Imogen Heap sits at her see-through piano, the inside lit by coils of red-and-white Christmas lighting, a Chinese gong and the skeleton of an acacia tree dangling above her head.
She flexes her delicate fingers over the keys, and then she freezes, struck by a fleeting thought. “First,” she says, turning to the audience, “I need my tea.” She hooks a dainty cup, takes a sip, and throws back her head, gurgling.
Then she plays the piano and sings, the music dreamy and sinuous, her voice weaving in and out of the synthesized loops, as the stage darkens and the tree sparkles with beads of light.
Sitting a few rows away, in the theatre at Emperors Palace in Kempton Park, I am mesmerised.
Until last year, I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce Imogen Heap’s name – the “g” is soft, it turns out – and I was only vaguely aware of her songs on the soundtracks of TV shows (The OC, Heroes) and movies (The Chronicles of Narnia). But today, I am happy to count myself as one of her biggest friends.
Imogen Heap doesn’t have fans, you see. She has friends, followers, fellow travellers, evangelists in the army of the Imogen Nation.
On Twitter alone, @imogenheap has more than one-and-a-half million followers, and crucially, she follows more than 32,000 of them back.
She posts iPhone snaps and videos, cheerfully invites journalists and radio jocks to DM her for cellphone interviews, and provides a tweet-by-tweet chronicle of life on and off the road, signing off with little xx’s.
Few recording and performing artists have embraced social media with as much glee and high-tech savvy as Imogen, who last year wore a “Twitter dress” to the Grammy Awards, allowing her flock to send messages that flashed on a collar embedded with LED lights, or Twitpics that appeared on an iPod Touch encased in a transparent Fendi handbag. But the connections run much further than fashion.
When Imogen steps onto the stage with a wave of jazz hands at Emperors Palace, she announces that it’s going to be a long evening, “because you chose some really obscure songs for me to play”.
It’s a cherished tradition: on the eve of every concert, she crowdsources her set, inviting visitors to her website to vote for the songs they’d most like to hear.
On Twitter, on Facebook, on MySpace, on YouTube, on Flickr, she reaches out and draws her community into her creative circle, encouraging and using the contributions of the crowd for album artwork, Press bios, and even guest performances.
At Emperors Palace, she stands centre-stage and gestures into the wings, welcoming a troupe of nine acapella singers who splendidly call themselves the Mellifluous Cahoots.
They’re from Johannesburg, and they uploaded, to Vimeo, an audition video that Imogen saw and liked.
So now they take their places, faces beaming, fingers clicking, swaying with the grace of the swooning, lilting harmonies as Imogen weaves the main thread of a song that talks of “harmonic connection and stereo symbiosis”, and ends with a chant that could be her mantra: “You’re only what you give back.”
Here is an artist who doesn’t sell albums by the truckload, certainly not in South Africa, where her two-city concert promoter, Charl van Heyningen, took a chance only to appease the pleadings of his young daughter, Emma.
Here is an artist who doesn’t have a hit you can hum, whose songs seduce you by osmosis rather than catch you with a hook, and who was once dropped by her record label for lack of commercial appeal.
And yet Imogen Heap has crafted for herself a thriving career, by breaking down the walls that encircle the artistic elite, by casting aside facilitators and go-betweens to communicate directly with her constituents, and more than anything, by making the sort of music that drifts and rises above the hubbub.
In the age of social media, artists can no longer rely on the distribution of physical media to build a profile and make a living.
I was ambivalent, even indifferent to Imogen Heap’s charms until I saw a tweet last year from @comradesipho, I think, rhapsodising about a song called “Hide & Seek”.
Hmmm, I thought, and I Googled and YouTubed and Groovesharked, until I, too, was listening to the song, with its haunting, vocoderised vocals, over and over again.
On stage, between numbers, Imogen Heap is endearingly kooky and easily distracted, given to wittering on about family bonfires, African trees, and male friends who take the biscuit.
But when she sits at the piano, she seems possessed, in a trance, and all that matters is the singer and the song.
“If I wasn’t me,” she says, in a preamble to the next number, “and I was in the audience, watching me, I would want to be me.”
I reach for my iPhone, and I quickly send that out as a tweet. It’s a lot safer, and lot less cheesy, than holding a lighter in the air.