TOKiMONSTA — born Jennifer Lee — was synonymous with left-field beats and vibrant collaborations before September of 2017. Coming up in the Los Angeles beat scene, she earned an early co-sign from Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint before going on to release on Ultra Records and her own Young Art Records. Lee has gained the respect of her industry peers, as her classical music background and intricate sound design always amounts to something special. Thus, it was particularly shocking to her colleagues and followers to hear that she almost lost it all.
In a recent Pitchfork op-ed, TOKiMONSTA came clean about her recent medical struggles that nearly took away her ability to make music. The artist was diagnosed with Moyamoya disease in the fall of 2015, which causes the main arteries in a person’s brain to constrict. If left untreated, can lead to an aneurysm, a stroke, and often an early death. She acted fast, scheduling and undergoing two brain surgeries (the only permanent solution to Moyamoya) in January of 2016.
Following the surgeries, TOKiMONSTA was forced to relearn basic motor functions like speaking and typing. Her extended bedrest in the hospital even made walking a difficult task. However, after she regained most of her normal functionality, she was still unable to comprehend the music she tried to make, describing her attempts as “metallic, harsh nonsense.”
Lee knew she had to take a step back from music production, focusing on her tours until she felt able to create again. Over a year later, TOKiMONSTA has officially returned with her new album, Lune Rouge, along with new sense of self:
I knew by sharing that story, it would very much come with a sense of responsibility. Once you share a piece of yourself like that, you are leaving yourself open to everyone… and I knew that once I came out with that story, from this point forward it’ll be something that is part of my identity publicly. Now people will ask me “How are you doing?” They will ask about my health, they will ask about things that are not necessarily related to my music, but in order to contextualize my album, it was very much necessary for me to share this personal struggle because if I hadn’t gone through that struggle, I would not have made this album.
After pushing past her struggles, TOKiMONSTA is back, strong as ever. Just before her dynamic show at Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, Dancing Astronaut had the privilege to sit down with esteemed producer to talk about her recovery, her new album, and her thoughts on the worldwide electronic music culture.
I feel like I can’t start this without mentioning the Pitchfork piece from last month. It was extremely powerful and inspiring to many people. What was the reception of the article like
It was very warm and positive. There was a lot of empathy and the way that people responded wasn’t like “Oh, wow, you’re cool.” There was a deeply felt kind of emotion to some degree. First of all, I had no idea anyone would care at all. To me, I thought it would be just another story; there are so many amazing stories that exist out there. But with the positive outreach and the kind things people said, also the ways in which people felt as though my story hit a chord with them and struggles they were dealing with, whether it was medical or not, I was definitely overwhelmed.
In that piece, you mentioned how personal this album was to you. When you have a personal album and interview like that, is it hard or nerve wracking to put something so close to your heart into the public sphere?
Absolutely. Before deciding to share that story, I thought about it very long and hard, wondering “is this something I want to share with people?” I had already gone a year and a half without anyone knowing, and no one would have ever known if I hadn’t shared it. It wasn’t visible or obvious in any way for someone to see that I had gone through something like that. The reason why I thought about it is because I knew by sharing that story, it would very much come with a sense of responsibility. Once you share a piece of yourself like that, you are leaving yourself open to everyone. It’s exposing yourself, but to some extent being responsible for those you impact. Not everyone has to feel that responsibility, but I know that I would and I knew that once I came out with that story, from this point forward it’ll be something that is part of my identity publicly. Now people will ask me “How are you doing?” They will ask about my health, they will ask about things that are not necessarily related to my music, but in order to contextualize my album, it was very much necessary for me to share this personal struggle because if I hadn’t gone through that struggle, I would not have made this album.
So speaking of the album, what has the reception on that been like?
As far as I know, this has been one of the most positive responses to any project I’ve put out. There’s always been a positive response, but it’s different this time around. It’s positive but it’s deeper. [The response] is not just like “These are cool tracks.” This album is as personal to the individuals listening as it is to me. That’s an impact that you never foresee but I’m always grateful to hear because it just means that you and this stranger who both care so much about this project have something in common with each other.
Switching gears here, you started to blow up around the same time EDM was making it’s way into the states (speaking of the recent EDM boom, not all electronic music). You’ve always ran alongside the scene, releasing under Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint but also Ultra Records. How do feel about where the scene has gone and where you see yourself in it?
It’s always evolving, and I’ve always been able to look into the future of electronic music in the US by looking at countries that have had electronic music as a norm for a while; looking at Europe, the way that they’ve maintained sort of larger-spectacle-EDM style music with regular electronic music and how they subsist next to each other. For me and my views on the US electronic movement, it’s almost like EDM was a gateway for people to discover types of electronic music. Because prior to that, even though we did originate techno and house in the states, it still very much stayed below the surface. EDM broke it through and now everyone has access to all the stuff that had been hiding underneath, behind all that shiny stuff. It’s almost like a gateway drug to all the possibilities of what electronic music can be. As far as where I stand, I have always been running in the sphere of how left, right, or center am I in this kind of conventional and more exoteric scale of electronic music. I’ve been kind of just existing doing what I’ve been doing. I’ve been slowly ending up a little more center, which is kind of cool. I’m not trying to be more accessible but everyone else is coming around to understanding what I do, which is even more amazing. Instead of people being like “your music is so weird, I don’t really understand it,” which is kind of what I got in the beginning, like a lot of head scratching, now people just tell me “this is beautiful music.” It’s still challenging in that it’s not Ultra conventional, but it’s now perceived in a way that people perceive other types of music.
You talked about the differing electronic cultures in Europe, but I’d also like to bring up the East Asian and Australian electronic cultures. It seems that they’re developing in a slightly different direction than here in America. Can you give us any insight on what’s going on over there?
Those are really good examples. I would say that Asia is very different in that they really like mainstream electronic music. For them, the floodgates haven’t opened quite as wide to below-the-surface electronic music quite yet. They really love the big house stuff, it’s still very big there. When I do play in those markets, it tends to be a lot of expats or Western influenced younger kids that are opening up. Australia is interesting in that, when you have an artist like Flume, who’s a pop artist, everything below that gets understood. My music is completely conventional and understood there. It’s not weird at all. You can still play music like his or mine in Asia and it’s very unusual. The dichotomy of that is very interesting because, they’re on the same side of the globe but they’re pretty far from each other. Australians really understand my style of music. A lot of Asia, they do get it, but not at the scale of Australia.
Another important topic in the scene right now is the representation of women in the industry. There was a new festival announced in Sweden called Statement Fest, which is an all women’s festival. Groups like Discwoman have been working for a while to represent women, and pretty much any time I hear a conversation about women in electronic music, your name is mentioned. How do you feel about the state of women in electronic music, and how can we work to attain a better balance in the scene?
It’s a conversation that needs to be had, but if we have to keep having the conversation, that means no progress is being made. I’m not a firm believer in separatism, it’s all about integration to me. I’ve said this many times in the past, I’d rather be someone’s 20th favorite producer overall than their first favorite female producer. The separatism doesn’t allow for change, it’s integration and making it normal for a big festival to have female artists, versus being like “screw you guys we’re just going to have our own.” But that’s necessary too. If you have an all female festival when females are currently underrepresented, it can be very helpful to those who go and get empowered by it. There’s always counterarguments, but I think these collectives and festivals do need to succeed. But for me personally, I would approach the other side of it, so that there’s a fair amount of people who deal with female empowerment through gathering and then me more through female empowerment through equality and integration.
Changing gears again, you’re known as a beat-maker but your music draws from many genres and styles, whether it’s jazz and classical, or influences from the Caribbean or Asia. How do you translate those diverse styles into a live set? What do you do to bring it all together?
I’ve always wanted all my songs and albums to tell a story. That’s a sort of attribute that I’ve taken from classical music, which tends to be very much like a story. With my live show, I want the entire show to be almost like one song, one linear story; something that brings you up and down and has movement versus being ultra-repetitive, like banger after banger. With the live show, you’ll have more of a full experience, something that you can meander and journey with. That would be the easiest way to explain it, but it’s almost like taking all my songs and turning them into one very long song that does things.
You see people like Bonobo bringing an orchestra or live band to their shows, is that something you’ve ever considered?
I’m always thinking of new ways to add, change, upgrade, differentiate my shows. There’s room for all of those things. Maybe at some point, I could do an all acoustic version of this with no electronics. I could have a string quartet, I could bring along a vocalist. I think it’s cool to have the option of having that or not. I’m good friends with Bonobo and there are points when sometimes he’ll have a string quartet, sometimes he won’t. As of now, I’m not sure if he travels with them but before, it used to be occasional. But to have a live set that’s somewhat modular yet is still effective; I don’t want to rely on all these other shows for things to be good. I know at the core of it that, if it’s just me and it’s still a great show, that’s the most important. Then we can start adding the other things that’ll just bring it over the top.
You’re a pretty frequent collaborator, anyone can see by just looking through your work. What do you look for in a collaborator? Is it usually just people you know and vibe with, or do you search for particular people and sounds?
All of those things. If I like an artist a lot and I’m fortunate enough to somehow get in contact with them, I’ll go and reach out, whether it’s in the DMs or an email or running into them at a festival. Other times, we’re friends first and just decide to work on something eventually. I guess the last means is if they reach out to me, and maybe I don’t know who they are but I find I really like their style. But in terms of going past the initial reaching out point, I make the best music with people I like and that like me back, people I can catch a vibe with and have a long-standing relationship with. It’s not like, “I made a track with you, goodbye.” It’s more like, “We made a track together, I’m in town let’s all hang out.” It goes beyond just the music part, it’s more internal at that point. We have something going on that make the music great.
You have your own record label, Young Art Records. What are your future plans for that? Any new releases or signees coming?
Yes! I would say that my goal with this label is to put out a bunch of new artists, try different avenues, and not just make it a music label but an overall creative label. Venture into technology and arts and all these other facets of creativity and have Young Art be this creative umbrella. Even though my interests are mainly in music, I do think that there’s a lot of room for music and technology and visual art and throwing events; allowing the label to exist in it’s own sphere without it always having to run by me. Ideally I would love this label to exist freely without it being “TOKiMONSTA’s label.” The label becomes so much of it’s own identity that the correlation isn’t necessary. Obviously, in all these different areas of creativity that I want to go into, I’d only want to take people from those worlds and create a platform for them to get seen. So if it’s a producer, create a platform for them to release music. If it’s a visual artist, have a gallery where they can have a showing. For technology, have programmers come in and come up with cool ideas for plugins or apps and have them all cross branded.
TOKiMONSTA’s new album, Lune Rouge, is out now on Young Art Records.