when I was last in the States, I was left without an opener,” the singer recalls. Through Myspace, she found plenty of artists with whom to share stages — Heap names Pixelh8 and David Sugar as two of her current favorites — but she also found herself reading 200 e-mails a day from hopefuls. “I don’t know if I’ll do that again,” she admits.

The Internet also brought a designer. Pinar Ellis contacted Heap through Myspace and offered to make the performer a gown for the MTV Awards.

“I’m very excited,” Heap enthuses. “Usually I do all my own styling. I go shopping the day before I do a video. Before, the record company would insist on a stylist, but now they let me buy all my own clothes and I get to keep them.”

Embracing her inner geek

Even on stage, surrounded by keyboards, Heap maintains her own style. “Even though when I tour I have all this geeky gear, I feel it’s important to decorate that geeky gear with nice girlishness, and fake birds and fake flowers, just to bring a bit of color to the stage,” she told Stomp and Stammer.

To Xpress she adds, “I guess it’s just that I’m going to be up there for a couple hours a day, so I want it to feel like home.”

She brings a similar continuity to the quality of her recordings, though Heap’s production style is all business, with little room for faux flora.

“I like to reach a certain standard,” she says. “It needs to be honest. It needs to have lots of color and a twist. But at no point should it lose [the listener].”

Heap continues, “I have to be really strict with myself, editing. It’s so hard, if you’re really trying to say something and it’s not working. Sometimes it can take two weeks to find the right opening line.”

Rest assured, Speak for Yourself has the right opener. (It’s “Distant flickering, greener scenery, this weather’s bringing it all back again. Great adventures, faces and condensation, I’m going outside to take it all in.”) Which (among other things) is why Heap is finding her nickname situation on the upswing.

“I’ve been hearing it all my life,” she laughs. “It used to be ‘Heap of …’, well, bad things. But as I get older it’s become [according to the headlines] ‘Heap of Faith,’ ‘Heap of Goodness.'”


Imogen Heap plays The Orange Peel on Thursday, Nov. 16. Magnet opens the 9 p.m. show. $18/advance, $20/door. 225-5851.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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