For her fourth studio album, Sparks, Imogen Heap wanted to do something different. As a result, the 14-track set, released Aug. 18, is an eclectic collection of music, crowdsourced through contributions from the GRAMMY winner's global network of online fans. While recording the album, Heap took months off in between, spending time in faraway places such as Hangzhou, China, and Bhutan.
Heap's unconventional approach to Sparks has resulted in one of her most adventurous albums yet, featuring "The Listening Chair," an unfinished song summing up 35 years of the artist's life. The album also features collaborations with an array of artists, including Deadmau5 ("Telemiscommunications"), B.o.B ("The Beast") and composing duo Vishal-Shekhar ("Minds Without Fear").
Ahead of London's Reverb 2014 — a festival taking place Aug. 21–24 for which she is serving as curator — Heap participated in an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview and discussed collaborating with her fans and family for the making of Sparks, her travel adventures, her dream to collaborate with Missy Elliott, and reveals that she's expecting her first child.
Was there one song in the writing process that shaped the direction of Sparks?
I [recorded this album] very differently than all my past albums. [For] my past albums, it was typical [for me to] go into the studio on my own, shut the doors for a year and write and record the songs in the basement of my house. But … I didn't want to do that again. I always felt like I had to say "no" to other things [outside of recording music], like if I wanted to write a score for a film or if I wanted to go and do an artist-in-residence somewhere I had to always say no because I wanted to finish my record. So this time, instead of [recording] an album and then afterwards going on tour and doing all the other stuff, I did it all together.
What was your recording process like?
I started three years ago in March and I decided I would release a new song every three months and then within that time I could also go on tour. I could go on a little bit of a holiday, see my parents [and] do all kinds of different things. But then for two weeks I would dedicate myself to a song. And so I spent roughly the same amount of time, probably even less actually, making the music itself, but loads more time just being out there in the world, going to China [where I was] an artist-in-residence [and] climbing the Himalayas to get inspiration for this film that [I scored].
How did the recording process begin?
The first song that happened was a song called "Lifeline." The beginning of the album [started] at [precisely] 6 a.m. on the 14th of March, 2011, [when] I opened up the floodgates on SoundCloud and asked my fans to begin the process with me by sending in sounds. I had nothing to the album at all, and nothing I had written previous to this moment. And I never repeat anything, so there are no sounds that come from an old album, everything is completely fresh. So [at] 6 a.m. people sent in all kinds of sounds, like teeth chattering and the sound of the London Underground, or the sound of a camera [shutter clicking] — all kinds of different sounds. They just used their phone to record them and then uploaded them to SoundCloud. And then with these samples I began the record, so [the fans] were the beginning spark of the record. They sent in over 900 sounds over the course of the day and then my brother sent in the sound of his soon-to-be-born daughter, my first niece. So in a way the beginning of the whole album was quite incredible. [It] was started by the fans and my family.
What other unique ideas or concepts can listeners expect to hear on the album?
The next song, ["Propeller Seeds,"] was very, very different. It was exploring 3D sound and mixing as if you were inside the experience, a memory of me wanting to have children for the first time in my life … and kind of expanding that [feeling] in actual physical sound by recreating the moment it happened during a conference by using the sounds. It's like you're walking through a film set … [from a time] when I met this guy and I wanted to have his baby. We didn't end up having babies actually. I now have one in my tummy and I'm having it with someone else.
So each song has a crazy amount of story behind it. But at the heart of everything, and what has to be the final piece, is the song speaks for itself and it does connect. For me, it's really exciting and wonderful to have this whole story and all these people involved in this song, whether they've sent in a photograph or the sound of a bicycle or whatever it might be, or they physically got involved in digging up a community garden in my village — that was another song called "Neglected Space." I've physically met hundreds of people [who] have been involved in this record in some way. So there's a lot, but at the end of the day the most important thing, hopefully, is the song, and that people can listen to it and they don't [need to] know the backstory because at the heart of everything is a lyric and melody.
What was your first experience at the GRAMMYs like in 2007?
The first time I went I didn't really know what it was to be honest. I know that sounds crazy, but I don't really know what goes on in that kind of famous world. I kind of live and put my head down and get on with work. I don't know what goes on with celebrities and all that kind of stuff. So when I turned up at the GRAMMYs the first time I went wearing [a] crazy dress, frogs and grass in my hair. I thought it was a bit funny, musicians having a laugh. But actually it's a very serious affair, like the Oscars. … And then the second time I was a little bit more clued up on what it was, so I kind of dressed a little bit more chic I suppose. But I wanted something tech with me so I brought my Twitter dress to bring along the fans with me down the red carpet. It literally came and went so quickly, there were so many things going on and so many people [who] you see over the years and you bump into [because] I've been doing this [for] nearly 20 years now. … To people who come from L.A. or the States maybe it's not such a big deal but to me, right now I'm in my garden eating a ham sandwich and it's kind of cloudy. And then there's this GRAMMY world, which seems a million miles away. It's a big wonderful show.
What was it like winning a GRAMMY?
Before I got nominated I never really paid any attention or thought I wanted one, but [I received] such an incredible response to getting a GRAMMY. It just opened up so many doors for me, to the point where I could travel to Jakarta or India and people had heard about me because of the GRAMMY. … The other reason it was so fantastic for me was because it was for engineering. At last, never again have I been asked those really boring questions of, "So, when did you start singing?" It's always like, "So, when did you start programming?" And, "How did you find a computer? What's the backstory?" That's much more fun [to talk about] and much more me.
Who would be your dream collaborator onstage at the GRAMMYs?
[Groups] like Queens Of The Stone Age or Foo Fighters [because] I love their music. But at the same time I really love OutKast. I love good pop music and all of those people write amazing pop music by the fact [that] they get on the radio and it's heard everywhere and it's really great music. … Also Missy Elliott, someone who I think is absolutely amazing. I wouldn't want to get together with somebody [and have people think], "Oh yeah, of course she'd want to get together with him or her." But if it was somebody totally [on] the other side of the fence, [like] Missy Elliot, Foo Fighters or Queens Of The Stone Age, that's what I'd enjoy, a real mashup.
What GRAMMY nominations would mean the most to you for the 57th GRAMMYs in 2015?
It's really amazing to be recognized for the technical side; production and engineering [nominations] mean a lot to me. But I've never been nominated for a song, or for a video. I've never actually directed a video before now, but I directed over half the videos [for Sparks] and they're all concepts of mine. It'd be fun to get nominated for the songs [because] as much as I'm excited about the engineering and production side of the things, I take a lot of pride in writing the songs.
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, MOJO, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)