I Skype with innovative electronic producer Jlin during her fourth trip to India. It’s early April, about a month before the release of her sophomore album Black Origami, and she’s in the Southern part of the sub-continent to play Boiler Room Bangalore. We speak over the noisy drone of an air conditioner.
Jerilynn Patton, 29, first travelled across the world from her native Gary, Indiana to meet a Bangalore-based choreographer and collaborator who found her on Facebook. During our conversation, she messages me a YouTube video featuring Unger’s moves to the beat of Jlin’s tunes to demonstrate their complementary styles.
In the video, Jlin explains a major turning point in her creative outlook. She says she began making traditional footwork—a Chicago-based genre popularized by the late DJ Rashad—and she played a track for her mother in which she sampled Teena Marie’s “Portuguese Love.” The artist started messing around with Fruity Loops as an escape from her monotonous engineering studies, which she would soon abandon to pursue a job at a local steel mill while making music in her free time.
“It sounds good,” her mom replied, “but what do you sound like?”
Pitchfork wrote that Jlin’s debut album Dark Energy has all the hallmarks of the footwork genre: “frenzied pacing, arrhythmic kick drums, a graphic command of blank space,” as well as the “sensation” of “menace.” But Jlin doesn’t like when people speak of music in “technicalities.” She doesn’t even consider her music footwork. (To me, her music more recalls horror films; Dark Energy’s “Guantanamo” appropriately samples The Ring, and Jlin fantasizes about scoring films.) The artist repeatedly emphasizes that her creation doesn’t follow a formula: the goal is always to face herself and find out who she is as a person.
What she’s learned about herself: “I can make time and space disappear.”
When she tells me this, goosebumps crawl up my arm. It’s the same feeling I got when Dark Energy’s “Black Ballet” first crept into my headphones a few years prior. Haunting, beautiful, tectonic; confident, unabashedly itself, and something completely unlike anything I’ve heard before. On our call, Jlin expresses herself with the bold point of view to back up her innovative sound.
She’s a year younger than me, but she seems wiser. Jlin tells me that when she performs, “it’s a very spiritual moment.” She’s confident in her views, but isn’t arrogant enough to be certain. She believes we’re always evolving; 98% of what she does, she tells me, is about the “alignment of self.”
Our conversation about Gary, steel mills, footwork, and the excellent Black Origami is below. —Anna Dorn
Tell me about Black Origami.
Jlin:I was very over Dark Energy at the time. I started making a song, trying to get away from that. The first track was “Black Origami.” I thought I might be onto something and dug deeper. It’s started developing into an album before I realized it.
Where did you get the title “Black Origami?”
Jlin:The formula—well, I hate using that term—I use it loosely. I always start out with a blank sheet of paper. The art of origami is about folding blank sheets into beautiful, complex shapes. I do the same thing. But I do it with sound.
I called it “black” because I create from a very dark place. A lot of people give dark a negative connotation. But I don’t think black is a bad thing. I really like the idea that when I create, I’m having to draw from nothing. That’s what makes it so authentic. It’s coming straight from me. It’s a mirror for me.
I was very over Dark Energy at the time. I started making a song, trying to get away from that. The first track was “Black Origami.” I thought I might be onto something and dug deeper. It’s started developing into an album before I realized it. It really is a true statement that most people are afraid to be great.
So are you a particularly dark person? Or do you just channel that part of yourself into your music?
Jlin:[Laughs] No, you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. It’s not a bad thing. There is nothing and there is something. This is why a lot of people consider me innovative. Because there is no basis. Everybody can do the same thing, but it’s a conscious decision if you decide to do so.
Why aren’t you afraid to be great?
Jlin:I didn’t say I’m not afraid to be great. And I wouldn’t call myself great. I’m just not afraid to fail. The way society defines failure is backward. Failure isn’t trying something and not achieving your desired outcome. Failure is being stagnant. The only time you’re failing is when you aren’t moving, she says. The first step is having to face myself and find out who I am as a person.
So what have you learned about yourself since you started making music?
Jlin:I can make time and space disappear. And that’s hard to accept because that’s quite a statement to make. People love to talk in technicalities, and I don’t. I actually hate it. When you talk in technicalities, it becomes formulated.
Using someone as an inspiration is not a bad thing, but a lot of people use an inspiration and they don’t go outside of that box and they never figure out who they are and what they sound like because they’re stuck in someone else’s box.
Tell me about growing up in Gary.
Jlin:I went to private school. I developed a lot of discipline. I couldn’t watch TV before I did my homework—not because I wasn’t allowed, but because I wouldn’t feel right doing so. I was very sheltered. Everyone in my house is a loner. My mother, my father, and myself.
My teenage years were my rebellious stage. I was trying to come into myself, just rebelling against life. Making bad decisions. Hanging out with the wrong people. Trying to fit in.
Is there much of a music scene in Gary?
Jlin:Not really. No, I am totally lying. Absolutely, I’m lying. That was horrible of me to say. I have so many friends in Gary who are musicians. It’s just a small circle.
How did you first get into music?
Jlin:I used it as a mask. I wasn’t happy with myself at that time of my life. It was around 2007-2008, I was 19-20. I was in school and didn’t like it. I didn’t know how to tell my parents. I was taught by society go to school do a good job, the American life. So I was hiding behind my music.
I was introduced to FruityLoops by a fellow artist. It developed into this every day hobby. I never knew I would get to this point. It was that piece of coal that developed into a diamond. It was that forgotten piece of coal that everybody looked over. Now, I’m creating another diamond.
All of these things take stages. 98% of what I do has less to do with music and more with the alignment of self.
How old are you?
Jlin:I’ll be 30 on July 30. My golden birthday.
Leo. I love Leos. Very powerful sign.
Jlin:Some call it arrogance.
Your Skype profile says “It’s almost nap time.” Are you a big napper?
Jlin:I believe in naps. I don’t push team no sleep. It’s serotonin.
Do you hear songs in your sleep?
Jlin:I hear songs in the shower. Bodies of water. I think there is definitely a connection between water and sound because your body is made mostly of water. When rock drops into water, there are all those ripples. Nature teaches us so much. It’s just that we have to pay attention.
A lot of critics refer to you as a footwork artist, do you see yourself that way?
Jlin:The basis of where it started was footwork. It’s where my roots sprouted, but I’m still growing. Expression changes constantly. That’s the way it should be.
The arts should never have been separated. I don’t know why they are. People are so fascinated about me and William Basinski working together [on Black Origami’s “Holy Child”]. William is an artist, I’m an artist. He’s authentically him and I’m authentically me. And you have two authentic people coming together. But because society has separated and categorized and genred and subgenred everything—it’s like they can’t even imagine it. These are just arts coming from different spaces. It’s all one family—whether you’re a musician, artist, sculptor, painter.
I think when people have a tendency not to understand things, they like to categorize it, they like to box it, because now they have the control over it. They can say—aha, I’ve caught it, I can name it. But some things cannot be named.
You were mentored by DJ Rashad?
Jlin:I introduced myself to him on MySpace after hearing his remix of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights.” Rashad responded, and I took the opportunity to tell him I loved his work and I wanted to get into music myself. He was at work and told me to wait an hour until he was on his break and he would call me. We spoke on the phone and he gave me advice about equipment and which monitors to use. We didn’t speak often, but we spoke occasionally up until he passed [in 2014]. He was always informative.
[“Holy Child” is dedicated to Rashad.]
You worked in a steel mill to support yourself when you left school. Do you still work there?
Jlin:I left in at the end of 2015 and took on music full-time. I worked there 4 years. I was a tractor operator. I drove a 50,000 pound tractor.
Did working there inspire your music?
Jlin:No, because I tried to keep the two separate. I never blended the two intentionally. That was my escape from music. The steel mill helped me financially, so of course I’m grateful for that. But I love creating over anything.