Mastering Time: An interview with JLIN


Jlin has always felt like an artist out of time. Ever since her first tracks found their way onto the internet at the turn of the decade, the producer from Gary Indiana has stood out from her peers in footwork and juke. In the years since she's continued to expand the pallete and the possibilities of electronic music with each successive release, culminating in Autobiography, the score she composed for Wayne Macgregor's ballet of the same name. 

As one of the most consistently innovative artists in the game, it was an honour to chat with her ahead of her show at SonarLab on Friday 19th July, about her approach to playing live, her longstanding collaboration with Holly Herndon and her early morning work schedule that would put most artists to shame. 

Hi Jlin it's really early (8:30 am) so thanks for thanks for connecting at this time.

Well actually this morning my day started at about 3:30 

Oh wow. 

Yeah, because I like I'm creative in the morning so I like to write in the morning. I'm working on a a commission right now and I'm really in the zone. 

Do you have strict working hours, like, do you treat it like an office job?

I'm strict with it but honestly I get up earlier so I don't feel like I'm doing office hours!  As matter of fact my first break is at eight o'clock so I like that I'm already in the zone by the time everybody else is opening their eyes. But on the weekends, I get up later, like 5 or 6 Am.

You're making me feel really lazy.

Haha. This is just what works best for me. It's not for everyone. 

So, we've been following your career for a few years now, and we'd love to know if you remember what year you first played. 

Yeah, I remember. The first time I played was by night. And it was pretty crazy. I was overwhelmed. Because at that time, I was going through a lot of stress. And  being surrounded by so many people at one time, kind of was pulling on me. Now it's like 'No, of course not'. But yeah. Then, it was like 'oh, oh, boy'.

That was in 2016 right?

Yeah. I'd never really seen what a festival in Barcelona was like, that amount of people. I was like, 'Whoa, at Sónar go they go up!'.  But you know, it's more intimidating for me when I'm in a crowd of less people than I am with more people. Because the more people there are, I start feeling like I'm in a room by myself. Because I always feel like nobody's paying attention. But when the crowd is smaller, I always feel like 'Oh, damn'. As a matter of fact, the entire time I was playing that set I distinctly remember I felt like I was in my bedroom. When I was a kid when I used to have the teddy bears set up by my bed pretending they were the crowd. And that's how I felt then.

You mention 'playing for yourself', which is interesting as your music can be a deeply personal experience when you're listening to the albums, but at the same time you play these big sets where everyone's dancing. Do you play more for yourself or for other people? 

It's an experience for us both. Not because [the crowd is] there. But because I'm very vulnerable. And they're vulnerable too, whether they know it or not. Because they don't know what to expect. I mean, if you've seen me play before, it's kind of like, okay, I I know what I've heard you play, but you don't know what I'm going to do. You know what I'm saying? So it's just kind of like, we're both in there sharing an experience. And I like that because it's the human experience. I mean, something crazy as hell might happen. Like, I've been in situations, like you're watching somebody play that you really like, and then all of a sudden a computer dies, you're like damn! you know? It's just real. Like, it ain't just no facade where everything looks good and shiny and perfect, 

Do you test tracks out live? Or are your productions and your live performance completely separate?

That really depends on the show and what mood I'm in. I mean, there are times I have played everything I like.  Recently, I just played everything out, like, I was doing all of the drum parts [from the records]. And then there are times when I just I'm like, you know, I'm gonna let this play because I'm trying to accomplish something else. So it just depends on how I feel.  What I do live is not completely, completely different. The song is the same but I perform it differently in the sense that I may be breaking the basslines. I may be reading the percussion section, or I might be doing both, you know, just depending on what mood I'm in.

 For me. I love to write, I love to be vulnerable in my music. And i like it when people listen back and build on their own experience of the track versus coming to watch me do it. Don't get me wrong,  I love that people support me and come my shows. And I'm always be appreciative that of course, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that when they do listen to it on their own, it's their personal experience now, versus just mine when I made it. I really I think that's important.

You've always been known for creating sounds from scratch, rather than using other peoples records and manipulating them, which is kind of the standard footwork template. What made you start doing this instead of what everyone else was doing? 

Because I have a voice. And I have a sound and I wanted to discover what that was. Because I knew it was there. I always knew it was there. And then my mom validated this by asking me 'What do you sound like?' And it was my duty to find out what that was. Of course every genre musically, is a constant evolution, whether it's footwork, whether it's jazz, whether it's, you know, bluegrass, whatever. I want to discover me how far I can evolve, I want to go to infinity, I want to master time, I don't want time to master me. That's a conscious decision that I made. 

That makes sense actually, because every time I see you play, it feels like a constant progression.

Yeah, it should be a constant progression. You know, I love that. And it's funny. Holly, Herndon always tells me every time she sees me, 'It's not a sprint, it's a marathon'. Three years ago, my life got kind of hectic. And I was always on the road, I was always working, I was saying yes to every show. Then it  just got to a point where I got up, and everybody kept saying, you know, slow down, you don't want to burn out. And then I did last year, I burned out. My last show of the year was supposed to be in Portugal. And I was in Indonesia at the time. And I couldn't do it. I could not make myself get on the plane. I contacted my management. I said 'I can't do this'. You know you have to be cognizant of what you do. 

What really interests me is how you listen. It's like, the sounds that you choose to incorporate at each point in each track seem really well thought out.

I'm very cognizant about what I put into the atmosphere when I create as well. I think that's, I think that's step one. I'm real conscious about that. I don't just put shit in the air. You know, I don't just put some random something out because it sounds good. There is a reason. You know, there's an intention behind it. There is, you know, I'm just not out here like, Oh, yeah, this sounds hot. Let me put that out'. Now, don't get me wrong. I've had moments in the studio. Everybody does. You have a moment. I mean, especially when we call it what we call happy accidents, where it's like, Oh, damn, that is hype! 

I was wondering, when you're writing, when you're composing, do you see it? Some people see it as a visual structural thing? Right. So they see the lines in the program and they, they, you know, you're seeing it in your head as a sequencer. But again, with you, it's not that I sort of feel that it's more like an instinctive thing 

I'm not a technical composer, or producer in any shape, form or capacity. So when people ask me tech questions, I  usually kind of giggle on the inside, because I'm like, I'm the wrong person to ask this. I'm inuititive. To me that's what music creation is. When I create, I'm just the vessel that it's coming through, know what I'm saying? That's why I don't want people asking me 'Yeah, can you teach me a master class?' I tell them no, because I haven't mastered anything. I'm still evolving. You constantly keep growing. And you constantly keep evolving. And you make mistakes along the way,  moments where just your balance is completely thrown off. Like that is important. Because that's what makes you not just as an artist, but as a person. And that personal experience is what creates the music.

Life is a learning process...

Absolutely. And I don't think anybody has mastered anything. Honestly, I don't. I think that you have some people who have more experience than others, but not 'masters'. I consider myself probably one of the most down to earth people. I'm silly as hell. Goofy. I'm still growing, I'm still immature and in  a lot of ways I'm just trying to get this shit, right. Like, you know, like, in, right, in the sense of not right, like, it's a right and wrong way. But I'm just trying to be an example to the next person that's coming through.  Like I say to people all the time; 'I'm lucky if I get 2  bars on a bad day.' Cuz somebody's gotta be real. A lot of times, you know, you're looking at a YouTube video, thinking 'Damn, this is genius'. What they didn't show you was the edits. . And it's like, i'm going to tell you that. 'Yeah, I was in the studio all day for 30 hours for something that came up to 30 seconds'. Because that's real. You can identify with that, because that's where you are right now. This ain't just plug and play. You really got to work at this and work at this. And you know, you could be the best of the best, but you still gotta work it.

It's about showing the reality behind the perfect instagram picture. 

Oh, my God right? Please stop telling these kids... stop presenting this, like, perfect face to the world. 

This is actually my next question. One of the themes we're looking at at Sónar is about the next 30 years of the internet. So how has the internet shaped you as a creator and a person? 

Yeah, like a lot. Yeah, definitely. When  I came into Myspace, I never thought I was going to be a musician. I really was just on Myspace. And I remember during that era I was just listening. A DJ friend  happened to send me a cracked version of FL Studio. So, you know, I was like 'I wonder what can this do?' I remember I couldn't get it to make a sound for the whole first week. YouTube was just kind of popping off, so I got on YouTube to see you know how you make this work. I started at the end of 2007. I worked and worked and worked at and I started to develop the skill. I wouldn't say I was good. But I started understanding what I was doing. In  2009 Erotic Heat was made and it was different. I was scared to put it out. But I did it anyway. So I throw it out there and people was like, 'Yo, I never heard nothing like this'. So I was just like, 'Okay', and then I got approached by Planet Mu and you know the rest is history.

Do you think that could happen now? I mean the rise of nationalism as opposed to globalism and the way that corporate interests control the internet… It kind of feels like we're going backwards. 

It doesn't faze me at all, because I feel like you cant stop something that's for somebody. It may pause you for a second, but it won't stop. I'm person that believes in the infinity. So, you know, the ones that supposed to hear will and the ones that won't they won't. You know, and that's okay, that's life. I'm not I'm not operating in the light of fear. I'm operating in the line of creativity. So I can't it's not my business. 

But even if this means the creative opportunities aren't there anymore for like people coming up behind you? 

Okay, let me let me let me double back for a second. Because for me, I meet people every day on the net. And people that also depend on you as a person, because I make myself very approachable. So if you see me on the street, or you see me in public, or you see me on the net, you can hit me up. Like, you create your own space. That ain't just technology. Where you got to start first is by being a human being.

Going back to music, last year at Sónar+D, Prince's sound technician Susan Rogers was speaking, and she said the future of music would be 'tonality' as opposed to 'rhythm'. I was wondering what you saw the future of music as sounding like 

I think music like it goes back to life. Music can go into any direction. It's an infinite. Such an infinite subject. How many times have we watched music join the entire world together? It happens every day: I may not understand what you're saying, but we like the same song. It's what we're about. It's a universal language. So I feel like it can go in so many different directions. Like, for example, when I hear, you know,  a dance track to play in the club, I'm like, well, who says it just has to play in the club? It could be a movie. It could be a ballet, it could be a fashion show. Could be be an art museum. I think it's in our nature to put a limit on things , because we like to have control, but it doesn't have to be like that. 

So it's not just about what that music sounds like. It's also about what you can do with it. 

Yeah, exactly. What can you do with it? Okay, I make this music, I have this gift. And this applies to you as it could apply to everyone. But it's like, instead of thinking just in one little box, you, think about how you can apply it to something completely different.  When you reach a space you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. You have to be willing to not be complacent. You have to be willing to not be in a space where people like this one type of track. Where's the duality? Where's the versatility?

Talking of versatility, you've just done a ballet with Wayne Macgregor (which totally blew me away) and you're also working with Holly Herndon on her latest project. What was the experience of working with AI like?

Firstly, working with Holly is always a joy. Because with Holly do things on whims. There's never been a project that she and I have worked on where we sat down and planned it out.. We just in the lab and experimenting, and like, 'Ah, that's cool'. Then it evolves into something. And that's the way she and I have always worked. We've been friends 10 years now. When we came to work  with Spawn, it was just natural. Even though it's an AI, it didn't feel artificial,  Everybody loves to ask, deep questions. But here you got two people who love being around each other, and they create something. That's what happened.