An Interview With Jlin

Michael McKinney speaks to the electronic/footwork artist about how her vulnerability serves as her superpower, her body informing the music she makes, embracing her artistic growth with each LP and...
By    September 27, 2023

Image via John Hull

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If you roll the clock all the way back, you’ll find a various-artists compilation. Jerrilynn Patton, a.k.a. Jlin, debuted on 2011’s Bangs & Works Vol. 2, a record that showed off the range of footwork in that particular moment. The Chicago-born genre is intimately tied to dance, with jackknifing drums locked in an unending arms race with whirlwinding sneakers. On a compilation stacked with veterans and newcomers alike, Jlin’s tracks stood out: on “Erotic Heat,” she offered up million-ton minimalism, and, on “Asylum,” wrapped icy hi-hats around blood-boiling horns. Even here, her sound was uncompromising and thoroughly idiosyncratic; it took the idioms of footwork and rocketed them into pitch-black parts unknown.

Patton made good on that promise. Dark Energy, her debut LP, takes a sieve to footwork’s idioms, filtering it all down to its essence and filling the empty space with a miasmic haze. It’s both manic and a bit disorienting. Tellingly, the third track—“Guantanamo”—is built around a sample from The Ring. It’s positively skin-crawling stuff, full of serrated synthesizers and arachnoid drum kits. Black Origami, her follow-up record, is positively kaleidoscopic by comparison: a maddening pile-up of whirlwinding hand drums, rattling hi-hats, garbled vocal samples. It’s footwork-adjacent, to be sure, but, in what’s proven to be a pattern for Patton, that’s hardly the whole story. This is polyrhythmic drum music built upon crumpled timelines and collapsed histories.

Since then, Patton has moved further and further into body music, bringing more names into the fold along the way. In 2018, she scored Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography. The titular dance piece is built around McGregor’s DNA, and Jlin’s work seems to be in a perpetual double-helix: the stage, another kind of dancefloor, is a venue for drums and dancers, each circling each other until it’s a full-on frenzy. That same year, San Francisco’s resident modern-classical headspinners Kronos Quartet commissioned her to compose a piece for them, and she gave the cellist a bass drum. In 2021, she worked with Kyle Abraham and A.I.M, scoring for a reimagining of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor.

Her most recent projects take her mutant drum-funk into another kind of conversation. Perspectives, for which she Patton was named a 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Music finalist, was composed for Third Coast Percussion, a percussion quartet based in—where else?—Chicago, the birthplace of footwork. Patton no longer considers herself a footwork producer, and it’s not hard to see a reason why. She may have started there, but, now, her work is defined not by genre but instead by her tendency to sprint headlong down blind alleys.

After the release of Perspectives, which saw Third Coast rearranging her DAW assemblages into something for human hands, Patton is releasing the original recordings. Titled Perspective, the record exists at all sorts of intersections. It shows the million limbs that Patton has affixed to her drums; put this back-to-back with Bangs & Works or Dark Energy and you’ll hear a few wildly different producers. It underlines her fascination with music for bones and muscle; its relentless rhythms invite all sorts of dance, whether on stage, in the street, or behind the drum kit. It balances moments of bone-crunching weight with lighter-than-air minimalism, prizing neither and finding a third way through.

In late August, we got a chance to sit down with Patton, digging into her history with dance music, her approach to composition, and about her superpowers as a producer.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

My understanding is that you found your way towards footwork when you were quite young. When did you decide you wanted to start making it?

Jlin: Yeah. I was probably 18 or 19 when I decided that I wanted to learn how to make tracks. DJ Avery, from Chicago, introduced me to FL Studio. Of course, you know my first version was cracked. That’s how everything got in motion.

If this is quantifiable, which came first: your interest in production, or your interest in dance?

Jlin: They were simultaneous. The first time I heard footwork, I was four years old. I saw the dance shortly after, though, and I never forgot either. It was very fluid; the music and dance are linked. The music itself is typically 155, 160 BPM; one doesn’t go anywhere without the other.

My understanding is that you came to the genre online—how did you navigate the gap between the screen and the dancefloor?

Jlin: I never forgot that link. I got reintroduced to it in high school, though—we were doing a talent show, and we’d dance; we learned a footwork routine for that. We ended up doing something totally different, but that reintroduction stuck, and I held onto it very tightly. Around that time, you had MySpace, and IMing was a big thing. Any chance I got—in the library or wherever the hell I was—I’d be listening to footwork nonstop. If I had time in school, in high school, or my early college [years] at Purdue, I’d do the same thing. That’s how I filled that gap. After I got reintroduced to footwork, I held onto it very tightly.

After the release of Dark Energy, did you feel pressure, either internally or commercially, to adhere to a particular sound?

Jlin: No. I just created. By that point, I loved creating, just like I do now. From the time I started to now, I have never thought about it from a commercial standpoint, or even from a particular genre. I feel like my music can go in any lane. I’ve gone from fashion, to dance, to contemporary [art]. I’ve had students contact me, students who got into Juilliard using my pieces. It happens all the time now. They’ll say, “I got in! I was playing your piece!” And that makes me feel good—I’m so proud of them, of course, and it makes me remember, “this is why you do what you do.” I’ve never put those restrictions on myself, ever. I never would, because then I couldn’t create; I’d be restricting my creativity. I’m very aware of that.

It sounds like you’re really cognizant and deliberate about your creative process. Can you pull that curtain back a bit for me?

Jlin: My vulnerability is my superpower; I’ve always said that. Transparency about my vulnerability is also an asset on that level. And intention is everything. So I am deliberate, for sure, because I have a gift, and I have to be responsible and accountable for it. Every day is not a good day. Some days, nothing happens. But some days, four bars might happen, and then those four bars might grow into a full track or a full piece. It’s rarely seamless; when that happens, I’m very appreciative. But you have to struggle. I used to say “I gotta find it,” but I realized that when I’m working, I’m actually finding myself: I have all the answers, but I have to find out what the question was.

At least on paper, your work has gotten more collaborative over the years. On Dark Energy, you’ve got Holly [Herndon], but that’s it. With Dark Origami, you’ve got Holly, [William] Basinski, Fawkes, and Dope Saint Jude. Was this motion a conscious shift, or something else?

Jlin: That’s an alignment. I’ve worked with these iconic collaborators—William, Holly, Third Coast [Percussion], Kronos [Quartet], Wayne [McGregor], Kyle [Abraham], Ben Frost—I’m missing people, and I feel awful. But this is all alignment. I noticed that everyone I’ve worked with is very meticulous—so am I. So it works really well for me, because nothing feels better than when you strip down. It’s like being in basketball practice, and it doesn’t matter how many points you scored the night before: we’re in practice now; that was yesterday. That’s my approach: I’m very grateful for all the accolades, but this is a new day. Right now, that doesn’t play a part.

Would you say working with those equally deliberate partners brings something out in your work?

Jlin: No. This is me, period; that’s just my approach with anything. Chaka Khan is very much the same way: it’s like, okay, 24 GRAMMYs, that’s great. But every time I sit down in this chair to work, or when I’m in that booth singing, none of that matters. When a new day starts, it’s like you’re fresh out the womb all over again.

Talk to me about working with Wayne.

Jlin: First of all, Wayne is just a gem of a person. He’s family to me. I was, and still am, very grateful that he trusted me to do something so intimate—writing a score based, literally, on his DNA. When I worked with him, I changed my entire sleeping schedule, because he was in London and I was in the States. I used to start my day at two o’clock in the morning and work until six in the evening. I was also writing Black Origami at the same time, so I was working on both of those, working on that balancing act. I got both of them done—Wayne’s piece took three months, and Black Origami took a bit longer than that, but I was working on both simultaneously.

We were very hand in glove. I do this with everybody, to this day: I’ll create a minute’s worth or music for them. Then I’lll send it to them, and give them a chance to yae-or-nay it. And if they yae it, I’ll go ahead and finish it. If it’s a longer piece, I’ll make maybe three or four minutes, and if they yae it, then I’ll finish it. Wayne and I worked like that until we got it done. When we were in the theater together, and I was watching everything come together during rehearsal, that was very tense for me, but it wasn’t, all at the same time. It was tense, but I’d built up to that point—everything I had gone through in my life had led up to that. So it really worked.

To use that work as a jumping-off point: at this point in your work, how do you consider the human body when you’re producing? Is there a meaningful distinction between how you’d compose for ballet, or footworking, or breaking?

Jlin: The body tells me what to do. It doesn’t matter what the genre of dance is. That’s the approach I take with everything; your body will tell you what to do. When I worked with Kyle, for example, I went back and studied Kyle; I studied Wayne as well. If I’m working with you like that, I study you; I have to, and I want to know you that way. I studied them, and I studied how they moved, and only then was I able to write those kinds of pieces. I don’t just go in writing; there’s a whole process that happens beforehand. I met Wayne face-to-face in Chicago in 2016, and I didn’t meet Kyle until we were in rehearsals, which was during the pandemic. That bit was unique, because the show came together the night of the show—we couldn’t rehearse like how I got to rehearse with Wayne, because we were in a pandemic. He was doing his rehearsals over Zoom, but with Zoom, you’re worried about things being in real time; there was a lot happening, and we were up against a lot.

When you’re digging into someone, what are you looking for?

Jlin: I’m not getting to know them on a technical level; I’m getting to know them. I want to feel them. I’m an intuitive creator, not a technical one. I know how, but I love intuition; I love to feel what you’re doing. When I can feel what you’re doing, you’re telling me what to do. There’s nothing wrong with technicality; I know how to do it, for sure. But I work through intuition.

Tell me about working with Kevin Beasley.

Jlin: Oh! That’s my brother. [laughs] Kevin is so brilliant at what he does, to an infinite degree. His display is very deliberate; his concepts are very abstract, and them being abstract is the concept. With him, I feel those two words are very interchangeable. He’s so brilliant, and he’s so bold; I love his boldness. Having worked with him, and hoping to work with him again, is—he’s so free. When we worked together, I took the sounds of the cotton gin machine, and I made music with him, and we did a whole show one night at the Whitney. I was so grateful that he asked me to be a part of it; especially given the history of the Whitney, doing this with my brother was beautiful.

How did he approach you for that?

Jlin: He hit me up—I don’t remember if it was email or Instagram. We had gotten cool ever since I went to New York. We were recording the sounds [of the cotton gin], and then I saw the cotton gin itself, which was just phenomenal. I got to see everything when he was building it and getting it all together; I got to see everything in a raw state. I was at his studio; we spent a day together and everything. It was beautiful: I met his team, and it was one of those raw moments. I love those. I hate facade; don’t present to me like it’s all together, because, nine times out of ten, it’s not. I like going in and working in raw spaces—I work well under those circumstances. Just be real with me; none of us have it all together. I’m not gonna sit here and pretend to you—I might have totally woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, you know what I mean? So, yeah, it’s all about that honesty. I feel like we get the best out of it, especially in collaboration, when everybody can be open and free to express how they feel.

Tell me about Third Coast Percussion. How did that come about? What was the process of working with them like?

Jlin: Third Coast was another set of family. I love those guys. They have such a massive heart, not only for what they do, but also just for humanity as a whole. I learned a hell of a lot working with them; every time I’m with them, I learn so much. I feel like we all do. I offer an electronic approach to something that they do, and I’ll introduce that to them, and they do the same for me with acoustic instrumentation. It’s heaven; the creative juices are just flowing. I’ve gone to their studio several times now, but when I did Perspectives for them, Sean Connor and I were in the studio recording. They have so many acoustic percussion sounds—it’s just nonstop. You could spend a week there, and you still couldn’t get close to everything. So it was bliss for me. I went there and I got as many sounds as I could: the marimbas, the xylophones, a lot of bells and bowls. We were there for eight, twelve hours; we took the whole day just doing that. I have a whole library of these sounds. That’s how I created Perspectives. There’s one song—I’m never good at my song titles, don’t judge me—where it’s literally the acoustics of the marimba and bells.

They’re such beautiful people. We performed together in Amsterdam—me, the Ragazze Quartet, and Third Coast. We realized that our worlds are not that different. They’ve never been separate, because I don’t believe in that. I have never separated the arts: that’s why I can move fluidly in the way that I do, because I’ve never separated them in my mind, ever. I don’t care what genre you are; we are all one and the same. We saw how well that worked, and said, “damn, we want to do this again!”

Just to clarify: are you saying the tracks that became Perspective are made with digitally manipulated recordings from Third Coast’s library?

Jlin: I create everything in FL Studio. Technically, we’re all electronic musicians, but that’s another subject for another day. [laughs] I laugh when people are like, “you’re an electronic musician”—yes, but everyone is! If you’re a musician, you’re an electronic musician. I want to say that all the time, but I’m like, “I won’t be an asshole.” But yeah, I went in and wrote it electronically.

My understanding is that you wrote these compositions and then handed them to Third Coast. Does that track?

Jlin: Yeah. I’d write them and send them the stems, and then Third Coast would go and rearrange them. And I think that’s beautiful. I do this with everyone; I want to hear other people’s perspectives. I don’t want you to play it the way that I wrote it. I want to hear your perspective on what I wrote, so however you arrange it, however you play it—that’s great. We’re all a part of this project; everybody has as much input as another person. I’m not a stickler, like, “play it just the way I wrote it.” That’s shit; please don’t do that. I wrote it that way—why would I want you to play it that way? Play it your way. Put your signature on it.

Were you involved in that arrangement process at all?

Jlin: With that, they’ll arrange it, and then I’ll come back in and I get to listen to it in rehearsal. I’ll give input then, like, “raise that drum a little bit,” or “lower that drum,” or something like that. But not too much: they’ve arranged it in a particular way. Once I’m back in the room, it’s just a matter of me listening, anyways; I can’t read music. But I can feel it, and I can hear it, and I know what’s right and what isn’t.

Are the tracks on Perspective the original pieces you sent them?

Jlin: Yeah.

Were you always planning to release them?

Jlin: No. It actually kind of popped out of nowhere. It was like, “oh, yeah, we should put out the originals.” I asked them how they felt about it, and they said, “that sounds great; that’s cool.” And we worked out the logistics and figured out how it would work. But I wasn’t really thinking about it. Maybe my label was, but I wasn’t. Once we had that idea, though, I thought, “that’d be cool.” Things were happening so fast, so I doubt I was thinking about it at the time. But when Third Coast gave their blessing, me and my team were very grateful.

I’m grateful you’ve released both, too. I’ve actually taken to sequencing the Third Coast recordings and your own tracks back-to-back—treating it explicitly as a dialogue.

Jlin: I love that kind of conversation. As I said, at least in my mind, we’re not that separate at all.

Yeah. I mean, it’s all drum music, right?

Jlin: It’s not even that: it’s just music. It’s artists coming together and putting themselves into a song. It’s really no deeper for me than that.

Given your interest in this reinterpretation and reimagination, do you have any intentions of doing a remix record of your own work?

Jlin: I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve ever really thought about. Maybe at some point down the line. I wouldn’t say, “oh yeah, definitely!” It just hasn’t really crossed my mind. I had Black Asteroid do a remix of “Black Origami” before; I love his work. But it’s not something I’ve thought about much—not to say I wouldn’t do it! It’s something to give some thought to.

Since you started putting out LPs, how have you noticed your approach composition change?

Jlin: I consider my growth to be my signature. Moving from Dark Energy up to Perspectives, I can hear the difference. You know what I’m saying? I can hear the growth; I can hear the fight in trying to get to the next leap of things. I can hear that within myself. It’s a great feeling, because I can hear the fighting. I can hear me trying to fight, me restraining—it’s nice to hear that. I can hear all of that. I was listening to Dark Energy the other day, and it’s nice to go back and revisit those things. I was listening to “Abnormal Restriction,” and I was like, “what was I thinking when I made this? This was pretty good—not too bad! Okay!” It was a nice revisit, because doing something in your twenties versus your thirties—it’s different, because your approach is different, because you’re different, or at least I hope you should be. But it’s nice; the maturity is there, and I can hear my immaturity in my earlier work as well.

I want to linger on this a bit longer—I think about how Dark Energy is almost disorienting in how minimal it is, and it’s got so much found footage and film clips. When you get to Black Origami, it’s way busier.

Jlin: It’s rapid.

Yeah. Dark Energy is kind of black-hole minimalism, and Black Origami is more or less its total opposite. And then, from there, you’ve moved into areas that you could even accuse of being ambient music, like your stuff with Wayne. How conscious is this kind of shifting, especially regarding drum programming?

Jlin: That is always evolving, and it’ll continue to evolve. I love versatility. The duality of versatility is really crucial for me and my work. I have a mantra for myself. C.P.U.: Clean, precise, unpredictable. Every time I go to create, I think about that. I’m not saying, “I want this piece to be this, I want that piece to be that, I want it to do this.” No. I start everything on a blank canvas, and I love that. My favorite space to create from is absolutely nothing, because I know that everything is inside of nothing. I don’t have a blueprint: “Start with drums! Start with this!” Absolutely not. I create from a blank canvas, and I love that about myself.

I’d typically think about “clean” and “precise” as relatively synonymous. How do you think about them?

Jlin: I think about them exactly as they are: clean, precise and unpredictable. I need them both to get to the third. Precision, not perfection. I think that perfection does not allow for innovation or impromptu motion, while precision does. I can only speak for myself; someone else might be totally different. But that’s how it works for me.

You say you start from a blank canvas. How cognizant, either implicitly or explicitly, do you try to be about the sonic histories you’re working with—footwork, American minimalism, “IDM”, et cetera?

Jlin: I’m not thinking about any of it. [laughs] It’s not even crossing my mind. Not when I’m writing: none of that. Because that’s not what that space is for. That space is for me to create. My creativity is my holy ground for myself, where I’m not thinking about or allowing anything to weigh on me. It reminds me of when someone asked Steph Curry what went through his mind before he shot that three, and he said, “absolutely nothing.”

In your work, are there any extramusical ideas you try to stretch towards?

Jlin: It depends on the piece. More importantly, I’m not looking to be deep, I’m always looking to find me. The whole thing is to come back to me, to come back to myself. A lot of times, that can get lost very easily. I have all the answers, but what was the question? I’m the person that asked the question, and I’m trying to find out what that question is.

At risk of coming off redundant, are there any scenes you’re looking towards now for inspiration?

Jlin: No. That’s the beauty of going in with a blank canvas. I don’t know what until I hear it. I might be outside and hear something and go, “oh my God,” and it strikes me. This happened to me recently: there was a song I’d been hearing my whole life, but I heard it differently for the first time a week ago. I said, “oh God”; it resonated with me in a new way. I love moments like that, because those moments allow me to come back to myself. I don’t find that philosophical in any way. I just feel like that’s my journey.

Are you willing to share what that cut was?

Jlin: Yeah: Teena Marie’s “Déjà Vu.

What’s next?

Jlin: I don’t know. I have to arrive there. That’s the beauty of it: when a person asks me “what are you doing now?” I’ll say, “when it happens, I am as surprised as you are.” When I get there, I’ll let you know.

I aspire towards that kind of confidence.

Jlin: It’s not confidence. It’s just trusting yourself. And trusting yourself takes practice. There’s a lot of falling in that process, and there’s a lot of humbling in that process. It’s not confidence. It’s learning.

I fall a lot. I have fallen a lot. I have stumbled a lot; I have leapt a lot; I have jumped quite a bit. Sometimes, I make the jump, and I’m very bruised when it’s time to get up. The best example I can give—I finally got a picture of it, because I talk about it all the time—is the picture of the iceberg on top of the water. People look at the top of the iceberg and say, “that’s the success,” because you can see that part. But what you can’t see is the discipline, the rejection, the humiliation, the crying at night, all of that. That’s the part that they don’t see.

It’s all about humility. That’s all the time. That’s my production journey all the time. That’s every day, all day long. [laughs] The instruments humble you, and life humbles you. It’s not just musical; it’s personal. You have to audit yourself, and it gets very ugly. It’s a lot happening.

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