Jlin: In Conversation

It’s an interview which had been in the works for a while – I’d been exchanging emails with her team for weeks trying to pin down the elusive artist; and now, chatting across time-zones hours out of sync, I catch her at a rare moment of reprieve, back, for the moment at least, in her native town of Gary Indiana from what has evidently been a relentless touring schedule.

She’s been ‘running around’ she says. ‘This morning I got here from Italy; Uganda before that. I leave again tomorrow for LA, and then to Krakow, so I’m just running in.’ It’d be enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the hardiest traveller, but somehow she comes across lively, opinionated and impassioned from the offset.

More striking though than her conspicuous lack of road weariness is the fact that it seems such a slight imposition on her creativity. It turns out that it was precisely in such conditions that her most recent album was composed. ‘I worked on [Autobiography] in Paris, in Barcelona, in India’ she states, reeling off a whole new set of exotic and far-flung locales. ‘You name it; I was working on that piece there. I never stopped.’

I get the sense though that far from a mere adjustment to the inconveniences of her touring demands, that there’s a kind of nomadism which defines her as a creator; that her globetrotting tendencies find an allegorical partner in a kind of artistic restlessness: ‘I’d be damned if I’m just sitting in the same spot for five years’ she insists at one point, ‘I’ll be damned if I’m just sitting in the same spot for two years! I’m just not that artist.’

In a similar vein, she comes across as eager to disassociate herself from the footwork culture from which she originated.

Certainly Jlin’s first forays into music came under the auspices of the genre – she began exchanging musical ideas with the late footwork luminary DJ Rashad on MySpace sometime around 2008, and soon after took on genre godfather RP Boo as a mentor. But, as she herself attests, it wasn’t until she was able to find a voice outside footwork’s confines that she made any significant headway. Boo himself confirms the sentiment: ‘once she was able to create from within herself, really tap into that energy, her music would change […] it wasn’t about footwork, it was about her as a producer.’

By the time she first came to the wider public’s attention with ‘Erotic Heat’ –her contribution to Planet Mu’s 2011 footwork exposition Bangs and Works Vol.II– she’d already transcended the genres limitations. Tactile and exact, aggressive yet imbued with an eerie beauty, Jlin had taken Footwork’s logic of deconstruction and turned it on the genre itself, stripping the sound into its constituent elements and reconfiguring them into something inimitable and wholly her own.

In an auspicious moment which, from a contemporary vantage speaks tellingly of the direction she would go on to take, the track was then picked by fashion designer Rick Owens to soundtrack his 2014 Winter/Autumn collection show.

However, it seems that the public has had a hard time keeping up. ‘To put me in that context and hold me up to Footwork is so silly at this point’ she says, with a sudden sense of weariness, ‘to me it becomes a bunch of people saying the same shit about me to be honest. Somebody heard somebody else say it in the beginning, and it became a thing where every time you hear my name you either hear footwork, steel mill [her erstwhile employer] or Gary. One of those. And it gets tiring. It’s frustrating because it just repeats the same story.’ Confrontationally, she then seemingly turns the challenge onto me as a writer: ‘I challenge a journalist to write something different. Be different, dare to be different.’

It’s a theme which recurs throughout our interview, the striving against artificial constraints imposed by the limited horizons of others. Genre restrictions, and both the hierarchical evaluations and the discrete separation of different art forms all receive reproachment at points in our conversation.

With regard to the last point, I enquire as to whether she thinks that there’s more public appetite for interdisciplinary collaboration as of late. Her most recent project, Autobiography, put out recently via Planet Mu as a standalone album, found its origins as a soundtrack to choreographer Wayne McGregor’s 2017 contemporary dance piece of the same name. Her response is emphatic: ‘there’s always been that room. It’s just humanity that wakes up to shit. That door has never been closed. We closed it. The arts have always been related. I don’t know what it is with human beings when all of a sudden they wake up and go “oh shit, we can cross two things together.” We could have always done that; your dumb ass just woke up too late.’

She breaks off laughing. It’s a sense of mirth which invariably accompanies such statements throughout the interview, seemingly borne out of an enlightened sense of incredulity towards the closed mindedness of others; of the futile resistance to a truth she takes as self-evident.

Interestingly though, more autodidact than autocrat, this freedom from arbitrary limitations is a privilege she extends to her audience too. I ask how she thinks Autobiography comes across as a piece stripped of its original theatrical context, to which she responds ‘that’s not a question for me to answer. That’s a question for the listener to answer. I can’t dictate to my audience. I just create.’ Then, doubling down, continues: ‘I can’t answer that question; it’s an insult for me to answer that question. I can’t tell you how you should feel about something that you’re listening to, even if I created it.’

Outspokenly resistant to the arbitrary restraints borne out of genre limitations, I ask whether she finds it easier taking inspiration from non-musical sources. Autobiography, her most recent work, bills itself as a combination of ‘memoir, documentary, and a re-processing of nature’s code through an act of human imagination’. More concretely, the piece found its conceptual basis in the sequencing of the choreographer’s genome code which was then converted into a computer algorithm to determine the ordering of the 23 dance sections of which it comprises.

‘Yes, absolutely.’ She answers, ‘It’s very different. It widens your world a great deal.’ She cites a number of textual resources she used in her composition of the piece, insisting on their importance in the development of her burgeoning artistic versatility.

Among those referenced is the tale of Henrietta Lacks, a young African-American woman living in 1950s Maryland whose genetic material –appropriated without her consent during the treatment of a case of cervical cancer which would eventually take her life– produced the first immortalized cell line in the history of medical research. It was a crucial moment in the development of the nascent science, but equally one with questionable ethical implications.

With any proprietary concerns left at the door, the patient’s cells were cultured, mapped, cloned and put to use in areas of study ranging from radiation to cosmetics. Thus was Lacks –the unwitting source of that genetic material– and by extension the legacy of Jim Crow and its control and (ab)use of black bodies, embedded into American medical practice. It’s a dual poignancy which all too often seems to typify this branch of biology– possessor of the dubious accolade of holding both evolutionary theory and colonial eugenics amongst its descendents.

Listening to Autobiography after our interview I found myself pondering the significance of stories such as this in the production of a piece on genetics, as abstract a subject matter as you’re likely to find within the domains of either electronic music production or contemporary dance.

Music, while perhaps pre-eminent amongst the arts in its capacity for emotional expression, is still essentially an abstract means of communication, better suited to broad brushed portraits than it is the fine grained articulation of theoretical ideas. Love, loss, anger and joy are the colours which typically make up its palette, less so innovations at the frontier of biomedical practice.

Granted, it doesn’t take too great a stretch of the imagination to appreciate the analogies between Jlin’s cascading sound concatenations and the genetic subject matter: the tightly woven filigree of her production work seems as fitting an aural approximation of the spiralling double helix as one is likely to find anywhere.

Nevertheless, such a literalist interpretation seems at odds with the content of much of our conversation. Throughout, I’m struck most of all by the artists’ profoundly personal portrayal of her creative process.

She describes her artistic approach as a practice of, ‘pulling from nothing,’ a metaphor which evokes the tapping of deep inner resources in the process of her creation. Even where her work does incorporate external themes and influences, as is the case on her most recent release, she maintains that they come refracted through lens of her inner-life: ‘I might have had a particular thought, but then I had to reach it through the core of myself to pull that thing out.’

Certainly, it’s not uncommon for the appreciating public to focus on the personal life of an artist, and further, to see it as a potential well-spring for creativity. Connected is the idea suggested when we speak of an artist ‘finding their voice’ – seeming to imply that there’s some specific brand of artistry, unique to each of us, just waiting to be let out. Yet, I feel that for Jlin this evocation of her inner being pertains to something more essential than that, as if her very character itself constitutes the conceptual basis of her work: ‘that’s my creativity: my core. I’m creating from the core of myself.’

Elsewhere, she seems to draw a distinction between the comparatively pedestrian concept of a biographical journey and the more amorphous inner substance which makes up a person. Fittingly, genetic material seems to offer itself as an appropriate candidate for the latter role – a kind of vital substrate from which everything else which constitutes a person follows.

But if there’s a degree of closeness confided in her music, she’s eager to impress that this doesn’t come as an unconstrained outpouring, but rather, attests to painstaking practice and self-discipline. ‘Challenge’ – she says at one point, ‘is your teacher. Embrace the challenges. Is it easy? Hell no – it’s so hard. It’s so hard sometimes you want to go and crawl under your bed and never come out.’ But then, reflecting for a moment, she adds ‘but then life is not going to approach you with a challenge you can’t handle.’

The statement is typical of Jlin. Throughout the conversation she comes across as honest and realistic, refusing to shy away from the reality of what it takes to be an artist functioning at the top of her game. But equally characteristic is its inflection with a note of optimism, disclosing a sense of self-belief and quiet confidence in her ability to transcend, and perhaps more importantly, to learn from those experiences.

Such thoughts are further elaborated through a discussion of the idiosyncratic tendencies of the early 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky. His rehearsals ‘were so intense’ she states ‘because for the first day or so, he would just be going through every single instrument in the orchestra, trying to hear the tones, to see if they were okay. And that’s before he properly started anything. The sounds had to be right first.’

Although it’s not a comparison she explicitly makes herself, the reference to the late composer seems apt, drawing out a parallel lineage to a tradition of music which, on reflection, bears a fair degree of the same sonic imprint as her own. The uncompromising density of her sound often comes across as a kind of Serialism-circa-Chicago, aligned as much with those 20th century Modernist forebears as it does the underground bass culture from which she hails. Moreover, the lineage seems to resonate with her present forays into the world of contemporary dance: Stravinsky’s most lauded work the Rite of Spring – a piece widely viewed as the inaugural moment of the Modernist movement within music – was also one commissioned for a dance company, in that case Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Bringing the point home, it becomes apparent that her admiration for the man lies less in a technocratic appreciation for a fellow forensically minded fanatic. The implications she draws are more personal. As opposed to a mere eccentricity, it’s the personal journey communicated in the story, and the self-mastery of which it attests that is important here.

‘We look at [Stravinsky], seeing only the ice above the water, and we say: “look how great they are”. But what’s really important is that big ass piece of ice you don’t see that’s under the water. That’s what makes them who they are, that’s why they can stick above the water.’

I ask what she means by “the ice below”, and her response is characteristically elliptical, skirting around the edges of the issue before zeroing in on its core point:

‘Okay. Look at your life. Everything you have gone through in your life has made you the person you are right now. What I see is that piece of ice that’s above the water. But I don’t know your story, your story is under the water and that’s the most important part. Because that’s what’s made you who you are right now […] When we view a person’s success, everyone is like – oh look what they’ve achieved. What we don’t talk about is the hell they went through to get there though. And that’s the most important part: all the failure, and the “no’s,” and the “I can’t do this,” and the self doubt, that’s really what’s important, because that’s what made you who you are. Because you got through it. And it’s a continuous thing, it doesn’t stop.’

Her works – Autobiography included – may arrive filtered through a profound and hard earned technical knowledge of music production, but its resonance isn’t cut off there. Jlin is communicating at a higher frequency.

And, it becomes equally clear that Jlin isn’t just a lone-iceberg, adrift in the sea of herself. To her appraisal, the intimacy of the act of creation is evidently something shareable. In fact, I get the impression that for Jlin, there’s nothing more natural. Looking back at an earlier episode in her career, she remarks on the incredulity she faced upon the announcement of her collaboration with the ambient artist William Basinski for her sophomore album Black Origami:

‘I learnt in that process that people’s thinking is so limited, because I would have people who would interview me and they would be completely in shock and I would say “what the hell are you shocked about?” [They were saying] “How do you work with William Basinski?” [My answer was] “You work with William Basinski.”

I float the notion that perhaps it’s precisely because of their differences, rather than in spite of them, that the collaboration worked, an idea to which she assents. Collaboration, she argues, at least where it’s most fruitful and artistically interesting, is the process of ‘bringing two opposites together’ and ‘of merging perspectives.’ ‘Hell, I feel like I could mix with anybody’ she finishes, ‘because [collaboration] is two artists, or however many artists in a collaboration putting their selves together.’

Another such person is evidently her most recent collaborator, Wayne McGregor. Enquiring as to how she –a self-described insular individual– found the challenge of working on a project expressly about another, namely the choreographer, whose genome code provided the conceptual basis for the piece, she replies that she was “honoured to be presented with such a thing”. She goes on to remark on the closeness and confidence communicated in the act: “I’m honoured that Wayne trusted me with something that was and is so intimate. That’s his biological code – it’s very intimate. It’s not just the telling of the story of his life. It’s a very intimate thing.”

There’s something about the latter pronouncement which resonates with me. On reflection she’s right – the genome is something quite intimate. I guess in no small part due to its association with the high abstraction of scientific discourse we tend to forget this fact. But, on consideration, there’s nothing more personal – it’s the basis from which all of us are elaborated, containing in its confines all that we are, and all that we will come to be.

It’s here that, for me at least, the significance of the genome for Jlin comes into focus, and significantly, in a way which goes beyond its thematic links to her most recent project. Throughout our conversation, Jlin recurrently expresses a concern with essence – through her self-described artistic process of ‘pulling from nothing’, in her reluctance to be constrained by outside delimitations and her designs towards further self-realisation. So too does the significance of Henrietta Lacks become clear in the light of this interpretative thread, expressing as it does themes of progress, essence and alienation.

Certainly such links require a degree of interpretative license, although, given that she’s pretty much explicitly signed off on that, and challenged me “to write something different,” to boot, I’ll take it without undue concern.

Ignited by a desire for progress, in pursuit of some abstract essence, and beneath it all, profoundly, even essentially human – Jlin and genetics have much in common.

Autobiography (Music from Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography) is out now on Planet Mu. 

Buy it here

Words: Franklin Dawson

Featured Images: Madhumita Nandi

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