Jlin: Warrior of Art
On the heels of massive praise for her latest album, Black Origami, electronic music innovator Jlin talks with PopMatters about her methodology and the lessons learned on her pursuit of inner alignment.
The first time I read Frank Herbert's Dune, I was struck by the phrase "terrible purpose." In the book, it is used to describe the eventual result of a hero's painful journey: a bad means to a good end. When I read those words, however, I felt a different resonance. To me, a "terrible purpose" is the burn inside of a person to do something with their time on Earth. It's not potential, which is measurable only by the objective outsider. Fulfilling your purpose is an interior battle. The steps taken toward or away from its fulfillment make the sum of your life.
"Every time I sit in this chair to create -- every time it's been a fight. It's not easy."
Jlin is currently sitting in her studio, where she has taken a break from composing music for a collaboration with director Wayne McGregor. She's just returned from the European leg of her Black Origami tour, home for a few days before bouncing around the US. Her last few weeks has been a rainstorm of features, interviews, and much deserved praise from Spin, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Vice, and The Fader.
The best part about being on the other side of the promo cycle is that you get to see where the grass is matted and turning muddy. I start the call with a disclaimer: there's been enough written about Jlin and where she calls home, far reaching theories about its influence on her sound, that there's no reason to rehash it. "That's amazing, thank God," she laughs. "Say that louder so the ones in the back can hear you."
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Though analog gear has seen a profound (and purist) return, Jlin maintains a modest rig -- when I caught her in Chicago last year, she held Constellation in the palm of her hand with a Windows laptop and an Ableton Push. "I have a friend who's a modular synthesizer / drum machine freak, and he's good at what he does. I could sit for hours and watch him play with wires. If I come in with three million things of gear, it'd be so gimmick-based. It's not me. I like things simple."
Listening to Black Origami, Jlin's pursuit of simplicity helps keep clear lines of communication with her inner voice. Though each track oscillates between dense interwoven rhythms and well-crafted bursts of melody, there is a directness that seems to follow the impulses of both the artist and listener. "I don't make different parts and then go back and arrange. Once I start, I do it like a sentence. And the stories change every day. They never stay the same. And [as the creator], it changes for me different days -- some days I may hate something, some days I'll completely love it. That's important. That love and hate is important."
When I ask how long this process takes, Jlin wearily laughs. "I'm lucky if I get through eight bars a day." In the age of Against the Clock and first-on-the-charts SoundCloud remixes, this is oddly comforting. "I tell young producers, 'Take your time, because there is no rush.' I'm constantly learning things and it never stops until you stop and you say 'I don't want to do this anymore.' You have to keep pushing at it. It opens up. And when it opens up, it's over. You have to embrace those moments [of struggle], because in order to be comfortable you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. When I create, I'm drawing from nothing and I like drawing from that nothingness, because that forces me into a space that is not complacent. And I have to draw from my inner core and create. And I love that feel, I cannot create any other way now."
Jlin loves the battle of creation, but there is little love lost by having to move on from her early work. A sophomore album is a tricky thing to nail, as expectations compulsively mount from all angles. One of the most striking aspects of Dark Energy was the clarity of voice -- which made me wonder how hard it was to separate from that album to build anew. "It wasn't a thing of trying to not do it," she clarifies. "I was naturally not doing it. Because I was tired of it. It was like a person who hates broccoli: you don't have to tell them 'Don't eat broccoli.' They're just not going to eat broccoli."
Shaping from the gut helps keep Jlin's process deliberate, but freewheeling. "My work is very intuitive. A lot of people have this thing, because they hear a lot of the layers in my music, the first thing they start talking about is technicality. And I have to stop them and say 98% of my music is less to do with technicality and more to do with feel. Intuition. Impact. I know when something is right, I know when something is not right. I have a three trick pony: clean, precise, and unpredictable. And that's it."
In a younger producer's hands, this abstracted methodology would result in overstuffing and incoherence. "Just because you can fight doesn't mean you should go pick one," she tells me, Miagi-like. "You have to know when to strike and when not to. I can sit there and create all these drum sequences for something that doesn't require a heavy drum. It's the art of discipline. That takes time and it's a constant growth. And that changes because you change. Or at least you should -- as an artist, you should be evolving." The way she speaks this last word makes clear that Jlin's definition of evolution does not mean improvement as an artist alone."Before you can be dealing with music, the alignment of self has to be correct. Your personal life, not as a producer. I don't think you can ever know what your sound is until the alignment of self is there."
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Much of our conversation echoes Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, an excellent book for anyone interested in pursuing their passion (whether plumbing or music production). In it, Pressfield addresses how the demons people face internally manifest into the barriers that often stunt their careers. It's no surprise Jlin has read it: she reminds me about the section that introduces the concept of the Self: the preservationist voice underneath our Ego's destructive tendencies. "Before you can move into the musical, you first have to be aligned with Self. Once you have your alignment with Self, then move into your passion. It's a learning process. I'm still quite chaotic, to say the least. Even in that chaos, the alignment is there ... which is most important."
After a beat, she wonders if she's gone too granola for the interview. I assure her that if she has, it's my brand of crunch. One of the most powerful things Pressfield's book makes clear is how the Ego will use Fear to keep control over the Self. The Self then takes Fear and creates Resistance, which holds us back from the inside. When we nourish the Self, that Resistance weakens. To quote Dune again, "Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration."
I ask what she version of herself she hears when she listens to her old work. "I hear me trying to find the alignment. I can hear me fighting to find it. And when I actually found it was in 'Erotic Heat'. And then it evolved. Finding it isn't enough; you have to make it evolve once you find it. And there is where the process is." To overcome setbacks and rough patches through that journey, she's adopted a holistic acceptance of failure. "It flows. It's supposed to flow. And if it has a crashing moment or a clashing moment or some disruption -- that's all supposed to happen. That's all part of the flow. The imbalance creates the balance. I had to go through hell as a person, lose my confidence, to get to a point -- I could have easily stayed down but I had to get up out of that state. It's a conscious decision."
"It's all part of the pyramid shift."
This is something Jlin's mentioned in interviews before. The pyramid represents infinity and life as a multi-faceted object. It's a found concept, a departure from standard creative phraseology. "People always say they're trying to get 'out the box.' Well who made the box? [By saying that], you're probably creating another one and after the second one you'll create another five, I assure you. Eventually, you're sitting there looking at these boxes and you say 'how the Hell did I…'. That first restriction starts so many others."
Restrictions, then, might just be another form of self-sabotage. Before we end the call, I ask if she thinks people are just that afraid and she booms with a laugh. "Absolutely! Let's be for real: of course they are. Every day of their lives. There are people who actually know what their purpose is and they run from it like hell every day. I was once one of those people. Most people are afraid of how great they are. There's a degree in our human nature that only allows you to go so far and you have to consciously bust past your restrictions. You say 'Yeah, I'm scared as hell but Imma do it anyway.'"