Frou Frou by design
Frou Frou is the British sub-stream pop duo Imogen Heap and Guy Sigsworth, whose 2002 album, “Details,” makes you happy.
The French connection
Frou Frou. The phrase originated in France in the early 1900s, borne of the risqué mademoiselles of the Folies Bergeres, written in opium by Baudelaire, recorded in song by Line Renaud in the 1940s. It’s the onomatopoeic expression of the rustle of skirts. Whisper it “en Français” and swoon, it’s the sound that drives men mad, and makes women want to drive, so it’s a win-win situation.
The British resurrection
The late 20th century saw “Frou Frou” decay into a dismissal of needless, excessive details. 21st century: Enter Imogen Heap and Francophile Guy Sigsworth, who understand that details, from the first impression to the last straw, belie their superfluity by being key to how we feel about our personal relationships. The maxim “the devil is in the details” wasn’t coined idly, although you don’t have to listen too closely to find an angel in them as well.
She of the Quaker boarding school with 24 pianos seemed destined to become a contemporary classical composer until she discovered her own voice, in which she found a new instrument and a new direction, pointing to Hyde Park, 1996. The striking, flame-haired, 6-footer blazed through a 20-minute set between Eric Clapton and The Who, and her course was set.
Immi plays cello and guitar, but, vocals aside, her main instrument is piano/keys, and it’s her piano and her classical background that are prominent on much of her 1998 debut, “iMEGAPHONE.” An anagram of her name, the title shouts the “scream inside” theme of the album, which was re-released in Japan in 2002 after the success of Immi’s support acts for Yaiko. Immi later toured Japan to promote “iMEGAPHONE,” which is now out of print.
Apart from penning “Mindcircus” for Way Out West, her contributions to other bands have been vocal, her distinctive voice gracing songs by Mich Gerber, Rustic Overtones, GMT, LHB, Urban Species and Jeff Beck. Listen for her on a track on the new album from Temposhark.
Another multi-instrumentalist and music technician, Guy’s breakthrough was in 1991, writing and playing keys on Seal’s first album, although he is better known for his work with Björk and his writing and production with Madonna (who is reported as having enjoyed “Details” in her car).
The two Frous’ paths crossed after Guy heard the potential in Immi's demo tape, and their first collaboration was with Guy’s band, Acacia, in 1997, Immi again on vocals. Guy produced “Getting Scared,” her vengeful first single from “iMEGAPHONE,” and in 1998 they co-wrote “Flicks,” which appeared on “Details” four years later.
Guy has always been the name behind the big name. He is a background figure in the artwork for “Details” and does not have the presence that singers can’t help but have, but Guy is half of Frou Frou, and his name is on, and his hand in, every note of their record.
Revel in the details
Imogen and Guy are both musicians, composers and producers who have invested the time, care and attention to detail that make “Details” truly Frou Frou in name and in nature. Soaring sounds and breathtaking vocals make this a performance well worth the price of admission.
Piano lines play a subtle but frequent role on “Details,” and it’s these and other incidences of acoustic instruments that infuse an organic feel to this essentially electronic music. Guy’s creative and notably MIDI-less approach to generating and recording sound achieves Frou Frou’s goal of humanizing digital music, and the result is a warmth and depth that offer luxurious aural comfort.
For the most part, Frou Frou are self-contained, with a few external sound sources – trumpets, strings and some percussion – provided by session players. The Bollywood Orchestra appears on “Psychobabble,” Mich Gerber’s 200-year-old double bass features on “Let go,” and a sample from Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” forms the ambient basis of “Hear Me Out.”
Reviews of “iMEGAPHONE” usually compared Immi’s vocals to other singers of the day, and the lack of these comparisons in most reviews of “Details” is evidence, if not proof, that her voice has found a place of its own. Immi likes hats, and she’s wearing a different one for this record. Her rhythmic chanting and vocal leaps are still part of the palette, but her raw alto/tenor of the late ’90s has given way to a smoother, softer style more suited to the reflective nature of the lyrics. Unlike those female singers whose songs are simply a showcase for their own glorious voices, Immi works for the songs, and they reward her handsomely.
Although less dynamic and more processed than her earlier vox, Immi's voice has an immediacy that brings her very close to your ear, closer than the music, and with a luminosity that if vocals were visible, you’d see Frou Frou in the dark.
From the dance floor hit “Breathe In” to the Satiesque “Dumbing Down of Love,” from the euphoric “Must Be Dreaming” to the desperate “Hear Me Out,” Frou Frou exude understated elegance. There’s no blatant sexuality here, rather a sophisticated undercurrent of sensuality – the dreamlike rhythms and airy layers suggestive of the sussurant silk-swish of petticoats.
The lyrical theme of “Details” is love, which is, according to Immi, “the best subject in the world.” It’s a well-used and often ill-used subject for popular songwriting, but Frou Frou take a mature and considered approach, shaping words into dramatic snapshots of emotional states. Emotive and feminine in delivery, the lyrics are not gender-based; there’s no song on this album that couldn’t be sung, or felt, by anyone.
Aside from the 11 tracks on the standard-issue “Details,” the Brtitsh release of the album includes the bonus track “Old Piano.” The B-side of the “Breathe In” single is a square peg. Edgy and angular, “Close Up” is a worthy song in its own right, but it doesn’t really cohere with the soft and curvaceous “Details.”
Frou Frou have recorded, but not released, several tracks since “Details,” and while there is no official indication of a new album, there are plans to release some of this new material online. Immi and Guy are at present busy with their own projects, Guy writing and producing for famous but as-yet-nameless artists, whilst Immi labors lovingly on her sophomore solo album.
Touring and movie details
Frou Frou’s 2002 tour of the United States, to the delight of their fans, was a series of Borders in-store promotions and intimate gigs in small clubs, Guy playing a Mac and Immi limelighting on keys and vocals, flaunting fedoras and flared woolly-mammoth legwarmers. 2003 saw the two Frous performing before much larger crowds at Italy’s summer Festivalbar and enjoying local chart success and TV exposure of their “It’s Good to be in Love” video. Italians have always appreciated style, and the Watkins Remix of “Breathe In” remained in the dance charts for over three months.
Frou Frou sounds have appeared in “Roswell” (“Breathe In”), the short-lived “Wonderfalls” (“Hear Me Out”) and “Garden State” (“Let Go”). Their upcoming single, “Holding Out for a Hero,” a remake of the 1980s Bonnie Tyler song and their first release in two years, was recorded specifically for the recently released “Shrek 2” soundtrack.
Shh. Hear me out. Breathe in. Let go …
she’ll whisper in your ear of breakdown’s sweet embrace, of love’s
flight and the loss of wings, of powerlessness and the back feet of
fragile smiles. And after the skirts have sashayed through your psyche,
you’ll be left with a feeling of having, and of having been, touched.
rj Campbell is a music guy from way down south, and he hopes this article has piqued your interest in the Frou Frou sound.
Frou's official site