Hear an AI sing an eerily human rendition of "Jolene"

Hear an AI sing an eerily human rendition of “Jolene”

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AI-powered image generators have recently caught the attention of the press. But musical machine learning models have quietly made great strides in recent years. Holly Herndon was at the forefront of this revolution. She co-developed (with partner Mat Dryhurst) Spawn, a singing neural network, for her latest album Proto and launched Holly+ (in partnership with Never Before Heard Sounds) to the public last year, allowing anyone to use a model of Holly’s voice. Now she has released a new single, where the only vocals come from her digital twin.

This cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” plays it quite directly on first listen. Yes, it’s slower and quieter, but Ryan Norris, who handles the instrumentation, doesn’t take any extreme liberties with the arrangement or sound palette. He simply trades frenzied desperation with plaintive resignation.

What makes it so striking is that every vocal sound, right down to the high-pitched inspirations before the harmonies kick in, was generated by Holly+. (That’s right, it “breathes.”) There’s not a human in sight of a vocal booth here. Some of the phrasing is a bit stilted and there are occasional digital artifacts, if you listen carefully. But overall, this digital model of Holly Herndon’s real voice is impressive in its ability to mimic its creator.

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

Herndon previewed the track in March at Sonar Festival, but it largely flew under the radar until it received a proper release this week. (BTW: Go watch Sonar’s presentation for some seriously crazy real-time demonstrations of Holly+ and Never Before Heard Sounds technology.) You can try recreating the performance above by recording your own performance of Jolene and uploading it to Holly+, but don’t expect the same fidelity of results through the web app. While it’s definitely a fun diversion, artists seriously considering using AI to further their art should explore Spawning, an organization Herdon and Dryhurst launched earlier this year.

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