'98's Best: Imogen Heap Gets Personal On Debut LP

Precocious British singer/songwriter bares her soul and her angst on I Megaphone.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at

1998's top stories Friday, July 17.]

Most people can only dream of exacting harsh, public revenge on their childhood tormentors.

Singer Imogen Heap gets to dream out loud.

"Turn your ugly face/ are you so surprised to see me/ yeah, I was your little childhood playground toy," Heap hisses in a breathy, menacing voice on "Getting Scared" (RealAudio excerpt), a track from her 11-song debut album, I Megaphone. The song is about the kind of little-girl trauma that most children keep with them well into adulthood, maybe forever.

A spare, creepy tune anchored by a thudding drum-machine beat, chaotic piano and blasts of industrial noise, "Getting Scared" is a harsh introduction to the 6-foot-tall, redheaded 20-year-old from England.

"It was a revenge fantasy that turned out to be real," Heap said from her London home. Her voice barely above a whisper, the singer said the powerful song is about a former roommate with whom Heap shared some of her most intimate secrets.

"I told her things I wouldn't tell anyone else, and one day she used it against me," Heap said, leaving the perpetrator and the secret unnamed. "She told people a very secret thing that you don't tell anyone, and it was absolute hell for me for a year."

"Getting Scared" is one of several songs on I Megaphone (an anagram for Imogen Heap) that mixes warm acoustic piano notes with clanging industrial and mechanical trip-hop sounds. As a circumstance of the soft-spoken Heap's often breathless, cathartic delivery, her intensely personal lyrics and her experimental arrangements, the album delivers her into the company of other twentysomething confessional female singer/songwriters such as Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple.

Eerily self-assured, Heap seems unconcerned with those comparisons. "I wouldn't say any of them are influences," she said of Morissette and, given her penchant for piano-based balladry, Tori Amos. Heap said she was more concerned with charges that she was copping her sound from eccentric British songbird Kate Bush.

"When Tori [Amos] first came out, they would say she sounded like Kate Bush," Heap explained. "Now they think she sounds like Tori. Plus, when I wrote this album, I'd never even heard of these people."

Hailing from Essex, England, a town she said is "generally known for its promiscuous girls," Heap received a boarding-school education. She explained that she always has looked upon songwriting as therapy. Although she didn't cut her first demo until after her 18th birthday, Heap has been playing music since she was 2 years old, getting her start on an old piano in her family's living room.

"As soon as I realized what it did," Heap said, "I never stopped playing with it."

I Megaphone was co-produced by former Eurythmics leader Dave Stewart and veteran producer David Kahne (Soul Coughing, Sublime, Tony Bennett). Kahne said that Heap's lifetime of practice and her dedication to music as a craft was evident from his first meeting with the singer.

"She came over [to the U.S.], and we tried working on a song," Kahne said of the composition that would become the trip-hoppy track "Shine" (RealAudio excerpt). "I wouldn't have ever thought to compare her to those others (Morissette and Apple), because as an instrumentalist, she's so exceptional, and she has a kind of sense of humor and objectivity that I don't hear in those two artists.

"She's only 20 and she hasn't used 10 percent of her musical ability."

A dramatic example of what Kahne described as Heap's "amazing music sense" is the album's first single, the dark, swaying piano ballad "Come Here Boy" (RealAudio excerpt), which is the oldest composition on the album.

"I wrote that when I was 15," Heap said of the song, the mature, poetic lyrics of which belie the singer's youth when she wrote it. "That's the one most people like, but I did it before I really started writing songs seriously."

Heap said her favorite song on the album is the closing cut, "Sleep." It's a spare, piano-and-violin lullaby that she said describes the "split second when you wake up and everything is absolutely perfect, and then, you remember what you have to do and nothing is quite the same after that."

"It's not just her voice," Kahne said of Heap's powerful, haunting vocals. "It's her whole musicality. I would change a high-hat part the slightest bit, and she'd walk in without thinking and know it was changed. She heard every single thing that was done ... She's just a great piano player and a pure musician, with every single cell of her body."