Surely I can’t be the only person out there who thinks it’s an absolute crime that Imogen Heap is perhaps better known for her presence online than she is for her actual music. Because, quite frankly, Imogen Heap is something of a genius. She is immensely talented, works extremely hard, is a true citizen of the world and comes across as a genuinely lovely person. The complete package, if you will. It’s even more remarkable that Heap’s debut album came out in the 90s. I, Megaphone is a lost gem that I only managed to get a hold of as an American import. Since then, she’s worked as Frou Frou (whose ‘Let Go’ formed a significant part of the soundtrack to Garden State), and two other albums, Speak For Yourself and Ellipse. It may not be as extensive a discography as some people who’ve been working for at least 15 years but listening back to her albums, it’s also easy to forget that for the most part Heap works entirely on her own. Indeed, the inlay to Speak for Yourself is an aerial photograph of Heap mixing the album alone in her home.
In her time, Imogen Heap has quietly become Britain’s equivalent to Bjork. Just as the Icelandic songstress creates her own instruments, so does Heap. On Sparks, she makes use of her custom-made Mi.Mu gloves, devices which allow her to create music by moving her hands. As such, it’s apt that ‘Me the Machine’ explores the relationship between her own body and technology, where the Mi.Mu gloves are most prominent. Crowdsourcing helped Heap to achieve this goal, which is reflected in the inclusion of ‘Lifeline’ on the album, a song that launched the overall project after her fans donated money.
More than anything though, Sparks seems to be Heap’s way of addressing her globetrotting lifestyle. Throughout the making of the LP, Heap noted the places she went along the way, weaving these into her music. ‘Xizi She Knows’ reflects on a six-week residency she spent in Guangzhou, China. She recorded two of the songs as part of a friend’s documentary project in Bhutan. Then there’s ‘Mind Without Fear,’ which incorporates some of the Indian flavours that she encountered while touring that particular subcontinent.
On the other hand, there’s also the incredibly haunting ‘Neglected Space,’ recorded as part of a community garden project that takes place close to her London home. It harks back to the tones and stripped-back nature of one of her best-known – and possibly most beautiful – tracks, ‘Hide and Seek.’ But whereas ‘Hide and Seek’ uses vocoders and sees Heap bending her voice, albeit completely a capella, ‘Neglected Space’ is an entirely spoken-word effort. It’s perhaps a little telling that this is the song highlighted as being recorded in her home country; perhaps it is a meditation on the neglect for her homeland, or indeed a neglect she sees happening tp her own native space.
‘The Listening Chair’ is testament to Heap’s ambition as a writer. The project brings to mind Sufjan Stevens’ attempt to write an album about every single American state over the course of his lifetime; Heap’s project will see her adding to the song every year of her life, slowly weaving a tapestry that reflects her experiences as a human in a personal and very bare manner. Indeed, Heap seems to be driven by the need to communicate elements of her own life as well as craft stories. This is best shown in ‘Telemiscommunications,’ her collaboration with Deadmau5 that both enacts the broken conversations of the digital age and elegises over the death of true human connection. It’s something of a conceptual counterpart to St. Vincent’s ‘Digital Witness,’ which shares a similar concern with decaying communications and the impact of a life increasingly enacted in cyberspace. Though it may strike one as ironic that someone like Heap should lament the rise of social media and digital communication, her case notes that it’s possible to maintain humanity and divulge in true, full-blooded and passionate conversation without having to resort to gadgets and the internet.
Indeed, Sparks is a personal enough record to relay the fact that, although our world is becoming metaphorically smaller and communication more disparate, true connection between people is possible. This is true in the way that Heap’s numerous experiences, both on her travels and with her fans, have shaped the record as a whole. But more than this, Sparks demonstrates that Heap is still somehow one of the world’s most known but most under-appreciated musicians. Her work is always crafted with love and care and this LP is no different. Perhaps one day she will truly gain the more widespread recognition she deserves, but for now Heap should rest easy knowing that she is creating slightly off-kilter pop music that sums up our times and feelings beautifully.