Jlin revels in the mystery of creation

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Jlin interview

The unknowability of creation is a thrilling prospect for Jlin. The Gary, Indiana producer and composer, who began making music inspired by footwork in the early 2010s and has since composed music for dance performances and collaborated with the likes of Kronos Quartet and Third Coast Percussion, has a particular appreciation for taking a journey without a roadmap.

“I never know what shape a song is gonna take, let alone a record,” she says via a Zoom call. “Which I love, because it’s as surprising to me as it is to whoever’s listening. It’s a nice feeling—I like not knowing.”

Jlin’s music doesn’t lend itself to blueprints or modularity, her intricate rhythmic compositions forming like ornate architecture materializing from the ether. Since her debut album Dark Energy in 2015, her music has interwoven footwork and other electronic sounds with modern classical and minimalism. And with her new full-length, Akoma—arriving this week via Planet Mu—she continues to expand that sonic world through a set of songs that incorporates the contributions of a new set of collaborators.

One of those collaborators is legendary composer Philip Glass on closing track “The Precision of Infinity,” which was shaped from recordings captured during one of Glass’ daily morning rehearsals. Another is “Sodalite” with Kronos Quartet, which arrives following their collaboration with Jlin at a performance honoring Glass’ 85th birthday. And leadoff track “Borealis” finds her working with Björk on glitchy fantasy of a song that makes good on a proposed, unfinished collaboration from a few years prior.

“I was actually supposed to be on her last record,” Jlin said of collaborating with Björk. “When she was sketching her last record (Fossora), she wanted me to produce one of the tracks. Me being me, my schedule was very busy, and I didn’t get a chance to finish and I felt so bad. I said, ‘sis, I’m so sorry I didn’t get this finished in time.’ She said, ‘don’t worry about it, I know how it is, we’ll pick it back up down the line.’ But I had started writing the piece from what she sent me, and I wondered if she’d be willing to be on my record, so I asked and she said ‘of course, go ahead.’ From the first day I met Björk, she was just super encouraging to me…whatever I needed, she’s been just right there. When i first came to Iceland for the first time, she picked me up from my hotel and gave me a tour.”

We spoke to Jlin about her new album Akoma, freedom from external pressures, and the beauty of entering into something without expectations.

Treble: Has your process for making music changed over time?

Jlin: No, I still do the same thing. I still go inside of myself and pull the thing inside, whatever it is, out. It’s gotten more frustrating over the years, but it’s because that’s part of the growth process. But I’m still very intuitive, I’m still very much an intuitive creator. My signature is my growth and I can hear the differences between Dark Energy and Akoma.

Do you keep a regular schedule when you’re working?

J: That changes during the week because life happens. Like yesterday, when I got home—I got back from Kenya with my mom. So I said, Monday’s coming, I’m going to clean the house, and then Tuesday morning I’m going to write. But then I got home and boom, car trouble. (Laughs) So that totally changes everything, but hey, life happens. And you know, I’m learning, the more you go with the flow and not go against the flow and against the waves, it’s not that it gets easy, but it makes it easier.

Akoma is a Ghanaian symbol for “heart,” as I understand it. How does that tie in with the album?

J: The original drum is the heart—the heartbeat. I wanted this record to be that, so that’s why you hear different ranges of percussion in the record. I don’t think that was my intention, I was just creating, but I like to feel the rhythm in different ways. You have a track like “Eye Am,” versus a track like “Summon,” and that’s predominantly strings. I was asked last night, do I consider strings a percussive thing, and yeah, any instrument can be percussion. So “Summon,” for me, is a range of emotions, and then all, everything happening simultaneously. But then you have a track like “Challenge (To Be Continued II)” which is a response to “Challenge,” which is on Black Origami. And if you listen between the two, they’re very different. But I guess I really, for me, going back to your question, percussion or that heart for me is really a representation of just me internally and as vulnerable as I can be, putting forth my best at that time. 

I understand you’ve wanted to write an opera…

J: Yeah, I would love to write for an opera.

Do you have any background in that?

J: No, I don’t have a background, but I’ve watched operas and how they’re done, and I just kind of studied and researched on my own, and I feel like that’s something I could definitely write for. I had never done writing for dance, but then all of a sudden it’s oh, J writes for dance. (Laughs) None of it is easy. But they’re challenging in different ways. So I’d love to write for opera because it’s eccentric, it’s eclectic, it’s just different. I’d like to give it a shot. I might be awful at it. (Laughs) But I don’t know. I might try it and say this is great but I never want to do this again in my life. But I’d like to see what I come up with.

How have you changed since you first started creating music?

J: I find myself dreading to create sometimes. A hell of a lot more than I did when I was first coming in. In that first Dark Energy stage, I didn’t dread to create in a way that i sometimes do now. The dread is knowing that I have to walk through the tornado to the other side, but not realizing that the safest place to be is in the eye of the storm. I just recently came out of having writer’s block for five months. Nobody likes to feel that, especially not when you’re creating and you have deadlines. It’s not a good feeling. But I have to remind myself, when have you ever not been able to do a thing? And remembering that, but in that moment when you’re trying to pull that thing out, it’s frustrating. I find myself having more of those moments, but Philip (Glass) told me, because I was talking to him about it, he said, “enjoy those moments, embrace those moments, because it’s part of you. And in order to get to the other side, you have to go through that. And then you look back and you laugh. And you do it again for the next thing.” It never gets easier, but you start to do it with more ease. 

Looking at him now at 87, having written 17 etudes, and can you imagine there’s something you’ve written and you’re still struggling to play it? I think there’s such a beauty in that. Having that conversation with him, I’m learning that it is a learning process to become patient with yourself.

Does that dread come from increased pressures?

J: No, the pressures that I think most people talk about, I don’t have those pressures. As far as climbing your career. There’s not, and I’m gonna tell you why. People are people. The world will love you today and hate you tomorrow. I tell this to people all the time and it makes them uncomfortable, but I’m serious. If you woke up tomorrow and the world told you to hate me, you more than likely would. (Laughs) Because that is the kind of world that we live in. People are usually told what to do. I had a conversation with a friend this morning about how we’re told what to like or what to do or what to eat, and a lot of people don’t go outside of that. I don’t have those pressures because people are fickle. I know the same people who raise me up could be the same people who could bring me down. If you come into this industry… Shit, if you come into this world knowing that, you’re already batting a thousand. Rest assured the people who tell you how amazing you are, if told by the right people at a higher level than you, if they were told to hate you tomorrow, they would. So I don’t have those kinds of pressures. 

What’s the most positive thing that you get from creating?

J: That I have no control—I love it. I have no idea what I’m gonna do when I do it, I have no idea how I’m gonna do it. It’s a blank slate. But the one thing I know is the less I have, the more I can do. No limitations whatsoever. I have taken on jobs before I could actually do them, many times. (Laughs) Which forced me to learn how to do it. I’ve gotten that ideology from my mom. She always said if you’re scared to do it, that’s what you should probably be doing. She said the best way to get over something is to jump in, head first. 

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