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Holly Herndon’s new horizons

The innovative artist is bringing a new sense of intimacy to electronic music. She explains how to create pop in the digital age

TextAimee CliffIllustrationClaudia Mate

“I’d like for my music to be even more experimental and even more accessible at the same time,” says Holly Herndon, casually over green tea, a few weeks before the release of her second album Platform. The Bay Area electronic composer and singer has a disorienting habit of bursting into warm laughter after saying things like this, leaving you slightly uncertain as to whether she’s kidding. But this time, I’m sure she’s serious. Because if anyone were able to widen that impossible Venn diagram between experimental and accessible, it’s Holly Herndon.

Herndon sits at the intersection of music, art and technology like no one else. The tics and twitches of everyday electronic life blend seamlessly into her productions, whether recordings of her mundane laptop use or the sound of an iPhone unlocking. Currently a doctoral candidate at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, the 35-year-old created her shape-shifting last album Movement from warped vocal and bodily samples to show that electronic music and the tools it’s created with can be as personal and human as a violin – if not more so. For Herndon, the idea is to somehow make pop that sounds exactly like the time it’s being made in. “A big thing for me is not relying on nostalgia or past ways of expressing emotion, and trying to deal with things on the terms of 2015,” she explains. “I think it starts by trying to create new archetypes.”

Herndon nods to timeless innovators like Timbaland and Missy Elliott as a source of inspiration when it comes to creating new standards for pop songs, as well as the biggest innovator of the moment, Young Thug. “He’s created a new fantasy,” she enthuses. “Some of the vocal inflections on his stuff are so futuristic and amazing. Looking at archetypes, someone like Mykki Blanco is really inspiring in that way too – we didn’t have a Mykki Blanco before, and now we have a Mykki Blanco! And now we have a Mykki Blanco, it’s like – yes, we need a Mykki Blanco.”

In Herndon’s own music, she’s moulding a new fantasy through the personal-political clapbacks of her lyrics and the alien-yet-familiar textures of her sound. There are moments on Platform that feel totally unlike pop music, and yet at the same time, instantly familiar. On “Home”, for example, she takes the classic trope of the heartbroken love song to new places by dedicating it to the NSA agent that’s been spying on her online life. While Herndon doesn’t know (as no one does) whether she’s actually had her online life picked apart by the NSA, she was moved to write the song by a strong feeling that came to her while out on tour: the feeling that her inbox was pretty much her home. For an artist like Herndon, based in the hyper-connected centre of San Francisco (“I’ve heard about people going on airplane mode vacations,” she says at one point), the online world is not just a metaphor, but a very real sense of place. It’s a feeling that’s not exactly explicit in songs of the Top 40, but is totally understandable to anyone with a smartphone – finding a WiFi connection isn’t always just a practical consideration. Sometimes it’s an emotional emergency.

Perhaps the most important point of distinction between Herndon and mainstream pop artists is her lack of interest in developing any iconography around herself. Titling her new album Platform, Herndon explicitly set out to use this album to highlight the fact that actually, music-making is a very collective experience. She borrowed the name from theorist Benedict Singleton, whose argument, according to Herndon, is that “instead of trying to solve a future problem, or trying to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution for things, it’s more interesting to build platforms for people to communicate in their own ways, and come up with solutions as they go.” If the whole album-release infrastructure, Dazed Digital interviews and all, can shed light on artists and activists and thinkers other than herself, Herndon is happy. “So much of music is about this lone genius icon, and I don’t believe it.”

In the sometimes insular word of electronic music, this kind of optimism and openness feels rare. “Movement was a solitary, inward-facing kind of exercise,” says Herndon. “So much of my experience of electronic music over the past couple of years has been almost escapist. And I feel like, with today’s problems and issues, it’s not really helping anything or propelling things forward just to be looking inward all the time. So I wanted to start bringing in other collaborators – bringing in their ideas – because I would like art and music to offer new kinds of fantasies and options.”

“I like the idea of a fleshy digital world. The idea of us not seeing technology as this weird other, but as part of our physical selves” – Holly Herndon

One such fantasy being explored on Platform is the tingly world of ASMR. A totally fascinating, unlikely internet subculture, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a fuzzy feeling induced in people’s scalps, necks or extremities in response to stimuli like soft whispering or crinkling paper. Herndon herself feels it when she hears the trigger of acrylic nails tapping a smartphone screen. “It’s like when you get goosebumps,” she explains. While there’s no scientific proof that ASMR exists, the phenomenon has spawned a huge community online, with countless YouTube videos of whispering and hair-brushing out there as calming triggers. “I just love that people are physically impacting each other anonymously online, soothing each other and healing each other, even. It’s such a sweet corner of the internet.”

Herndon connected online with one such member of the community, artist and activist Claire Tolan, over email. Together in Berlin, they wrote the Platform track “Lonely at the Top”, in which they fuse the soothing rhetoric of ASMR videos – Tolan has an ASMR radio show called “You’re Worth It” in a winking nod to L’Oréal – with a scathing critique of the extreme wealth of the one per cent. Over soft splashes of water and clacking keys, Tolan whispers platitudes like, “You work so hard, I don’t know how you do it.” Talking to Dazed over email, Tolan explains her hopes that the track will open up the nurturing world of ASMR to a wider audience. To her, the track “considers ASMR’s power to play with and subvert stale and caging assumptions about intimacy and pleasure.” Because why shouldn’t non-sexual, sensory pleasure be found online? “The vast majority of ASMR videos are not meant to be sexual,” says Tolan, “and yet the first reaction of many viewers, upon seeing someone so close to the camera, is that the videos are fetishistic. Really, it’s the contrary: ASMR says, ‘Listen, you can feel pleasure from hearing me screw the lid on and off this plastic bottle for 20 minutes, and that pleasure doesn’t need to be sexual (though it could be, if you have a thing for plastic bottles). It doesn’t have to come with predefined constraints.’”

In this way, the whispery, prickly ambience of “Lonely at the Top” characterises a theme that defines much of Platform, and forms the title of its closing track, “New Ways to Love”. Just as she’s searching for new sonic archetypes, Herndon is also promoting messages of equality between all the different ways we find love and comfort in 2015. Take “Unequal”, written with Colin Self, vocalist and member of post-drag collective Chez Deep. The song is quite simply a call to arms against inequality, and, Self tells me over email, embodies “a prayer for humanity, the sonic space of a warrior, (and a) liturgical transformative voice. It makes me think about the history of protest music and ghostly absence of it today, hopefully cracking open some progress towards emergent forms of music for protest.”

Both Self and Tolan worked extensively with Herndon over email, Skype and WeTransfer, and that in itself is a new, 2015 way of forming relationships. Herndon describes how, alongside partner Mat Dryhurst, she began a collaboration with graphic design collective Metahaven by talking extensively in Google Docs; and how she and Akihiko Taniguchi, the non-English-speaking Japanese artist who created the absorbing digital decay of her “Chorus” video, would Skype without speaking, while typing into Google Translate.

“There’s just a seamless fusion between the digital and physical world in what I’m doing,” says Herndon. “I like the idea of a fleshy digital world. The idea of us not seeing technology as this weird other, but as part of our physical selves. I like the idea and even the aesthetic of a future tech: there’s dirt and duct tape involved, it’s not this super sleek, clean, sterile thing.” That messy idea of technology permeates the “Chorus” video, which Taniguchi made last year; its manic, laptop-centric visuals harmonising with Herndon’s choppy and frantic melodies. “It seems incoherent, but it’s a new kind of coherence. The coherence of the internet. It’s like a new way of our brains organising things – everything at once.”

It’s that smashing together of contexts, content and collaborators that lends Platform a magical, unique texture. At times, it’s the familiar several-tabs-open mentality captured in musical form, melodies skittering and buffering over a pixellated landscape. On standout track “An Exit”, Herndon contemplates sailing away from it all in blissful choral harmonies, while water burbles and a sort of digital ship’s gallows creak beneath her. It’s a moment in which her experimental-yet-accessible vision is crystal clear: “There is nothing to gain and there is nothing to lose,” the chorus soothes, a whole-new-world kind of optimism hanging in the balance over the unpredictable waters of her distorted backing vocals. This is what pop in the digital age should sound like: the brilliant uncertainty of the now, a million futures presenting themselves at once.

Holly Herndon's Platform is out now. Visuals throughout by Claudia Mate