For those unfamiliar with this brilliant musician, Holly Herndon is an electronic artist that explores the space between human and machine, and seeks to unionize the two entities in her music. Her 2015 album, Platform, was cited as one of the best albums of the year by The Guardian, NME, and Pitchfork. I had the pleasure of speaking to Holly about technology, emotion, privacy, and music – read on for more.
You spent time in your teens living in Berlin, which has a rich techno scene. Do you feel like there’s any surprising ways that living abroad and traveling affects your music and creative process?
It’s hard to know what is affecting what. I think there’s a certain sense of feeling unsettled that I have that comes out through the music, there’s often a frenetic or like a… I don’t even know how to explain it. When you’re switching time zones and switching countries every couple days, it can create this different type of sound world, where you’re getting a lot of information. And I think also on the flip side is that so many of my relationships are kind of contained online, or managed online, because I’m moving around so much, that that almost becomes more of an emotional focus than my immediate surroundings… which is probably really unhealthy now that I’m saying that out loud!
That inbox can be this really comforting thing when you see something from someone you know really well, and you’re in a place that’s unfamiliar – I mean that was actually one of the inspirations behind “Home”, because I was really seeing my inbox as my home. I wasn’t seeing San Fransisco as my home, as I was hardly ever there, and then I was thinking about… well, what if somebody was reading this home? Or reading my email? That to me felt more invasive than had someone been going through my underwear drawer! All my relationships are there, all my information is there, so that’s kind of what the thought was behind “Home” – how emotionally tied we are to these devices, and how important it is for them to be secure and trusted.
We live in a world where the public and the personal are very blurred by social media, so do you feel that digital privacy is something that’s important in maintaining a relationship with your devices? What do you feel digital privacy is?
Absolutely! I think if we’re to have these – if we’re to allow these devices to mediate our most intimate moments, for us to allow them to embed themselves so emotionally into our lives, then we have to have trust there – that they’re ours. And I mean it’s one thing for Google to be trolling for advertising, and it’s a whole other can of worms when someone from the NSA is looking for hotwords because your grandfather was born in Iran or something. You know what I mean? Its just gotten to such a crazy state. I think digital privacy is hugely important. A good friend of mine, he writes a lot about this, and he talks about how we need a digital bill of rights, or like the Magna Carta of the digital realm, because it just doesn’t exist yet! We haven’t caught up to it yet. We have all this for our physical bodies, but we don’t have it for our digital bodies, and our digital bodies are a part of us. It’s not like they’re separate. They’re an emotional, very deeply embedded part of us. So yeah, I think it’s hugely important.
In your music, I know you use a lot of physical ways to measure what’s going on in your computer, but how do you use those machine interactions to represent human emotion? Is there a certain way or certain sounds that appeal to you when trying to express sadness or happiness or some other emotion?
I mean you’re basically asking me what my life’s work is!
Yeah, could you just tell me the meaning of life? Just real quick?
I wish I had a really good answer for that, because that’s something I’m constantly searching for. I think that one way that I try to do it is with the voice, which is maybe an obvious answer; but by having the voice live in a synthetic environment, and really live in that environment and not be pasted on top of the environment, I think gives us that feeling of interconnectedness… this meshed feeling. Kind of getting away from this false binary of like, man vs machine or some of these ideas. So that’s one of the things I try to do, with the vocal processing, but it’s like an ongoing process and an ongoing experiment. I try to do things that are more gestural. I’ll make a gesture and then map that to a specific thing, so that you can feel that gesture even though the end product is created by something synthetic (like something created by oscillators), so I try to tie the body in some way. Whether it’s a voice or a gesture or a concept, I try to kind of tie them together in some way. The verdict is still out, I’m still trying to figure it out!
It’s hard though! I feel like human emotion – you know, we’re always growing and changing, and it’s an ongoing process, and so is developing your relationship with your computer. And I feel with electronic music, at the heart of it, it’s always a person that’s making it. When I listen to your music I can definitely feel the – I feel like the voice is definitely the connector for me, like it’s all interacting with each other.
Yeah! And one thing that’s really important is that I try not to rely too much on nostalgia. I think that’s one thing that’s really effective in music is like, ‘that reminds me of my childhood!’, or ‘this violin swell from Hollywood films shows I’m supposed to be sad here!’, or ‘this reminds me of a tampon commercial to get upset here!’ I try not to use those kind of manipulative tropes and instead try to find… what’s the ‘heartstrings tampon commercial’ sound of the future! I don’t know, I feel like we almost have a different set of emotions, or that our emotions are almost evolving? So the idea of what love is, or what a relationship is, or what loyalty is – all these things mean something different to us than to our great-grandparents. I think that we constantly need to update what those cultural signifiers are musically and visually as well. I try not to rely too much on nostalgia or past affect. Even with singing – and that’s a really challenging area, that’s why I use so much processing as well – I feel like so much singing, especially pop singing, is specific affects learned from other pop vocalists that don’t necessarily communicate to me how that person’s feeling. Like, okay you do a really good Aretha Franklin, like you’re really good at sounding like her, but like Aretha sounded like Aretha! You felt her emotion. I feel like it’s hard for people to find their own authenticity. And that word authenticity is such a hairy word – I hate that word anyways, what does it even mean, especially nowadays – but I just appreciate when people aren’t putting on someone else’s affect.
Were you first into computers or music? Because you’re obviously really knowledgeable about technology, but you know so much about music as well…
Definitely music. I grew up singing in choirs, and playing the acoustic guitar, and taking guitar lessons at church and taking piano lessons, and then I discovered electronic music later.
Let’s talk about ASMR – how did you discover it? And how did you utilize it in your music? Is that a way that you try to connect physical with machine?
Definitely. I think I just came across it on YouTube? And then Matt (Dryhurst) introduced me to Claire (Tolan) – we collaborated on “Lonely at the Top”. She has an ASMR radio show for community radio. So I know I wanted to do an ASMR radio play with her for the album, and then working with her I learned a lot more about the practice. She does a weekly show and I thought it would be funny to do one for the 1%, which is where “Lonely at the Top” came from. I think it’s a really awesome subculture. It’s one of the few subcultures where the YouTube videos – the comments section is all full of positive comments! You don’t see people trolling as bad as you do on normal videos – like people can just be so horrible. It’s actually a great example of how the internet is bringing people together, people are finding commune online, they’re doing things that are altruistic for one another, they’re making these videos – some people are getting paid, but most people are putting them up because they like making them and like talking about how the sounds make them feel. Its like this weird sound art movement on YouTube! And I think that it’s socially fascinating. It’s this really embodied form of listening, and I think that’s really interesting, because a lot of people talk about electronic music being disembodied. To have this sound art community where it’s all about like physical goosebumps is really cool.
So Pokemon Go is huge – are you playing it?
So I tried Pokemon Go for one day, and I liked it, but then I read that Pokemon had let – or that Google, since I signed up through Google – they had access to all of your email and everything!
Yes! I saw that, I found it really interesting in regards to digital privacy and the future of augmented reality and virtual reality. It made me wonder about AR and VR – do you feel like they’re going to be important in the making of music going forward? Will they have an impact on music?
I think the verdict’s still out. I don’t know. If it’s not virtual reality or augmented reality, it will be something else. And if it’s successful, music will be involved. I haven’t really seen anything that’s like ‘oh wow, this is changing’…. all the VR stuff was more like a parlor trick, or a display of what the technology can do rather than creating artwork with the technology, and I think that… I think it’s all baby steps. Like something new comes out, and then people show what can be done with it, and it’s not that interesting, and then people can understand what the ramifications are for culture and for human thought and feelings, and then artwork is made. I just haven’t seen it evolve to those later stages yet, but who knows.
Photo by Kris Fuentes Cortes