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TOKiMONSTA: In Conversation

Jennifer Lee, aka TOKiMONSTA, has always been a dominant force in the LA scene, working with everyone from Anderson .Paak to Gavin Turek to Kool Keith. Recently, she revealed that last year she underwent a life-saving operation to combat a rare neurological disease called Moyamoya. The operation was a success, but during the recovery, Lee found herself unable to speak, understand language or make music. It took months for Lee to reach the stage where she could confidently produce material again, but once she got it back, Lune Rouge was the result.

Featuring the likes of Selah Sue, Isiah Rashad and MNDR, it has all the familiar touchstones of a TOKiMONSTA album, but it feels more emotionally charged, despite the fact that it never directly references the conditions under which it was produced. There are classic influences worked in, and the album cycles fluidly between pop, RnB, hip-hop and EDM. Lee has been touring extensively over the past few months, and she’s currently working her way across European venues, including XOYO for Mystic Bounce’s 1st birthday.

‘I Wish I Could’ was the first track on the new album you put together, at what point after that did you release that you were working on another full album?

Just a month prior, I had two major surgeries on my brain that left me unable to make music. So up until the point I made ‘I Wish I Could,’ I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to continue in music. That being said, once I made this song, I knew everything was going to be okay and the next logical step was to keep creating until I made an album.

How did it feel stepping out in front of a crowd again for the first time after your recovery?

I was a bit nervous. I actually practiced playing at a house party in LA – I believe a friend’s birthday – before ever going back in front of a proper crowd.

Have you found that your approach to live shows has changed since coming back?

I believe it has. Before my surgery, I was entering a point in my life where I wasn’t sure if it’d be better to just DJ for a crowd to gain a response verses really performing live and playing more of my own music. Electronic music is different in that a performer can really do either – play live or DJ – and the audience is there with you for the ride. Now, my focus has shifted to the body of work I have created over the years and sharing them with people in a unique way that can only be experienced live.

The two opening tracks ‘Lune’ and ‘Rouge’ feel very much like a symphonic suite, is there any particular story behind how those two tracks came together?

I’ve been really keen on touching back on some of my classical roots, at least sonically. In a way, Lune represents one of my original musical influences, and Rouge represents how I have taken that influence to create my own voice.

The way you and Selah Sue came together on this record is really inspiring, do you think the two of you will continue to collaborate? Are there any plans in motion?

I really hope so. She’s such an amazing musician and person. I don’t think there is anything set in stone, but if she’s down to create so am I!

What has the fan response been like since you revealed the details of your illness? Have you heard from other Moyamoya sufferers?

Everyone has been overwhelming, loving and kind. I have heard from other Moyamoya sufferers and there really aren’t many people with it. Since it’s so under researched and uncommon, it’s really important to gain guidance from others with the same condition.

The videos to your tracks always seem to have a fascinating weirdness about them, and ‘We Love’ is no exception, what was the driving concept behind it?

The ‘we love’ video is very much just that, a video about being weird. These girls live in a small town and they are the only ones like themselves. Regardless of their differences from their surroundings and surrounding people, they band together and are unfazed.

How has Lune Rouge translated to a live setting, does the crowd respond to it in a different way than to your older material?

I think this new live show has had the best response of any of previous versions of my show. I have incorporated the new music, but have also created new interpretations of my previous work. So overall, this new album’s new live show is also a retrospective of my musical works up until this point.

Of all the tracks on the new album, which one would you say was the most difficult to get finished?

Roses Thorn was quite difficult at first. It was one of the earlier songs I had created in the process of this album. I really loved the idea, but it wasn’t quite there – it was incomplete. Then a year later I decided to take a stab at it and see if I could turn this great idea into a finish song. That gap in time allowed me the space to approach this song from a fresh perspective.

During university you worked in video game publishing, if there was one existing game which you could create your own alternate soundtrack for, which would it be?

I don’t think I’d want to create my own soundtrack for any of the video games I love. In many ways, though I had fun playing these games, a big reason why I liked specific games was because of their unique soundtracks. I definitely would love to soundtrack a new game in the future.

You have a date in London coming up, the US EDM scene can trace much of its DNA back to London. As someone who’s watched that scene develop, what’s it like coming back to the UK and playing to our crowds?

I love playing in the UK because the country has had a longstanding and deep understanding of electronic music, not just “EDM”. You do not need to use cheap tricks for people to have a good time and to appreciate the music.

Lune Rouge was a very personal album for you, for obvious reasons, now that it’s out in the world, what’s the next stage?

To keep creating and to keep moving forward.

TOKiMONSTA plays Mystic Bounce 1st Birthday at XOYO on November 2. More info here.

Words: Callum Davies