I’m surprised to be invited to meet Imogen Heap in a grand old-fashioned café and not, say, in a Japanese robotics lab or the Star Wars cantina. The 36-year-old songwriter has long operated at the futuristic frontier where music and technology meet, more likely to pop up in Wired magazine or giving a TED talk than in the NME. Her restless forward-pushing reaches a high watermark at the Roundhouse this month, where she’s been given an entire weekend to show what she and her extraordinary friends can do. “I want people to go away thinking, ‘God, I wasn’t expecting that’,” she says.
Heap has been appointed curator of this year’s Reverb festival, where new ways of making music can be witnessed and even tried by visitors. They’ll be queueing down the street for a go on her gloves, which do rather more than keep her fingers warm. The most impressive manifestation of her description of herself as a “sonic seamstress”, they’re part of a system still in development that enables her to manipulate sounds and vocals purely with gesture.
Having always worked with electronic music, she grew frustrated with the fact that at concerts, surrounded by tiny buttons and switches, most of the time the audience had no sense of how she was generating all this music. “I wanted to be able to grab the sounds and sculpt them, so if I wanted it to go, ‘NNNnnnnnggggg’, I could do something like this,” she says, reaching out, clutching thin air and pulling it towards her. The sounds are affected by both her gestures and the exact spot where she is standing, and by the time she tours properly in May next year she hopes to use the gloves to control the lighting as well. They allow her to be a one-woman band, with something a lot more impressive than cymbals between her knees. Look up her gloved performances on YouTube — they’re fantastic.
But this isn’t about her becoming a robot. It’s about computers becoming more human. She describes what the gloves do as like painting music rather than like typing. “With a piano, you’ve got physics of the piano and the body of the piano, and you’re there with it, and people can see, and it has an identity as a sound. But there’s software inside the computer which doesn’t have a physical identity. I would love to break away from computers generally, in emailing and everything.” She’s majorly into wearable tech and sings the praises of the Jawbone Up, a wristband that tracks your diet, activity and sleep.
“It made me aware about myself, and made me aware of how little sleep I was getting. Once I started to put sleep into my life I started to get healthy, and I started to lose weight.” It’s particularly important for her to stay healthy right now because this lifelong resident of the London Borough of Havering is expecting her first child in November. She stands up to show me a not insignificant bump. She and her film-maker partner don’t know the gender so are calling it “Buster” for now.
The baby means that touring has been put on hold until next year, so she’s throwing absolutely everything at this Roundhouse weekend. As well as trying on the gloves you can become a “human harp” and play the Roundhouse building itself. You can talk to a giant tree made of lights, which visualises and manipulates sounds. Or experience the “Helmholtz” in the basement, which displays the sounds you make using waves of light.
Among the performance offerings, the One Man Band evening on the Friday looks most fascinating: six performers on separate podiums, including Heap, working their magic alone for 40 minutes each. You may not have heard any of them but she picked them using a foolproof system to ensure their brilliance. She calls it “the baton of awe”. She started by asking her friend, composer and sound artist Nick Ryan, who he would pick as “the most amazing composer on the planet right now”. He named Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Then she asked Kuusisto the same question, and took it from there until she had a full bill.
On the Sunday she’ll do a full-length concert herself, her only headline performance of the year and thus the only chance to hear songs from her fourth album, Sparks, out later this month. However, fans will already be familiar with most of it. She’s been releasing songs one at a time every few months since 2011. She didn’t want to vanish into a recording studio for an extended period, like many musicians do once each album and tour cycle is completed.
“I didn’t want to be on my own in a studio again for another year. I wanted to travel, I wanted to be able to do shows at the same time as recording, I wanted to write music for film, to work on an app and my gloves. I wanted to say yes to things.” Some of Sparks was made in China on a British Council trip to Hangzhou. The song Me the Machine was heard at her TED talk in 2012, when she performed it using only the gloves.
Two things are clear from listening to the album: the first is how important her fans are to the process. She’s a constant blogger and interacter, who famously wore a dress to the 2010 Grammys that displayed fans’ tweets in a live feed around her neck. The album’s creation officially started on March 14 2011, the day she asked people to upload any sound for her to sample on her song Lifeline. “I wanted them to begin the record, because it’s going to end up with them,” she says.
The second is how honest and, yes, human she is in her lyrics. Her songs live out her stated aim: “To pull the tech closer to me, rather than the computer drawing me to it.”
The Listening Chair may be her most ambitious composition, shifting through her life story with one minute for each seven years of her existence to date. She says she’ll add another minute in another seven years. It includes the line, from the bit representing the ages 14-21, “Wonderbra thrown round the German classroom/You wouldn’t understand/I’ll never live it down.” A true story, apparently. “I felt like I needed to get that one out. It’s OK. Actually I’m fine with it.”
So she’s no cold automaton, but she is a bionic woman. What she can do with just her voice, her hands and a heck of a lot of technology will ensure you never see live music in the same way again.
Imogen Heap’s Reverb, supported by Bloomberg, from August 21 to 24, Roundhouse, NW1 (0870 389 1846,roundhouse.org.uk). Sparks is released on August 18 on Megaphonic.