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Jlin breaks new stylistic ground with her boundary-pushing album, Black Origami

Written by
Ro Samarth

You can’t box in Jlin. Though she cut her teeth on footwork—the Chicago genre of music and characteristic form of street dance known for its frenzied kick drums and skittering samples—the producer has since developed a style all her own: dizzying beats that rely solely on percussive sounds woven into intricate, winding filigrees. In a musical landscape tied to microtrends with rigid aesthetic guidelines, Jlin’s latest album, Black Origami, is an evolution—a singular, constantly mutating record, staggering in its rejection of repetition and its meticulous attention to detail. We sat down with the producer in advance of her gig at Brooklyn's newest venue, Elsewhere, to talk sound design, movement and the relationality of all things.

How would you characterize the relationship between your music and dance?

Movement is really important to me, but not necessarily dance. The way a person blinks, the way a person stares or sits down.… [A dancer, Avril Stormy Unger] introduced herself to me after I'd completed Dark Energy. I was really into her movements—she was my muse at that time. We decided to perform Unsound [music festival] together, and the new album was actually sparked by that collaboration.

Does your work pull from different cultural folk forms as Unger’s does?

Oh yeah, of course I pull from different cultures, being of African descent, because so many different cultures were built by stealing from us. A friend described it as coming up via different variations of the same palette of dirt. I express those different cultural elements in my own way.

Do you begin a song with the sound design of that palette?

I start with a blank sheet of paper. When I begin a song, you have as much an idea of what the song will be as me. That's why I called the album "Black Origami"—you gently bend, fold and shape this paper. That's how I create. I don't know how it's going to bend and fold. It depends on the type of paper, depends on what I'm feeling at the time. I solely roll with my intuition. The technicality of making a song is easy—creating rhythms and beats. What's hard is pulling from my core.

Your music is distinctively dynamic—it constantly changes over the course of a song.

I don't want people to listen to a song and say "Oh that's Jlin, I know her aesthetic." If my aesthetic consists of being unpredictable—that's exciting. The only thing you can say is "I don't know what's coming next." And that's not just for my audience—that's also the beauty of it for me. Getting completely lost and finding my way back. The last track I did literally had 613 different sequences. The only thing you can say is “I don’t know what’s coming next.”

How do you ultimately arrange such a complexly shifting track?

I never arrange. Once I start a sentence, the sentence is started. And once the sentence starts, the story starts to build. But once I start, that’s how it starts—it’s definite. Getting to that point of certainty takes a long time.

You’ve done several collaborations in the past year. Do you enjoy that process?

I do, but it has to be with the right person. Like, me and Holly [Herdon] been knowing each other for 8 years, that's my sister. She's been in my corner since Erotic Heat. That just felt right. Or when I first announced that [avant-garde composer] Willie [Basinski] and I were collaborating, people were like, “How would that even work?” And that’s exactly why it works: the fact that you can’t fathom it. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable.

Finding new relationships between seemingly disparate things seems crucial to you.

Lots of people think Willie and I are leagues away, but I don't see it that way. Society likes to separate and categorize. Control is a scary thing. You end up pigeonholing the sound, because you put a lid on the box. All arts are related, whether you make ambient music or footwork or whatever.

And that's how you explore new territory?

Yeah that, and I embrace my moments of "failure." If you don't achieve something today or tomorrow or next month, that's not failure—that's another step toward your success. Instead of taking the elevator, you're taking the stairs now. But you find those new options, and that's what matters.

Finding those new options sounds like a more fulfilling, if slower, process.

I'm not a producer who can make 10 beats in a day—I'm lucky if I can get through eight bars. I don't believe in quantity, but quality. I don't force it if it's not there, I don't take the easy way out. And I keep in mind that it doesn't matter what you do—writing, music, whatever—we're all related.  

Jlin plays Elsewhere Thursday, November 16 at 10pm ( $15–$20.

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