Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I spent a good chunk of the end of 2016 watching a clip of the Indiana-based musician Jlin performing at a music festival. The dancing—or, more specifically, the footwork presentation as soundtracked, expanded, contracted, and exploded by the musician—was both the key to and somewhat incidental to the process that is experiencing one of her songs. It wasn’t so much that she was apparently pursuing any one train of thought; rather, this action was about the possibilities of everything taking place: from the physicality of the movement on display to her joy in recognizing and appreciating what this kind of rhythm can do to and through an audience.
In the time between my first encounter with that clip and the release in May 2017 of her second full-length album, Black Origami, Jlin’s sound has become less directly tied to any one scene and more grounded in a worldly experimentation. I spoke with her at the beginning of the fall, when she was finishing up a collaboration with Wayne McGregor, a process that entailed, among other things, waking up at 2:30 AM everyday to work with the London-based choreographer.
Jibade-Khalil Huffman I became interested in your music haphazardly, through an end-of-year list or something, but it immediately struck me. I’ve been thinking about your work in terms of tone and mood and in relation to the visual. Knowing that you don’t use whole-cloth vocal samples, like of Mariah Carey or whatever, but you’ll sample snippets from films, I was wondering about those visual influences on your work.
Jlin As far as my music goes? Or in general?
JKH Ah, both actually.
J I don’t conceptualize anything, so I’m very abstract musically. I’m speaking from my core and then pulling that thing out. It’s not really too deep. It’s more an expression of self, what I’m feeling at that moment. I never have a concept, I just go in blank slate all the time. If someone were sitting with me and they said, “Jlin, what is this gonna sound like?” I’m gonna have to tell them I have no idea. I’m just as much in shock as you are once it comes together. Yeah, that’s the way. (laughter)
JKH Standing on the outside, there are all these ideas you can come up with for how your music is made, so it’s really interesting to hear you don’t know.
J I have no idea. I’m not a religious person, you know, but I’m interested in being the channel of an expression of something. If it were conceptual, it would be different, but it’s not— it’s abstract. I have no idea what I’m gonna do, ever. It’s totally different.
JKH Do you work on things in chunks, or is it like you get an idea and you’re sort of seeing that idea all the way through?
J When I made “Guantanamo,” it took me eight months.
JKH That one track?
J Yeah, that’s probably the only track where it had to “set” for that long, but it can happen. It took me a year to finish my last album, Black Origami, then I jumped into working on this ballet I composed for Wayne McGregor, working on that in chunks. My day started at 2:30 every morning. I was working on it while doing shows on the road. I had to slow my shows down so I could focus on the ballet. Wayne is in London, so he could be up at 2 AM my time. Not that that’s why I was doing it, or that he needed me to do that, but that was when I noticed I was getting the most work done. So honestly it just depends on me. If I need to get something done, you know, it just is what it is.
JKH That’s incredible getting up at two in the morning.
J (laughter) Yeah, it’s quite a task! I would say to any artist: Do not put an album out and take on a major project at the same time. I had to basically complete an entire ballet in two and a half months.
JKH I want to talk about footwork a little bit, about the differences between making music for a battle versus for a company of dancers.
J Every aspect is different when you’re doing it for a company. I’ve done fashion shows, too, runway shows. Things are never the same. And the minute you think they are, you’ve screwed up. You completely put a lid on it, shut it down. Even when I produce, I don’t care if it’s for somebody else or if it’s for myself, no track is ever the same. They all have different energies; they’re all their own entity. I don’t create from, “Oh, this sounds like Jlin,” or “I’m comfortable with that, and that’s what I’m gonna do.” You’re asking to be categorized. That’s why, unfortunately, when you listen to the radio, five out of six songs sound exactly the same.
JKH Totally. It’s similar in film, where things are color-graded the same way. I read that you talked about maybe moving abroad, living in Europe, which would seem, given what you do, a very natural jump. But then at the same time when I think of you, I think of Gary, Indiana, in this other sort of zone. I wonder what that means to you—working locally, thinking globally—and what that does for the work. What does a working space mean to you in terms of your process or how you relate to the culture?
J You mean like working at home?
J I mean my home is my peace. I’m thirty, and I still live at home with my parents. My parents and I get along—I live here, they never tried to kick me out. I’m very blessed to have a space where I can always come to work. My tranquility, my peace of mind, they’re not just nothing to do with production—if I don’t have inner peace I can’t produce anyway. But you know that’s life. There’s nothing drastic or deep about it, but your inner peace is everything and mine happens to be in my house and my room where I create my work.
JKH Right, if it continues to work for you, why mess that up? Somebody was just asking me about your former day job.
J Oh yeah, I was working at US Steel. I was the mobile equipment operator. So I worked in this department called Batch Anneal where they wash the steel and actually bake it. Once it cooled off, I would transport it to another department so it could run through the tin line. I did that for about four years.
JKH So that was like right after college?
J That was maybe about three years after college. I started when I was twenty-five, and stopped at twenty-nine, and took on music full time at the end of 2016.
JKH For me, it’s only been about a year of just doing this full time.
J It’s a transition.
JKH It is, it is. I don’t know how it is for you, but I still, in a way, clock in. If I gave a company eight hours to pay my bills and to eat, I want to give myself at least that same amount of time. I don’t physically clock in, but I think, Okay, I’ve done at least this many hours today. And that could be just sitting here in the studio thinking. It doesn’t have to be actually making a thing.
J Yeah, of course, you do what you gotta do.
JKH I was wondering if you could speak to your influences. Who are some influences people might be surprised that you have? And it can be music, art, film—
J I wouldn’t say influences. I would say inspirations. Nina Simone is definitely one. Eartha Kitt is another. Serena Williams. Joni Mitchell. Igor Stravinsky. Nikola Tesla. The people I name are beyond genius. Prince is another one. He was beyond genius for real. They set the trends for eternity.
From Nina Simone, I started paying attention to Bach. I was always interested in Coco Chanel because I loved the ideology of taking simplicity and making it complex, which is what I try to do musically. A lot of my music sounds like it’s all over the place, but it all ends up coming together in its own way, and that’s why I say each one of my tracks is different. Each is its own entity with its own energy, own spirit of whatever it’s carrying. And I feel like each person I named who inspired me, each one of their works, each accomplishment, they all have different energies. They’re not the same, because the journey was different.
My favorite artist in the world is Sade. And our music, of course, is quite different. A lot of people find it weird and say, “Your music is so intense, how can you like Sade?” For that very reason, because Sade is something I’m not. I don’t want to sound like Sade; Sade is a gift within herself. A lot of people, I’ve noticed, when they like someone, they go try to sound like that person. I did not want to take that route. You rob yourself of what you sound like.
I haven’t made footwork tracks for quite some time, but back when I did, I asked my mom to listen to this one track with a sample. I asked her, “What does it sound like? How does it sound?” She said, “It sounds good, but I know what they sound like. What do you sound like?” And that changed my aspect on everything—how I listened, how I heard, how I responded, how I produced, how I composed. The way I hear things is not the same as before because it made me have to find out, What do I sound like? It’s easy to imitate somebody. It’s hard as hell trying to figure out who you are though.
JKH Can you talk more about the idea of making simplicity complex?
J When I was in high school, math was my favorite subject, and it still is today. I was fascinated by two particular parts of mathematics: combination and permutation. Permutation is when you have an order of something, but it cannot change. An order or combination can be anything as long as it’s within the set sequence that was given. Musically, I’m more in the zone of combination. And the other thing about it is, when I’m creating, it’s like a proof—I have the answer, but I have to find the question. And so that is what I’m doing a lot of times when I’m creating musically. What the hell is the question? That’s what’s important. I’m kind of solving in reverse.
JKH What you’re doing now, you’re not making footwork. So what would you even call it? Would you just say you’re a musician?
J I would say it’s experimental. It really is this chemistry every time I sit at my chair to create. Or I would call it naked. Because once I do it, I’m completely vulnerable. You know, you can like it, hate it, be indifferent, or however you feel about it, but I’m still naked. Even in the experiment, I’m still naked.
JKH Your wide swath of inspirations makes a lot of sense to me. I’m similar in my listening, jumping from Michael McDonald to DJ Rashad. I was just curious to hear what you would call it.
J I listen to everything. I do experimental listening, too, frankly. When you make those jumps like that, that’s what you’re doing.
J You’re trying something new out. What are these Tibetan bells? What is this Mongolian throat singing? When you’re open to it, I think it changes your perspective. Everything can’t be rap and R&B, country and blues, jazz and techno. I get pissed off when people are like, “Oh, I can’t classify it, so it can’t be anything.” No, you just too dumb to classify it. And it’s okay. You don’t have to classify everything. The media has an issue with being upset at the fact that they don’t understand it all. You don’t have to understand everything, you’re not meant to understand everything, and that’s okay.
JKH I know. It is.
J The media has to stop being narcissistic. And good luck with that. When you want to control everything, that’s when it becomes an issue. Some of the best musicians are never heard because they cannot be classified. When Rachelle Ferrell first came out, they had no idea what to call her. So they tried to move her into jazz. Nina Simone was a classical pianist.
JKH She had actual classical training, yeah.
J She wanted to be a classical pianist, but they pushed her into jazz. When she wanted a job to make ends meet, they told her, “You gotta sing if you’re gonna be doing this.” And that’s how she got started, but that was not her intent. Curtis Institute turned her down, and, two days before she died, they said, “Oh yeah, we’re gonna honor Nina Simone.” Why would you wait until she died? That’s how a lot of this goes. It’s ridiculous.
When I worked with William Basinski, a lot of people were so confused, they were like, “Okay, wait, wait, wait. What? William Basinski and you? How does that even go?” I said, “Oh, are the arts separated now? Because William is more into ambient and I’m into experimental, are the arts now separated like that?” I mean, what is this?
JKH That’s another one that, to me, makes so much sense. Just as an artist-to-artist thing.
J The same thing with me and Wayne McGregor. It really is artist to artist. And that’s it. I’m not hung up on who you are, you’re not hung up on who I am. These are two artists coming together to collaborate, creating something. It’s no deeper than that. They are two people willing to trust each other to create. Or however many people, whoever’s in your circle at the time. And why should the arts be separated? We did that. Media did that. We separate everything. Humanity, music, everything is categorized. It’s ridiculous.
JKH It’s cool to me as someone observing your work, how you’re seemingly able to walk these lines and do basically what you want to do.
J I’ve been in situations where I was basically called stupid because I didn’t wait for someone who should have been on my second album—we had a difference in the work we were collaborating on. Everybody else thought I should have waited and was in total panic mode, so I had to work around them and push past them to make a decision. This happened to Beyoncé, too. I think it might have been B’Day, but one of her albums where they literally sat her in a boardroom and said the damn thing was gonna flop. Not only did it go platinum like I don’t know how many times, but can you imagine if she had rolled with what they said? It takes a lot to trust yourself when everybody around you is saying, “No, don’t do that.” I had that with this album, that’s the truth. And that was a risk I took. I just so happened to be blessed. I leaped and made the jump. It’s as simple as that.
JKH That’s a great thing.
J People need to know that. It’s something that should be talked about—it’s a real-life human experience. You face life decisions like this every day—it doesn’t have to be musically—where everybody around you is saying, “If you do that, here’s the risk.” Well shit, we’re just gonna have to take the risk then! And if you with me, you with me. If you not, I understand.
JKH I don’t know about actors or dancers where you’re working more in collaboration—but musicians, writers, artists, there’s at least this initial part when you’re just by yourself. So even if you don’t have those people telling you those things yet, you have these doubts. Doubt is the equivalent thing.
J Hell, I’m already fighting myself, what you think I got time to fight you, too? (laughter) That’s the truth, I’m happy you said that because that’s true.
JKH There aren’t enough hours in the day is what I always say.
J One of the tracks I made for the ballet is called “The Abyss of Doubt.”
JKH And it really is an abyss. That’s the best word.
J It is. Mastering the self is an abyss of doubt constantly. If you can accept that, you’re on your way. But it’s a task. It’s a fight from hell every single day. I’m not gonna lie to you—it is. You have some great days, some okay days, and some treacherous days. Treacherous seasons. When I’ve had creative blocks, they were straight up and down the hardest moments of my life. I feel like my world as I know it is over because I don’t have any ideas. Not just ideas, I have a complete block. I can’t feel anything. I can’t hear anything. What the hell? I’m sure you can relate in many ways.
JKH I know that feeling, definitely.
J You hate everybody. You don’t want to talk to nobody. You don’t want to play outside.
JKH How do you deal with being blocked?
J Go through it. (laughter) There’s no other way. I try to do things like watch a movie or just leave the workspace altogether. Go to the grocery store.
JKH Just step out of yourself for a second.
J Exactly. Take my mother to JoAnn’s because she wants to make a quilt. Fine. Me and my mom go to Whole Foods, the bank, run errands—I’m out of cereal, she needs salad. Hey, I’ll take you wherever you wanna go. Just get me out of this space.
JKH The way you were talking about leaps of logic in what you’re listening to, it made me think of poetry. Specifically a poet who passed away recently, John Ashbery, who was a major influence on me and other poets. That was the thing about his work—the leaps of logic that it takes. It’s so much like thought. It’s so close to that.
J I think what you read is always important. I have moments where I get into crazy things, but I also go into these zones where I black out everything. I don’t read. I don’t listen to music. I don’t do anything. I’m just in a wide-open space. I put silence into my life on purpose.
JKH Wow, you don’t even listen to music?
J Yeah, I don’t listen to music. Even if I’m riding in my car, it’s silent. I have to put myself in those moments of solitude and silence ’cause that all plays a role. There is as much silence as there is noise in my life. And the balance has to be there.
There are times when I do a show that I’m not listening to my music at all. I’m feeling my music, but I’m not listening to it. I know it so well that I know when the next song comes in, when the next rhythm comes in—I know all that stuff, but I’m not listening to it.
JKH Not really listening.
J I did a show in Paris one time where I literally was listening to something else. I had headphones on listening to Missy Elliott while I was doing the show.
JKH I don’t even understand that.
J Yeah, my friend thought I was playing, so I showed her, and she was like, “Are you serious? Isn’t that chaotic?” Another thing I do quite often is hum Nina Simone while I’m playing the set.
JKH Last question: This is a super generalization, but if poetry is the literature of hip-hop or rap, what is the literature of, let’s call it, experimental music?
J The literature of it?
JKH Yeah, because when I make the connection with poetry and rap, there’s obviously a rhythmic and cadence-level connection, an attention to language.
J I do have an answer, but you might not like it. The literature for experimental music is blank pages. At least for me, blank pages. You have to fill it in. It goes back to what I was saying: you have the answer, but you don’t have the question. You have the result, but there are no words on the paper. You have to write it. Everybody’s truth is different, everybody’s literature is different. No literature is the same.
JKH But it starts with that blank page.
J Exactly. My literature is not the same as Nina’s, my literature is not the same as Rachelle Farrell’s, or Sade’s. All of our literature is different. There is no reference point. Everybody has their own truth to write because that’s your journey to take. But if we all had a starting point of literature, I’d say we’re all starting at blank pages.
Jibade-Khalil Huffman is an artist and the author of three books of poems. His work has been exhibited at the Hammer Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and ICA Philadelphia.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.