Graphic by Callum Abbott, photo by Anxo Casal

Marina Herlop Is Classically Trained and Totally Chaotic—Her Music Thrives on Both

In this Rising interview, the Catalan artist discusses her love of uncomfortable music like CocoRosie and the long road to her third album, Pripyat

Marina Herlop wants to talk about basketball. I did not see this coming—Herlop is a classically trained pianist and experimental composer who combines Romantic impressionism and Carnatic vocalizations into art pop as severe and luminous as fine-tipped crystals. But here in a sweltering upstairs cafe near her apartment in Barcelona, she asks me if I’ve seen Space Jam. It is one of three times that she will bring up Michael Jordan or the Chicago Bulls over the course of the afternoon.

“There’s this ball that’s charged with energy,” she says, explaining the plot of the 1996 Jordan and Bugs Bunny buddy comedy, cupping her hands around an imaginary orb. In her analogy, the basketball is meant to represent her new album, Pripyat. The nuances of the comparison are inexact, but her point is this: After a four-year process plagued with coronavirus-related delays and copyright headaches, the record took on the qualities of a possibly cursed supernatural object, throwing off sparks like a Tesla coil (or a mythical basketball). “I wasn’t actually sure it would ever come out,” she says, and you can tell she isn’t exaggerating. She shakes out her arms and whoops with delight.

A conversation with the 30-year-old musician—whose real name is Marina Hernández López, though friends have called her “Herlop” since college—is full of unexpected tangents like these: topical twists and turns, conceptual hairpins, lane-jumping metaphorical leaps, and yes, even the occasional full-bodied whoop. “When you’re writing a song, in the beginning, there’s a moment of expulsion, like a squid spitting,” she explains, pursing her lips. Her songs “are a kind of monster that breathes and expands, generates tension, then deflates, like an accordion.”

These metaphysical observations reflect the labyrinthine forms in her own music: birdlike melodies, unusual time signatures, bracing close harmonies. Her needling trills feel like acupuncture for the inner ear; her chord voicings resemble scale models of molecular structures, each note an atom whirring in empty space. Her choral arrangements, in which her own voice is multi-tracked into dizzying waves, suggest an affinity with sacred music that might not be entirely coincidental. “I’m not a very spiritual person, and I’ve never taken drugs,” she says. “But there are experiences in life, like meditating or taking LSD, that show us something that transcends us and connects everything.” For Herlop, acoustic frequencies are such a portal. “Through music, things reveal themselves.”

Until recently, Herlop was known primarily in her native Spain, but in the two years since an early mix of Pripyat began circulating among critics and musicians, she’s been gaining devout fans. Among Herlop’s co-signs are Animal Collective, who tapped her to open for their European tour this fall. Her music “has that uncanny quality I’m looking for in new music,” says the group’s Dave Portner, who describes her sound as a combination of “big question marks and smiles.” He adds, “These days I want to be taken out of the standard realms of language and vocal sound. The vocabulary is familiar but feels new and strange in a very organic way.”

Pripyat was released by PAN, the Berlin-based label known for transgressive, boundary-melting artists like Arca and Eartheater, but Herlop comes from what she describes as a relatively buttoned-up background. She was a model student, perhaps to a fault. “I’ve always liked to do things as well as possible,” she admits. She began taking piano lessons at age 9, although in college she briefly abandoned the instrument to double major in science and journalism. At the end of the 2000s, as the economic crisis deepened, Herlop and her peers felt like a lost generation, doomed never to find rewarding careers. “I had a kind of lightning strike one week,” she says, “like, What does it matter? Why am I not studying music? It was like waking up from a dream.” She enrolled at the Conservatory of Music in nearby Badalona and disappeared into her studies. “I knew what I had to do to get good grades. But when that track ends, it’s like, ‘Now what?’”

In 2016, feeling like she needed a sonic calling card in order to get gigs, she recorded her debut, Nanook. The album of solo piano compositions was released by renowned classical pianist James Rhodes’ Instrumental label, and then quickly disappeared from public view. The experience hardened her. “There’s a girl with her dreams, and then this character who is famous becomes interested, and it’s like, ‘Wow, really? Real things are going to happen!’ And then they don’t, and you grow skeptical toward the music business, the people you meet in the scene, even your own music.” In 2018, she released a second album of solo piano compositions, this time fleshed out with hints of electronics. Again, it sank without a trace. “When you’re starting out, you want to play, you want your music to have a little square on the internet, and you don’t know how to do that,” she says. “It seems impossible, it’s discouraging, it affects your self-esteem. You wonder, Do I suck?

Photo by Lluc Giménez

Nearing 30 and seeing her peers settling into grown-up routines, Herlop decided to do things differently for Pripyat. Normally, she’d sit down at the piano with some staff paper and her phone, and cobble the compositions together chord by halting chord, leaving herself voice notes as she went—a “hellish and chaotic” method, to be sure, but the disorder served a purpose. “If I’m in control of the process and I know how it’s going to turn out, I lose interest,” she says. This time around, she locked herself away in the hills of Aragon, Spain, at her father’s family home, for two weeks while she learned the basics of Ableton Live. “It was much easier to study the most complicated piece by Chopin than to learn to connect a cable to the sound card and record myself,” she says. “But I said, ‘OK, academic style: If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it right.’” Armed with a software synthesizer, she cycled through its 3,000 presets, testing out each one.

Back at home in Barcelona, she slowly discovered the limitlessness of digital recording, adding layers of voice, samples, percussion, and piano. The level of disarray in the house—clothes on the floor, dishes in the sink—began to mimic the mess in her project files. Gradually, Herlop homed in on the elusive nature that makes her music so spellbinding, where every fresh note is surprising yet welcome. “Finding that indeterminate harmonic space is hard, but it’s there,” she says.

Many of the album’s vocals are purely phonetic, a technique she learned from a course in South Asian Carnatic music. Combined with such striking tonal shifts, the emphasis on wordless, percussive syllables drives home Herlop’s pursuit of a purely sensory rush, one at odds with the emotional payoff typically expected of a singer-songwriter. “People ask you what the album is about,” she says. “Well, nothing. That’s the magic! I’m not explaining the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Music exists on its own, and it’s capable of moving us without relating to our lives. And I like that.”

After lunch, we head back to her seventh-floor apartment. Her upright piano occupies a small, dark room, but the window in her soundproofed studio offers a panoramic view of the Barcelona skyline and, in the distance, a thin strip of the Mediterranean. On her bookshelves, translations of Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise stand next to Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño. Chunks of rocks and minerals sit on her desk and speakers: pyrite, better known as fool’s gold, and piedra de las hadas, or fairy stone, whose soft curves suggest the portrait of a girl. “You can see her in there,” says Herlop, tracing her finger across the surface. “The ponytail, the mouth—once you’ve seen her, you can’t unsee her.” The cover art from Pripyat, which itself looks like a stone carving of a woman, hangs framed on the wall.

Seated in front of her computer, Herlop dials up a Spotify playlist called “pendrive to space”—i.e. her desert-island discs, reformatted for an intergalactic escape pod. It’s clear that for Herlop, listening to music is as active a pursuit as playing or making it. She spins through a number of songs whose influence on her own music is clear: Italian experimentalist Roberto Musci’s haunting “Lullabies… Mother Sings… Father Plays,” from 1988. Spine-tingling a cappella singing from rural Italy, captured by Alan Lomax in the 1950s. The ancient ache of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a 1975 album of Balkan folk popularized by a 1986 4AD reissue. She even treats me to a snippet of Spanish paso doble, a style that she loves in spite of its connections to the deeply conservative culture of bullfighting. As acoustic guitars flutter like hummingbird wings, she lets out a little whoop of pleasure.

Lately, Herlop and her best friend have started DJing around town—something she wishes she could do professionally, if only she had the time for it. “What a pity, no?” she says, her eyes blazing. “Life’s too short. I’d love to last, like, 400 years. I promise I’d make good use of it!” She pauses to consider the prospect of extreme longevity. “Maybe you’d get bored? But only 90 or 100 years, it’s barely enough to get started! Like, I’ll probably never go to Kazakhstan. I’ll probably never play the viola da gamba. Why this limitation on our experiences?” Maybe that’s the secret to the maximalism of Herlop’s music: You can feel it bursting with this urge to encompass everything.

Photo by Anxo Casal

Pitchfork: You’ve said that you went to see some kind of witch when you were making this album. Why?

Marina Herlop: It was the summer of 2019. I was working on this record but I didn’t know where anything was going. Things with my ex were bad. I have this friend—very organized, very proper—who told me he sometimes goes to this woman. “She tells you things,” he said. I was a little lost, so I went. I didn’t know if it was going to be like a psychologist, or a meditation thing, or what.

So I walked in and started telling her about myself, and she says, “Look, I’m not interested. I’m a channel. I’m going to get in touch with your spiritual guide, and I’m going to say what she tells me, but I won’t remember any of it.” And I thought, What a strange thing. So I stretched out, and she put her hands on top of me, without touching. She told me, “I see something with children. Have you worked with children?” And that September a music school hired me and I started giving classes to children. Then things started getting more concrete. She got in touch with a guide who said she was a kind of druid, and she said to me, “You sing, right?” And the druid said, “We have a problem with self-sabotage. It’s good that you’re a perfectionist, but not so much.”

Would you say you are obsessive about your work?

Even though the album came out today, I feel guilty because I’m not composing. I’m posting on Instagram, promoting the album, playing gigs, but I’m not in there, kneading the dough. If there’s a God of music, I think when he sees that I’m making music, he’s like, “Very good,” and when I’m not, even if things are going well for me at that moment, he’s like, “OK, but you know you have to get in there and start writing again.” You have to take advantage of every opportunity.

I understand these monks that lock themselves away and dedicate themselves to their faith. There are always athletes or musicians who are crazy. Paco de Lucía was crazy, Michael Jordan was crazy, Ayrton Senna was crazy. You even ask yourself, “Is this psychologically healthy?” Because your friends are like, “Marina, you never come out for a beer.”

Was it your idea to create the video for “Miu” around a cow giving birth?

Yes. If I keep making videos and there’s sufficient money, I’d like to work with animals always. Animals are more advanced than humans. They’re in another world, you know? I’ve always loved animals.

Do you have any pets?

I’d love to have a dog but I couldn’t. Having a dog here in Barcelona would be torturing it. But I’d love to. I’d disappear completely. I’d spend the whole day playing with it.

Photo by Lluc Giménez

Do you remember any formative listening experiences that pointed you toward the kind of music you make today?

When I was 17, I heard CocoRosie from a website that recommended music based on what you’d been listening to. I thought, Why did they make this song and put all these noises in it? When I was a little older I went to see them play. They were very sweet, but there was a point of discomfort there, and from that moment I got interested in discomfort.

If music were a walk through flowers in the sun, then it was like, no, you have to twist your ankle, or you have to scrape yourself on something, because if not, there’s no emotion. I got interested in the feeling of not being able to relax when you’re listening. Always changing my harmonic progressions, trying to do something unexpected. If music were a stoplight—like, red, yellow, green—then I wanted to make it always yellow.

Who are your favorite composers?

The impressionists, Ravel and Debussy. It’s not happy or sad music; yes, there are mundane emotions, but it’s like going to another place, like into a forest. It was a very interesting moment. Classical composers had all the classical harmonic tools in their kit, but they also turned to popular music, Eastern music, and pentatonic harmonies. It’s not that they added things, like in classical music; they took away. It was very detailed but, in its essence, very pure. When you take away the chromatism, and leave a wider space between the intervals, the emotion is more indeterminate. There’s more room for you—they don’t tell you what you’re supposed to feel, and that’s interesting. I would have loved to meet them. I’m sure they were nerds, too.