HomeImogen Heap's "Earth" Project

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Imogen Heap is a Grammy Award-winning British vocalist and songwriter (as well as multi-instrumentalist and producer). To contemporary a cappella singers and fans, Imogen hardly needs an introduction: between her three solo records and her work as half of the duo Frou Frou, Imogen's songs like "Let Go" and "Hide and Seek" are ubiquitous in high school, college and professional a cappella. Imogen chatted with CASA writer Marisa Debowsky about singing, songwriting, and her recent project, surrounding the song "Earth", which has generated a wave of energy as well as exposure to new fans for many a cappella groups in the past year.

Imogen Heap's musical life began with singing, and throughout her career, her albums have been layered with creative vocals. "I always treated my voice like an instrument," Imogen recalls. "My singing style comes from a cross between classical and learning instruments and how to accompany. Rather than thinking of vocals as the lead, I might think of a vocal line as accompanying something on piano... I like making sounds with the voice, as well as making lyrical lines." Going one step further: both Imogen's last record ("Speak For Yourself") and her newest record ("Ellipse") feature entirely a cappella tracks.

"My first a cappella song was Hide and Seek," says Imogen. "It's three takes of vocals (one at the beginning, two in second chorus, three at end), and then I played the harmonies through the keyboard." By contrast, "Earth" is a heavily layered and complicated vocal track. Like a poet looking to deepen her focus by putting free verse on the shelf and setting her pen to a sonnet, Imogen approached the song with the intention of using her voice as the only instrument: "I decided to do "Earth" a cappella as well. I had written a b-side called "mic check": it's just me saying "mic check" with various drum beats, and I enjoyed that challenge. It's good fun: I like giving myself limitations -- it makes me be creative in different ways. For example, writing a song with only piano: I might use the sustain pedal as kick drum, or tapping of hammers as a rhythmic part. So when I recorded "Earth", I got to make all kinds of sounds that I couldn't possibly do myself." The result is an energetic, imaginative, beautifully-engineered track. (You can hear the full studio version and read the liner notes at Imogen's website.)

In concert, Imogen often performs complicated vocal arrangements (and even improvisations) using live looping, but recreating the studio version of "Earth" was never the goal: instead, the concert version of the song became a collaboration with other singers around the globe. "I always loved the idea that we could do this live -- I thought about it very early during the recording process, the idea about getting local a cappella choirs to sing with me on tour; it would take maybe 10 minutes to bring up the loops myself, so I couldn't do it alone. I thought of that very early on when making the record. I love getting local fans in on the live shows. It's been really interesting; I've done maybe 40 shows with different versions of "Earth". Choirs auditioned by putting up versions on YouTube. I've met fantastic choirs, singers, beatboxers. I hope to do it on the next stop, in South Africa -- we'll see who comes!"

Dozens of groups auditioned online for the chance to open for Imogen and perform their rendition of "Earth" with her on stage, and Imogen chose one group in each city. René Bergeron (of Boston-area a cappella choir In Choro Novo, which won the invitation to perform in Boston) wrote an arrangement of "Earth" for soloist and chorus for auditioning groups to use as a jumping-off point; additionally, auditionees were invited to offer up their own interpretation and setting of the song - anything from lone beatboxer to 100-piece choir. (Curious about René's arrangement, or interested in singing it with your own group? You can download the PDF!) The audition playing field was wide open, inviting submissions in any style, and the groups Imogen chose to perform with her are incredibly diverse: high school, college, community and professional groups; solo, duo, small groups and large choirs; singers from all over the world. (You can see some of the successful audition videos below.) Each artist or group was invited to perform a 15-minute opening set, which created unusual exposure for a cappella: the Ellipse tour hit venues like the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City (seating 2500), selling out many stops on the 113-show world tour. Imogen watched each group's opening set: "I'd always come out and listen," she says. "My favorite was Matthew Andrae, in Dallas. He did an amazing set---mostly a cappella, with some guitar on one song---and got a standing ovation from the crowd. Quite a character. Also does a bit of hydroponic farming." And of course, the song "Earth" took on new life each night, each group performing their version with Imogen singing the lead. See the full list of performers and watch videos of their live performances with Imogen below.

And what's next for "Earth"? As with much of Imogen's corpus of work, it's being reinvented by a cappella groups everywhere. When asked if she listened to covers of her songs, Imogen said, "Yes! I really enjoy hearing the interpretations. I've heard lots of songs covered---"The Walk", "Hide and Seek", "Just For Now", "Breathe In", "Let Go"---and they've been great. It spurs me on to do more things for people to enjoy trying out for themselves. The movement of people doing a cappella versions of my songs is inspiring." And so the animation of the song continues, as a collaboration between a brilliant artist and an engaged, active community of contemporary a cappella singers. Imogen, we can't wait to hear what you do next.

Imogen on getting her start as a singer, the making of her latest record, performing Michael Jackson's "Thriller", and more: read the full interview.

The "Earth" tour singers:

Date City Venue EARTH Singers Live Performance with Imogen Audition Video
May 23rd Chicago IL Riviera Theatre Chicago Vocal Authority CVA with Imogen  
May 25th New York NY Hammerstein Ballroom Jessie Nelson Jessie Nelson with Imogen Jessie Nelson Audition
May 26th Boston MA Orpheum Theatre In Choro Novo In Choro Novo with Imogen  
May 29th Washington DC Warner Theatre Johns Hopkins University Vocal Chords JHU Vocal Chords with Imogen  
June 2nd Miami FL Fillmore Theatre Euphoria Euphoria with Imogen  
June 4th Atlanta GA Tabernacle The Steamies The Steamies with Imogen  
June 5th Nashville TN Ryman Auditorium We Are Nashville We Are Nashville with Imogen We Are Nashville Audition
June 7th New Orleans LA House Of Blues JB, Kelly, MJ, Kat and Caeli    
June 9th Dallas TX Nokia Grand Theatre Matthew Andrae Matthew Andrae with Imogen Matthew Andrae Audition
June 11th Denver CO Ogden Theatre Fairview High School Singers Fairview HS Singers with Imogen Fairview HS Singers Audition
June 12th Salt Lake City UT Rail Event Center Mister Tim    
June 14th Seattle WA Paramount Theatre Sintonia Sintonia with Imogen  
June 15th Vancouver BC Commodore Ballroom Meliah Meliah with Imogen Meliah Audition
June 18th Saratoga CA Mountain Winery Juanita and Robin Juanita and Robin with Imogen Juanita and Robin Audition
June 19th Los Angeles CA Greek Theatre Sixth Wave Sixth Wave with Imogen Sixth Wave Audition
June 20th San Diego CA Humphrey's Airika and Kari Airika and Kari with Imogen Kari Audition and Airika Audition
June 21st Santa Barbara CA Granada Theatre No Strings Attached No Strings Attached with Imogen No Strings Attached Audition

About the author:
Marisa Debowsky learned to love singing contemporary a cappella in days of yore (namely sixth grade), and sang her way through college and grad school (in the UVM Cat's Meow).  While in the Northeast, she co-founded and co-produced the Vermont A Cappella Summit.  She continues to be active in the community, both as a singer and an event organizer (and arranger and sometimes booking agent).