The Tennessee born musician making art out of Internet sound discusses Cool Whip, her fears of the surveillance state and the trip to Berlin that made her who she is
As part of our States of Independence summer takeover, 50 American indie icons have volunteered to take the Dazed Pop Quiz; a quick-fire Q&A about what they love and loathe about life in the USA. Check back here every day for more from the series.
With compositions this immersive and natural, we wonder if Holly Herndon's signature "found" sound really found her. Sourcing samples in the cultural scrapyard of the Interwebs, the flame-haired musician and avant-garde composer makes gold of what she finds there with ease. Trained in composition but forged in the clubs of Berlin, Herndon heralds a new dawn in how the Internet is shifting music tastes – her experimental sound is about as far from Drake’s social media sobfests as you can get. But more than mere metal and wires, Herndon’s songs – such as her atmospheric landmark track, "Chorus" – always possess an emotive human core. Ahead of her appearance at cooler than thou Scandi festival Way Out West this Saturday, we spoke to the lady behind the laptop screen about growing up in Tennessee, working three jobs and her fears for the future of America: in her words, “something a little frightening.”
Whose face should be on the $100 bill?
Holly Herndon: It’s really sad that Dr. Martin Luther King is not on a dollar bill, or anyone of Native American descent.
Who gave you your first break? Do you still talk?
Holly Herndon: I’ve been lucky to have a few people invest time in me in my life. Some of the most poignant were my high school German teacher in Tennessee, Frau Locket, and my mother, who both encouraged me to pursue my curiosity and travel at a young age, and helped arrange for my original high school exchange trip to Berlin – which in hindsight was hugely formative. I’d also say that Matt Werth at RVNG has been pretty transformative for me, I had been playing most of the material on Movement around California for a couple of years before we started working together, and I had almost given up hope that it would be heard outside of my circle. I’m really grateful for the relationship we have.
When + where are you the most happiest?
Holly Herndon: At the moment, being in a large Berlin apartment with the space to think and write is quite a wonderful departure from my cramped existence in San Francisco.
What high school clique were you in? Do you stay in touch?
Holly Herndon: I got along with everyone in high school, and didn’t really have a clique. I was part of a nerdy after school club called “Odyssey of the Mind” where we would do fun and dorky science projects, but was also into art and music, and had as many male friends as female. I kind of ghosted through it. It was always clear to me, from the youngest age, that I would leave Tennessee, and so cliques didn’t seem appealing or sensical. I’m kind of the same now.
What food reminds you of home?
Holly Herndon: I’m going to sound very American and say Pumpkin Pie with Cool Whip. Believe the hype!
What smell do you associate with the city of your birth?
Holly Herndon: Barbecue. I grew up in a place that is really proud of its barbecue, and there are a number of country or mountainous roads where you can smell the pit from a huge distance. I’m from near the North Carolina border, and so my area is particular about using a vinegar based sauce.
Where did you first fall in love?
Holly Herndon: In Berlin, strangely enough. Took me some time.
What would make you leave America forever?
Holly Herndon: Being real, probably if I were to have a child. What I do is really dependent on being active in a big city, and the living, health and educational costs and challenges of raising a kid in a big American city seem pretty daunting.
What noise reminds you of the States?
Holly Herndon: Skateboard wheels, honestly.
Ultimate American film?
Holly Herndon: The only one that comes to mind is Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Such a quintessentially American movie. The best and worst of it.
Most overrated US tourist attraction
Holly Herndon: Vegas.
Most underrated US tourist attraction
Holly Herndon: There’s a place on the Tennessee/Virginia border called the Carter Family Fold, which is basically a giant corrugated iron barn where members of the Carter Family still perform with local musicians and local improv Cloggers – it’s a huge part of American cultural history.
Favorite slang phrase?
Holly Herndon: My grandmother from South Georgia used to say “Hmmm, tastes so good makes you wanna slap your grandmama”.
What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure?
Holly Herndon: Popcorn. I can’t get enough of it.
What law would you change or invent?
Holly Herndon: I’m ashamed that less than half the States have adopted marriage equality. I’m also ashamed that so few safety nets exist to help break the cycle of poverty in the US, but that would take more than one law to fix. The Supreme Court in the last ten years have taken some extreme stances with regard to the rights of Corporations that I have strong objections to.
Ultimate American album?
Holly Herndon: It’s got to be Michael Jackson’s "Thriller", or anything from the Motown canon. Just undeniably brilliant music.
When was your last run-in with the cops? What happened?
Holly Herndon: I drove up to a notoriously confusing red light in Oakland, saw a police car next to me, smiled at the cop, and then accidentally ran the light. He pulled me over and seemed really confused and entertained by it all. After some debate, he gave me a warning ticket, messed up my name – and ultimately processed it as a full ticket that I had to challenge in sweaty court. I sat there for 7 hours just to show the judge that he had clearly written ‘warning’ on the thing. It all felt very Kafka.
If you could vote for Obama again, would you?
Holly Herndon: That is hard to say, as in a two party system like in the States you are many times voting for the lesser evil. If Obama were the democratic candidate I may well take that option, despite the fact that I have strong objections to a lot of policies he has put in place, and things he has supported. US politics is exasperating, as ultimately there is such little diversity of choice or perspective.
If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do the day after?
Holly Herndon: I have no idea. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to establish contingencies for myself, as none of the career paths I’m pursuing could be considered stable. This often means I’m trying to do three jobs at the same time – which, however, hopefully provides some insurance from the possibility of losing everything in a day. I do think this is a particularly contemporary predicament, and I do notice how people fortunate enough to be from a more comfortable, European liberal democracy are perhaps afforded less anxiety about what might happen in the future, but being a middle class American you pretty much have to have a plan B, C and D in this day and age.
What will America look like in 2050?
Holly Herndon: Hopefully not the neo-feudalist surveillance state we are currently witnessing emerge. The current trajectory appears to be that people are willing to sacrifice freedoms in return for gadgetry, convenience and entertainment – and if that attitude is left to grow over 40 years it points to something a little frightening. I ought to say though, that America in 2050 will look like a lot of things, as it does today – this conception of it being one coherent place is actually highly abstract, as the size and diversity of the country make it hard to be any one thing at any one point. I’ve been reading a lot of Ben Bratton’s work and ideas about Data Sovereignty and The Stack, or basically this idea that what we understand to be the territory or jurisdiction of a country needs to be radically altered in accordance with the new geographies that have emerged in an era of planetary computation: all these interconnected, planned and spontaneous networks, attitudes and dependencies. This is already happening on many levels – design decisions made by a few people in the US are currently dictating dating habits in parts of Mumbai, etc. If a country is basically a collective understanding – a social agreement ruled by it’s own idiosyncratic laws and benefits – then what is to say that America in 2050 isn’t actually just a different data plan, different cables, and different tax rate in a different part of town of any city on earth? Google understands this.
Does the American Dream still exist?
Holly Herndon: Objectively, no. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says “the life chances of a young U.S. citizen are more dependent on the income and education of [her] parents than in any other advanced industrial country for which there is data.” Fortunately more and more information, including Piketty’s book, is coming to the fore articulating just how stratified the US has become. I do think that there is a distinct optimism to the United States that may allow for the formulation of new American dreams, but the idea that anyone can achieve anything with hard work and a good attitude is demonstrably false. Hopefully once we internalize that truth as a nation we can start to dream about ways to address it for the better.