Friday, September 19, 2008

Imogen Heap - Beauty in the breakdown

And now, a paean to Imogen Heap!

She's someone I often listen to and think: "Wait a minute . . . isn't this the kind of music that's meant for teenage girls, not me?"

But several years ago I was listening to an interview with Ben Folds on the radio, and he said something that made an impression on me: you should choose the music you listen to purely based on what you want to listen to, regardless of whether it's a reflection of your personality. I try to live by that.

On that note, Imogen Heap has written what I imagine will be two of the most enduring songs of this decade: "Hide and Seek" and "Let Go."

1. "Hide and Seek" — First, here's the official/studio version:

Then there's this live performance (done for a radio show), in which you can see her transforming her own a cappella voice into the 21st-century, computerized equivalent of a Renaissance madrigal:

2. "Let Go" — Here's the studio version by Frou Frou (a duo comprising her and a producer/co-songwriter):

I recommend listening to that version first, then watching this live performance, which reveals the skeleton of the song:

There are few songs I find more evocative of my time in Ithaca, NY than "Let Go": ice cold but inviting.

Speaking of production, she's not just a singer, songwriter, and pianist; she did just about everything for her latest album, aptly titled Speak for Yourself. Not only did she compose, perform, and produce all the music as a one-woman band (as it says on her website, "armed with Pro-Tools, some geeky toys and a room full of instruments ranging from a cello to carpet tubes"), but she also started her own record company to release it, and even did the artwork and graphic design.

3. "Just for Now" — In the clip below, you can see her single-handedly building up a whole song from scratch. Seeing her use electronic loops to layer melody upon melody on the spot is inspiring.

There was a Metafilter post specifically about this clip, which got a big response from people who'd never heard her music. Sample:

I've listened to this about ten times now and am still exhilarated and amazed. When everything else about the world depresses you—when everyone in politics seems to be taking the easy way out and when the plastic packaging of pop culture deadens your soul, this is precisely the antidote. It made my day, and thanks again.

If you want to have that version of the song in your iPod (the arrangement is dramatically diferent from the album version), iTunes has a similar performance in something called Live Session EP — iTunes Exclusive.

4. "Daylight Robbery" — This is a taste of what one of her concerts is like. The video clip below was uploaded by a fan, but Imogen Heap herself has specifically plugged it (in one of the countless instances of how content uploaded by people who weren't involved in its creation actually benefits the creators).

It reminds me of a comment made by Debussy. He said that some people achieve greatness through excellent taste, and some achieve greatness through bad taste. And he said that Mozart is an example of the former, while Beethoven is an example of the latter. Well, not many people would agree with him about Beethoven, or mention Imogen Heap in the same breath as any of those greats (though I just did). But the idea of "greatness through bad taste" comes to mind when I hear this song.

If you had just described this music to me on paper before I'd heard it, I might not have given it a chance. Rationally, I shouldn't even like it. But . . .

I highly recommend these albums:

Imogen Heap — Speak for Yourself

Frou Frou — Details

(Photo by Kris Krug.)


LemmusLemmus said...

That's a good point made by Ben Folds. I think the reason for the I-shouldn't-like-this problem is that, especially in adolescence, what music you listen to is an important part of your identity (your self-image): "I'm one of the cool kids who listen to Nirvana, and look at the suckers over there who are into Whitney Houston." This suggests that the less people care about music, the harder a time they will have to understand this sentiment.

Like many, the German music magazine Spex has its yearly poll: Best singer, best album, that kind of thing. But my favourite category was always "most embarrasing favourite song".

I'd like to think that I'm mature enough to not have that problem anymore, but, although I've made some headway and can now appreciate that there are some good songs by the Pet Shop Boys, it's still there.

And now, disclosure time: My all-time most embarrasing favourite song is "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens. I bloody hate Cat Stevens and everything he stands for, but every time I hear the song, I think, "Hmmm... nice tune".

Chris Althouse Cohen said...

I don't completely understand what she's doing in the Hide And Seek live performance with the keyboard. Is she pitch-altering her voice and basically singing chords? Is it like a vocoder?

Headlock is still my favorite of hers.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Hide and Seek is a beautiful song.

I still play the Tiesto remix frequently in trance/prog sets. The vocals send a shiver down the spine.