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Holly Herndon’s Friendly, Forbidding World

The experimental electronic artist—who just released her second album 'Platform'—invited us over for dinner. As she made stir-fry, we tried to find the source of her bizarrely beautiful compositions.
May 20, 2015, 2:00pm

Illustration by Dessie Jackson. Click here for hi-res.

I knock, and Holly Herndon opens the door.

The next moment is a bit difficult to describe. The electronic musician says hello, but that’s followed with a bizarre form of social negotiation—she stands there, in the doorway to her small San Francisco apartment, sizing me up. For a few brief instants, there is an abrupt, mutual decoding between the two of us. Yes, Herndon is bubbly and affable, with big blue eyes and an addictive antebellum guffaw. Yes, her smile is massive and warm, faintly reassuring in the way dentist ads’ smiles sometimes can be. It’s to her credit that she’s invited a total stranger into her home with little vetting other than an email or two, not to mention that she and her partner, Mat Dryhurst, are in the midst of creating some sort of exotic stir-fry for their guest, its fumes wafting into the hallway.

But in this moment, just a few seconds long, I get a sense of guardedness, of opacity—which is present in many of her compositions. In Movement, her kaleidoscopic 2012 debut, it gobbled up whole tracks. It lives, in a more focused way, on her follow-up, Platform, out this week on 4AD. It’s here in the apartment, too—in Herndon’s greeting, in her black jumpsuit, in the thick auburn braid that rests on one shoulder. It’s weirdly visible, just for a moment, before she invites me in and the conversation pivots to a hallowed Southern ritual called “clogging.”

“They have a venue in Virginia,” she tells me, while sitting down at her kitchen table. “Touring country music and bluegrass will play, and then the local people get up and clog, and improvise. They’re like the rhythm section. It’s insane.”

A bit like tap-dancing, she explains, but it’s set to old country music—the type she grew up listening to in her hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee—and is known as hoe-downing, jigging, sure-footing. Clogging originated sometime around the late 1920s in North Carolina and remains popular in some parts of the south today. To watch it is to experience something exuberant, overstated, hammy—the exact sort of thing you’d never see anyone attempt while listening to Herndon’s compositions.

Continued below.

“It’s not casual dancing that you would see at a normal concert,” she says, her smile broadening. “These people have crazy moves, and you can tell that some of them are, like, the stars.”

“Remember that 18-year-old dude?” she calls over to Dryhurst, who’s in the kitchen puffing on an electronic cigarette and squirting Sriracha into the stir-fry. “He was obviously the local badass," He was clogging all over the place. He’d go out and have a smoke, and then come back in and clog all over other people.

"You have all these tourists and appreciators who were in D.C. and decided to drive down,” Dryhurst explains to me.

Herdon counters: “I think we were the tourists.” At that moment, her eyes meet mine, then wander down to the tape recorder on the table in front of her. “Do you think this will be very biographical?” she asks, guarded once more. “I prefer for things not to be like, this, this, this.” She karate chops her palm, creating imaginary segments. “This is the year, then this is the year.”

Neat chronologies, she explains, make her nervous.

/ / / / /

Here is one anyway. Herndon began interacting with music around the same time she began walking. As a child, she tinkered with guitar in church, but focused mainly on singing in choirs. At 16, she left Tennessee to study abroad in Berlin for a semester, then returned again at 18, then again as soon as she finished college in Washington D.C. She waited tables and tended bar, patronizing the clubs when she wasn’t clocking in at them. Eventually, she found work at a music databank startup, where she categorized different songs based on a series of stylistic criteria. It was, she says, about as mind numbing as it sounds.

In her spare time, she began toying around with sequencers and collaborating with other musicians who were doing things with electronics that she’d never seen. She performed here and there, but didn’t consider herself a full-on composer.

“I think the way that narrative goes,” she says, is “I go to Berlin and spend a lot of time there, and I develop myself to a certain extent. And then I kind of hit a limit of what I feel like I can teach myself and the resources I can find, so then I decide to go to Mills College in Northern California.”

If Berlin, with its all-night parties and strobing hedonism was at one end of a stimulatory spectrum, Mills was at the other. Herndon and her fellow masters students began their program by working with rigid constraints. The first piece she composed had just one input and one output—“a microphone and a speaker, or something that simple. Each week, you could add something to make it more complicated and more sophisticated. That was a really good hurdle to get over—of having everything have to be perfect.” Herndon learned a lot at Mills. But she also felt restless with the gulf between music she was hearing—minimalistic, abstruse, destined for a classroom of other chin-scratching composers—and the thudding house that helped ignite her creative impulses in the first place. There had to be a middle ground.

Movement was just that. Released in November of 2012, shortly after Herndon started a PhD program at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), it blended overtly academic aspects with the antsy momentum of a Berlin club. Its eight tracks are ambitious and hypnotizing, but there’s also an abruptness to their assembly that betrays Herndon’s disquiet. “Fade,” for example, is about as straightforward a track as she’s capable of—a writhing scape of ticklish synths and pureed vocals, undercut by a four-on-the-floor thump. Yet it’s sandwiched between two of the album’s most challenging tracks, “Terminal” and “Breathe,” both jagged and rhythmless. The title track, another serpentine dance workout, also falls between two fractured noise interludes, as if hidden on purpose.

Looking back on Movement now, Herndon says it was a necessary exercise in marrying the academy with the dance floor—or at least scooting them within a reasonable proximity of each other. It was the album she had to make to get to Platform.

“That was me coming to terms with wanting [my influences] to be in the same universe,” she says. “It was something I thought a lot about. And then, it was like ‘OK, they’re living together on this record, but they’re not really living together. They’re like neighbors.’”

The three tracks she’s released thus far from Platform—“Chorus,” “Interference,” and “Home”—gesture at a new level of cohesion. They’re cerebral, yes, but also profoundly infectious. Herndon can’t say much now about where they fit into the work as a whole; the album won’t be out for months. But she’s confident they’re the strongest reflection of her sensibilities yet. Which, of course, doesn’t say much.

“It probably makes sense for us to meet again in spring,” she says as Dryhurst places a plate in front of her. “When the machine moves forward a little bit.”

/ / / / /

In the two and half years since releasing Movement, Herndon has edged closer to the mainstream, signing with the indie label 4AD, sharing a bill with St. Vincent, and performing works written specifically for a “multichannel ambisonic speaker system” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. But such success presents its own questions: Can her brainy, bristling compositions appeal to dance and experimental crowds without alienating them both? Can they hook new audiences? What effects will the inevitable money and spit-polish of a major label deal have on her sound? And, perhaps most importantly, where exactly does a Tennessee-born, Berlin-obsessed Stanford PhD fit into modern popular music’s ecosystem?

The answers can all be teased out of Platform, though it’s not exactly a light lift. The hooks are easier to identify and more ubiquitous, sure, but Herndon’s experimental proclivities are also much more audacious than they were on Movement. Songs like “Interference,” a hiccupping and propulsive kickoff, click in seamlessly with others like “Chorus” and “An Exit,” whose melodies, along with Herndon’s airy alto, are barely disguised. “Morning Sun,” which sits near the album’s midpoint, is easily the most conventionally catchy piece she’s ever written; it conjures early Yeasayer and Sufjan Stevens’ occasional synth tangents. Yet others like “Unequal”—a clipped, freeform zigzag between human voices and digital tones—seem to revisit the same conundrum Herndon was chipping away at on Movement: Where, exactly, is the intersection between us and our machines?

The question could in fact serve as a central thesis for Platform’s creation. The main difference, this time around, is that Herndon enlisted a host of collaborators to help suss it out. In addition to the Los Angeles-based artist Spencer Longo, who helped compose the spoken word track “Locker Leak,” she also brought in vocalists Amanda DeBoer, Colin Self, and Stef Caers, as well as the sound artist Claire Tolan. Tolan, who specializes in autonomous sensory meridian response, a sort of crowd sourced sound therapy practice, is responsible for the whispered reassurances heard throughout “Lonely at the Top,” a haunting indictment of the ultra-rich’s culture of affirmation and self-pampering.

Herndon’s primary partners, though, were Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden, co-founders of the radical Dutch design firm Metahaven. Working with Herndon and Dryhurst, they assembled the album’s art and produced two of its music videos; they also functioned as de facto creative counselors. In early 2014, when Herndon was beginning to piece together the sonic fragments that would later grow into Platform, she called on Kruk and van der Velden to build, a site to host a collection of interactive memes. When users hovered over images of Herndon, they’d hear unfinished teasers of her ideas.

“To develop an aesthetic approach for Holly’s developing artistic presence and persona was super interesting,” van der Velden says. “There is something haunting about her music that is not laid back... It’s lyrical, it’s painful, and it’s fragmented, yet it’s very much one thing.”

Platform, as it turns out, is not just a digestible record; it’s likely one of the better albums—from an electronic artist or otherwise—we’ll see in 2015. Herndon has created a deeply accessible and weirdly addictive experience by doubling down on the very idiosyncrasies that made Movement challenging. These qualities, which conventional pop sensibilities would call on to be excised, have instead been instrumental in creating an album comfortable in both its flashes of baroque intrigue and its moments of sugary pop. An album that churns forbiddingly at one moment, then winks and beckons the next. An album that’s a lot like Herndon herself.

“My role is to communicate with my audience,” she says months after our first meeting. “So I’m not able to do that if I immediately put a wall up in front of people and try to make them climb the wall to get to me. I’m not really interested in that. I’m more interested in offering entry points.”

/ / / / /

San Francisco, Herndon says, is a challenging town for artists to call home. She doesn’t enjoy its clubs, and she equates her time here more with research and writing than with performing. Though she’s impressed by opportunities for academic mentorship—especially at Stanford, where last winter she taught a class titled “Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music, 1980 to Today”—she doesn’t see the city as the same sort of musical incubator as Berlin or New York. Too much money, not enough support.

In March, when she played the city’s Noise Pop festival, her set seemed to magnify this ambivalence. Positioned in one corner of The Lab, a skeletal space in the city’s Mission District, she hunched over her laptop as a cluster of CCTV cameras scanned the crowd. The show felt like a confrontation—a subversion of the very concept of performing. It flipped one’s point of view back on the audience, inviting them to stare at each other, not at Herndon, as her pieces ricocheted overhead.

This brand of practiced uncertainty might become harder and harder for Herndon to maintain as she gains mainstream recognition. “There’s people here who have seen me develop from noise times,” she says. “I think sometimes, especially in the noise community, it can sometimes be challenging for people to see people develop in a different direction that maybe isn’t exactly how they would want to develop.”

“You just don’t have to deal with those things when you’re not at home.”

But since she is home for the time being, she might as well enjoy the fruits of her burgeoning renown. She picks up a collection of individually boxed Japanese candies, each with an ornate label that she can’t read. She got them during a recent tour visit to Tokyo, and has no idea what to expect once they’re open. But she insists we try a few before concluding the interview. She pushes the candies toward me and crosses her arms. Another moment of pause.

“So," she says. "Do you want to pick a box?”

Byard Duncan is a writer based in Oakland. His work has appeared in GQ, San Francisco Magazine, Rolling Stone, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.

Dessie Jackson is an artist who will soon be based in New York City. Follow her on Instagram.