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

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

This cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” plays it pretty straight at 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. It simply swaps frantic desperation with plaintive resignation. 

What makes it so arresting is that every vocal sound, right down to the sharp inhales before the harmonies kick in, was generated by Holly+. (That’s right, it “breathes”.) There isn’t a human in sight of a vocal booth here. Some of the phrasing is a little stilted and there are occasional digital artifacts, if you listen closely for them. But on the whole this digital model of the real Holly Herndon’s voice is impressive in its ability to imitate its creator.

Until now, most major artists experimentations 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 the mic solo in a pop song. 

Herndon previewed the track way back in March at Sonar Festival, but it largely flew under the radar until it received a proper release this week. (BTW: Go watch the presentation from Sonar for some truly wild real-time demonstrations of Holly+ and Never Before Heard Sounds’ technology.) You can attempt to recreate 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 who are serious about using AI to further their craft should explore Spawning, an organization launched by Herdon and Dryhurst earlier this year.

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Terrence OBrien