When Imogen Heap Met Taylor Swift!
(I just bought a ticket to see Imogen Heap at the Town Hall in May. I am a long time fan, and even more so since catching Harry Potter And The Cursed Child back in September, 2016 on a trip to London. I wrote at the time (here)”The trebly echo effects that recur in the second act, the brooding, as opposed to fascist anthem, you might expect, that opens “Part Two”, the entire tempered tenseness of the uncluttered synths and back tapes, they all feel like signature moments of her sound”. The soundtrack was released last month, it is awesome. And, of course, she co-wrote “Clean” with Taylor Swift. I was checking around and about Heap (Dickens could have named her) and came across her blog about working with Swift. It is so sweet and gentle and fun that I wanted to share the story. I called her and got perssion to post it. Well, in a manner of speaking: I thought of getting permission and then figured, ahhh who cares. So here is is: when Imogen met Taylor -IL)
Some days, things just click. You’re on your ‘game’. There’s a flow. Almost magical. That’s what happened on Feb 9th 2014, the day Taylor and I met.
Just a few days before, I was in Iceland taking promo shots for my latest album Sparks with Jeremy Cowart.
Here’s a video Jeremy put together of our shoot.
Michael (my fella, love of my life) and I also took the opportunity to have a mini break in this magical country, where not only did we catch the northern lights but we also surprise bagged a baby! Eight and a half months on, Taylor’s new album is out and any day now, so is gonna be whoever’s in my tummy…wait… was that a contraction??
Anyway… I digress… so I got a phone call saying Taylor Swift was in London, she’d love to work with me and the only day she could do (between 4 sold out 02 arenas!) was the day after we got back, Sunday. It was both unexpected and not at the same time as I’d heard Taylor was a fan a while back via this Time magazine piece but somehow didn’t think it would actually happen. I love co-writing and producing for other artists and I was really itching to get back into the studio for something completely different after the marathon that was Sparks too….plus, you don’t really say no to Taylor Swift do you??
So, Michael and I landed, he went off to shoot a film that week and i dusted off my studio in preparation for my day with Taylor.
now… I was a bit tired after travelling and it was all rather surreal, so maybe I dreamed some of this but this is how I remember it.
Taylor was dropped off at around midday and we greeted each other with what seemed appropriate, a big hug. I was half expecting such a massive star to have a huge entourage but very pleased to discover it would be just Taylor and I. Guitar in hand, this tall, immaculate, relaxed and friendly young woman (with from memory some big assed heels on) walks in and we go into the kitchen for the obligatory English welcome cup of tea. We get chatting away.
It’s cold in February here in this old house, so ‘d lit the fire in the dining room and we continued in there. Taylor pulled out her guitar, saying she had a song idea that if I liked it, maybe we could work on that one. Great! I thought… a beginning. Because without a beginning, you have to conjure up one out of thin air and we had so little time.
Taylor strummed and sang a first verse and a chorus. It sounded really good to me already, so I suggested we just go straight down into the studio and I’d start throwing some sounds at it. Maybe we could demo it up for a later time to finish?
I made a session in Pro-Tools, we set the tempo we felt sounded good against her singing it in the room and I started to record noises. I really felt a driving simple bass line just following the chords would be good. Warm, bendy and a bit buzzy. That and a simple snippy beat created the backbone for me to build on with some instruments in my ‘toy room’. For some reason I gravitated first to my set of BoomWhackers (a set of tubes you hit on the floor or against each other and they make a nice percussive sound). Taylor liked these and so in they went. Then, some of my trusy mbira. Such a lush sounding instrument and with very little can really bring some twinkle to a song without it becoming cheesy.
Every sound that ended up on the song was preceded by sounds of delight from Taylor. That was my queue she was happy and for me to move onto the next sound or part.
I’ve worked in the past with a few heavy handed producers (when I was around 17-20) which I really hated. With those experiences, It’s very important to me that they are with every decision. We’re in this together. That seems obvious perhaps but there are many artists who just get trampled on by various producers and perhaps that’s ok with them but I can’t stand it and I don’t want to do that with anyone else. Anyway.. something tells me, Taylor wouldn’t let that happen in a million years.
I was editing and mixing the bits in, meantime Taylor had written the 2nd verse! Good going gals! Teamwork! It was time for a late lunch.
I have to be honest here and say I had ever so slightly not done my homework on Taylor Swift but had done what I HATE others do of me, which is to pre-judge a person based on assumptions. I had assumed Taylor didn’t write too much of her own music (as is the case with many young, extremely successful artists these days who sell shed loads of records) and was likely puppeteered by an ageing gang of music executives, working to formulas and spread sheets. How wrong was I? Totally clued up from a very young age (I had no idea what a publishing label even was at the age of 14 never mind moving my family to nashville so I could pursue a song-writing career!), hyper driven, hard working, really talented and a genuine lovely soul, with a few more boy troubles than she most but you can’t get it all right all the time!
So… lunch was fun and now back to the studio. We still needed a middle section. I fancied really stripping it down, quite moody. So we tried a few things out. One of which had me going over to the keyboard to suggest a slightly ‘odd’ chord progression as I do like a bit of that on my own records. I played it to Taylor and she quite clearly said “I think we’re going to lose them at this point” and I said… ‘wow… that I why you sell millions of records and I don’t!’ She is Taylor Swift and she knows best, so we stuck to the chords, I created a bit of tension in the music instead and then we could woosh into the final chorus from there. I learned that lesson again, keep it simple. I just never seem to remember it!
Taylor, again knowing what she wants, fancied some Heap backing vocals, so first I had her sing in her now finished lyric and melody (of which she wrote pretty much all of by herself)… which she did in a couple of takes (and what you hear on the album) and I sang a load of Heap style harmonies, textures, rhythmic chants and things, which she loved.
We then had a quick dinner, came back down to the studio and I ‘bounced down’ what we had recorded that day to a stereo file for her to take away with her.
Taylor left about 8pm and we’d managed to demo up an entire song from scratch, whilst still managing lunch, dinner and chat! Quite amazing. Some times it just flows like a dream! Which is what it all felt like after she’d got in the car to go back to London.
Here’s what she wrote in an email to me that night. I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing it.
I’ve listened to Clean over and over and I can’t thank you enough for today. It was one of the musical highlights of my life watching you work. This will be such a special song on my album and I’m so happy this all came together. Hope to see you at a show and if not, I’ll come visit next time I’m over here!
I was so excited by the whole thing, I worked until 4am, singing in more vocal backups (my favourite being the last chorus ‘and then the… ‘ line up high), tweaking sounds here and there and then sent it over to Taylor (hoping I hadn’t gone toooo far) to which she replied….
“THIS VERSION IS AMAZING! I’m in love with all the vocal parts you added. Can’t stop listening on repeat!! This song is unreal. Well done!”
So there we go! High on life for a long while after but had to keep it quiet was torturous but the surprise was Taylor’s to share for sure. I so enjoyed the whole experience and it gave me a new kinda energy having worked with this mega woman, force of nature. I can’t thank her enough for taking a chance on me (I’m not exactly Max Martin you know!) and am so happy the song made it on the record (and feel lucky it’s the closing track, coz that’s a special spot) as I love it and would have been sad to see it ‘sit on the shelf’ (as some co-writes I’ve done in the past have!).
I went to see her play live at the 02 the night after with a few friends. She was completely brilliant and we all adored her. Here’s a photo we had taken after the show.
Felt I wanted to share the experience, as it was a special one. I’ve also been reading the odd report or tweet here and there that the reason these lyrics to ‘Clean’ are so good is because I wrote the song with her but FOR SURE they are all hers she deserves all the credit!
So congrats to you Taylor (if you’re reading this) on the release of 1989. I hope it’s a huge success (it’s looking that way already) and brings you much happiness. I look forward to news of a man who’s swept you off your feet and to introducing you to our baby girl/boy next time you’re in town and fancy a cuppa in the english countryside! We will find out any day now! Thank you for everything.
Soon to be, mama Heap.