Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter, producer, and neo-classical, electronica, art rock vessel Imogen Heap. It’s “The Listening Chair”, a single as taken from her latest record Sparks. That record began three years ago, when she began to collect sounds and subject matter to use as material to weave into its fabric, sourcing much of it directly from fans. The sounds themselves are field recordings of ordinary sounds, serving Heap as “sound seeds” for new songs. Even the cover of the album is a collage of footprints made by fans. The subject matter began to coalesce when she began to find common threads in the suggestions for songs made by fans her own age, and at the same stage of life.
On this song, a complex series of melodic and harmonic lines are created from her voice, with layer upon layer being added to create a song that can be described as being delicate, and full of existential darkness too, like that of a life itself. And funny that! This is Heap’s aural autobiography, from her early childhood to her 35-year old self, from talking to animals to making love, making money, and making a difference.
In any case, what does the listening chair represent beyond that? Well, it’s something that’s never been done before.
For some artists, a belief and a use of interactive technology is simply a demand of a new market. But for Imogen Heap, it is the core of how she creates her art. “The Listening Chair” is attached to a very specific strategy in this regard. It is a physical chair that was a fixture at some of her live events, with fans invited to sit and be guided to contribute to what would be a search for a song that hadn’t yet been written, but needed to be. But, the project began to morph.
At some point along the line, Heap decided to capture the impressions of her own existence within a single song, in parallel with the fan-oriented project which requested their own input. From that, the idea for a continuous song emerged, tracing various states of mind and perspectives, although not in the way that was originally intended. That changed things further still.
This take of the song is what appears on the new record. But, Heap plans to add a minute of a capella material every seven years until the end of her life. The next segment will be added when she’s 42, by then a mother since she is now pregnant. She will never stop writing it.
This is a revolutionary way to approach songwriting, with a piece of art that grows with the artist creating it. And yet at the same time, it still speaks to that idea of connecting with an audience as the original idea of the Listening Chair, the object, and the project.
From TIME Magazine:
“I wanted to figure out whether there was a common missing song thread people were aching for, but instead something more interesting arose,” Heap tells TIME. “Roughly each seven-year age group was concerned [with] or wanted to hear a song about similar topics. I resonated most with those my own age, at the sudden realization [that] perhaps I’ve gotten it all wrong! I settled upon writing the song to connect with all these people, through us sharing life experiences over time.” (read the whole article)
In terms of time periods and states of mind, we’ve all taken this same journey from childhood to adulthood, although in different ways. Time itself is the medium in which we all exist, with our experiences shaping us as people as years go by, as milestones are passed, or are missed entirely.
In some ways, we too are experiencing the unique songs of our own lives, adding to them as time passes. But, Heap is externalizing that process on a certain scale, and proving that songs and art in general are not insignificant baubles or luxuries in our lives. Sometimes, when we’re listening closely, we realize that a song can be the most important way of understanding our own identities.
As for Heap, the song emphatically does not remain the same, as has been the norm in pop music. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and very literally in this case.
Learn more about the Listening Chair project here.
And of course, check out imogenheap.co.uk.
Her new album Sparks is out now.
Thanks to Sony Canada for the download of the new album.