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The Innovator: How Jlin Is Altering Dance Music’s DNA

The Indiana electronic musician on how she’s engineering the sound of the future

Rising electronic composer Jlin discusses why her work can't be contained by footwork, or any other genre. Photo: Madhumita Nandi

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f you’re ever feeling bored with new music, like you’ve heard it all before, don’t give up ”“ just hit play on a Jlin track. The 30-year-old Gary, Indiana, electronic musician is evolving faster than the world can keep up. A few years ago, she was a rising star associated with footwork, a high-tempo house variant born in Chicago clubs. Then, with her second LP, 2017’s wildly innovative Black Origami, she pummeled apart the very idea of dance music and found weird beauty in the shards. And on her next project ”“ an original score for British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s group-performance piece Autobiography, due to be released as Jlin’s third album this fall ”“ she backflips from there into ambient psychedelic space and beyond.

“I’m not a footwork artist,” says Jlin, who’s known offstage as Jerrilynn Patton. “If you listen to this ballet and you can’t figure that out, I question your credibility.”

She’s an early riser, as she explains over a 9 a.m. granola breakfast at New York’s Ace Hotel, 12 hours before a performance at a mini-festival in a Times Square multiplex. In her red-and-yellow Cleveland Cavaliers hat and hoodie, matching red sweatpants and Timberland boots, she has a relaxed, unflashy look, aside from a sleek black-and-gold Tissot wristwatch that she picked up on tour in Krakow, Poland last fall. “I had just finished my ballet, and I was leaving to go to Amsterdam,” she says. “So I treated myself. It was expensive!”

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When she started work last on the music for Autobiography ”“ in which McGregor’s company of toned dancers writhe, tangle and jab in patterns inspired by the choreographer’s recently sequenced genome ”“ Jlin felt lost. “Sometimes you have a mental block at the worst possible time,” she says. She went vegan in an effort to detox her body and mind, and found her way to 13 tracks that range from eerie minimalism to lurid celebration. “I was pulling from all directions,” she says. “There are pieces in there that don’t even sound like me.”

The score peaks with a claustrophobic collage called “The Abyss of Doubt,” where sampled shrieks and synth stabs do battle with ominous dialogue from the 1976 film Carrie (“They’re all gonna laugh at you!”). It comes across as a funhouse-mirror reflection of her experience as a verbally bullied high school student. Back then, she turned to math as an escape; she loved the way AP Calculus taught her to think backwards and forwards at once. “That’s the way I create my music now,” she says. “I have all the answers ”“ now what is the question?”

Jlin says she’s tired of the assumptions that some people make when they learn she’s from Gary: “People have this cliché, stereotypical thought that you grew up in the hood and you make it out. My life wasn’t like that. Actually, my life was very sheltered.” Her mother, who worked in upper management at Nabisco when Jlin was younger, remains one of her closest confidants. She was there when Jlin provided a live score for the London premiere of Autobiography last October. “She was proud,” Jlin says. “I went to my dressing room, and on the door it said, ‘Composer: Jerrilynn Patton.’ Like, Oh, my god. It’s real.

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Before she makes another solo album, she says, she’d like to catch up with Karen Lee, her favorite math teacher from high school: “When I have the time, I’m going to ask her to retrain my brain.” First, though, she needs to finish her next prestigious composing gig ”“ a commission from the avant-classical Kronos Quartet ”“ and make a few last tweaks to the bonus tracks for the McGregor score.

As she’s finishing her granola, her phone rings. “Thank you, Mom,” she says. “I will.” She hangs up and smiles: “She was calling to tell me to knock ’em dead tonight.”

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