NEW YORK — Anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to Imogen Heap the past few years may be surprised to learn that the British indie chanteuse has cultivated a burgeoning fan base. Whether that’s due to her avid Twittering (1.3 million followers and counting), being sampled heavily in Jason DeRulo’s number one single "Whatcha Say," or just recognition from her work on soundtracks including "Garden State" (with Frou Frou) and "The O.C." is hard to say. But one thing is certain â€” Heap has done nothing short of explode since the release of her second solo record, 2005’s Speak for Yourself, and that wave of popularity has only grown with her latest effort, Ellipse, which was released in August and reached number five on the Billboard 200 chart.
During a recent interview with Blast, the charmingly self-effacing Heap said she found herself simultaneously restless and suffering from burnout in early 2007, after completing nearly two years of touring behind Speak for Yourself.
"I couldn’t face going back to my studio," she said.
Instead, the native Londoner spent three months traveling on her own, writing songs on pianos that she found along the way.
Her itinerary took her from Hawaii to Tasmania to Fiji for a kayaking excursion, on to Tokyo, then Hong Kong via a farm in Northern Ireland, before finally wrapping up in Thailand.
"It was quite tiring," she said, in what might qualify for the understatement of the year. "Every two weeks, a new time zone, a new language, a new culture."
Upon returning, Heap renovated her family’s house in Essex, converting a childhood playroom into a studio to record the songs that would become Ellipse.
Though she writes all her own music, Heap acted as her own producer and mixer for the first time on "Speak for Yourself," a role she said sometimes overshadowed the actual writing of the songs.
"I had never done (production work) before, so it was kind of proving to myself that I can do it," she said. "I spent most of the time toying around with the songs … (and) paid a lot of attention to that kind of stuff. I got a bit carried away."
Anyone familiar with the dense layers (upon layers, upon layersâ€¦ ) of vocals on that album would probably agree. But for Ellipse, Heap said she focused less on the production aspect ("The chip was off my shoulder about having to prove that I could do it," she explained). Rather, she enlisted the help of her Frou Frou bandmate Guy Sigsworth (Madonna, Britney Spears), whom she’s known since she was 17 and calls her "favorite producer on the planet."
Though her signature breathy harmonies are still present, Ellipse does indeed feel less engineered than her previous work.
"There was a lot more meaning behind everything on this record," Heap said. "The last one was so much more synths and programming. This one was really much more (organic). â€¦ I wanted to incorporate the house and its surroundings into the music, because if that happens, then the music becomes me."
To achieve that goal, Heap said she recorded ambient sounds from the shower and birds flying in a nearby park; one track, "The Fire," incorporates the crackling sound of wood burning, from a warped panel whose position above a door in the house held sentimental, nostalgic meaning for Heap.
"I didn’t want to throw it away or burn it without some sort of ceremony," she explained. "We all quietly just watched this piece of wood burn, with some fuel that I had from my studio. â€¦ It was this really kind of lovely moment."
Even as she was drawing inspiration from nature and personal childhood memories, Heap kept in touch with her fans throughout the recording process, posting video blogs and Twitter updates. On the last few dates of her current American tour, she’s even advertised, through Tweets, open auditions for cellists.
"I love it," she said. "I think it’s amazing to be able to have this connection. â€¦ I don’t feel like it’s extra effort or anything. I really needed the company and the encouragement of people to help me get through it. It’s pretty lonely writing on your own… but to know that there’s people there listening and interested in the process helped me."
Having worked both as a solo artist and in collaborative projects like Frou Frou and Acacia, Heap said there are positive and negative aspects to each. When she’s writing on her own, she acknowledged, her friends and fans are a valuable source of reinforcement and support.
"Every record I’ve done up until now, I’d had a boyfriend," she noted. "I never realized how much I relied on them, even if I wasn’t getting on with them, for support. Now, instead of waking my boyfriend up at four in the morning and saying, â€˜This is what I’ve done,’ I could post a 12-second video and could get a response from not just one person, but many people. That’s exactly what you need."
Even as she’s showcasing new material on the Ellipse tour, Heap finds her audience burgeoning thanks to the ubiquitous "Whatcha Say," which is built around what is arguably the best-known song from Speak for Yourself, "Hide and Seek."
"I’d heard people do covers of it," Heap said. "But I’d never heard someone do a rap over it."
Though she’s never met DeRulo, Heap more than anything seems impressed that he found the song in the first place and said she supports his use of it â€” even though it might not be to her taste.
"If I heard it on the radio, I don’t know if I’d buy it," she admitted. "But I very much feel that once I write a song, once it’s out of my system and it’s in the public domain… I don’t feel like it belongs to me anymore, and I don’t feel like I have the right to stop it from doing its thing. I really feel like songs have their own life."
"I never expected it would be a hit," she added.