By Jacob Katel
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It's hard to believe that it's been four years since Imogen Heap played the late Studio A, but for anyone who caught that show, the memories remain vivid. That night, Heap took the stage solo, with nothing but herself, her gadgets, and her soul. The combination of high technology and deep emotional stirring left the crowd proverbially floored. Clearly, there wasn't a person in attendance that didn't leave feeling as if they'd just witnessed some very special magic.
But Heap wasn't the only one to provide a bit of magic that night. "There was a magician that opened the show for me," she explains by phone from London. "I was trying to find a band, because I was doing a local band for each show for part of that tour, on MySpace. But no one had set something up for Miami except this magician. So he turned up and did this great show."
It was also just one of the many instances where Heap has reached out to her fan base in intimately participatory ways. On other, previous tours, for example, she'd audition local cellists two days before the show, and then have them join her onstage.
For her current outing, which brings her to the Fillmore Miami Beach on Wednesday, she has, like many artists of late, asked fans to submit their own set lists. But she has also, again, taken the participation one step further: She's asked folks to submit versions of her song "Earth" so they may sing or play it along with her live.
"It's completely ridiculous," she says. "My fan man is thinking of quitting because every night it's going to be a different setup. Some night it could be one guy rapping or beat-boxing behind me; one night it could be a 50-piece choir. So he's got his work cut out for him."
Actually, add yet another step to his work — Heap will also be improvising a song for charity each night, inspired by fans' requests and votes. "The audience [shouts] out tempos and keys and what they want me to play," she explains. Her dutiful sound man records the proceedings, and she then donates the money garnered from the song's sales to a fan-chosen nonprofit.
Whether all this is a case of shooting herself in the foot or shooting for the stars is purely a matter of perspective. Heap's always done much more than she's had to, and she's continued to push herself even after half a year of touring to support her third solo album, Ellipse.
Like her previous efforts, the LP finds the British chanteuse baring her soul amid a whirl of gadgets and machinery. Led by the single "First Train Home," the album is incredibly ethereal without leaving behind the day-to-day. And in Heap's case, the day-to-day exists without downtime.
"I give myself so much work — trotting out the 'Earth" songs, trotting out the new set lists, trotting out the charity piece," she explains. "I've actually hired a few more people, who are living in the house with me, because I just can't do it all."
Her constant work isn't limited to her own music, either. Twice now she's sung guest appearances on albums by the legendary Jeff Beck (on his 2001 studio album, You Had It Coming, as well as his 2008 live disc, ...At Ronnie Scott's). And Beck in turn appeared on her "Goodnight and Go," off her 2006 album, Speak for Yourself. And while each of the three instances is remarkable in its own right, it's how the two got together in the first place that is the stuff of storybooks.
"We connected under the stars in a 12th-century castle," she explains. "I was there doing this kind of songwriting thing, and Jeff Beck was there working on his new album. I met him on the last night. I was playing the guitar very badly and he came out and kind of played a few chords to show me something and I just sang. And he really liked it."
The next day, she got a call from producer Andy Wright, then helping Beck put together You Had It Coming, inviting her to the studio to sing. The legendary guitarist soon played her the song "Nadia." "I was so blown away," she recalls. "He was asking me, very humbly like, 'What do you think? Do you think it's any good?' And I was completely speechless. I couldn't believe what had just happened in the room."
Pausing, then, Heap sheepishly admits: "That was actually the first time I really heard him play the guitar." And the erstwhile Yardbird Beck isn't the only musical legend she had missed out on.
"This is going to be hard to believe, but even when I was a kid I didn't listen to music," she says. As such, when her 2005 song "Hide and Seek" came out, critics' and fans' constant comparisons to Laurie Anderson stymied her. "I was embarrassed to say I'd never heard her. I mean I'd heard of her, and I knew who she was, but I hadn't heard her music. I'm still, shamefully, having to admit that I've only heard 'O Superman.' I just don't have the time. I'm really looking forward to a day when I do though, and I can really enjoy it."