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Laurel Halo Shakes Up Her Sound After Partnering With a Humanoid Pop Star


Laurel Halo, whose new album, “Dust,” is out Friday.

Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times

CHICAGO — The experimental producer and D.J. Laurel Halo has spent the past eight years building up a reputation as a slippery artist, moving from fidgety techno to conventional songs and back. Her 2010 debut EP, “King Felix,” was dense with synthesized layers. Her 2012 breakout album, “Quarantine,” put her voice front and center for a set of quivering, confessional electronic songs. Andshe followed that up by veering back to abstract sounds on “Chance of Rain.”

While at the start of her career, Ms. Halo, a classically trained musician, preferred to work alone, she has had an unlikely collaborator for the past two years: Hatsune Miku, a 16-year-old pop star with calf-length blue hair who fills stadiums in her native Japan. Ms. Miku also happens to be a humanoid — an animated character who appears onstage via 3-D projection and was originally designed to sell a synthesizer application.

“I was excited to occupy the role of a pop songwriter or producer, rather than being the person onstage myself,” Ms. Halo said in an interview last month on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was passing through en route to the Movement Festival in Detroit. Amid the concrete, Ms. Halo was a burst of color in a tie-dyed purple blouse and baggy blue slacks, a pink cap pulled low on her head with six braids jutting out from underneath.

Ms. Halo and her collaborators on the project, titled Still Be Here — the choreographer Darren Johnston, the virtual artist LaTurbo Avedon, the digital artist Martin Sulzer and the conceptual artist Mari Matsutoya — saw in Hatsune Miku a blank slate of sorts. “She’s this corporate mascot, this smooth surface; she’s the perfect singer, perfect image, perfect details,” Ms. Halo said. “But she’s also endlessly iterated online; the quality is reduced because it’s more handmade by individuals.”

“Until I Make U Smile” Video by Still Be Here

Breaking up smooth surfaces and scuffing up perfection are some of Ms. Halo’s objectives in her own work. “Laurel’s music is off-kilter,” said Argeo Ascani, the curator at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, where Ms. Halo took part in a two-week residency in 2015. “It’s always a step off, running in a parallel world where the rules are slightly different.”

When Ms. Halo started working on her new album, “Dust,” due on Friday, she became intrigued by the idea of challenging herself and her fans. “I thought it would be interesting to try and introduce more voices and go, ‘How will you respond to this?’” she said. “And how would I respond to this?”

Tangentially, “Dust” is a pop album, but one with detours through smooth jazz, broken beats, multilingual dance-pop, queasy ambience, twitchy funk and scrambled radio signals. Ms. Halo opened up the project to include other musicians and vocalists, like the percussionist Eli Keszler, the indie singer-composer Julia Holter, the Nigerian producer Klein, the Texas noise rocker Craig Clouse and others.

“I got sick of working alone — it’s such an isolated practice,” Ms. Halo said. “There was this longing to have more of a personal connection within the music-making process. The idea of a solo workaholic auteur creates these expectations that you have to be a depressive loner or a misanthrope to make good music.”

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