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Holly Herndon’s Trying to Find New Ways to Play the World’s Oldest Instrument

Holly Herndon
Holly Herndon

Next week, sound sculptor Holly Herndon will release Platform, her second proper LP and her first release as a member of the 4AD roster. The album is an incredibly rich patchwork of vocal samples and ambient techno beats and anti-beats, often just as hypnotizing when its rhythms are totally free-form. Herndon decontextualizes the human voice to the point of turning it into a textural mode – a soundscape layer or a through-thread in a much larger quilt. Oration isn’t solely relegated to chopped-up wordlessness, however — adspeak pronouncements (“Be the first of your friends to like Greek Yogurt this summer!”) hover serenely over “Locker Leak,” the Claire Tolan-featuring “Lonely At the Top” is an unsettling spoken-word satire of upper-class megalomania, and tracks like “Morning Sun” and “Home” contain repeated refrains that place them in near-pop territory.

The push-and-pull between her more abstract and accessible inclinations was a major factor for the electronic composer (and recent JLin collaborator) in the recording of Platform, dating back to her release of the “Chorus” single in early 2014, the title track of which also appears on her new album. “‘Chorus’ is, for me, a pop song, but it is also super-weird, super-alien as well,” explains Herndon. “That has been something I’ve wanted to do — [2012’s] Movement was like weird track, accessible track, weird… it’s all on the album, but it is not intermeshed within the tracks themselves. With this record, and with ‘Chorus,’ I think that was the beginning of [me] being able to do that more.”

Herndon talked with SPIN about the inspirations (musical and non-musical) behind Platform, as well as her love of Skype, Missy Elliot, and the sound of a slamming refrigerator door.

You’re originally from Tennessee — what did you grow up listening to?
Well, my family to a lot of country music. You know Dolly Parton is from Sevierville, which is nearby. And, like, I grew up going to Dollywood. If I got all A’s on my report card, like, my class would all go to Dollywood. There’s also lesser known Twitty City –

As in Conway Twitty? How do those compare?
Oh, Twitty City is nothing compared to Dollywood. But yeah, so that and also the Carter family are from around there. There is the Carter Family Fold, and they have a venue in Virginia that’s actually not that far from where I am. It’s basically like a corrugated barn venue out in the middle of nowhere. They have all kinds of music. Often the bands will not have a rhythm section, and so the locals come out well they usually have a bass but they usually don’t have drums. The locals come out with clogs, and they provide the rhythm section. It’s insane to watch.

Has anything from that kind of stuck with you over the years?
You know, I think of that like normal way of when you grow up around something you’re like, “Uhhhh! Get me away!” But then it’s like, slowly finding a way back in…. yeah, it totally is there, but in this weird, mutated way. Like, I grew up singing in choirs. I played guitar in the church, singing in church choir. I think you can definitely hear choral music in my work. Some people mention liturgical vibes, which to me I’m like, [Annoyed grunt]. But I can see why other people would hear that.

I don’t know, to me, “Morning Sun” is kind of, somebody can kind of play that on a guitar. [There’s] kind of slightly country vibes to that. I grew up singing literally singing songs around a campfire, like that’s how I learned how to harmonize. People are like, “What? People really do that?” And I’m like, yes, without a doubt totally do that.

Is it hard to describe what kind of music you make when people back home ask you about it?
I don’t think people back home are any less equipped than anywhere else with understanding what I’m doing. Like, I played Big Ears Festival in Knoxville last week, and of course that is an extremely curated audience, but that was one of the best shows I have ever played. It was awesome, so many people and people were really energetic and into it. My family was in the back dancing. It was nice.

Do you remember the first thing you listened to that really inspired you to use the voice in kind of this malleable way? The first thing you heard that let you realize that was possible?
I can’t think of the first thing. That’s a really hard question. I guess an early thing, maybe like “O Superman,” I mean that’s kind of like low-hanging fruit. But also, when I was a kid I listened to the Bee Gees, and even though that is not like processed it’s still like, their voices are interwoven and they are also super-falsetto and super-affected. It’s like vocal processing but acoustic vocal processing, you know what I mean?  

Did “Chorus” kind of set the tone for the new album?
Mmmm, yes and no. I feel like “Chorus” was like maybe taking a route or trying something out. I liked the way that it turned out and the response was great to and so it was almost like permission slip in a way to be like, “Okay, people aren’t going to hate you if you do something more accessible and weird.” I’d like to continue that and make stuff even more weird and more accessible at the same time. That’s a challenge.

Is it a worry to you that you’ll be perceived as being too accessible or that you will be too accessible? Is it important to kind of keep that balance between the challenging and the accessible?
It’s not a worry. It’s not something I think about when I’m in the studio, like, “Oh this is way too poppy. I better dial it back.” That’s not really a problem for me. My natural inclination is to make something that is not so formulaic, I think. So yeah, I’m not worried about that actually.

What kind of pop stuff do you take inspiration from?
That’s a good question. It depends on like what aspect. Production-wise, I still go back to Missy Elliot and Timbaland. You know, he is still producing amazing stuff and also, like, really experimental in palette choice. In terms of voice, I don’t know. It’s really hard because I don’t depend on very much affect and so much of pop vocal is tied to affect.

How do you mean?
Like, emotional affect. I guess my affect is digital. But I mean there are tons of pop vocals that I love. Who doesn’t love Rhianna’s voice? But I think I might be the only person who is not trying to sound like Rhianna right now vocally speaking. [Laughs.] I listen to Maroon 5 and I’m like, “Whoa! You totally did a Rhianna inflection. That’s so weird.”

Is that something you are more in tune to, the way pop song and other popular singers kind of end up overlapping in sound?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know how to put this. One of the opportunities with digital processing of a voice is that you can create something new or an affect that hasn’t necessarily been before. You don’t have to rely on a nostalgia that has been before. I like the idea of new affects, new ways of having emotionality that reflects that we’re in 2015. If I am going to sing about something emotionally I don’t want to use the same affect that somebody used in 1960. That seems strange because it is a different time and it is a different emotional feeling. If I’m singing about the NSA… That’s something that I definitely haven’t solved by any means.

That must be an incredible pressure, to try and come up with something, a new vocal tone for you when popular music stretches back so far and has encompassed so much.
It is a huge pressure. I mean, “pressure” is maybe the wrong word. It’s not like an external pressure or something like, “You must do this!” It is more of an interest and a curiosity. So how can I do this in a new way or a different way?

And then you worked recently with Jlin recently on an album?
Well, we’ve been talking for a couple years now. Did you ever hear that Bangs and Works compilation — it was like footwork compilation — that came out? This was probably like three years ago. She released that track “Erotic Heat,” and it’s the best, it wins. It’s like, the best footwork track I’ve ever heard. It was on this compilation, and I was like, “Oh shit, it’s like this young girl in Chicago.” So I just [went to the] Internet, and  straight-up wrote her, and I was like “I love your track. This is amazing.” And so we kind of became pen pals, and we would talk on the phone sometimes. That seems so rare nowadays. But yeah, so I sent her some vocals that she used and sampled for one of her tracks, and now I’m remixing one of her tracks.

What is your preferred mode of communication, just out of curiosity? What do you find yourself talking to friends and family the most via?
It is different for different people: phone, email, Skype, Twitter. Maybe not in that order.

Is there anyone that makes you more anxious than the others? I can’t really talk on the phone for instance.
Why not?

Because the rhythm of it is difficult, I feel like I’m constantly interrupting the other person or waiting too long to say my part or the other way around, you know?
Oh, OK. No it doesn’t make me anxious at all. I love Skyping. That’s one of my favorites, which I don’t know why I love that so much. It’s like kind of like this awkward thing. I don’t know, it’s a combination of phone and real and email. Twitter is extremely limited. But oh, I text a lot, that’s how I keep in touch with a lot of friends. I forgot that one. People talk about how “Oh, the Internet is killing all relationships and emojis aren’t real feelings.” I’m like “No way, it’s totally just a different form of language.”

How did your collaboration with Claire Tolan on “Lonely At the Top” come about?
So my partner was giving a lecture two years go…  [He and Claire] were talking, and she works an NGO called Tactical Tech that deals a lot with privacy issues, and we’ve both been interested in that for a while, and so he was like, “Oh, you should meet Holly. You guys would get along really well.” So we hung out in Berlin last summer, and she’s amazing and we had a really great time together. She’s an ASMR artist. She does a radio show. She just did a big exhibition on ASMR, so it is very much her realm, and I was like, okay, how can we work together? I thought it would be funny to direct the text towards the one percent because ASMR is so much about self-help. I thought it would be funny to flip that a little bit.

Who wrote the… script, I guess you’d call it?
We wrote it together. We just sat on a balcony and just hashed it out together. It was way longer. We kept trying to shave it down. I was like, “I cant do like a 15-minute ASMR track. No one will release that.” So we kept trying to cut it back.

We wanted it to be done with the same methods that the ASMR community uses so we were using the same equipment. I didn’t want it to be like some crazy studio, hi-fi version. I wanted it to be like someone doing it in their bedroom and then putting it on YouTube. So yeah, we just went through a list of a bunch of things, and then Claire put in the headphones and recording everything in her quiet apartment, and then I edited everything together.

Do you have favorite sounds that you just hear in the world on a day-to-day basis?
Yeah, I mean that happens all the time. In “New Ways To Love,” my partner slammed the refrigerator, and that was like a vase on top — can you hear that part? That slam came at the perfect time when I was working on it, and I was like, “Stop!” I ran in there with my field recorder, and then that made it in there. I like when that stuff kind of filters in. It also makes people, like, when they’re listening to something be like, “Did that come from my house?” I like this kind of domesticity creeping in.

In the stuff I’ve read with you, when you list influences it seems like your music making process is just as influenced by people that aren’t making music as actual musicians. Do you find more inspiration from the nonmusical world?
At the moment I am, yeah. I’m finding a lot of inspiration by critical theorists and economists somehow.

How does that translate?
So, I did a mix for Dis recently with a Swiss economist named Hannes Grassegger. He writes a lot about our digital bodies needing a bill of rights just like our physical bodies have. So we wrote a piece together. I find his work really inspiring, and also Guy Standing, an economist based in London who writes a lot about basic income. He talks a lot about paradise politics and new fantasies and that’s really inspiring, especially in electronic music because I feel like you have this opportunity where it’s like if you can create anything that you want, why not create this new fantasy of what you want instead of relying on this old nostalgia or this old affect. If we want things to change, let’s imagine what we want them to be like.

I think science fiction can be like that. I’m reading China Miéville at the moment. It’s like this weird interspecies love affair that I’m reading about and I’m like, “Whoa!” Oh, also Suhail Malik — I definitely have to give him a shoutout. He’s been hugely inspirational with a lot of the work he has been doing. He writes about contemporary art a lot and how ineffective it is politically, very ineffective. So he writes about designing an exit from that, and designing an exit from our contemporary economic and social condition instead of having like an escapist approach.