Though on the surface their music is quite different, Jerrilynn “Jlin” Patton and Holly Herndon have much in common when it comes to their approaches to making music. Both use very specific, precisely honed palettes of sounds and textures. Both construct tightly programmed rhythm structures that often relate back to – and usually go far beyond – various permutations of dance music of the last twenty or so years. Both have a penchant for using vocals (be they sampled or sung) in interesting ways as rhythmical and textural elements in their tracks. And both produce tracks that are dense and detailed, yet somehow never feel overloaded or stuffy.
With so much in common creatively, it's hardly surprising that Jlin and Holly Herndon have been good friends for years. And so it was a special treat to get a real sense of their mutual admiration when we recently spoke with the two of them together – comparing notes on their individual studio processes, their approaches to performance and their plans for the future. Naturally, the topic of a collaboration between Jlin and Holly came up as well. And while they have worked together in the past (Herndon’s voice appeared on a track on Jlin’s 2015’s debut album Dark Energy as well as on her new Black Origami album), the two producers have never been in the studio together, and so our conversation began with the following hypothetical scenario.
Jlin’s “Expand” features Holly Herndon’s voice
Ableton: So, if you were to go into the studio together, would you begin with a blank slate or would there be a sketch that would be the beginning of something? Basically, I’m curious about what the usual starting point for each of you is.
Jlin: For me, anytime I do anything it is a total blank slate – that’s partially why I call my album Black Origami, because’ that’s exactly what it is – it starts off as this pure, blank piece of paper then it begins to bend and fold and it starts to take shape. It’s like chemistry, I’m going through my sounds trying to figure out do I like this do I not? Not really “auditioning” sounds as much as trying to get a… I’m trying to feel it. Because I don’t consider myself as such a technical producer but more an intuitive one. So it’s a matter of feel for me, and I have to go through and figure out what that is, because if it doesn’t make the hair on my arms stand up, 9 times out of 10 I can’t do it.
Holly Herndon: It depends on the piece, I mean, some things are highly conceptual so it comes from whatever conversation I’m having, either with someone else or whatever material I’m reading. So if it’s a conceptual piece I’m coming from that kinda headspace, but there’s a mood or concept driving it or driving the process that I’m using. But in terms of just sketching stuff I usually sketch with my voice first cause it’s just the fastest and easiest thing. So if I was to go with Jlin, there would probably be a shy, nervous beginning where I would have some things prepared to get us started and then and as I started to feel more comfortable I would start real-time sketching with my voice, but we would have to warm up to that. (laughs)
J: Completely. Oh my God.
H: It’s probably the same for Jlin, she probably wouldn’t just start jamming crazy beats or something. Even though you know someone for a really long time… it’s like having sex or something for the first time, it’s kind of like this really intimate thing that you have to feel your way around, you know what I mean?
J: Exactly! (laughs) And that is the most vulnerable situation, and actually that was a great analogy, sis. For us, that is our most vulnerable space; she’s stepping into my space and I’m stepping into hers. First of all me and Holly have to get over the excitement of just being around each other, then once we get through that part we can do the music.
H: That’s the thing, with us it’s always like “I’m going be in town for 24 hours, let’s have dinner, let’s hang out.” We’ve never had a week to hang out and chill for a little bit and then go into the studio. I think that would be really important. But it will happen eventually, for sure.
J: Yes, we’re working on it.
A: One thing I find that you two have in common is that your music is… I want to say information-dense. What I mean is, there’s something happening in every part of the frequency spectrum, there are a lot of rhythmical intricacies going on, and a lot of motion in the sounds themselves – whether they’re gradually morphing or abruptly switching around. So, when you’re putting together such dense material, do you tend to work section by section and kind of string them together, or do you have a whole structure for the piece in mind and then fill that in?
J: Oh my God, no. (laughs) I’m not that good. But, my music is very layered, like Holly’s is. It’s so much detail – I think that’s what you’re talking about. And I have to say the advantage – and honestly, I mean exactly what I say – the advantage to being a woman in general, is I think we are a very detailed species. So I think there’s an advantage in that because when I’m listening to music I’m listening for what’s not there, not what is. The spaces that have not been filled.
Basically, it starts with two sounds and it really becomes just a thing of permutation and combination. Because what happens is, it starts off with maybe three really simple variations and what ends up happening is these three simple variations become nine very complex sequences and ideas. All the variations are still there, just switched so many times it sounds totally different now. I’ve never said this but I’m going say it: “Guantanamo” is a song that literally is the same sequence, but the variation of it was manipulated so many times that it sounds like I was always going to the next sequence, but it was really always the same thing.
I actually went on Instagram live last night, I can’t believe it myself… and one of the questions somebody asked me was why do you pan your hi-hats? I said, well to me when I’m panning hi-hats, I like the transition to be very impactful, so that’s usually when I’m panning hi-hats – right on a transition. That’s just one of the things I do, but as far as the detail of something, I really just think I have the advantage as a woman; we’re just detailed in general, honestly. I just happen to be musically inclined, too. (laughs)
H: For me, a lot of it is process-orientated. So my favourite moments in my music is when something was unintended, kind of like what Jlin was saying, not some grand plan that you have going into it, but an idea and then I will put it through some process and the process will make decisions for me and I audition it with my ear and I’m like, oh that part sounds really good. So I’m kinda leaving some of it up to surprise, so that’s one thing I really like.
But in terms of frequency range and kind of chaos and whatnot, I feel like a lot of that just comes from the fact that we’re computer musicians. I was working out the other day and some 90s… I think it was the Cranberries or something came on, some like 90s indie-pop… and I was listening to it and I was like, gosh, it’s so simple. Not in a bad way, but there’s just like a guitar-line, a drum-line and a voice, and that’s it. And a lot of that is because you had human beings playing in a room, physically playing these instruments and recording it, mixing it, whatever. And now we have these machines that we can make any sound that we want, any frequency range at any time. So it’s a completely different medium that we’re working in – I think that has a dramatic effect on the aesthetic, especially in terms of frequency range, layering. We can endlessly “Save as”, we can endlessly iterate, this wasn’t always possible in a studio – you did like one mixdown and that was it and now it’s like, oh let me go try this, I’ll do a “Save as”. So I think our generation… we have an entirely different toolset.
A: That brings up the next question: because you can endlessly “Save as,” when do you know when it’s done?
H: That’s a good question. That’s a hard one. (laughs)
J: When it comes to knowing if a project or song is done, that’s a matter of experience I think. Because nobody knows better than you. For me, the hard part is starting, but once it’s started I never have to go back and rearrange and that comes from the experience of time and a lot of trying and failing. You know, you can feel and hear the flow of a thing, especially if you know yourself as a musician and you can guide yourself.
H: For me, in terms of when something’s ready to release I feel like I rely pretty heavily on people who I trust to get feedback. Because sometimes I get so deep in the rabbit hole that I have trouble seeing clearly myself so I really like to play stuff for people whose taste I trust. And then we’ll have a conversation about it and then decide whether or not it’s ready. But it might be kind of a hokey answer to this question, but… in a way I feel like the tracks are never really finished. So if I make a track and it has all these crazy layers to it, and then I play it live, it’s not going be the same thing. There’s going be an extended jam and I’m going to change things up for a live environment, so it’s going to have a new life in that environment…
…And maybe some kid is going take a sample from it and make a remix and put it on Soundcloud and then that’s like another life of it. Or maybe I send Jlin some stems and then it has this other life. There are so many tracks I have that have so many freaking stems that I really wanna revisit; that little stem in there got lost in the shuffle, got overwhelmed by all this other stuff but it’s a really beautiful little stem and someday I think I’ll go in there and revive that stem in a different way and remix it into something else. A track is finished in the sense of it’s printed on vinyl and put out into the world and given at title and given a Spotify tag and all that stuff. But in terms of the practice, it doesn’t really finish.
Jlin performing with dancer / choreographer Avril Stormy Unger
A: And because you just mentioned taking a piece out into the live situation – is that a whole separate process for each of you, getting ready to play things live? Holly, you say you change things up for performance, or maybe reduce or extend parts. Is that the same for you Jlin?
J: Erm, no. I guess when I’m going to do it live… I guess as strong as the piece is… I think I’m selfish, honestly. (laughs)
A: In what way?
J: In the way of I have to tell people I’m a professional bum - I’m 30 and I still live at home with my mom...
H: So not true, oh my God. (laughs)
J: … who happens to do music from time to time… No, but really, when I make something it starts off in my room, in my intimate space. And when I go to make something, the reason that I won’t change it up – I probably will at some point but not right now – why I like to play it out as it is, is because I want the audience to experience exactly what was happening in my room at first. Because you know, my room is small and I can’t fit a whole audience in here so, yo ya’ll, this is what it was like, and then I just play it out.
A: I’m curious about something else that pertains to playing live: both of you make music that is pretty energetic, very rhythmical, and closely related to various sorts of dance music. It seems the audiences that you both play for, are often not necessarily a dance crowd or a club crowd. How does that work for you, playing to a festival audience that’s maybe just nodding their heads when you’re throwing all this rhythmic energy at them?
H: I like playing in all different kinds of contexts; I think it was maybe a little weird a few years ago when things were maybe a bit more separated as like, this is the experimental camp, this is the contemporary classical camp, this is the dance music camp. And each of those separate genres or spaces have their own or orthodoxy associated with them, and I tend to be allergic to that way of making music or celebrating music, especially together in person. So I always try to break that down a little bit. But I feel like that’s no longer necessarily that new or challenging, I think a lot of people are doing that, a lot of the club music I hear is really challenging or isn’t necessarily like four to the floor all the time. So yeah, I think audiences have somehow changed. I don’t know how you feel about it Jlin?
Holly Herndon often performs in a trio formation with Colin Self and Mat Dryhurst
J: I know I get tired when I walk into a space and I’m hearing the same four count for five hours, I can’t take it. I don’t mean to be mean because a lot of my friends make four to the floor music, and I love them, but we often have this conversation... it’s like when I go and play somewhere where this same thing has been going for the last five hours and then I play and there’s a complete switch up and by the end everybody’s like, oh my God, this was crazy, this was great. But then – and I hate to say this, not to be a butt – but lot of times I’m thinking to myself “You’ve just been listening to the same beat for the last five hours and you don’t even realize.” You know, I’m not saying that my music sucks or is great or anything, I’m simply saying that I’ve just basically switched up what you’ve been listening to – the same thing for five hours from five different people.
Like Holly was saying, different audiences definitely don’t bother me – from a dance club to a museum to a fashion show to a ballet, to a movie score. You know all these different audiences, we’re all in the same pot. I think when people don’t understand something they have to tag it, put a name on it, they have to label it. I understand reference, I get that, but what I’m saying is when you start separating the arts themselves and then you start putting differences… like Holly was saying, “...this is classical, this is dance, this is EDM, this is IDM”. It’s like, it’s fine, but at the same time you’ve created this divide. When I started out making footwork tracks I went through this whole period of “Is Jlin footwork, is she not footwork, what is she doing, is she in the middle, is she post-footwork?” Sometimes it is OK if you don’t understand something, it’s ok to leave it nameless, that’s fine.
H: And in terms of festivals it’s really the job of a good curator, to put people… people might come to a show to see one person but then get to know someone else, even though they’re quite different, but there’s some kind of connection there. Jlin and I make very different music but we love playing on the same bill together and it works together, even though it sounds very different – those are the most fun bills for me. It’s always really boring, like Jlin said, when it’s just like the same act over and over. And also when it’s the same sound over and over it tends to be the same kind of person making it over and over, and that’s also very boring.
J: And that’s so important, because if everybody is in the same genre on the line-up, I think that’s ridiculous, because to me you rob the audience of hearing different things and they should get their money back. Give your audience some variety. Not just the audience, musicians too, because that’s how collaborations start sometimes. It’s like, ‘oh man I love your sound!’… that’s how me and William [Basinski] started.
“Holy Child” – Jlin’s collaboration with ambient artist William Basinski
A: So, one last open question to both of you: what are you working on now, and where do you want to take your music next?
H: Well, I’m trying to finish an album. So I’m working with an ensemble that I’ve put together here in Berlin. And this album writing, recording and editing process is way more laborious than anything I’ve ever done before just because there’s so many people involved. But it’s really rewarding to be working with real people in physical space. I really wanna get this album done because I really wanna put it out there. So that’s like a top priority. Also with my partner we’re working on an AI baby. We have an AI baby that we’re training on our voices; on our voices and on the voices of our ensemble. Yeah, it’s learning how to talk and how to sing, so it’s freaking weird.
H: So that’s what I’m working on, just going down that rabbit hole.
A: What do you have on the horizon, Jlin?
J: Many things and I can’t talk about any of em. (laughs)
But I will say though… and it’ll probably sound super crazy, it’ll probably sound weird, some people will understand some people won’t, but I’m always trying to touch infinity, which is why I’m never satisfied. My favourite piece is always, like, the next song. To me, my music, or production, it’s a big math problem, that’s all it is. And I do love solving it. And then some things simply have no solution, or multiple solutions, most of them. So yeah, I’m always trying to touch infinity always creatively.
H: Well, one exciting thing that we both have coming up is I think we’re going take a holiday together this winter. But I’m not going tell where. We’re going finally take the time to go on holiday.
J: Yeah, we’re going be human beings and have feelings and emotions and take the time to go and enjoy ourselves. Not that we don’t enjoy ourselves as musicians. But when we actually get to say ‘oh my God, the sun is out, I get to actually enjoy it and roll around in grass and stuff like that.
A: That sounds good. So, after the AI baby and after infinity, a holiday.
J & H: Exactly!
Keep up with Jlin on Soundcloud and Twitter.
Keep up with Holly Herndon on Soundcloud and Twitter.