On October 19, 2018, six days after producer Jerrilynn “Jlin” Patton performed at the 16th annual iteration of experimental-music festival Unsound in Krakow, Poland, she decided to cancel her appearance a week later at the Semibreve Festival in Portugal. “I’ve never had to cancel a show due to my health, but this time I have to,” she wrote in an Instagram post at the time. Patton had worked for years at a U.S. Steel mill in Gary, Indiana—she left that job in late 2015, nine months after releasing her debut album—but she says she’s never experienced anything as exhausting as her tour schedule. To recuperate, she flew to India to stay with her girlfriend, illustrator and designer Nafisa Crishna, who lives in Bangalore. “I was dehydrated, my stomach was upset,” Patton says. “She just nursed me back to health until I could function again.”
Thankfully Patton is functioning again—last week she performed two nights in Abu Dhabi, her first appearances since Unsound, and on Saturday, February 16, she plays a late-night set at Pitchfork’s new Midwinter festival. This multiday event focuses on avant-garde, fringe, and outre music, and presents more than two dozen artists in various spaces at the Art Institute of Chicago from Friday through Sunday. Five musicians appear in the museum’s galleries all three nights, among them Portland guitarist Marisa Anderson and Chicago vocalist Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux, while the marquee names (whose sets require “add-on tickets”) play in four different halls and auditoriums. Jlin is among the most enticing, though she shares the bill with plenty of high-profile talent, including chameleonic composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson, ambitious jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, postrock veterans Tortoise (performing all of 1998’s TNT), and British shoegaze favorites Slowdive, whose 1995 album Pygmalion Pitchfork reissued in December in conjunction with record club Vinyl Me, Please.
Patton, 31, suspects that the fatigue that laid her low last fall had its beginnings in 2016, when she was working simultaneously on two major undertakings. Her shape-shifting second full-length, Black Origami, came out on Planet Mu in May 2017, and by December it seemed like no “best albums” list was complete without it. She also scored a stage show by internationally renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor, Autobiography, that premiered at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London in October of that year (Planet Mu released the music in September 2018). “I would tell anybody, ‘Do not ever do two major projects in one year,'” Patton says. “I did it, but it definitely beat me.”
Patton, who lives with her parents in Gary when she’s not flying around the world, upended her entire schedule while working on Autobiography. “I would sleep from six in the evening to two in the morning, and I would start working at about two, two-thirty,” she says. “I could get into the workflow. Once everybody got up, I probably was in the groove by then, so it was fine. I would work up until six. It actually got the job done.” Because McGregor and his team were on Greenwich Mean Time, six hours ahead of Gary, this routine allowed Patton to stay in real-time communication with them. Two in the morning for her was breakfast time for them.
McGregor created Autobiography using his own sequenced genome, which in turn shaped an algorithm that generated a new structure for every performance, reordering the 23 sections (one for each human chromosome) that fell between the show’s fixed beginning and end. Patton wanted to respect the choreographer’s investment in the piece, so she wrote the score with utmost care. “I went vegan during that period—I just wanted to detox,” she says. “Wayne’s piece, I considered that one more important than Black Origami—Wayne trusted me with something so intimate. His genome. That’s a deeply intimate thing, and so I took all of that to heart. That’s why I just wanted to be as clean as I could get, and then write.”
The 13 movements in Autobiography‘s score vacillate from ghostly and serene to visceral and hyperactive, and like all of Patton’s work from Black Origami forward, they belong to a genre of their own. Threaded through her current sound, though, are clustered hi-hats, rapidly hiccupping vocal samples, and other hints of the adrenalized Chicago-born dance-music style that first inspired Patton: footwork.
Add-on tickets for Tortoise, Deerhunter, Serpentwithfeet, Grouper, Kamasi Washington, Panda Bear, and Jlin are sold out. Check midwinter.pitchfork.com for updates. Fri 2/15 through Sun 2/17, 5 PM, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, $50 per night plus add-on tickets ($15-$30 apiece), three-day passes and Saturday base tickets sold out, all-ages
Part of Pitchfork Midwinter. Sat 2/16, 10:30 PM, Chicago Stock Exchange room, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, sold out, all ages
Patton was four when she first heard footwork at a neighbor’s house. “I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and I just never forgot that sound,” she says. “That’s how it started, and I loved it ever since.” She first tried making footwork herself after she enrolled in Purdue University Calumet (now Purdue University Northwest) in August 2005. She’d signed up to double major in computer graphics technology and architectural engineering, with a minor in mathematics, but music increasingly took precedence.
Patton spent much of her free time on streaming site Imeem in search of new footwork tracks and artists. In the late aughts, she began to communicate with a network of Chicago producers on MySpace. The first person she contacted, Avery Seaton (who now goes by DJ Seven Six), sent her a copy of FL Studio in 2008. “The first week I couldn’t get it to make a sound, and I was like, ‘Man, forget this, I’m not doing this,'” Patton says. “Then I went to YouTube one day, and they had FL tutorials up—I watched one and I was like, ‘Oh.’ The first sound that I made, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in! I’m a musician!'”
One of Patton’s three favorite discoveries on Imeem was a producer named Clarence Johnson, better known as DJ Roc. In 2005, the year Patton started college, Johnson had cofounded a footwork production collective called Bosses of the Circle, and it’d been going strong for four years when Patton messaged him out of the blue with a track she’d made. “I liked her music from the jump,” Johnson says. “When I asked her where she’s from, I’m like, ‘Really? Indiana?'” Patton became a member of Bosses of the Circle without further ado. “It was cool, ’cause I was at a really low point in my life,” she says. “It was nice to be a part of something.”
Patton was unhappy with the way her studies were going. “I was running away from life—’cause I didn’t like my majors,” she says. “I should’ve just majored in math and left it at that.” She’d developed a powerful love for math, particularly calculus, while still in high school, and to this day she works on math problems to calm her nerves: “It’s just a relaxing thing.” Instead of going to her classes, Patton would hole up in the school’s Gyte Building, which housed several science labs, and work on tracks. “I would do calculus by myself in the basement of that building for, like, four hours before I would start making music,” she says.
Patton found her voice as a musician as her academic career fell apart. She dropped out of college, but her tutelage under Johnson continued. “We was even doing sample battles,” he says. “She make a track, and I make a track off the same sample.” Johnson also helped connect Patton to influential London electronic label Planet Mu and its founder, Mike Paradinas, aka producer µ-Ziq. In 2010, as Johnson prepared his first full-length for the label, The Crack Capone, he also helped recruit other producers for Planet Mu’s first footwork compilation, Bangs & Works. Johnson told Patton about the comp, and in June 2010 she reached out to Paradinas on Facebook.
“I was befriending many producers from Chicago—I needed their help to identify tracks on YouTube battle videos,” Paradinas says. “Jlin was very friendly and helpful.” Patton had offered Paradinas a couple of her tracks for Bangs & Works. “Her initial tracks were full of spirit and rough round the edges, much like other footwork tracks from that time,” Paradinas says. He’d finalized the compilation’s track list before Patton submitted her work, but he hadn’t settled on a name, and she was happy to help on that front too: she suggested using the title of one of DJ Trouble’s contributions, “Bangs & Works.”
Planet Mu’s second Bangs & Works compilation, released in November 2011, included two tracks of Patton’s, both of which she’d previously posted online. “I used to put up these videos on Facebook,” Patton says. “I put up ‘Erotic Heat,’ and Mike came to me and said, ‘I gotta have that on a compilation.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and he said, ‘I want “Asylum” too.'”
“Erotic Heat,” with its froggy synth loop, cross-stitched hi-hats, and rattling percussive patterns dropping into the mix at unexpected angles, became Patton’s breakthrough. American clothing designer Rick Owens used an extended version of it to soundtrack his Paris Fashion Week showcase in 2014. Patton, who’d taken a job as a mobile equipment operator at U.S. Steel in 2012, brought her mom to Paris for the occasion—she saw it as an opportunity to make amends for dropping out of college. “That’s why it was so important for me that she went,” Patton says. “Because I was like, ‘I’m not a failure—I messed up, but I’m not a failure.'”
When Patton told Paradinas about Paris Fashion Week, he suggested that Planet Mu release a full-length of her music. With help from producer and labelmate Jamie Teasdale (aka Kuedo), Patton finalized a track list for what would become her first album, Dark Energy, which came out in March 2015. At that point she was using FL Studio, a digital audio workstation called Reason 6, and basically nothing else—she was following advice that Teklife cofounder DJ Rashad had given her after they first connected on MySpace in the late aughts. “He said, ‘Don’t go out and buy a whole bunch of equipment. I know some of the musicians with all the equipment in the world—they sound like shit. Don’t do that. It’s not the equipment, it’s you.’ I never forgot those words,” Patton says. “I didn’t have any equipment when I made Dark Energy. Nothing. Zero. That’s just funny. And for as many accolades as that album got, I had no equipment.”
Dark Energy sold well enough to let Patton quit her job at U.S. Steel and focus on music full-time. “After the success of Dark Energy she gained a lot of confidence,” Paradinas says. Patton also began to drift away from footwork. “The second album, it started to change drastically,” she says. “My pyramid shifts constantly—but Black Origami, the closer I got to the end of it, that’s when that shift was really, really happening.” One obvious sign that Patton had begun working with a new musical language was her choice of collaborators on Black Origami—most notably composer Holly Herndon and sound artist William Basinski (who also performs at Midwinter this weekend). She’d been pen pals with Herndon since 2011, and she’d met Basinski at a show in Los Angeles. They were bound to cross paths eventually, given the rarefied musical world in which they all travel: like Patton, each has a hard-to-classify aesthetic that pushes its idiosyncrasies so far that it’s basically a genre with just one practitioner.
Although Patton worked on Black Origami and Autobiography simultaneously, she’d nearly completed her own record before really diving into McGregor’s score. “I was procrastinating on writing, ’cause I was scared,” she says. “I was like, ‘How do I start this?’ And so I got this text message from Wayne one day—he wasn’t trying to push me or anything, he literally just was like, ‘Hey, I can’t wait to hear the first piece.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I haven’t even started writing yet! I gotta jump on it.’ Right when he sent that message, the ball started rolling.”
McGregor took a hands-off approach to working with Patton. “The one thing he told me that I really appreciate, he was like, ‘I want you to just write—I’m not micromanaging you,'” Patton recalls. “He said, ‘I love what you do, and all I want you to do is create.’ That was it. He was the vision, and I was the audible, and we put it together.” McGregor gave Patton a copy of one of the foundational texts for his show, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2016 book The Gene: An Intimate History. Patton also studied YouTube videos of public Autobiography rehearsals to help her create complementary sounds.
Patton wanted to make music whose imaginative complexity and constant evolution would reflect not only McGregor’s essence but also what his show says about all people. “As much as it is personal—it is about him—I also think it’s about humanity as a whole,” she says. “Our vulnerability, our happiness, our anger, our sadness. We all go through these different emotions and variations and phases of life, and that’s what I was trying to capture.”
Planet Mu released the Autobiography score in September, roughly a month before Patton canceled her Semibreve appearance. “I felt like I was cracking, and my nerves felt like I was about to snap—I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this,'” she says. “I made that call—it was really, really important. I’m happy I made it, ’cause I honestly couldn’t have done it.” She’s spent much of her time since then in Bangalore, and she also joined Crishna’s family on a holiday trip to Sri Lanka. In January, after several months off from writing music, she got back to business, working at a desk next to Crishna in her Bangalore studio. “When I started back, I was like, ‘Man, I missed this,'” Patton says. “I missed the writing. I missed the fun part—that exhilarating feeling. I can hear my growth, and that’s a beautiful thing.” v