How musician Holly Herndon created the 'alien' sounds on her new album

Building software in the age of cybersurveillance


Holly Herndon wouldn't have been able to make her newest album without modern technology, but that doesn't mean she's totally fine with it. The Bay Area electronic artist will release her sophomore LP Platform next week, and though lyrics are sparse, the album has an obvious theme: with technology comes conflict. A MacBook is great at hosting audio workstations, but Apple's labor practices are questionable, at best. Software can create sounds no instrument can make, but it can also be the target of unwanted cybersurveillance.

Herndon was born in Johnson City, Tennessee, and says she was "terrified" of computers growing up. "We didn’t have any extensive technical training," she said when I met up with her in New York City recently. Herndon moved to Berlin as a teenager, and when she returned to the States to study at Mills University in California, the city’s experimental influence stuck with her.

Platform is a collage of brain-bending sounds: bursting bubbles, wet sand scraped against metal, a stretchy yawn, the squeak of a sneaker against a spitty wad of bubblegum. Herndon has been making electronic music for years without much more than a laptop, but Platform is so packed, it sounds like it could’ve been made by an entire orchestra. And, in a way, it was: Herndon collaborated with several visual artists and musicians, plus built her own software, in order to create all the sounds that ended up on the album.

"I often think about tracks in a visual, maybe sculptural, or weighted way," she said. "Things like sounds moving through space."

That the album is called Platform is just further proof of Herndon’s fractured processing of technology's physical and linguistic clatter. It’s an album obsessed with the heavy omnipresence of the future — and the idea that what we call futurism is actually happening now. Throughout Platform, Herndon toys with the sounds and imagery of daily life that can sound alien when taken out of context. Even though the album is made up of a lot of sounds you’ve probably heard before, the lack of context will usually render them unrecognizable.

"One day I was playing a track," Herndon said, "and [collaborator Mat Dryhurst] slammed the door of the refrigerator and there was a vase on top that jiggled. It sounded perfect at the moment that I was playing the song, so I just ran in there and recorded that."

"Sounds moving through space."

Herndon says she likes the idea of filling her songs with "browsing sounds" (i.e. clicking around on the internet) and "mundane domestic sounds." Platform has Herndon experimenting with field recordings collected from her daily life. "Chorus" feels like a puzzle that just slightly obfuscates everyday sounds: a pack of cards being shuffled, a screen door slamming. "Locker Leak," created with artist Spencer Longo, relies on word clusters to give the listener that moment of recognition: "Grass lasts longest," "A friendly first," "Be the first of your friends to like Greek yogurt this summer," "Our liquor special/aloe vera." In the background there’s a sound like a jawbreaker knocking against teeth.

Herndon teamed up with Amsterdam-based design firm Metahaven to make Platform, and the firm's heightened political aesthetic wriggled its way into much of the album. There’s a tension in Platform between Herndon's reliance on technology and her cautious distrust of it. "I think people oversimplify our relationship to technology, and I don’t want it to be a black-or-white thing," Herndon said. "I want people to see technology as an extension of our society, as human knowledge and motivations. So you’re gonna have the worst and the best in there."

There’s a track on Platform called "Home" that Herndon has called a "love song to the NSA." In it, whispers build hauntingly as dry foil crunches in tandem with padded thuds. The lyrics break and stumble: "Why was I assigned to you?... I can feel you in my room." Then the percussion gurgles out of the space, as if from one of those dental suction tools hooked to an unwilling mouth. The song suddenly feels empty, and you’re left with an eerie feeling that you've missed something important.

The inspiration for the song came from a nagging sense Herndon got while working in her studio that someone was watching her. She says she worries about mass surveillance changing the behaviors of humans. "I do sometimes see that I’m editing myself, in emails, or on the phone, because I’m not sure if I’m caught in the algorithm or whatever," she said.

Technology as an extension of society

Herndon says she likes the idea of using pop music to bring attention to issues that people tend to forget about, either due to ignorance or laziness. She brings up a recent episode of Last Week Tonight that featured NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. "Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, that’s the Wikileaks guy,’" she said. "I was like, ‘Nooo, it’s not.’"

But Platform isn’t an academic lesson disguised in unlikely synthetic patterns. Herndon admits there’s an "element of alien" to the album, and that’s likely because the sounds on it don’t come from classic instruments. And, unlike a lot of popular electronic music, there's no synth stabs, no breath-holding builds, no drops. Herndon made the album in a "semi-mobile" way — that means makeshift vocal booths in hotel room closets — using both off-the-shelf and DIY software.

"I’m not the kind of person who’s like, ‘I love software.’ I don’t love it, but I like it when I have an idea and I can sketch it out," Herndon said. "It’s nice when you don’t have to rely on the flow or the aesthetic of the company that designed the software."

Not that it's likely Herndon would be tempted to rely on anyone else's aesthetic. The Top 40 formula doesn't interest her, but she recognizes there's comfort in a pop song. For Herndon, it's not about getting listeners out of their comfort zones, but rather redefining what a comfort zone can be.

"I don’t want to revert back to a nostalgic, traditional space," Herndon said. "I like the idea of working with things that have entry points for people, but having a new fantasy. We don’t have to recreate something old for it to touch people."

Correction, 11:13 AM ET: This post originally misspelled the name of Herndon's collaborator, Mat Dryhurst. We regret the error.