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With 'Ellipse,' Imogen Heap makes herself queen of the Internet Age

Via Twitter, she kept fans current on her work on the album. She's a sharer, made for these times.

September 06, 2009|Margaret Wappler

The songs on Imogen Heap's new album, "Ellipse," might sound like telegrams from a lush alien planet, but in person, their author is a chatty 31-year-old with her fair share of quotidian obsessions. At the top of that list is her computer.

In fact, one of the songs that didn't make the record was an ode to the Apple of her eye titled "Click Joy."

Released in late August, "Ellipse" is the third solo work from England's Heap, who first attracted listeners with elaborate synth-pop in Frou Frou, her collaboration with fellow Brit Guy Sigsworth, and her 1998 solo debut, "I Megaphone."

She's since built a following in this country as a go-to artist in the film and TV world. "Garden State" director Zach Braff, "The O.C." and "Gossip Girl" creator Josh Schwartz, in-demand music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas and other Hollywood trend-spotters have all but ransacked the contents of her 2005 solo album, "Speak for Yourself." She's also recorded one-off songs for movies, such as "Can't Take It In," written for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Still, Heap has never had an old-fashioned hit record; in fact, her previous solo efforts have sold a modest half-million copies combined. Instead, she is a new-media sensation, a model for success in today's fractured music industry landscape.

"Ellipse" proves that her paradigm is working: The album debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and has sold 48,025 units in the first week -- a quantum leap from her previous high of 7,200.

For the technologically gifted siren, it all revolves around her laptop. Heap used the Garage Band recording program to make many of the templates for the 13 tracks on "Ellipse." She regularly posts to YouTube -- some 40 video blogs detailed her progress on the album.

And finally, Heap is a regular on Twitter, routinely messaging her legions of followers (with 975,367 and counting, she is the 117th most followed person on the service). During the making of "Ellipse" in her home studio in rural Essex, Twitter often functioned as her sole companion.

"As a result of talking with fans every step of the journey, I feel really comfortable that they're not going to get any kind of bad surprises on this record because they know what's going on, in a way," Heap said during a brief visit to Los Angeles back in July.

She thrives on breaking down the barriers between artists and listeners. "There's this idea of a star, and this person is very aloof and writes all the music, and they don't talk to anyone unless they go through the record label. And I always felt very uncomfortable about that."

Twitter fulfilled another need: It became her surrogate boyfriend. For the first time, Heap made an album while single. "It was a very different experience," she said. "I didn't realize how much having someone to snuggle up with in the evening, to talk about what I just did . . . that feedback was so important to me."

Formally trained on piano, cello and clarinet, Heap fashions her albums with studious care -- "Ellipse" does not repeat a key or tempo. She began working on the collection a couple of weeks after returning home in 2007 from touring in support of "Speak for Yourself," a deeply internal but powerful work.

With her belongings still packed in suitcases, Heap jetted off for exotic locales including Maui, Fiji, Tasmania and Japan. On her first day at the piano in her luxury Hawaiian accommodations, she banged out a song on request of Braff, who was planning to use it as the theme to a movie, "Open Hearts," that has since been put on hold. Heap was unconcerned about the delay. She saw "Wait It Out" as a cornerstone of what would become her new album, which was constructed as a graceful balance between moody pieces and more wry humor than she's previously shown. In "Bad Body Double," she sings about the physique that snuck up on her while touring, with its "grays and dimply thighs."

Yet one of the best songs on "Ellipse" is the blissful "Between Sheets," which sounds like Heap's bed is adrift on a foamy sea. She divulged that the idea came to her while nuzzling in the sack with a "perfectly nice person."

Schwartz gave Heap's 2005 track "Hide and Seek," which has been downloaded 1.7 million times, its initial momentum when he used it in the Season 2 finale of "The O.C." (The scene became such a part of the pop culture lexicon that Andy Samberg spoofed it in a 2007 "Saturday Night Live" digital short.)

Schwartz said he's been waiting eagerly for new material to pilfer from his musician-friend, who performed a Bright Eyes cover song at his wedding.

"There is no one like Imogen," he said. "She has an incredible voice, gorgeous and singular, and she's not afraid to experiment. When I heard 'Hide and Seek,' I waited for the right time to use it. It's really modern but also timeless and cinematic."

Heap's music is a balance of the organic and the manufactured. For every high-tech gimmick there's a low-tech one, like slapping her thigh for percussion or recording the drip of her faucet. Whatever the sound, there is one constraint it must meet, she said: "It has to have an emotional tug for me. Otherwise, it doesn't work."

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margaret.wappler@latimes.com

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