One part an electric Venus in Furs and one part shipwrecking siren, the woman swirling around the stage has a three-ring circus in her head. There is no doubt about it. Imogen Heap does something to a room.
Captivating presence aside, it's her musicianship that leaves even the most adept of multi-instrumentalists unhinged in disbelief. The 28-year-old songwriter is classically trained on piano, cello, and clarinet; has honed her chops on the drums and guitar; and has even mastered the mbira, Zimbabwe’s thumb piano.
Perhaps most notably, the lady plays a mean Mac. While the rest of us were fiddling around with Oregon Trail in our pubescence, Heap was already hip to manipuutf8g a computer for music's sake. Since then, she has proven that riding technology's cutting edge is a viable — and lucrative — mode of transport. Regularly holding open auditions for her tour support via MySpace, the artist has listened to hundred of bands and plucked a few from the confines of Internet oblivion. These social networking niceties mean that when you pay for a show, you will get your money's worth the entire night.
LEFT HER HEART
Before the sound check for last week's Nashville gig, Heap explained why San Francisco holds a special place in her heart. Aside from inspiring a bout of underage drinking on Heap's first roll through, the city was also the site of her first attempt to perform solo.
The memory of her Bimbo's 365 Club show haunts her to this day. "The label decided not to bring my band out," she says. "I was petrified. I couldn't hide behind anyone. If I made a mistake, I'd have to talk my way through it. I got over my fear that night."
With a tour bus full of musicians in tow, including San Francisco's favorite beatboxer, Kid Beyond, she'll be in good company this time around. "I just had my fingers crossed that we'd get along," she admits. "Then we had a bonding night in New Orleans ..."
So what does a bonding night in New Orleans consist of?
"These drinks called Hurricanes. They help the bonding."
Heap was signed to Alamo Sounds at the tender age of 17, before she and producer-songwriter Guy Sigsworth started the UK electronic duo Frou Frou. After a decade as a working musician, she says she's still having "a whale of a time" on tour: "I'm so happy with the level I'm at now. Sold-out shows. Intimate venues. A great band. It's reasonably low-key, and the people that come to the shows are real fans. We all feel like it's a special night every night."
Ever since the 2002 Frou Frou track "Let Go" was featured in Zach Braff's film Garden State (propelling the defunct band to new heights of notoriety), Heap has had her finger on the pulse of the soundtrack sect.
"I am eternally grateful for Zach," the songwriter says. "He opened up a wide audience for me." At the time, Heap was busy fleshing out what was to be her second solo album. Swearing off major labels, she decided to put her home on the chopping block to fund the new project. What resulted was 2005's Speak for Yourself (Megaphonic) — a vertigo-disco menagerie signed, sealed, and delivered by the artist herself. By plucking the ordinary out of her natural London soundscape, Heap discovered what every prolific musician before her has banked on: there are songs everywhere — it just takes a little wrangling and a load of persistence to find them.
At first listen, the obvious question will be “Where the hell have I heard this before?" The short answer is, again, everywhere. From spots on The O.C. to CSI, Six Feet Under to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Heap’s music has been rapidly seeping into the collective consciousness.