Jlin and Michael Vincent Waller don’t seem like the most obvious compatriots: Jlin — aka Jerrilynn Patton — creates dark, fully electronic music, most notably on her critically acclaimed second album, 2017’s Black Origami. Waller is a minimalist classical composer whose new album, Moments, is filled with austere piano that’s been compared to the likes of Erik Satie. But they love each other’s music — and each other as people. In this recent conversation, they spoke about the act of creation and what they like about each other.
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
Jlin: I never asked you, because I usually call you Michael, but do you like Mike or do you prefer Michael?
Michael Vincent Waller: I go by either, but Michael is usually a little bit more formal.
Jlin: OK. Which one do you like? Do you like formal?
Michael: I guess so. I feel comfortable with it. It’s my proper name. How about you?
Jlin: I like Jlin. My real name is Jerrilynn, but Jlin to me is a lot easier, it’s four letters and it’s straight to the point. I just wanted to get that right so I can address you as Michael and not Mike. One thing I always wondered and I never got a chance to ask you: How long have you practiced classical piano?
Michael: In terms of actually pursuing it, probably around age 18 or 19. But I had a piano in the house and my grandma kind of was a self-taught pianist who used to play with me growing up. I never really studied it until I went to college. I studied privately, piano lessons, for about two or three years before realizing that I kind of wanted to pursue composition more. I remember telling my piano teacher at the time that I was going to stop studying piano and I was going to go study with La Monte Young instead, and that’s probably the last piano lesson I had. I continued to play piano as a part of my creation process and how I sketch things, but not really studying it.
Jlin: When you did study, did you enjoy it? Or did you find it to be frustrating? Did you ever cross that stage where you loved and hated it? Or are you still in that stage? Because I know some artists, they still … I don’t saying “master the craft,” but they become very efficient in it but there’s still a love/hate relationship between what they do. So did you find yourself in there sometimes?
Michael: I felt a lot of the time when I was trying to practice that I really would want to just play, and I would go into the practice rooms and have Bach or Bartók up and I’d play through it and I would enjoy discovering the music and letting that process happen, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy practicing in a formal way where I was trying to achieve some goal. I just enjoyed playing and kind of improvising and letting what happened happen. How about yourself? I know that obviously developing chops is a huge part of your sound and there’s so much mastery there. How do you approach practice?
Jlin: When I first started, I just had FL Studios at the time, which was called Fruity Loops at the time and then they switched it to FL Studios, and I had started in, let me see, I think I started in version six or seven. I think it was six, though, and seven was just coming out. I couldn’t get the thing to make a sound for a week! So I went on YouTube, and this was when YouTube had just started with the tutorials and everything, so I went on YouTube and I got to see how to get it to make a sound. I was watching the YouTube video and implementing the tutorial at the same time, and when I realized, “This is how you get it to make a sound,” I’m like, “Oh, OK!” I remember when I heard my first hi-hat, I was just like, “OK, I’m sold.”
I think very differently now than I did then, but one thing I didn’t lose is the innovation of it, the intuitiveness which comes with a lot of things not happening when you want them to. Not really failure, I don’t really like that word, because failure to me is when you make a conscious decision to stop something, but not being able to achieve the goal that I wanted to. It was a lot of that. But on one side of me not achieving what I wanted to at the rate I thought I should, what was actually happening was teaching me to be innovative.
Michael: Yeah. I think that at some point, whatever, no matter how much training you have, that usually some sort of the guiding light is this inner ear or ability to kind of let innovation decide your path for writing.
Jlin: Yeah, for sure. People think because when you’re innovative or say you’re innovative, it doesn’t require discipline, and actually it does, because you’ve been leading yourself kind of blindly for a long time. “Oh, now I’m disciplined in walking blindly,” basically is what it is. But it does make me really appreciate artists like yourself who studied classical, because you have a foundation, and I sometimes wish I did have the foundation so I can kind of know where to go. Every time I write a song, it’s a blank sheet of paper, just like I’m sure every time you write, it’s a blank, but I would have to say probably if I had to guess, and I could be very wrong, at least you’ve got a map, you know what I mean? Whereas I think a person that’s innovative who can’t read music kind of has to stumble into a map sometimes.
Michael: That’s interesting. So not to jump to some corollary, but when you were figuring out the map for the Kronos piece [Jlin contributed a piece to Kronos Quartet’s 50 For The Future project], where you were very explicitly trying to get to a finished score, did you think about that blank sheet any differently? Or did you think about the string quartet in a way where your voice could be easily connected to it, more so than a typical track or piece that you work on?
Jlin: I don’t know. I didn’t even look at it like that. I guess I looked at it like I was just writing at that point. I know it sounds really simplistic, but it was just like, “I’m going to write and let’s see what comes out.” I’ve done remixes for people, but this was different, because you’re writing a composition for another artist, and they were my first. I have a style, but I don’t have a formula. You know what I mean? I don’t have a blueprint to how I approach things. Sometimes I go live on Instagram, while I’m working, and one of the questions I often get asked is, “Do you start with the bass first? Or do you start with the kick first?” I just start where I feel like I should start, just really kind of feeling around. I feel like that’s how my best work comes out kind of is from this dark space of not knowing. I think there’s a beauty in darkness of not knowing and then creating as you go and then you see the light of it and it’s like a surprise. I love the fact that it’s as much a surprise element for me as it is for the person that’s listening.
Michael: That’s beautiful.
Jlin: Thank you. I have a cousin who took piano for 20 years, and I quit on my second lesson because I found it to be really tedious. But I love classical piano, I really do. Your album is brilliant and I think music appreciation in school is really important.I think sometimes it gets lost, because you have electronic instruments coming in so heavy now, but I think it’s a beautiful thing. I hear the argument, “You’re only a real musician if you use actual instruments,” but I think marrying the two is a beautiful thing, because I don’t think the arts should ever be separated. Where we have evolved from, technology-wise, nature-wise, whatever, this is just where we happen to be right now. People feel like I shouldn’t have been “graced,” as I read, for writing for Kronos. It was funny when I read it. Do you implement any electronic music into your work?
Michael: That’s a good question. When I first started composing, I was doing a lot of mixed media and laptop and drone, because that was kind of what was very … Artists like William Basinski were very popular at that time when I was becoming a composer, and they were working with all this granular synthesis and all these techniques. So I was very involved in that and in drone music. But there was a period where I started studying with Bunita Marcus and eventually stopped studying with La Monte Young, and it was during that period that I started to really listen to a lot of instrumental chamber music and really appreciate some of the subtleties. There are great, great electronic musicians and composers who are able to capture this with electronics and with different sampling techniques and mixing and kind of using spectrums of sound to build the final product. And it was just this personal kind of intimacy that I fell in love with; I just haven’t written a piece with electronics in 10 years.
Jlin: I can definitely appreciate that response. My favorite artist in the world is Sade, who is the complete opposite of what I do. If you find your own voice, I think that is what really is the most important, no matter how you find it. That’s not easy to do, because that requires you to trust yourself, which I’m still trying to do. And even when you get there, there’s always another level because you’re there’s a constant evolution happening to you musically as you grow.
Michael: You mentioned Sade, I was thinking about why I love your music so much and how there’s textures and sounds and orchestrations that maybe wouldn’t be the first thing that I would particularly want to listen to or something like that, some drum and bass or something like that. It’s not the first thing that I might want to listen to. But there’s this sort of enthrallment and kind of like almost getting completely succumbed by the sound, and it’s very contemplative, like Sade, in your music even though there’s so much intensity and kind of dynamics and complexity, but there’s a deep kind of contemplation and simplicity and kind of organic texture. That’s why I kind of see some sort of connection to our music even though the palette, somebody might say, “Oh, quiet piano music and kind of explosive electronic music, what do they have in common?”
Jlin: It’s so funny you say that. When I listen to your album, the complexity is the first thing that hit me. That was the first thing that drew me in. I don’t care if you’re using a drum or a piano or a violin or whatever, whatever your choice of instrument is, when I was listening to your album, though, that is what drew me, like when I first heard your work, even before your album, the complexity in which you play. Complexity carries an intensity, whether people know it or not. It’s like, sometimes something can be so simple and that is what makes it complex, or vice versa. So yeah, I totally, I completely understand what you’re saying with that, the link between us.
Michael: It can come in so many palettes and different backgrounds. It’s not something that you can inject into music.
Jlin: This may not correlate, but to me it kind of does, in a sense it’s like a person who has all state of the art equipment and then the music sounds like poo, and then you have somebody who has all hand-me-down instruments and it sounds great. You know what I mean? It’s just that what did you do with it, and to me, when it comes to you and the way that you project in your playing, the first thing that my ears hear and not just my ears, but the way that it makes me feel, it’s almost like, “You understand me.”
Michael: That means a lot.I remember the first time I heard your music, it was kind of a very interesting time for me. I had just put out my first record and so did you, and I remember just trying to listen to what was happening that year as it was just an important kind of zeitgeist moment, 2015, for me, to kind of really understand recorded music as a whole and really absorb myself into everything that was going on. I just remember thinking it was the best album that I had heard that year, and went to the MoMA and saw you at the PS1 and that was really the first time we met, andI’ve been a super fan since.
Jlin: My god, you know that was my first performance ever? Do you remember me telling you that?
Michael: I’ve told people that, that I was there, her first performance.
Jlin: I was so scared, like petrified-scared, because I didn’t know what to expect. You know what I mean? And my first crowd, it’s like four thousand people. Like really? Like come on, man. My mom was there, you met my mom, who also loves your work. She’s like, “We have to get to go see Michael in New York, or wherever he is. We have to go see him!” And so she’s also a super fan, like I am. She rode with me that whole trip … We flew out of O’Hare together, and I got there and I was so nervous. It took about 10 songs for me to get into it. And a lot of people didn’t even know that’s how I was feeling. This is actually the first time I’m talking about it. But I was just so busy watching the clock on my laptop like, “Is it over? Is it over?” Because I was so scared. But I love the fact that you were there to witness it, because it’s raw. I like that you got to witness it, I’m so happy you were there because we’ve been friends ever since, and it’s nice to be able to … You meet somebody and they’ve seen you in your completely petrified state and then you watch each other grow as artists, I think it’s beautiful.
Michael: Approaching an album versus writing a piece, how does that work for you in really distilling this cover, this image, this complete body of work as an album? I’ve been very captivated by the artwork and the whole process that I’ve seen in your work. It’s a different process than actually just sitting down and writing a piece.
Jlin: It’s so funny, because you basically just asked me the same question I was going to ask you: What’s the difference between you writing an actual album and then just writing pieces? For me: Damn, I hate to say it like this, but how can I scream as loud as I can? How can I scream as loud as I can from where I am right now, you know what I mean? But then let me explain the next part, and can I get a response back? I’m not looking for a response from the people listening, though. I’m looking for a response for myself so as when I listen back, can I hear my growth? It’s like more of a question and answer to myself, which is, to me very fulfilling. So when I’m writing a piece, that’s how I feel. But when it comes to an entire body of work, that’s like literally getting on a ship and sailing the waters that are, you know, it can be calm, they might start off crazy, you never know what the turbulence is going to be when you’re on the water. For me, that’s writing an album. Now the question back to you, how do you approach a piece versus your album or an entire body of work or a commission or a project?
Michael: I love that metaphor, the ship. I’m just thinking about that for a second. For a piece, I think I have kind of a similar approach to what you were describing, about how you don’t really arrange anything or once you say a sentence, there’s a period. For me when I’m writing a piece, there’s really two phases. One is gathering material, which is something that I really, really focus on. But there’s usually some image, that first image is usually a very, very important image to say, “This is something. This is a chord. This is a feeling. This is a melodic fragment that really makes me feel like it’s going to be something,” and that moment I write down. And then usually, sometimes not in the same setting, sometimes all in one setting, there’ll be another image that just intuitively follows that, and I’ll maybe create five images or four images that could be sections, could be minutes, could be a couple minutes in a piece, these moments that I want to sit with and eventually put into a composition.
When it comes to an album, I think the order becomes much more important, or I control it much more and become very much more conscious about it. That process to me is about distilling this whole. A good word would be maybe geography about everything that’s going on, what the label is and who the producer is and where I’m mixing it and who’s going to be involved in the project and who’s going to write the liner notes, and the album cover is so important to me, that imagery and that artistic kind of feeling, I find it’s just so important.
For reviewers and a lot of people who are focused on listening, it shouldn’t matter what the cover is, but there’s so many beautiful albums, like Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, with these very iconic images that connect the work, almost explain everything in an instant, that I really try to treasure the process. It’s searching, it’s a year-long effort to find these things and find out that I want to work with an artist who is going to do some illustrations of dandelions as an insert drawing or something like that.
Jlin: There is an art to being vulnerable, because when you finish a piece and you present your work as — cliché — blood, sweat, and tears go into it… When you put it out in the universe and you look back, I think…I love the fact that I can hear the growth between Black Origami and Autobiography. Do you hear the growth between your pieces?
Michael: Yeah, I can hear where maybe I was at that time, and then I think about where I was as a human. It’s beautiful in this way that you can’t really go back to how you used to think, but you can hear how you used to create. I think it’s kind of cross-fertilizing in your work, and sometimes I think about works that I wrote almost 10 years ago and how they were ahead of their time and maybe for myself and I wish I understood … I wish I could go back in those shoes of where everything was so fresh and writing a melody felt groundbreaking.
Jlin: People love the track “Guantanamo.” I remember being stuck on “Guantanamo” for eight months. It was a very trying moment, because I was getting ready to throw the whole thing away. I went back and eight months later, and I was like, “Where was this when I was writing?” Every time I hear that track played, even when I play it in a show, I’m very much reminded like, “God, this took me eight months,” which may not seem like a lot to a person, but for me, that’s the track that has taken me the longest in my entire career of doing this.
Michael: I really enjoyed this conversation and I’m so glad we didn’t prepare for it.
Jlin: I told you. See?
(Photo Credit: Tim Saccenti)