THE electronic music whizz discusses the ups and downs of the internet and her “weird radar”.

HOLLY Herndon is laughing at me for never having Skyped before our interview. “How have you managed to go this long without using it? Welcome to the future.”

There are few musicians better qualified to usher any technophobe in to the near future – or at least the cutting edge of the present – than Herndon. Her two electronic-based albums have been lauded by critics for their dynamism and eagerness to explore the pros and cons of the digital age. A few years ago The Guardian christened the US-raised, Berlin-based artist the “queen of tech-topia”, although Herndon has a few issues with that label (more on that later).

Her live shows break down boundaries, too, and sometimes in slightly uncomfortable ways. Herndon’s been known to browse the Facebook profiles of her audience while performing to “show them that this is not a private space”. At some point soon she must return to California to start writing her dissertation. There’s a lot on Herndon’s plate, then, but what drives her is the desire to delve into the complexities of the age we live in.

“I always found it strange that people pick up an acoustic guitar and talk about how much the internet is making them crazy,” she says, before a set at ACCA with artists Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self. “I’d rather use the tools on the internet to make work about how the internet is making me crazy. You have to criticise and question these things, and to do that you have to be involved in them.”

Herndon was born in Tennessee but spent several years in Berlin on a school exchange programme, cutting her teeth in the city’s world-renowned techno scene. She went on to study electronic music at Mills College in California under the tutelage of some influential figures of the genre. Put simply, she could barely have had a better upbringing in the intricacies of her trade. Expertise aside, though, Herndon is largely concerned with the dilemmas we face in our everyday life – although we may not examine them in the depth she does.

“There’s often a cultural narrative that computers are emotionally cold and that the internet is ruining relationships,” says Herndon. “While some elements of social media are making people unhappy, it’s nice to have a counter-narrative and show how technology is also creating new modes of emotion.” She uses an example we can surely all relate to by way of elaborating on this point.

“I often think about when someone is texting you and you see the dots appear on your phone while you’re waiting. That moment is brand new. Maybe you had that kind of thing with the telegraph, but those things don’t happen when you’re face to face with somebody.”

Herndon is repeatedly quick to point out that her music does not represent a whole-hearted endorsement of technology; she says it was weird to be called the “queen of tech-topia” because she’s “actually really critical of the internet sometimes”. It’s just that providing an alternative to the occasionally doom-laden forecasts about the impact of the digital world makes it seem like she is embracing it, on occasion. But how does she manage to overcome the feeling that the sheer concentration of technology in modern society is, well, just unnatural? Especially when we have no real evidence about the longer-term health effects of excessive screen-time? In another interview, the musician called the laptop a “hyper-emotional instrument”.

“The word natural is a fraught word,” she replies without missing a beat. “Now it feels natural to pick up a fork, but there was a time when that didn’t feel natural. I think laptops are tools and an extension of human intelligence. Computers are crazy emotional. Emotions are running so high online at the moment.” There’s no denying that. One peril of the digital world is the anonymity it allows. Largely, users can act in any way they want without facing recriminations for their actions. Twitter trolls, for instance. Herndon exists at quite the opposite extreme, though. In much of electronic music the person behind the laptop is obscured, very much secondary to the sound they create.

Herndon’s face is very much at the forefront of all her press pictures, and she seeks to offer the audience easy access to her music. Although she often appears hunched over a laptop, she shows her crowd exactly what she is doing on her desktop.

“In the computer-based electronic music world I’m in, there is so much emphasis on perfection,” says Herndon, explaining her desire for visibility. “It’s not about erasing the human, exactly, but perfecting it. I try to push back against that a little bit to remind everyone we’re all just messy humans beneath it all.” Herndon used to play “much more abrasive music” but reached a point where she felt like she was “ruining people’s evenings” with her shows. She says that half in jest but has since made an effort to provide more “entry points” to her audience. “I realised performing shouldn’t be an experience just for myself,” she says.

Which leads us back to Herndon’s strategy of breaching the public’s privacy at her live shows. Are crowd members ever disconcerted by their Facebook profiles popping up on the projector screen behind Herndon?

“It’s not about humiliating people,” she says. “I don’t want people to feel exposed and I never try to make people feel bad. It’s about unpacking the effect that platform capitalism is having on communities, with all the privacy issues that surround that.” Again, every feature of Herndon’s music and performance is orientated towards dissecting deeply ingrained social trends. But it’s also sometimes just fun. “Sometimes even hovering over someone’s name on Facebook is enough for them to go, ‘Ahh!’”

Chances are, you’re reading this and thinking that Herndon’s music sounds as far away from “pop” as humanly possible. In a recent interview, however, that’s the exact label she put on her own sound. She expands upon that assessment now. “I think what I was trying to say is this is my attempt to write pop music, but then it goes through a strange filter in my mind. I understand the music might not sound like a pop song to others, but to me it does. My weird radar is way off. Things I think are normal sounding sound really bizarre to other people.”

One example of Herndon’s resourcefulness – as well as, perhaps her “weird radar” – came when she was recording her latest album Platform. She was working on a track and her collaborator Dryhurst opened the fridge. “It made a weird wobbling sound right at the point I was playing a cool bit of a song,” says Herndon. “I recorded it and put it straight in the song.” More generally, that episode reflects her desire to combine her “digital and physical worlds”.

Whether you’re technologically clued-up or a proud luddite, there can be no doubting that Herndon is one of today’s most crucial and forward-thinking musicians. She’s an ideal candidate to guide us through this dizzying digital age. As she says, “We’re not going to stop using computers any time soon. So why don’t we try and understand them?”

Holly Herndon, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, Thursday, September 21.

ACCA’s contemporary music week is in conjunction with Brighton Digital Festival. For more information visit or call 01273 678822