In Sync: Holly Herndon interviews Jlin
The bond between American musicians Jerrilynn “Jlin” Patton and Holly Herndon runs deep.
It goes beyond 2015’s Expand, their first collaborative production which featured on Jlin’s debut album of deconstructionist footwork, 2015’s Dark Energy. Eagle eyes will have spotted an earlier version of that track on Soundcloud back in 2012. It was to be an auspicious year for both of them: the recent inclusion of Jlin’s debut track Erotic Heat on Planet Mu’s essential footwork compilation series Bangs & Works would lead to her performing at Paris Fashion Week at the behest of Rick Owens, while Herndon’s technical mastery culminated in her celebrated 2015 album Movement, which transformed the familiar fundamentals of breathy vocal samples, pop music and techno into unrecognisably complex avant-garde structures.
Having teamed up again for the delightfully aggressive track 1% on Jlin’s exhilarating new album Black Origami, the pair do below what they do often – check in with each other for an extended chat about music and work and life. With Herndon recording new material in her current base in Berlin, and Jlin fresh off a flight from India to her hometown, Gary, Indiana, both artists set aside some time for a transatlantic conversation about the most defining moments of the last five years. Here, they dissect the dynamics of Jlin’s recent collaborations with the dancer Avril Stormy Unger, overcoming chauvinism and spending life at the edges of unclassifiable sounds.
Holly Herndon: It’s funny to think that we’ve kind of been pen pals since 2011, texting or Skyping or calling. I can’t remember what year it was that you were working full time in Indiana and also personally being flown to Paris Fashion Week. You were trying to figure out whether or not you could quit your job and start touring full time, and you had to take this tremendous leap of faith that there would be enough work for you.
So it’s been really wonderful to see how everything’s developed over the last several years. You’ve been running like 100 miles an hour, full steam ahead.
Jlin: Do you recall how both you and I were possibly trying to look at going into the same college?
HH: Yeah I do, I remember at the time you were in school. What were you studying?
J: I was doing architectural engineering. Then I turned 25 and I was like, “I have to get myself together as a human being.” I got myself together and started working full time, around 2012. I was happy because I had found some stability in my chaotic life from the past. And then Rick Owens completely disrupted my life in a good way. In 2013 I was getting off midnights, and I got a message from [Planet Mu records owner] Mike Paradinas about using my music for a fashion show.
HH: By getting off of midnights, do you mean the midnight shift?
J: Yeah the midnight shift, swing shifts, which meant my schedule and sleeping pattern changed weekly. One of the things that made me leave that job was how you and I did Unsound together in 2015, and [revered music critic] Sasha Frere Jones told me that he really liked my show. I didn’t know who he was at the time and you were like, “Do you know who that is? That’s one of the hardest people to please musically.” I was totally petrified because before Unsound I had only done the MoMA PS1 warm up in New York, and that was like my first performance ever. Do you remember that?
HH: I remember how nervous you were for that.
J: Unsound was only the third performance of my entire career. I was a baby. I’ve been full throttle since then. My album Dark Energy came out March of 2015, and I quit my job, and you and I did Xpand together. We had no idea that Xpand would perform the way it did because we were just having fun. I remember calling you at the end of that year, I was at work. I said, “You and I are in the New York Times, The Best Songs of 2015. We’re number eight, under Missy Elliot.”
HH: I’d like to know more about your other collaborations, specifically your work with Avril Stormy Unger, because I feel like she’s had a pretty big impact on your sound. As she’s a dancer and movement is such a huge part of what she’s doing, I’m curious if her actual movement practice influences your patterns, and how that push and pull goes back and forth.
J: When Avril comes into the equation it is a complete push and pull. Sometimes she has to catch up with me and sometimes I have to catch up with her but that just depends. There is one track that I created that she will just absolutely not dance to, she feels very intimidated by it.
HH: Which track is that?
J: The actual track Black Origami. She refuses to dance to that, even though the track is actually very much designed after the way that she moves.
HH: Even though it’s modelled on her movement? How is it modelled exactly?
J: Because a lot of her movements are very spontaneous and sporadic. I would say she is folk contemporary, but she believes in anti discipline, so she doesn’t go with the flow of the modern Indian culture of dance. I could easily get behind somebody who does deal with contemporary Indian dance, or modern dance, but I like that she makes it a lot harder for me because I’m having to actually, literally either follow her lead or create something where she has to end up following me. It makes it very organic because you can see and sometimes feel the struggle between the two of us. You’re getting the vulnerability of her and [myself] in that moment completely.
HH: I noticed on Instagram that she’s been travelling into rural India. She posted a video where she had a pot on her head, she was standing, and with the pot on her head she was able to lay down and then get back up.
J: Yes she was in Rajasthan, and she went to learn several different forms of dance. She’s had a ball learning, but her greatest challenge right now is she wants to learn balancing those pots. I think for future shows she wants to have one of the pots be on fire because that’s the way they do it in Rajasthan.
HH: Well I really look forward to the future performance of you two with her flaming pots.
J: Me too. Hopefully I can survive through the performance to see it.
HH: That’s actually a nice segue. I’ve seen you play many times but there are two performances that come to mind most. With your  Unsound performance in Krakow with Avril, I really liked that she wasn’t really lit and the stage was quite low, so you were close to the audience and you could basically see her hair flying by and hands flickering. Like you couldn’t see the whole thing, but that was actually really nice because it still had the voyeurism of a performance, but you also kind of felt like part of the audience.
J: Me and Avril have this thing we both feel, because a lot of times when I’m performing, it’s not actually just me performing, it’s a fine line between your entertainment and my spirituality. A lot of times I don’t even know what I’m going to do. There have been times that I have mapped out a show and it takes me a while to look out into a crowd, it takes me a minute.
HH: But when you get into it then you flash your teeth and start shaking your hand up above your head.
J: Completely! I’m not saying I’m a shy performer, when I’m into it I’m definitely into it, those moments for me are almost hit or miss. There have been performances where I haven’t smiled or looked up once.
HH: Because you were nervous?
J: No, because I was just so focused. It’s this thing of ‘don’t look at me’, because I want people to feel the sound. Don’t look at me. I’m not even here.
"When I say I create from a dark place it means a non-complacent place, a place that is so uncomfortable for me. But for me that's not a bad thing"
HH: The other show that stuck out for me was your Pitchfork Chicago show. It was really different from the show I saw with Avril: it was during the day and the energy was amazing, and at the last minute you invited some footwork dancers on stage with you, and your family was there. It was a huge celebration. You were smiling the whole time during that.
J: My mom was right there, which was really nice, and that was the first time my dad had ever got to see me perform.
HH: They were totally beaming. But also it was interesting to see you performing with footwork dancers and how the dynamic of that show was really different.
J: I literally made that decision to bring the dancers on stage minutes before it was time for me to go on, and that was the first time I had ever done that. For me this was a pure moment of fun.
HH: If you consider Chicago to be a hometown of sorts, that was probably a big homecoming celebration for you.
J: Yeah it is right next to home. it’s not Indiana but it’s close, like 45 minutes away. I was meeting people who I had known about for so long, for the first time. It was a lot of good vibes so I was happy about that.
HH: I know you haven’t spoken about it so much in the press but is there anything you’d like to share about your experience of being a woman and a person of colour within electronic music?
J: I always get the question of: seeing that footwork is so male dominated, how do I feel being the woman? My response is my gender has nothing to do with what I produce. Have I been in a situation before where a guy has been chauvinistic towards me? Absolutely. But I don’t entertain it. I’m not minimising being a woman in electronic music, but just speaking for myself I try not to get caught in it. I feel like it’s sad that we’re still there. As far as being a person of colour that’s an all day subject. A lot of times people asked about the album title Dark Energy, like, “Do you feel like you were in a dark place?” ‘Dark’ has been taught to us with such a negative connotation, that it’s a bad thing. So you can imagine as a black person that when you think of the word ‘dark’ that the connotation is bad. But for me, when I say I create from a dark place it means a non-complacent place, a place that is so uncomfortable for me, and then having to dig and create from that. For me that’s not a bad thing, because it forces me. I’m having to pull from nothingness and that to me is everything. That is why I called the new album Black Origami. It’s the art of folding sounds into these beautiful complex things. That’s how I start. I love the fact that I have to dig from nothing.
HH: I like the idea of taking back the term ‘dark’ and turning it into something else.
J: Yeah for me it’s really important. It’s like a piece of coal gets put under so much pressure and it becomes a diamond. That is my process. I’m still under that constant pressure that I put on myself, and I like the fact that I’m never satisfied with my work. I like the fact so many times as a woman I’ve had to correct a guy who was like, ‘Hey bro, I love your track,’ and I’m like ‘No. I’m a woman.’ I love the struggle because it puts me in the spot that I don’t become complacent. As far as guys being chauvinistic, of course I’m totally against it. I hate it.
"I like the fact so many times I've had to correct a guy who's like, 'Hey bro, I love your track.' I love the struggle because it puts me in the spot that I don't become complacent"
HH: To piggyback off that a little bit, you’re touring the world at this point, and so you’re playing for totally different demographics of people from all over the place who are coming to your work from all kinds of different perspectives, and your rhythmic patterns are so particular. It’s not just like traditional 4/4. I wonder if you ever encounter audiences that, like, just can’t figure out how to dance to your music.
J: Oh of course! I’ve had audiences who have stood still and had no reaction and then at the end of the performance they’ve come up to me and said, ‘That was totally amazing, you blew my mind.’
HH: But how do you feel in those environments, is it alienating? Do you feel like you’re showing people something completely new?
J: I love it! I love the different variations of reaction. I love seeing people enjoy themselves. And I love seeing people really confused and not knowing what to do, because that’s how I feel when I make my music.
Dark Energy is out now via Planet Mu. Jlin appears at Club to Club, Turin, 1-7 November