In a sense, Imogen Heap is the Nikola Tesla of pop music. Like the 20th century inventor that gave us alternating current (AC) and countless other inventions who was overshadowed in the history books by Thomas Edison, Heap's influence in the field of pop has largely gone unappreciated in her own time. Her greatest hit, "Hide and Seek," not only has paved the way for the judicious use of the vocoder as an emotional vocal treatment in today's top 40 but has been objectively one of the strangest songs to weave its way into our cultural fabric. From The OC to SNL, "Hide and Seek" was a meme well before "thank u, next," "Thotiana" or "Old Town Road" entered the conversation.
In a very literal sense, like Tesla, Heap is an inventor as well. Musically she has thrived on the cutting-edge, consistently incorporating the latest technology into her unique brand of saccharine indie made ethereally strange, whether that be through augmenting her vocals with the latest software or crowd-sourcing a cello player from the web. She even has found a way to pluck music from thin air with the aid of her MI.Mu gloves, a multi-functional instrument and performance device that allows Heap to control and manipulate her voice with a simple gesture.
Her latest project — and most ambitious to date — looks to completely revolutionize the way the music industry operates and shift power back into the hands of creators. Closely resembling a blockchain-fueled social network, the Creative Passport looks to build a decentralized ecosystem that will help facilitate the exchange of information, services, and ideas between artists in the hopes of building a more equitable system.
The project is so massive in scope that it can be tough to initially wrap your head around, which is why Heap has decided to embark on her first North American tour in eight years. In addition to headlining performances from Heap and the reunion of electronic duo, Frou Frou, the tour will feature an array of workshops and talks aimed at explaining the myriad ways in which the Creative Passport could impact a musician's life.
Heap gets visibly animated when asked about the ins and outs of this latest endeavor. She's gracious about her success and seems genuinely thrilled with how artists like Jason Derulo, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande have interpreted her work, relishing in the fact that she dodged the limelight, for the most part. Tesla died penniless after a series of failed experiments and a decades-long smear campaign from Edison without ever getting to fully witness his work's impact. Luckily, it seems that the same can't be said for Heap, who is far from being done finding ways to move music forward.
The tour you're on right now is a sort of career retrospective, but it's also focused on introducing the Creative Passport. Could you give me the elevator pitch for what the Creative Passport is?
Essentially, the Creative Passport is the digital identity for the music maker. There is only physically one of me, but there's no one place where I am on the internet. There's no one place for people to know the oracle of Imogen Heap 24/7. If you're in journalism: where would you go to find an autobiography? Where would you go to find my entire list of works? You're not going to Wikipedia, because that doesn't reflect what I'm doing right now. If you wanted to book me or if you wanted to do press, how do you do that? How can you find a connection? So it's basically a signed post from the outside to say this is who I am, this is who I've worked with, these are the songs that I've connected to, and it's linking to all the other millions of services or fan accounts that are connected to me in some way.
Say you wanted to create a new Spotify, you'd have to go to all the major [labels] and do deals with them all. You'd have to get a lot of money to pay them in advance for that, because that's how they work at the moment, and then the musicians get a tiny bit. But there's a big fee that gets paid for the privilege of having that. For us that's not really useful because it means loads of other services that want to innovate can't afford to.
"It's about creating that space where we can have that database, but if we as musicians aren't there to augment to that data it will never come to life."
That sounds massive in scope. How are you approaching it?
We're approaching it with very small honest beginnings. It's a non-profit, partially funded by me or developers, and we just have a very basic app right now. Right now it's just for people I know, like my music friends, and we verify who can get in on the trust-network among the music community. We don't need anything outside. The great thing is that this network can keep growing. We can kind of do a big handshake across borders. There could be millions of musicians, or we could even become 10,000 people, who say 'this is me, this is who I am, and this is my work.' People can do a lot with just that little amount of information, like meet with their favorite artists, or lend gear to other musicians, or even collaborate.
I can't tell you how many artists I know who go to a new town and are in need of gear while they're there.
Yeah, and the Creative Passport isn't going to make those services, but is a way to link all of the services that you love and for services to reach us. You might not want to hear about every single act of music there will be in the future, that's when we started to delve into this idea of incentive economy where in the future we don't see advertising in the same way. For example consider people who sell sofas and pillows; where do they get to sell cushions? They pay money to put advertising up on the web in order to reach whoever their market is, perhaps through Google Analytics. The incentive is the idea that everyone's identity belongs to them and they can opt in to receive adverts around holidays, or shoes, and that point the advertisement would pay you money for reading the advertisements because they know they have an audience. In terms of music, as a musician it could be about tour managers, or equipment at certain rates, and you have a way to navigate through that data to find what you're looking for.
There are so many tangents, but essentially at this moment there are so many possibilities but without this first beginning seed we have no way into that future. That's why we're going around and doing this workshops trying to get makers and services to discuss how this would impact their business and lives and imagine this architecture where everything is redesigned. How much time and money it could save. How much better people would be able to discover other people around the specific things they're interested in. If you wanted to find songs that circulate around the #MeToo movement or '60s and Woodstock, specific songs and artists would come up that you might not necessarily know. If you wanted to find a song that was written in Hangzhou, China you would discover me because I wrote a song there! You could have a service that would pay musicians that add data to help explain where the music is from for people who are curious about music in and from different parts of the world. They could find information in one big catalog.
"[We're] in need of a model where the song becomes the payment method."
As an artist, how would you get involved? Is there a place where you can sign up for the Creative Passport?
At the moment you can't sign up for the app because it's super basic and doesn't really do anything. It's basically just me and some friends at the moment. One of the services we're interfacing with, called Gig Seeker, sends out information to people who are interested about who's playing in certain areas. For example, if you're going to an open mic session you can let Gig Seeker know and it will disperse that information. You could be going to perform a small concert in your flat and there's only 30 seats available, it would pop up and people could pay you directly.
In the beginning it's essentially about educating and exciting musicians about the future. If we're in the thousands, maybe that's enough for some services to say, 'Oh okay that's worth it, we're going to access that,' and then the Creative Passport would charge them to access us. Any money made gets distributed to the people that have already signed up. It's a non-profit, so any money it receives will be used to keep up the system and we'll be very transparent about usage. It's free to enter, but you'll pay for the services that you use.
It sounds utopic in a way.
It is quite utopic. But the good news is that it's so bad right now that even major labels are already thinking that a change is needed. [We're] in need of a model where the song becomes the payment method.
Photo by Fiona Garden
Shifting gears, but in the same vein, it seems that throughout your career you've had an affinity for technology and cutting edge tech. Whether that be through creation of the music or the gloves that you utilize. Where did that interest come from?
I suppose it begins with just wanting to make stuff. When I was a kid I played music and wanted to make music, and I wanted to then find a way to record that music. I'd play some piano, record on cassette, and then I'd sing on top of another recording. Later I'd get a keyboard, then I got a computer when I was 12 and I'd program music into that. When I was 15, [I did] tape to tape recording and then later the computer became the home studio. When I got what I needed, and what I could afford, I gained confidence in what I was doing.
The biggest reason I can follow these slight tangents of things I wanted to make that didn't exist was because I wanted to do that. I've had the space and time to creatively explore my thoughts through music and technology. There are these outliers who have huge success, like Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo, and there's not many of them in the world, who have been able to take something of mine and made it into 'a thing.' Ariana Grande did it recently with a song of mine on her Sweetener album. I haven't seen the benefits of that yet, but I will because it's a massive record, it's amazing. She is in a way what is funding this project.
"The fact that I haven't had major success in a kind of obvious way is because I've never been burdened by fame."
Your music has had longevity in the way that it gets picked up by all of these pop artists. What has that been like, seeing your influence radiate out?
I think it's just about the people that grew up with my music, that slightly younger generation of Taylor and Ariana, who've reached a point in their career where they've had enough success and can be like 'I want to do what I want to do.' When they do that they come back to their own musical roots. There's also this area of hip/hop artists, like A$AP Rocky, who have sampled my music. It opens up a whole new fanbase to me, and I'm hoping I see a nice mix while on this tour because so much has happened since my last tour.
There were already so many samples of mine being done, like in Cloud Rap, and there's this whole little fiery group of guys who are into my music. I love being sampled and I love when people collaborate with my music. I love that they have a life of their own. I love "Hide and Seek." For me, it's given me the capacity to realize my dreams, like with the gloves or Creative Passport, it has given me a whole different reach and awareness. "Hide and Seek" is still "Hide and Seek;" maybe some people can't detach themselves from The OC but it's still there and a lot of people wouldn't have discovered it without those kinds of things.
I do want to probe deeper into "Hide and Seek" because I think that song been a part of the cultural landscape for over a decade now.
I remember making the song in the studio and thinking 'God, this is so self indulgent; no one is ever going to like this song' but I really loved it. People would come into the studio and say that something was missing, but I sent it to my friend Frank and he said it was genius and the most amazing thing he had ever heard. I was like, 'Oh that's good, somebody likes it' cause it was this odd little track. The courage of The OC to pick something like that out was quite weird; that's the brilliance of [music supervisor] Alexandra Patsavas. She was the one that placed that in there and saw something else in there that lots of other people couldn't see.
I think the reason that it has that reach is because there is so much room for interpretation. It doesn't connect to a genre, it's completely open. It's full of color, but it's colorless. It's full of meaning, but it has no meaning. It has so much for you as the listener to identify with it and fill in the gaps. In that maybe we find a thought or a connection to it, which otherwise you wouldn't have done because we've been bombarded by so many tracks of a song. So yeah I just got very lucky with that one, and I'm very grateful for it and I love it.
You're also revisiting Frou Frou for the first time, what has that been like?
For me whenever I do a show, I always play certain songs that have been in my show, but now the difference is that I have Guy [Sigsworth] with me. That's really nice because he's such a lovely man and I've known him for so long, since I was 17. He was the first producer that I was really into. It's just a bit crazy, we're like 23 years older now, but I still see him every now and then when I'm in London. We're still good pals but we're just incredibly busy, so we don't get to hang out much. That's why it's nice we're on tour together. I hope it's nice for people in the audience to be like, 'Oh there they are! Frou and Frou!' I have asked fans if they missed the old me, if they miss that crazy lady running around in a petticoat. They just think it's different. They feel like the music is always connected to who I am.
It's going to be nice because I get to play with the gloves, and I've worked on that for so long. On the European I was a bit nervous because I felt like it was such a stark contrast to what I was doing, when I was running on stage doing a million things. But now I have it all in my hands, finally after all these years. They don't understand exactly how it technically works, but they think it's like I stretch time and space when I'm using the gloves because my voice becomes different too. It's much more engaging than anything I've done before.
"I have asked fans if they missed the old me, if they miss that crazy lady running around in a petticoat. They just think it's different. They feel like the music is always connected to who I am."
Any final thoughts that you wanted to touch on?
If anyone is interested, go to the Mycelia tour. Come to the workshops and check us out if you want to see what it's all about. It's hard to find information about it now because we have to make it before we really do anything with it. I'd love to mention that there are actually going to be some new songs coming out soon.
I also want to mention the Harry Potter album, it's 78 minutes long, very instrumental. There's a lot of existing work in there but there's also new work. They're not all songs, they're really nice to listen to while walking around the city, especially New York. Just to walk around and let the space come alive. There's so much stuff in the music to connect to.
If anyone is interested in how the distribution of a song, like how a song gets paid, there is a website we've built called The Life of a Song and it explains how "Hide and Seek" money gets back to me through streaming companies, through radio, and live. You can also see the contract and understand the percentages.
Oh wow, that's incredible because that's always been a very opaque part of the industry for most people.
Yeah, even to us. We've had a team of seven on it for like a year, and we're still only about 5% in. That's how silly it is, and that's why we need smart contracts paying payments to people from a play. So that's the why, and we kind of just went, 'Well it's pretty obvious now, we're not going to bother spending 95% more time to try and fill in every little gap,' because it's just not plausible.
It's like, why plug a million different holes when you can just build a new boat.
You can catch Imogen Heap on the Mycelia Tour this spring.
Photos courtesy of Jeremy Cowarts