"Music can be like perfume," suggests a Frou Frou. "It's almost a scent, you know, where the right smell changes an environment and makes life more bearable."
If the challenge for a pair of skilled musical parfumiers is to connect up all five senses and create a sixth realm of heightened emotion, rediscovered memory and awakened dreaming, the debut album by Frou Frou is an olfactory breakthrough. A couple of lifetimes in the preparing, 'Details' is as hyper-evocative a record as the post-digital era has yet produced.
Out of a technique that erases its own ingenuity, singer-songwriter Imogen Heap and songwriter-producer and part time Francophile, Guy Sigsworth, have summoned up a supersensual song-world of whispered intimacy,firefly dances, sky-kissing elation, opiated warmth, pillows, bliss, fingertips, half-light, swirls, curlicues, closeness, interpersonal dissonance and captured stillness. Oh yes, and the swishing of erotically charged silk.
"In the Folies Bergeres when the women were dancing 'frou frou' was meant to be the sound of the swishing skirt," explains Guy. "There's meant to be a poem of Baudelaire's where he'd taken opium and was tripping out on the skirts swishing and getting delirious, and there's this old French song called Frou Frou which is the sound that drives men mad. And I suppose when I was getting this together with Imogen, not just because she's a girl, but I was conscious of there being a kind of femininity to things. The delirious guy looking at the women is probably like I am, listening to them singing down the microphone."
There's too much gilt and bombast in Heaven to imagine that the creative marriage between producer-songwriter Guy Sigsworth and former solo-chanteuse Imogen Heap was made celestially. More likely their pre-nuptials took place in a magic balloon drifting high over the the pitted landscape of contemporary digitally derived music. Since working with Seal at the start of his career, Guy has gone on to prove himself a, if not the supreme producer of female vocals, collaborating extensively with Bjork and attracting Madonna's attention. Imogen's debut solo album, made when she was still a teenager, clearly demonstrated that here was a singer of astonishing emotional eloquence.
Frou Frou is therefore an ideal dovetailing of voice and vision. The pair first collaborated when Guy produced 'Getting Scared' from Imogen's 98 album 'I Megaphone'. As a passionate fan of great singers Guy had sought out the owner of the precocious voice he'd heard on a demo tape. Working together on a longform project then became a matter of obligation to the world of ravishing, high pop.
"I think we'd always known that we'd do an album together but it took a while to get there," recalls Imogen. "Every month or so Guy would phone me up and say 'I've got a new song, would you come in and sing it?' and then before we knew it we'd already started the album."
"I guess I'd been a hired gun on other people's records to come in and do funny noises," explains Guy. "And often I'd come in and listen back later and think 'Why does this all sound like shit?'. I kind of realised that the key is the vocal, because if, in the back of my mind, I didn't like the vocal, I'd just be using these silly noises to hide it or draw attention away.
So working with Imogen just made sense because she's such a fantastic singer. And I'm such a snob about voices. I don't mean they have to be technically perfect, but when someone has a voice like Imogen you can just run with it wherever your fantasy takes you.
When I was working with Bjork once, we did a show on the White Room and amazingly Liz Frazer from the Cocteau Twins had sneaked in to watch Bjork, and Sinead O'Connor was on with the Pogues. There was this one Kodak moment where there was Sinead, Bjork and Liz talking to each other, and that was my three favourite singers on earth, all in a ring for a moment.But then I found someone who I love even more. I think Imogen's got so much to show people about vocals."
'Details' does not scream at you. It talks to you intimately, in real language, with a sonic articulacy unparalleled in recent times. Neither electronic or trad organic, it invents its own sound language without being self consciously radical. Naturally it didn't come together overnight after a binge and a game of soccer with the effects rack. The Frou Frou sessions spanned several seasons at the turn of the century, Guy working on the big picture upstairs in his west London studio, and Imogen downstairs, in a room full of cellos,auto harps, guitars, mad keyboards, Indian drums, toys, books and a mirror to dance in.
With the exception of the (gorgeous) trumpet solo on 'Dumbing Down Of Love', played by occasional Eno collaborator John Hassell, and a purl of orchestration from Bombay, the sounds woven into 'Details' were mostly generated by Imogen and Guy, feeding keyboards, guitars and briefly handbells into the computer. The passages where it appears there's an orchestra under the duvet came from the multi-tracking of a single violin and lone Swedish double bassist Mitch Gerber.
An album which embraces technology whilst humanising it, 'Details' leads the listener into a tender and lovely headspace through Imogen's voice. Much of the instrumentation was put in around an intial, early take vocal. Guy and Imogen co-wrote many of the lyrics, refusing to put in implausible lines and seeking to create a conversational truthfulness within the songs Textures, tones and moods shift through the record. Let Go' achieves a state of scintillant equanimity; 'Breathe In' is as carefree as completion; 'I Must Be Dreaming' soars above self doubt; 'Psychobabble' teeters on the edge; 'Only Got One' reassures; 'Details' cruises towards self-knowledge; 'Hear Me Out' holds on to a connection; 'Flicks' celebrates; 'Dumbing Down Of Love' curls inwards, unfurling perhaps one of the key lines of the album: 'Music is worthless unless it can make a complete stranger breakdown and cry'.
The desire to reach out and touch without using the obvious attention grabbing techniques is rooted in Imogen and Guy's past. In solo guise Imogen carried her keyboard though five American tours. Guy worked as musical director for Bjork's live shows. Neither would have been content to settle for anything less than graphic enchantment.
"When music really gets you, you hear it on the radio and it possesses you and you just have to track it down, and you know you're not going to be happy until you've got it," says Guy. "And there must be something really magical to make you like that, it's not like needing a new pair or trainers, its something much more intense. For me music is totally like that and it wouldn't be worth doing if it wasn't."
"I think we knew what we didn't want to achieve," adds Imogen. "We didn't want to go rock, we didn't want to go angry, we wanted to make this a feelgood album and we wanted it to be real. I've done 'angry' when I was 18 and I want to be happy now. I want to sing happy songs!".
If 'Details' get caught up in the rapture, that's not because Guy and Imogen are unaware of the shadier end of the musical spectrum. The subtleties and clarities within Frou Frou are the result of deep experience and constant exploration. Imogen's accelerated journey from South London college to signed up solo artist threw her into the middle of the musical bazaar before prejudices could set in. In between her solo album and Frou Frou she recorded with London jazz rap ensemble Urban Species. Still only 21 she's now as likely to be listening to the Aphex Twin as seeking out Finnish composers.
Guy's initial co-writing work with Seal came about because the singer was then living in a neighbouring London squat. From there he came across a series of like-minded artists, hooking up with Tim 'Bomb The Bass' Simonon, Talvin Singh and Bjork. It was not, however, his co-writing work with Bjork that attracted Madonna's attention, but his production of the debut album by the under-rated Mandalay. The Mandalay album failed to go overground but Madonna loved it and called in Guy, leading to his co-writing 'What It Feels Like For A Girl' on 'Music'.
If there are facets of Frou Frou which appear to owe as much to fringe music as to pop, it should come as no surprise. Guy's vast enthusiasm makes him one of the most widely analytical of current artist producers. It would not be unusual to find that in an hour of weighing up Frou Frou's place in the schene of things, he has also digressed into the guitar layering of My Bloody Valentine, the influence of UK ragga on two step, the connection between Kraftwerk and Africa Bambaata, the interface of Euro angst and disco, 2 Unlimited's debt to the cancan, ring tones on rap records and the brilliance of David Sylvian's 'Ghosts'.
"As a musician, you love lots of things and then you gradually work out, OK yes I love nu- metal, gangsta rap and classical music but then you start thinking 'What is it I can do that other people don't do? Cause I love ragga music but I wouldn't try and do it. So you think 'What is it I can do and as a producer, what can bring to the table?.
"I just hope we can open people's horizons. Because I think some people are very innovative with soundscapes, but they don't write songs, and I think the song is still very important to me. I still think that form is great even if the sounds are a bit unusual. I think its a classical way to express what you're feeling.
"I'm not claiming that 'Details' is the most innovative record ever made but I think there's confrontational things like, 'Let's be Einstuzende Neubaten and do this, and everyone'll know that we're really doing something different', and then there are people that can seduce you and put on a really lovely face and you don't realise that behind it they're actually doing something quite different. I'd like to think we're trying the friendly, seductive route to opening people's ears."
It would perhaps be too much of a grand claim to suggest that Frou Frou is a uniquely pure musical phenomenon, but certainly the two of them are less likely than most to be guided by ego and self -promotion. Imogen was doing very nicely by herself and was initially wary of sharing the creative reins. Guy had endless producer/co-writer doors open and is decidedly camera shy. Yet they couldn't resist what Imogen describes as "a beautiful meeting of minds", and they wanted it to be presented right. To that end, there will be great visuals and lap top proud live band selected on the basis of the originality of the musicians. It's going to be something that Baudelaire would have loved, with or without the opium, and that lovers of greatly intoxicating music will be driven to describe as, of course, an amour fou.
"For me atmosphere and fantasy in music are really important," says Guy. "I think I'm an escapist really, even though I like dark things in music, and I think there are moments of darkness in this, but I like darkness when its fantastical and Scary Movie-ish rather than just bleak and gritty. I suppose that if music didn't give us this glimpse of something better I don't think we could stand to go on with our lives, we'd just give up. I think in any type of music, not just mine, the best of it gives you a glimpse of paradise, or a better world or some hope. Its like you can achieve some sort of... I don't know if I'd say perfection but something free from all the shit of your life, in music."
Frou Frou: a sound that drives you happy...