Lovers of literature celebrate today as Bloomsday in honor of the life and writings of Irish writer James Joyce. The events of his monumental novel Ulysses occur on June 16, 1904, a date made dear to Joyce’s heart because it was the day upon which he and his eventual wife and long-time love, Nora Barnacle, had their first outing together. The day’s name honors Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses.
In the late 1980s, eclectic and influential British singer/songwriter Kate Bush wanted to write a song based on Molly Bloom’s sexy, often censored soliloquy, which ends the novel. However, Joyce’s grandson Stephen Joyce, who has long held decision-making power over his grandfather’s estate, forbade it. He has been famously resistant to granting permission to other artists and writers who have sought to quote or incorporate elements of Joyce’s work into their own. Undaunted, Bush reworked the lyrics and created a beautiful work of art, her song “The Sensual World,” and released it as part of the album of the same name in 1989. The song is about Joyce’s character Molly Bloom stepping down off the pages of the novel into the real world of the senses, and it lifts phrases and ideas from Ulysses without quoting from the novel at great length or too directly.
In 2011, the Joyce estate at last granted Bush license to use her original material, and she rerecorded the song as “Flower of the Mountain,” and released it on the album Director’s Cut. Lovely as it is with Kate’s voice grown earthier with time, I prefer the lighter sound and lyrical flow of The Sensual World.
You may have heard Jason Derulo’s song “Whatcha Say.” It went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009 and was Derulo’s first big hit, but the song was built around vocoded vocal samples from the song “Hide and Seek” by English singer, composer and producer Imogen Heap. The popularity of Derulo’s song was much greater than that of the song upon which its based, and to my mind that is a great shame, since Heap is one of the most inventive and appealing artists recording today.
Imogen Heap (or Immi, as she is often called by fans) is surprisingly little known in the U.S. despite having received four Grammy nominations and won one Grammy. As half of the musical duo Frou Frou she also had a song on the soundtrack to the popular indie movie Garden State, which also won a Grammy.
Before becoming known as a solo artist, Heap and then musical partner Guy Sigsworth recorded as Frou Frou. Their song “Let Go” was one of the best things to come out of the 2004 Garden State soundtrack. It’s her warm and breathy vocal you hear over the rich layers of electronica. With her lush washes of intricate sound, she gives the lie to those who think electronic pop must be cold and soulless. She often incorporates unusual effects and ambient sounds into her mixes, and since leaving Frou Frou she has composed, produced and performed on four solo albums.
As a teen Heap taught herself sequencing, music engineering, sampling and production as well as guitar and percussion instruments such as the Array Mbira (an expanded version of the small African original mbira with a more bell-like sound) and the Hang, a hollow steel percussion instrument. With these tools and her compelling, intimate voice and gift for beautiful melodies and intricate harmonies, she has built an interesting repertoire of songs and a passionate fan base.
In return for her fans’ devotion, Immi gives exciting concerts featuring not only her hits but also on-the-spot improvised compositions created with looped sounds that she records of her own singing and playing as well as with sounds generated by the audience in concert. I saw her perform in Seattle during her 2010 tour and was moved by her decision to invite local musicians from every stop on her tour to audition with her. She then chose a few musicians from each location and had them open her concerts for her and perform a song alongside her. She also created a song with the audience at each venue and made every song available to help raise funds for local charities. She’s quite philanthropically minded and often raises funds for favorite charities around the world by holding benefit concerts featuring her music and that of others musicians.
Among her influences Heap lists Annie Lennox and Kate Bush, two other powerful singers from the UK with huge charisma, distinctive voices and strong associations with inventive electronic pop. Like them, Immi has created electronic music with great passion and soul. Her 2005 album Speak for Yourself is her most accessible album, full of lyrical, catchy tunes, and 2009’s Ellipse, which features the lovely song “First Train Home,” comes in two versions, the standard and a deluxe version which includes instrumental versions of all the tracks.
Of her work, Immi says, “I just love crafting and shaping sounds. Actually, many of the sounds that I work with start off as organic instruments — guitar, piano, clarinet, etc. But I do love the rigidity of electronic drums… I would record live drums, and then I would spend a day editing them to take the life out of them. I like to breathe my own life into these sounds, and I do try to keep the ‘air’ in the music. Some people think electronic music is cold, but I think that has more to do with the people listening than the actual music itself.”