Early on in conversation with Imogen Heap about her Mi.Mu gloves — sensor-laden devices that allow her to synthesize, loop, and augment her vocals with, literally, a flick of her fingers — she stops mid-sentence.
“Sorry, everyone’s running around me at the moment,” says the galaxy-brain Grammy winner, 41, as an aide connects her phone charger to an outlet. “There we go. I’m all plugged in.”
That’s an understatement. Her ongoing world tour — including a Friday show at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, and two weekend engagements at Boston Calling — is half concert, half tech summit, and in this it’s about as Heap as it gets.
Most know the musician for her ghost-in-the-machine ballad “Hide and Seek,” which influenced everyone from Jason Derulo to Taylor Swift with its emotive use of vocoder (it’s also become a meme since “The O.C.” and “SNL” made use of it). As much an inventor as a singer, she’s spent the past eight years developing WiFi-connected gloves that gesturally harness sound; with them, she plucks notes out of midair.
“It’s how you feel we would make music if we didn’t have all the boxes and the wires,” she says. “Of course if you closed your fist that would go into record, and if you moved your hand to the left, it would send a sound to that side. With the gloves, you can do that.”
Heap’s ambitions these days are more digitally minded, though just as dazzlingly vaulted. Her latest endeavor: the Creative Passport, a blockchain-fueled social hub where music makers can exchange services and ideas while managing their own data, from discographies to bios, from a verified profile. She believes it can revolutionize the music industry and make it more equitable; but the project’s scope is so massive, explaining it takes more than an elevator pitch.
Hence the tour, her first in eight years, which — as well as reuniting her electronic duo Frou Frou — features talks and workshops addressing how the Creative Passport can change musicians’ lives.
Discussing the industry’s current-day chaos, Heap mentions Ariana Grande, whose artistic debt to her extends beyond a cover of Heap’s “Goodnight and Go” on Grande’s Grammy-winning “Sweetener” album. Grande has called “Hide and Seek” her favorite song, gone round Heap’s house for dinner, and taken the Mi.Mu gloves on tour.
“She’d never in a million years not credit me on purpose,” says Heap. Yet the “Sweetener” liner notes didn’t mention her. “People who represent the business side, they got that wrong,” she explains. “It’s easily rectifiable, but there’s all this mismatched, incomplete data around that only the music makers know the true answer to.”
Creative Passport empowers musicians to verify such information themselves. “It's a digital identity that works for us 24/7, so we don’t have to repeat ourselves,” she says.
It can also improve financial realities for artists. “Twenty to 50 percent of all royalties don't meet their rightful parties,” notes Heap. Often, this is owed to dysfunctional systems through which revenue must travel to reach an artist; Heap’s dug into those knotted pathways more than most, constructing a website called Life of a Song that analyzes how money from “Hide and Seek” gets back to her (or doesn’t). Her aim is to clean up the industry by mapping it, making it easier to credit and compensate the right individuals for their work.
If there’s a common thread across Heap’s innovations, it concerns connectivity. That’s reflected in the name of the business she’s founded to launch Creative Passport, also the name of her tour: Mycelia, after the vast, thread-like structures that live beneath trees and mushrooms.
“If trees aren’t getting enough sunlight, they share data amongst the mycelia to give the tree what it needs,” she says.“I thought it was a nice metaphor for what the industry could be, if everyone talked to and helped one another. We could create an amazing, flourishing home.”Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.