Listen to an AI sing an uncannily human rendition of ‘Jolene’

AI-powered image generators have been getting a lot of press recently. But machine learning models of music have quietly been making great progress in recent years. Holly Herndon has been at the forefront of that revolution. For his last album (with partner Mat Dryhurst) he created Spoon, a singing neural network Proto and released Holly+ (in partnership with Never Before Heard Sounds) to the public last year, which allows anyone to use Holly’s voice module. Now she has released a new single, where only the voice comes from her digital twin.

This cover of Dolly Parton’s “Julian” plays pretty straight on first listen. Yes, it’s slow and quiet, but Ryan Norris, who handles the instrument, doesn’t take any extreme liberties with the arrangement or the sound palette. It simply replaces plaintiff frustration with plaintiff resignation.

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What makes it so arresting is that every vocal chord, right down to the sharp breath before the harmonies start, was created by Holly+. (That’s right, it “breathes”.) There is no human in sight of the sound booth. Some of the sentences are a little thick and sometimes there are digital samples, if you listen closely for them. But overall, this digital model of the real Holly Herndon voice excels in its ability to imitate its creator.

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So far, most major artists’ experiments with AI have focused on creating generative soundscapes or synth melodies. This is (as far as I know) the first time a machine learning model has taken a mic solo in a pop song.

Herndon previewed the track at Sonar Festival in March, but it largely flew under the radar until it got a proper release this week. (BTW: Check out Sonar’s presentation for some really wild real-time demonstrations of Holly+ and Never Before Heard Sounds technology.) You can try to recreate the above performance by recording Julien’s own performance and playing it with Holly. +, but don’t expect the same fidelity of results via the web app. While it’s certainly a fun diversion, artists who are serious about using AI to advance their art should explore Spawning, an organization launched earlier this year by Herdon and Dryhurst.

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