Exclusive: Mapping the Synthetic Emotions of Holly Herndon

I had first heard of Holly Herndon as she took to the stage as the opening act for St. Vincent in the spring of 2014. She strode on alone, dressed all in black, her red hair wrapped tightly in a single braid, hovering over a stage-length set up of synthesizers and occasionally lifting her doe-eyes to glance seriously at the audience. Her music was, quite simply, not of this Earth. What would sound like a mash of electronic wheezes and nondescript clicks and whirs in the hands of any other artists became a singularly honed instrument for Herndon, shaking the walls of the building with the orchestral thundering of each baseline and snap of cybernetic percussion.

Herndon’s music is an inspired synthesis of the digital and the real, one that blends the coldness of electronic music with the warm tones of a classical melodist. It’s simultaneously new and familiar; while listening one might hear a shade of Daft Punk or Kraftwerk, but no previous artist has managed to make the world of computers sound as living, breathing, and real as Herndon can.

Her debut LP, Movement, was met with near universal acclaim. In the time since, she has enrolled at Stanford University, where she is a current doctoral candidate in computer music. Amidst the world of study and composition came Platform, her new album out tomorrow via 4AD Records. But with this new LP, she tells me, the focus has been shifted away from the vocal work that marked her previous material, and instead put onto the complex, dense mechanics of the instrumentation. By interview’s end, Holly had spoke to Milk Made’s Jake Boyer about everything from domesticity to second wave feminism to the tactile properties of a 9-volt battery.

Let’s start with ‘Platform.’ What were some things you were thinking about conceptually when creating the album?

Well with Movement, my first record, that was a very solitary exercise. I wrote most of it alone in a studio in Oakland, then I had the opportunity to tour it a bunch, which was awesome, but I felt like I had reached a limit with what I could accomplish. So I had to figure out a way to talk about things outside of the music to matter, engaging issues that I’m still passionate about and incorporating that into the musical process. I spent a lot of time researching other artists who are politically engaged, a great one I found being Metahaven, a deisgn duo out of the Netherlands who helped make the video for ‘Interference’ possible. They made it their practice to seamlessly integrate their political views into their artwork, and I was heavily inspired by their approach. So I reached out and talked to them to see if they wanted to be involved in the process along with me my partner. A lot of the songs were in sketch phase so it started to flesh out a little bit, we became a community of thinkers in a way.

What made you decide to use such jarring passages of spoken word?

That was actually based on my discovery of ASMR. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, but it’s this whole thing on Youtube, and it’s something I built autonomous riffs on for the album. Basically, it’s people who have a physical response to really mundane domestic sounds. So a video of someone unwrapping a plastic wrapped candy will have, like, 5 million views, just an absurd amount of views. And there’s a whole community of people within that doing these whispering self-affirmational things, which is what I used for the one track you called ‘spoken word.’ I’ve been attracted to that for a while, physically soothing each other with sounds is such a sweet and weird thing that’s so 2015. So I decided if it would be funny if we wrote an ASMR specific song longing for someone of the 1%. People who are from extreme privilege convince themselves that they’re genetically different from other people, so we made a therapy session for that person who needs that affirmation, to tell them that ‘you deserve it!’ But of course it’s really open to interpretation, a lot of people saw it as a gender statement, like I was talking to a privileged male. You can create environments that you see fit.

When you opened for St. Vincent last year your stage sets were incredibly composed and minimal, even a little intimidating it seemed. What is your headspace like when you’re performing?

I mean, the St. Vincent tour…that was a unique thing. I’m on their stage, playing for their audience, so I am stoic. So I’ve been doing something recently to break out of that. I’ve been performing my own shows with my partner, Mat, and he’s been doing that with me. During the show, he’ll project a video that has a chat window open and is chatting with the members of the audience. It’s not rock banter like ‘Hey, how’s Chicago,’ but he has a Textedit window open where he chats with the audience. People think its me and they’re confused where it’s coming from. He’ll sually start with opening the Facebook event for the show and start clicking on the Facebook profiles of everyone who’s there and going through their pictures. I try to put the audience on stage as much as I can. Before maybe I was more stoic than usual because I didn’t have my engagement tools. But I’m always trying to find modes and methods of doing that didn’t rely on tropes. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed, it’s just new ways of communicating and new ways of being emotional.

Your work has a really complex meeting between the organic, your voice, and the synthetic, the instrumentation. I can’t help but be curious, what is your approach to composition?

Well it’s something that I’ve been working on for a long time. I started by using my voice and processing it and that immediately gives me a meshing of the digital and analog world, that kind of organic and synthetic. It’s something that is very embedded into my practice. And I think live, it’s been focused on the vocal for a long time, and it was focused on the production side as well. This is where Platform is a departure from Movement. I’m trying to include my domestic life and intimate self into my digital laptop self. These things are integrated nowadays. I’ll record my browsing and all of the audio coming out of my computer and mix that with the audio coming out of my kitchen and see what happens.

What is the domestic life of Holly Herndon like? What does that sound like?

Well right now I’m wearing sweatpants and playing with a 9-volt battery, so I don’t know what that example would say (laughs). In terms of how I translate it into sound, it’s about how domestic life is tied with having our phones on us all the time and picking up facts non-stop. When I’m separated from my partner for a while we record each other on Skype and we’ll record each other mid-conversation, sometimes without knowing it. The discussion between the personal and the political has of course been used for multiple generations now, but I think its applicable with this record. It’s about bringing the personal in and bringing this intimacy.

What are your thoughts on the current relationship between human and machine? Do you think we’ve ‘lost intimacy’ like everyone seems to say we have?

Not at all, it’s simply new ways of expressing intimacy. New technologies and social paradigms create new forms of intimacy, new emotional responses. An argument with a lover via text, for instance, can begin with a message saying ‘dot dot dot.’ There’s no analog for that in the physical world, you can’t do that in person. It’s different kinds of weighted emotion, different emotions essentially. And to me, these new forms of communication need the artwork to express them. It would be oversimplification to say that the Internet is making us less connected, it just changes the way to express that; it doesn’t take anything away. Technology is extension of ourselves and society and human knowledge and human intellect, and there’s two sides that come with that, you know? You have the atom bomb one hand, and the penicillin vaccine in the other. Great things and horrible things will come about, and that’s humanity. And that’s so beautiful and amazing.

‘Platform’ is out tomorrow via 4AD Records, order the album here

Photo by Stan Musilek

Homeslide Image by Suzy Poling

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