Blurring the lines between future-facing electronics and “organic” percussion, American producer Jlin returns with her third long-player, ‘Perspective’ – a beguilingly tactile post-footwork gem

Faster than the speed of thought, Jlin has no time for labels. Her meticulously crafted brand of artisan electronica has an alien, shapeshifting beauty, gleaming and sleek, crystalline and futuristic. Feted by famous fans like Aphex Twin, 36-year-old Jerrilynn Patton has collaborated with revered experimental composers like Holly Herndon and William Basinski, plus cutting-edge choreographers and avant-classical ensembles. Equally at home in a club, a concert hall or a modern art gallery, she has always resisted reductive genre categories, in both her work and life.

“I don’t care about any of that, I just want to create,” she says, speaking from her home in the American Midwest. “That’s it. Ha!”

Jlin’s latest album, ‘Perspective’, is the electronic cousin of the 2020 performance piece of the same name, which she was commissioned to write for Chicago ensemble Third Coast Percussion. The project began with source recordings she made at the group’s studio, sampling the sounds of marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, ankle bells, wood blocks and more. She recalls this rich sonic treasure chest with a wistful sigh.

“I went there for one or two days in a row, for eight to 12 hours,” she says. “But even if you were there for a week, you couldn’t record everything.”

‘Perspective’ is the latest addition to Jlin’s growing canon of genre-blurring forays into the classical and orchestral world. In 2017, London-based Royal Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor commissioned her to soundtrack his highly personal, globally acclaimed dance piece ‘Autobiography’, with the album version following in 2018.

“Wayne was one of the people who helped me change how I approach music,” she reveals. “His was the first full company that I worked with. He is just such a gem of a person. He trusted me with something that was very intimate, which is entirely based on his DNA and his existence.”

Last year, Jlin deconstructed and re-scored Mozart’s ‘Requiem In D Minor’ for Kyle Abraham’s New York dance troupe AIM, which earned rave reviews worldwide.

“Music and dance are one and the same for me,” she says. “A choreographer or dancer’s body can tell me what to write. I can read the movement. For example, one of my greatest inspirations, when it comes to choreography and the way she moves, is Eartha Kitt. How I create percussion and rhythm, how I make it flow, the fluidity of it – a lot of that has to do with her.”

Jlin was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, a once-booming steel town south of Chicago that has long been in post-industrial decline. Her parents were not musicians, but they were music lovers with broad tastes in jazz, pop and soul. She grew up listening to Sade – her favourite artist – alongside Luther Vandross and Phoebe Snow, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Tito Puente and Elton John. The family house had a large back garden, and would sometimes host shows by local bands.

Before Jlin, Gary’s most famous musical exports were Michael Jackson and his family. Indeed, former Jackson 5 drummer Johnny Jackson lived in the same neighbourhood, and gave shy teenage maths-geek Jerrilynn her first music lessons.

“Johnny literally gave me my first pair of drumsticks,” she nods.

Later, while studying maths and architectural engineering at Indiana’s world-renowned Purdue University, Jlin graduated from live drumming to electronic composing after discovering the digital workstation FL Studio. Her early tracks were largely inspired by Chicago’s semi-underground footwork scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a rapid-fire variant of ghetto house with its own ultra-nimble, hyper-athletic dance styles.

Picture: John Hull

She was too young and too far away to fully immerse herself in the scene, but one of its key pioneers, RP Boo – DJ/producer Kavain Wayne Space – became an early mentor.

“It was something I listened to every day, all day long,” Jlin recalls. “I was just fascinated with the sound. I still am. Some tracks I hear, I’m still fascinated with the approach.”

It was Jlin’s footwork connections that alerted her to Planet Mu label boss Mike Paradinas, aka veteran British electronic composer μ-Ziq, who included her on his excellent ‘Bangs & Works Vol 2: The Best Of Chicago Footwork’ compilation in 2011. That in turn led to fashion designer Rick Owens hearing Jlin’s ‘Erotic Heat’ track, and commissioning an extended remix version for his catwalk show.

Even with a growing profile in music and fashion circles, Jlin smartly held onto her well-paid job as a tractor driver for US Steel. But one Monday morning in 2014, after rushing back to the steel mill direct from attending Paris Fashion Week, she finally resolved to quit the nine-to-five and embrace a precarious full-time music career. She finally left just as her debut album, ‘Dark Energy’, came out on Planet Mu in 2015.

“Some people thought I was crazy to leave,” she recalls. “I was making money. I had no kids. Nothing! They were like, ‘Whaaat?’.”

Jlin rarely talks about her personal life, but she casually mentions her sexuality during our interview. As a queer black woman in a musical field mostly dominated by straight white men, she is wary of fitting into some ready-made, simplistic, easily marketable backstory. For that reason, she has always resisted her work being framed though an overly autobiographical lens, her complex identity being reduced to a box-ticking diversity exercise.

“It’s very much a pigeonhole,” she nods. “God knows I’ve had my share of that, and I’ve had to turn shows down when I realised a person has put me in a slot because they are like, ‘OK, we’ve covered our bases, you’re black and you’re a woman in a line-up full of white dudes…’. Ha!”

That said, Jlin has no particular objections about celebrating her blackness.

“Too many of us have gotten overlooked,” she says. “So please see my colour. I’m standing on the shoulders of too many to ignore that. There’s no way I could do that, it would be so disrespectful. My ancestors would roll over… I’d be in big trouble! Ha!

“But as far as my gender and my sexuality? No. What I don’t want is this narrative of seeming like I’m capitalising off the fact of being a woman, or being a homosexual woman, in any way. I want my work to just speak for itself.”

Almost a decade has passed since Jlin quit her US Steel job to make adventurous, futuristic, arrestingly beautiful music full-time. Following a financially dry spell during the pandemic, when she moved back into the family home in Gary, she now has her own place in nearby Merrillville, a blossoming career and huge critical respect. Does she ever miss that steel mill?

“Oh hell, yes!” she laughs. “Do you know why? Because I’m actually a routine person. I miss getting up. Sometimes I drive past there and I get a little sad. I’m like, ‘Damn!’. Just for one day, I would love to go back and work there. Seriously!”

Fame is a fickle mistress, Jlin. Be careful what you wish for.

“I know,” she grins. “That’s why I said, ‘Just one day’. Ha!”

‘Perspective’ is out on Planet Mu

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