Imogen Heap’s career as a big-haired techno-pop singer was progressing at a word-of-mouth pace until the week before last.
After an intense year of touring and soundtrack work, she was happy to be heading into the final stretch of a North American tour. Then came an early-morning phone call from her road manager: Heap had gotten a surprise Grammy nomination as best new artist, along with such million-selling household names as “American Idol” turned country princess Carrie Underwood and British balladeer James Blunt.
Heap was happy (“things are coming around,” she said), a little weary (she’d gotten just two hours of sleep) but mostly puzzled by the idea of “best new artist.”
“I’ve been doing it for 10 years, but I’m grateful and very honored,” said the 29-year-old Brit.
Heap realizes the Grammy attention will suddenly elevate her profile but she feels the timing is not fortuitous.
“In a way it’s kind of odd because I was ready to put this (project) off to bed now,” she said Monday by phone from Lawrence, Kan. The current tour is the final one she had planned to promote her album “Speak for Yourself,” released 15 months ago. “I’ve been on tour for a while now. I don’t really want to come back and do another.”
“People are just telling their friends,” she said of her CD, which suggests a quirky Kate Bush gone electronica. “There hasn’t been a whole lot of radio (airplay).”
Most of her exposure has come from movies and TV shows. She also got a Grammy nomination for best soundtrack song - it’s Heap’s “Can’t Take It In” that you hear soaring over the end credits of last year’s blockbuster “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
As a member of Frou Frou (a duo with Bjork producer Guy Sigworth), her song “Let Go” was on the Grammy-winning soundtrack for “Garden State” in 2004. “Hide and Seek,” a much-downloaded track from “Speak for Yourself,” was heard on TV’s “The O.C.” Other Heap tunes have been on “CSI,” “Six Feet Under” and “Shrek 2.”
Now she’s heard in the new Jude Law-Kate Winslet romantic comedy “The Holiday” - stuff that she actually created with soundtrack maestro Hans Zimmer.
“I didn’t have any instruments with me apart from my voice and Vocoder, and we just jammed for three hours,” she said. “Everything was being recorded. They kind of weaved it in and out of the score.”
She’ll leap from fantasy to flamingos for a 2007 Disney-funded film about those pink, long-legged birds. She plans to incorporate nature sounds for the soundtrack.
Heap’s music reflects her personality. “I’m a little bit eccentric, quite girly and geeky,” she said.
As a 12-year-old at a Quaker boarding school, the classically trained pianist discovered an old Atari computer and its music-making capabilities. She moved on to a London school for performing arts and technology, where she was discovered by a rock manager who placed her between Eric Clapton and the Who in 1996 at the Prince’s Trust Concert.
Two years later, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics produced her first solo CD, “i Megaphone.” It was reissued this fall.
One of her more interesting collaborations was with guitar legend Jeff Beck. In 2001, she was invited by music-biz impresario Miles Copeland to his 12th-century castle in southern France for a music workshop. Every day, various musicians were paired to write and record a song, then they’d all gather for a big dinner. At one of those soirees, Heap met Beck, not realizing what a storied career he’d had. A few weeks later in London, he invited her to sing on a techno-style version of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” for his album “You Had It Coming.”
On her current tour, Heap doubled the numbers of computers and keyboards that she carried on her spring U.S. trek (including a clear plastic “piano” that’s really a computer). But she still dresses her stage in a fairytale-meets-sci fi vibe - and she stills teases her hair.
“The last four days it’s been getting bigger, bigger and bigger,” she said. “I’m 6 foot (tall), but with my feathers, my hair and my heels I can be 7 foot.”