solo act

Jerrilyn Patton spent her days in a steel mill and her nights creating otherworldly beats.  Here's how a brainy kid from Gary, Indiana is bringing a Chicago sound to a worldwide audience — and making the music her own

E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune photo

E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune photo

By Cindy Dampier . Photos by e. jason Wambsgans

Jerrilynn Patton had just finished up her mind-numbing, 12-hour shift at U.S. Steel's East Chicago mill when the call came in. Bone tired, she picked up the phone.

"What would you think about your music being used in a fashion show?" said her friend Mike Paradinas, owner of Planet Mu records in the U.K.

"OK, sure," she answered.

"Rick Owens would like you to make the music for his show in Paris," Paradinas continued.

"OK. Sounds good," she said, thinking that she couldn't wait to lie down.

Stretched out back at her childhood home in Gary, "I thought about what he was saying," Patton says. "And after a minute I was like, 'Wait, Rick Owens? Like, Rick Owens who just did a collaboration with Adidas? So I got my computer and looked it up and, sure enough — that Rick Owens. I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'This is crazy!' "

Patton — who makes music as Jlin — was on her way to Paris Fashion Week.

From the steel mill to the Paris runways was a quantum leap, but also just one point along a larger trajectory. Patton's arc is that of an art form born in Chicago but finding its audience in Europe and Japan; of a composer giving birth to music that is hers alone; and of a quiet, geeky kid from Gary mapping a path for her life.

E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune photo

E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune photo

Patton's burgeoning career as a producer of avant-garde electronic music now counts Owens' February 2014 fashion show as a highlight, alongside a 2015 debut album, "Dark Energy," that topped best-of lists, and concert dates dotting the globe. It all emanated from her bedroom in Gary — giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "solo act."

Between shifts at the mill, Patton spent hours alone in her room, incubating a sound. It started with Chicago footwork, a genre that had fascinated her since childhood. She vividly remembers hearing it for the first time at age 4, leaking from the headphones of a kid down the street. "I asked if I could listen to it, and I put the headphones on and it was a sound I had never heard."

Footwork had its genesis in the late '80s on the South Side, where DJs saw the genre's trademark dance moves emerge. "I used to see these guys form circles," says Kavain Space, aka RP Boo, one of the sound's originators, "and inside of the circles you'd see certain moves and think, 'Wow, this is something totally different.' "

DJs made tracks at a jittery 160 beats per minute, a pace that inspired footwork's frenetic moves and spawned a dance-battle culture that drew kids from the South and West sides and south suburbs to roller rinks, parks and clubs. "Footwork just came out of nowhere. It just blossomed," says Space.

Meanwhile, Patton was growing up in Gary, a math whiz only child who inhabited a world of her own. Like many families they knew, both parents worked in manufacturing, her dad Jerry at Kraft; her mom, Donna, in management at Nabisco.

"I was kind of in my own little bubble in a way," says Jerrilynn. "My mom worked a lot. So this house ran like the military. My life was a little bit different from my friends' lives."

On weekends, says Donna, "There would always be music playing, we'd be dancing, cooking: Soul food and soul music, that's what I love."

Her parents' record collection was Jerrilynn's first musical influence, ranging from jazz organist Jimmy McGriff to Joan Armatrading, Al Jarreau, Sade and Prince. Sunday nights were movie nights — a tradition that continues. "You know how people relax on Sundays?" Jerrilynn says. "Instead, we watch documentaries. So, I'm like, a nerd." She loves anything Egyptian, and biopics on people such as Nicola Tesla and Coco Chanel.

In high school, Jerrilynn felt bullied and retreated further into her shell, though she stuck with debate and other academic teams. "It hurt my confidence," she says. "I didn't really feel like I could do anything, and I wouldn't try for anything unless it was academics."

In college, intending to study engineering, she hit a wall. "I was watching my friends, they were in school and doing fine, but I hated it." She stopped going to class, and spent hours in the library, making footwork music on her computer. Eventually, she left school. "I didn't do drugs, I didn't drink, I didn't do anything," she says. "I just was literally trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life." She asked her mother for forgiveness "I sat at the kitchen table and told her I would make it all up to her" and, at 25, decided to take a job in the steel mill to "get my life back together. I had stability in my life at 25, and I was grateful to have that job, be able to take care of myself. And then here comes this interruption of stability when I turn 27, saying your life could be so much bigger than this."

It was a disruption at 160bpm: Social media had opened the footwork world in Chicago to Patton, who had been in touch with top DJs such as DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, and RP Boo. And she met Paradinas, whose record label is known for leading alternative dance music trends in the U.K. and Europe. She offered up ideas for Paradinas' 2010 footwork compilation, including giving it the title "Bangs & Works," and sent him some of the tracks she had been creating. They were OK, he recalls, nothing over the top.

But Jerrilynn was still working away in her bedroom. "She would go in her room for days," says Donna. "She was so focused and so dedicated to it."

"I had done a track with a sample of Teena Marie's 'Portugese Love,' " Jerrilynn says. "My mom came in my room and sat on my bed, like she always does with every track, and I played it for her. She said, 'Well, it sounds good, but what do you sound like?' And that changed everything. From that moment I changed what I was doing."

"She came up with this track 'Erotic Heat,' " says Paradinas, "which suddenly was like 'Oh s---, she's created something new here.' " He included it on his second compilation, released in 2011, and the music of Jlin was launched, as an extension of footwork but also as a sound all her own. It caught the attention of the music world almost immediately.

"For whatever reason," says Derek Walmsley, editor of U.K. independent music magazine The Wire, "she was coming from a different place. It was an intriguing take on footwork. It's music for dancing, or nodding your head to, or having a smoke to maybe but she's obviously got a lot of interesting ideas going around in her head, too."

"I create from the belly of the beast," Jerrilynn says, "from the very essence of yourself, that place that nobody wants to go to, facing yourself. Maybe that's why my music is so intense." Her tracks, technically rigorous, dark and almost abstract, rely on intense percussion rather than words or obvious samples to convey emotion and mood. "I like that creatively I'm abstract," she says. "If you say too much, it ruins the imagination. I like it when there is no reference point." The track titles, like "Black Ballet," "Unknown Tongues" and "Mansa Musa" are intended as thought-provoking questions, radical departures from classic footwork titles.

The response was more than she bargained for. Music for fashion shows by Owens, Chanel and Adidas followed. ("I didn't just make it up to my mom," she says with a grin, "I got to take her to Paris Fashion Week!") She had her first-ever performance — at MoMA PS1 with an audience of 4,000. ("I accepted before I even knew how to perform," she says. "That was my first party.") She took a crash course in mixing at RP Boo's house, and got her first real equipment. Her debut album arrived in 2015 and ended the year on best-of lists from publications such as The Wire and Rolling Stone. "People were messaging me to tell me I was on those lists while I was at the steel mill," she says. "How can you tell everyone at a steel mill, 'I was in Rolling Stone this week.' " In December, she walked out of the mill for the last time, to pursue her music full time.

Her July 16 performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival will mark Patton's first in Chicago, an almost-homecoming for a new-order footwork star. "People are gonna see Jlin and say, 'I didn't know her!' " says RP Boo, also on the Pitchfork bill July 16. "Well, now they are gonna know her."

"I've been all over the world, played all over the world, except Chicago," says Patton. "I'm not nervous at all — I just know we're gonna have a good time." Maybe when you start out at Paris Fashion Week, it's a little easier to be relaxed. "You get there," she says, "and you see how big your life can really be."

Twitter @csdampier