18 May 2017
by Simon Reynolds
Black Origami, the title of the new album by electronic warrior Jlin (real name Jerrilynn Patton), is a perfect analogy for her creative process. It always begins, she says, with nothing: no formula, no preconceptions, no sampled materials, just the blind urge to make. Origami, similarly, “starts out as a blank sheet of paper”, she explains. “Which you bend and fold, and then you end up with this beautiful, complex thing.” Jlin’s elegantly angular beat-constructions rather resemble origami’s blend of geometric planes and exquisite delicacy. “Taking simplicity and making it complex – I got that ideology from Coco Chanel,” she adds.
The album title is an extension of an earlier and equally apt analogy that Jlin made on her 2015 debut Dark Energy, with the track Black Ballet. The ballerina’s movements look effortless and weightless, but the audience never sees the blood-soaked wraps around her feet or the stress damage to her spinal discs; likewise, listeners are transported by the eerie levitational grace of Jlin’s music but don’t hear the hundreds of agonized hours of detail-work and fanatical focus embedded in each track.
Footwork, the Chicago genre of fractured machine-funk with which Jlin is generally associated, but which she’s left far behind with Black Origami, is a functional style designed for dance battles. Jlin – who hails from Gary, Indiana, a 45-minute drive from Chicago – thinks “fighting forms and dance are one and the same, just like music and math are the same. I feel that dance is based off of fighting steps, and I reference both back to the way an animal moves.”
But where Dark Energy often made you think of martial arts or fight-dance styles such as Brazilian capoeira, Black Origami has a different feel: more ceremonial and ritualistic. The listener might picture drum choirs, street pageants, the courtly processions of imperial Japan. Partly that’s down to the glittering array of exotic percussion textures that Jlin has added to her arsenal, clattery timbres that evoke ankle bells, shakers, Tibetan bells, and “storm drum”. The latter was a gift from Avril Stormy Unger, a choreographer from Bangalore with whom Jlin has collaborated on performance pieces at the Unsound festival in Kraków and for a Boiler Room webcast transmitted live from India.
Working with figures such as Unger reflects the extent to which Jlin has left behind not just footwork, but club-oriented dance music altogether. Her collaborators on Black Origami are nearly all from the avant-garde: electronic experimentalist Holly Herndon, tape-loop composer William Basinski, French Gothtronica artist Fawkes. Jlin is also currently composing a score for contemporary dance superstar and choreographer Wayne McGregor.
But if Jlin has moved beyond the combat-dance of footwork tracks into an artier realm of album-length experimentation, she has retained the battling spirit of the Chicago scene. It’s just that for her it’s a more solitary struggle of creating something ex-nihilo. She’s likens the programming of each of her tracks to “a hard, dreadful birth, trying to push this thing inside of you, getting it out”. Throughout her conversation, there’s a leitmotif of self-overcoming. Jlin talks about creating from “the most uncomfortable space”; “when a person listens, they’re hearing my vulnerability”; “every time I create, it’s scary”. “I have no foundation whatsoever,” she adds. “I’m starting from ground zero. Literally every time I sit in this chair – it’s a fight.”
Despite the grueling nature of her process, Jlin says, “when it comes together, it’s very fulfilling, because you know you drew it from nothing.” But the feeling of triumph doesn’t last long. “Maybe for an hour afterwards. But usually I’m like, ‘what do I do next?’”
Some of Jlin’s track titles seem freighted with political intent or black power resonance. On Dark Energy, there was Guantanamo and Mansa Musa, the latter named after a 14th century ruler of the Mali Empire in west Africa, regarded by some historians as likely the richest man who ever lived. On Black Origami, the title 1% seems like a direct reference to America’s equality gap, and this time there’s no less than two tracks in tribute to African potentates: Nandi comes from the Zulu queen mother of the warrior-king Shaka, while Hatsheput nods to the female pharaoh who ruled Egypt when it was the most advanced civilisation in the world.
But Jlin brushes off any attempts to connect her frequent talk of “darkness” to real-world politics or apocalyptic fears that the world is heading into a new Dark Age. “No, no, no,” she insists. “This has solely to do with me.” At the same time, she says she doesn’t really draw from her personal life, from real-world problems or emotional conflicts. Again, it all goes back to that mystical, almost Nietzschean struggle against the self’s own limits. “It’s like jumping off a cliff - no cables, no bungee.”
Where does her tenacity and drive come from? Sometimes Patton’s patter has a slight flavour of positive thinking (the true American religion) and other times you get the faintest whiff of New Age (Kyanite, on Black Origami, shares its name with a crystal that reputedly neither accumulates nor retains “negative energy”, which makes it excellent for “metaphysical purposes.”) Conversely, it’s tempting to attribute it to the steel-town toughness of Gary, Indiana (where until fairly recently Jlin worked at a mill “driving a 50,000-pound tractor, transporting steel from one department to another”), an atmosphere that has only gotten harsher and more desolate with the closing of mills and the further erosion of jobs through automation.
But I suspect the real source of Jlin’s strength and will comes from her mother, who sounds like a formidable character and has played a key role in her daughter’s musical evolution at various points. “She’s never babied me, ever,” says Jlin, recalling a turning point when she played her mom a track that relied on a sample (from Teena Marie’s Portuguese Love). “I asked her what she thought of it, and my mum said she liked it, but then she asked me ‘what do you sound like?’. That was the moment at which my approach changed and my sound changed.”
More recently, Jlin’s mom helped her out by titling one of Black Origami’s best tunes, Nyakinyua Rise. “I was completely frustrated, I couldn’t think of what I should call the track, so I asked her to listen and she said ‘Ah, that’s Nyakinyua Rise.’ See, Nyakinyua Rise! Is the name of an organisation that my mom and a friends of hers in Kenya set up to provide solar lamps to kids over there, because when the sun goes down they can’t see to do their homework.”
Wherever it comes from - the woman who raised her, the tough industrial town in which she grew up, the war-dance spirit of footwork, or some mystical inner-zone of her spirit – Jlin is a steely-minded perfectionist who believes that failure – pushing yourself further than you’re capable of going – is the key to success. The last track on Black Origami is titled Challenge (To Be Continued) and it relates to Jlin’s belief in what she calls “Infinity”.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with my work. I don’t want to be satisfied with my work. I don’t believe in a concept like ‘the peak’. To me that’s an insult – who are you to say that someone’s at the height of their career, or has reached the peak of their art? For myself, I believe in Infinity. Once we start, we just keep going up.”