Imogen Heap
Everything In-Between
The Story Of Ellipse

Filmed - and very skillfully compiled, featuring each ingredient of the story in the appropriate amount - by Justine Pearsall, Everything In-Between - The Story Of Ellipse is a "complete access" kind of documentary that tells the tale of the making of Imogen Heap's third album, Ellipse. An album that - thanks to its remarkable technical side when it comes to recording and mixing - in the year 2010 received a Grammy© in the prestigious category Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical (an event that in my personal opinion deserved a lot more attention than it received, given the fact that - provided I'm not mistaken - this was the first time this award was given to a female engineer, in a field of expertise that has always been dominated by men). 1h. 30' manage to condense the 371 hours that were filmed over the course of those three years (strictly speaking: 810 days) that cover the creative arc of the album, and most of what happened immediately after it was released.

Well, now I only have to tell readers who Imogen Heap is. (A funny line, right? But it's something that I see happening more and more often, when an artist can be regarded by some as being a kind of "celebrity", while at the same time being completely unknown to everybody else. Which is something quite different from the old "ripple effect" pattern, where "fame" originated at a precise point - with the "early adopters", to use a common expression - only to spread later to more and more people. Nowadays we have a kind of "tunnel vision" perspective, which gives us a kind of "all or nothing" scenery, as we'll see in a little while, provided readers are still awake.)

I first listened to Imogen Heap on an album by Jeff Beck (You Had It Coming, 2001), where she sang the old blues Rollin' And Tumblin'. I never forgot her name, but not thanks to her interpretation of said piece - her performance, in fact, was really quite forgettable - just thanks to her name, which I had never heard before. (Friends and relatives call her Immi.) Totally by chance, I found her being featured as half of Frou Frou, on an album called Details, which to me sounded more or less like "variations on Eurythmics", though the album was not without its merits. I later discovered she had recorded an album at a very young age (I, Megaphone, released in 1998), which saw the participation of a few known names, but I have to admit I didn't care enough to look for it.

It was in 2005 that somebody whose judgment I trust suggested to me that I listen to Speak For Yourself, the new album by... Imogen Heap. Done. I didn't expect much, but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. I heard very good vocals, a nice timbre, and uncommon versatility when it came to vocal performance. Fine melodies, quite catchy but not too "easy". A very sophisticated composing style, which in a way reminded me of Academia. Lyrics were phonetically smooth, but they were not banal, and they appeared to offer multiple meanings. Sounds were quite varied, recording and mastering were not fatiguing. The icing on the cake: the CD liner notes told me that she had re-mortgaged her home to make the album a reality (as in: buy equipment and rent a space to work).

What I didn't like? Too many "techno" and "dance" elements (and yes, I know it's a bit vague). Also, sometimes the backing tracks seemed to work "against" the vocal melodies. Sometimes textures were a bit too dense. But the album was good (I gave it a listen just the other day, and it didn't sound "old", which is something that happens quite often when the equipment is the most innovative part of the music).

Though I think the album can be successfully appreciated as a whole, I'll mention three tracks. Headlock is the track that in my opinion best combines "techno" elements and vocal melody. Hide And Seek (a song that maybe readers have already listened to, not knowing who the artist was) features multiple vocals through a vocoder-like effect (but this is the era of the plug-in). The Moment I Said features the piano, highlighting a complex musical structure where vocal lines have a deep emotional impact.

I have to confess I thought quite a bit about where she got her money, since I supposed her sales were not terribly substantial. Then I learned two things. First, a few of her songs were featured in movie and TV soundtracks, which gave them the exposure that the lack of radio passages failed to provide. And she had an army of fans, who had actively participated to the making of the album, thanks to a very lively blog that Imogen Heap used to get feedback.

Released in 2009, Ellipse appeared at the worst possible time when it comes to my listening area and habits. So it was for "external" reasons, not because I regarded the album as being mediocre, or too difficult, that I came to fully appreciate it when it was already quite old.

Compared to its predecessor, Ellipse is a great improvement. The "sonic pictures" - melodies, counterpoint, backing tracks, "special effects", featured musicians, stereo placement - all present a coherent whole. The music is quite dense, but thanks to a masterful mastering (by Simon Heyworth) the listener can safely turn the volume knob to the right, to investigate the various layers (just one for instance: the vocal melismas, so reminiscent of Indian music, that run though Tidal). Also, this time the rhythmic patters are perfectly integrated in the songs, which tells me of a greater maturity.

First Train Home is the lively opening track. Earth greatly features the vocals. Little Bird offers a melancholy feeling. Tidal presents the most complex textures. Bad Body Double highlights the rhythmic element. The thoughtful Canvas lead us to the closing track, the delicate-sounding Half Life. But the album perfectly works as a whole, violin and cello gradually coming to the fore.

Everything In-Between - The Story Of Ellipse starts with a long vacation around the world that's at the same time a writing session. We see this through the lens of a simple video camera. Back in the United Kingdom, a new studio is built in an old family house, the actual studio being located in the playroom of Imogen Heap's childhood. While a bench that's placed in the open shows us the changing of the seasons - years pass - we see the studio being built, the start of the recording sessions, the composing stage, the guest musicians performing, the increasing tension as the deadline approaches. At last, the mastering sessions at Heyworth's studio. Though it's featured, the "technical" side is not too deep, so it won't discourage those who are not interested in this stuff (an interesting interview from 2009 which appeared on the UK monthly Sound On Sound can be easily accessed on the Web). After this very stressful experience, we see Imogen Heap promise this is the last time she'll record an album this way.

The reviews of Ellipse that I read were not very perceptive, some of them being maybe the result of that particular prejudice that sees albums which highlight the "rhythmic" element as being per se "inferior" to those albums which feature a more "artistic" approach. I was extremely puzzled to see not many value Imogen Heap, the singer - quite mysterious, this, when bicycle pumps and vocalists suffering from a spasm of the larynx are acclaimed as great voices.

The DVD-V features a few excerpts from the 40 vBlogs that the artist made while the album progressed. Which brings me to a very sorrowful point. After the demise of the old record companies, musicians have to get all the weight of promotion on their own shoulders, and it goes without saying that Internet and all those "social networks" are a very big part of this. Everything In-Between - The Story Of Ellipse shows us the different ways Imogen Heap managed to have her fans become participants in the making of her album. Of course, other musicians will find some of her strategies and inclinations to be not to their liking, or not appropriate to their own personalities. But they'll have to find those that are more appropriate to them.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2011 | Apr. 2, 2011