Imogen Heap on digitally connecting the world's musicians

The Grammy Award-winning musician talks to CNET about being a woman in tech, body augmentation and Harry Potter.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
8 min read
Sergione Infuso/Getty Images

Musician Imogen Heap might be best known as a solo artist, but don't assume she's a lone wolf.

On the contrary, Heap has worked closely with many artists and on many different projects throughout her career. Most notably and recently, she was part of the Grammy-winning production team for Taylor Swift's album 1989, and almost single-handedly created the music for the stage production Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Two time Grammy winner Imogen Heap.

Two-time Grammy winner Imogen Heap.

Imogen Heap

But her most exciting collaboration could be yet to come. Heap, a renowned tech enthusiast, is preparing to launch an app called Creative Passport, designed to verify and connect musicians all over the world, no matter what their niche, so they can find each other and create music together.

Creative Passport will let musicians who've made real world connections with each other (and with Heap as she's traveled the world on her latest tour) share their data -- who they are, where they're based -- on a globe. Heap hopes the app gives musicians a toolkit that'll empower them to expand the music ecosystem in new ways that haven't yet been dreamed about.

The Creative Passport is just the latest in Heap's roster of technology projects, which also encompass her "Mi.Mu gloves," which use sensors to translate the body's movements into music, and Mycelia, a blockchain-based platform for distributing music independently.

Ahead of Sunday's beta launch of Creative Passport on the TestFlight app, CNET sat down with Heap to talk about the ways technology empowers musicians.

Here's an edited transcript.

Q: Could you explain how you've prepared for the launch of Creative Passport and where you'd like to see it go?
Heap: What we're doing right now is every city we're going to we're doing music-maker forums. With that we've created a quiet momentum of musicians who are seeing this as something that is going to exist.

That's the best thing that's happening right now -- the optimism that's coming back into the music space. That people believe we can generate an open songs database, an entire complete collection of all the songs on the planet from all over the world, and all different societies can contribute to that data.

A lot of them aren't even on the map, but we can show ourselves in the tens of hundreds of millions. There are so many of us -- I'm not talking about Taylor Swifts -- I'm talking about everybody else, like there's somebody over there that does specific baroque arrangements for kazoos.  There's so much variety out there, and we just don't know they're there. We need to be able to help people to find them.

The more unique you are, the more you're going to be able to signal out the noise. People are going to be able to tune in to you because they want those specific things. That's the opposite of what happens now -- you've got to shout really loudly above the noise and try to tick all of the boxes.

How did your skills and knowledge evolve to allow you to work with technology at this high level?
Heap: It's been incremental. It feels slow and gradual, but there are definitely pinpoints where I jumped and was, like, "Wow! This is a thing I wanted to do, and it's a huge learning a curve, and I have no idea what I'm doing, and I want to find out how to figure it out."

That was the case with the Atari computer, or with learning about recorded sound as a young adult, or going into the music industry not knowing at all what it was about, but really trying to understand it, even though it was very complicated. And then trying to figure out how to use technology to create my own label and release my own music in the digital space.

When technology helps you augment your creative self and helps you do things easier than before, then I jump to it. If I see there's a possibility there of how life could be a lot simpler if we could start to develop this seed, to have something go in that direction, I just don't give up.

I want to create music with gloves. I know it's going to be embarrassing many times on stage and I'm going to fail and I'm not going to make enough music, but this is my thing right now -- and it's all creative. I just started out specifically making music, and I love to make music, but I also really love all this other stuff.

Would it be fair to say that you've had to be willing to fail and to challenge the established music industry, which isn't an easy thing to do?
Heap: I realized when I fail it's not the end of the world -- I don't die and nor does anyone else, hopefully. It's actually a real show of humanity. I don't like presenting an image of perfection. The audience loves it when something goes wrong -- they're like, she's normal! And it's so reassuring. There's this funny myth that you have to be perfect -- everything wrapped up perfectly in a parcel. That's not what people want.

I've had success in doing things independently, and I've been lucky enough to follow something because I've been interested in it and I've felt like it was going to help me out and help me reach people quicker or fill in the gaps of musical creation. I want to share the journey with somebody, I want to tell you what I'm up to, because maybe you'd like to join in and make music together, or maybe you can come and be on the gloves team, or maybe I can come and do some weird project with you over there.

I love those happy accidents, and actually the minute I came out of a record deal, I was like, the minute you don't go through a label, life gets exciting and interesting.

There still aren't a lot of artists out there willing to take that path though. Do you think there needs to be more of a model for doing so?
Heap: That's what we really want to do with Creative Passport. We want people with their absolute unique skills, their unique personality, their creativity, their passions. That is what should be celebrated, because that's what's going to get you the next job above somebody else. People don't want copies, they want original things.

It will start to tip the balance to not to go to the usual suspects. I've become successful because I've become a usual suspect actually -- because I'm a woman in tech, and people want more and more to get women on the stage, especially into tech. That's why I'm in the place I'm in, I'm under no illusion. But I want to help that not be the case.

I want to help get us to the point where the music that we make by its own merit is what brings us work. Not because we've figured out how to do a fancy video, or because we've cleverly met somebody, or whatever it might be. It's very simple, but it's really not possible to do that right now.

You said on stage that the reason you created the Mi.Mu gloves was because you started to feel kind of barricaded by all of this technology. I was really interested in your approach, which is to create a new tech solution to overcome a problem also created by technology. Are there any ways you'd like to see that approach applied?
Heap: Essentially these are essential tools that you need [she touches a phone on the table between us], but you can lose your phone at any moment if it's not attached to you. You don't want to be spending seven hours of your life every day on the computer.

Web Summit 2018 - Day 3

Heap demonstrates her Mi.Mu gloves during the Web Summit 2018 in Lisbon, Portugal.

Getty Images

In the future you will be able to just use your body and your voice and your eyes to be able to communicate digitally with people. You'll be able to gather information in your headsets or in your goggles or even in your eyes to augment the layer of reality to give you the data you might need about where you need to go that day. Or maybe you have a magnetic-north sensor and it might be, like, you need to get to this degree north and you can somehow feel where you need to be.

Just as we're giving all this power to supercomputers and quantum computers, why not augment the self?

How did you end up writing the soundtrack for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child?
Heap: It came about because I have a friend called Steven Hoggett who's the movement director for the play. I was pushing [my daughter] Scout in a pram through a muddy field and I got a call from Steven saying, "Hey, I'm working on this project ... and your music is just perfect for it; they absolutely love it."

I went, "Go on then, what is it?" And he went, "Well, I can't really tell you... it's about a boy with a scar." I looked it up, and they'd already been working on it for about three years before, and they'd had me in mind.

I didn't know what I was getting myself in for, and I don't think they did either, to be honest. It's a lot, a lot of music.

What had to be done was a complete rethink of my life right then and to be there present in the workshops and in the rehearsal space for months. I had some help looking after Scout and basically relocated to Covent Garden [in London] for several months, where I sat in a theatre chair, and the whole team were there. We were all in there creating the show together. Even the script was being tweaked quite close up to the end of the play.


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a major theatrical success.

Manuel Harlan

I was just there with my computer, my headphones, a little keyboard, with a microphone. I had my box of tricks, which is a virtual instrument selection that I made ... so I could basically Imogenify everything very easily.

We wrote loads of stuff and ended up with two-and-a-half hours of music, specifically for the theatre seat, not for close listening with headphones. And then we had to translate that into something that's enjoyable without the sound effects and the dialog and the transitions and the dancing into something that you could just enjoy an audio experience [for the version of the soundtrack that became its own record].

Were you a fan of the Harry Potter universe already?
Heap: I had heard a little bit about the story, because you can't help it. But no, I never read books to be honest, I never really liked reading books. It hurt my eyes when I was a child and I just chose to do music instead.

So you came at it fresh?
Heap: Yes, and that's what they wanted. They weren't interested in encouraging me to go and deep dive into Harry Potter. They didn't want it to sound like the films. They really just wanted the world of Heap and the world of Potter, and they wanted to collide them together. I loved it and my only regret is that I didn't really get to know anyone because I was so on my headphones.

Read more: On International Women's day this year, CNET featured 43 inspiring women who're changing the world. Heap was among them.

CNET's Holiday Gift Guide: The place to find the best tech gifts for 2018.

Culture: Your hub for everything from film and television to music, comics, toys and sports.