TOKiMONSTA on jumping in headfirst & finding her sound
Over the past few years, no career has been as gripping and filled with ups and downs than Jennifer Lee‘s, AKA TOKiMONSTA‘s.
In early 2016, she was quietly diagnosed, operated on and recovered from Moyamoya – a rare brain disease. In the months following, she lost the ability to comprehend language and produce music. And naturally, for someone who’s identity is so intrinsically linked to sound, I can imagine that this was frightening.
Fast forward to April of 2016, just a few months later, and Lee was back on stage, playing to massive crowds over two weekends at Coachella. She lived this part of her life quickly and quietly, choosing to share it in her own time. Her story demonstrates something totally humanising – perseverance, motivation and fearlessness.
In 2017, after bouncing back from this rare brain disease, Lee hurtled into everyone’s consciousness with all her might. With the release of her third studio record, Lune Rouge, we were given a choice cut of singles with some incredibly apt collaborators too.
‘Don’t Call Me’ featuring Kuala Lumpur’s Yuna was the first taste of Lune Rouge, and it set the tone for an album that would be accentuated by its pop undertones, but defined by the complexity of the production.
Her collaboration with MNDR, titled ‘We Love’, saw the pair bust out anthemic vibes for one of the most apt collaborations of 2017. It’s obvious how harmonic the two musicians are when working together because the result is something cohesive, yet original.
The lead-up to Lune Rouge was dotted with all kinds of sounds and ideas that we’ve both not experienced and also have heard her explore previously, but what’s different this time is the sheer scale of knowledge and understanding she holds in not only music theory and sound production, but in her identity as an artist.
If there’s one thing I learnt from chatting with Lee, it’s that she’s defined by her will to persevere, motivation and fearlessness.
TOKiMONSTA will be returning to Australia this February as part of the Laneway Festival tour.
This is a transcription of a longer format feature from our soon to be launched podcast presented by Purple Sneakers subeditor Caitlin Medcalf. If you like to hear about what inspires some of our favourite artists and producers and why they do what they do, stay in touch with Purple Sneakers over the coming months as we launch a podcast series where we will have in-depth conversations with producers like TOKiMONSTA and many other important acts.
I read somewhere that you started producing music when you were in college. What was it that sparked your interest?
I think at that time, a lot of people, it’s the first time leaving home and living on your own, so it was the first time where I really got to go and experience music. I started going to a lot of concerts with my friends and I had tried to make beats earlier, like when I was in high school and I had downloaded a version of Reason – which was really complicated. I looked at it and was like, “This is not happening,” so I uninstalled it. I had tried at one point. Once I entered college the first year, a friend of mine was like ,“Why don’t you download Fruity Loops (FL Studio)? It’s really easy. I can show you really briefly how to use it.” My friend had only just learned how to use it or just downloaded it. That’s basically how it started I guess. Someone was like, “Maybe you should try making beats?” And I thought that maybe I should, and then from there it was like, “Woah, this is really fun.” I really like creating in this way, and then I really taught myself how to use the program better and continue to make music, then segued into using Ableton and stuff, and that’s basically how I got here; just from trying it out and continuing forward.
Have you always been listening to electronic music? Was that something you were involved in in high school as well?
Yeah, you know in high school I really liked rap and urban music, but I also really liked drum and bass, what would maybe called IDM (I know a lot of people in that scene don’t like it being called that). It’s so mind-expanding when you hear Aphex Twin or if you go and you listen to Green Velvet or Cashmere on the house side as well. It’s different – it offers something different than hip hop did, you know? But I still loved both things and I think both were very inspiring for me as a musician. I’m like a product of everything I’ve ever listened to, it’s always really apparent in the music that I make.
That’s a really cool way to look at it. I guess unconsciously everyone would make music similar to what they’ve listened to in the past, whether that be their own spin or something that they’ve just fiddled with.
You grew up with classical piano training. Was it tough making the transition over to producing?
They’re kind of two different things, but complementary. One thing about classical music and the way that I was taught is that it’s very much about recreating someone else’s idea. How well can you play Beethoven’s piece? But I want to be Beethoven, in that kind of way. I guess there’s so many restrictions with classical music, so many rules and things like that, but at the same time, the way that classical music was written, it was so beautiful. It was like a story and it would evolve, and I think I really took that and that kind of musical aspect and brought that into what I started to do as a producer. I really appreciate having that background. I kind of took the things I liked from it, and ditched everything else that I thought was like confining. I’m glad that my mum made me do it. I didn’t have the time [laughs], but I do now.
When you’re a producer, it kind of comes hand in hand that you would DJ as well. How was getting into DJing? Did you get into that after you started producing?
I was one of the ones that started producing first, and started DJing and performing out as a way to play my music because, if I had a band, I’d have a band to perform with, but I’m just a person, so it’s like you’re just kind of relegated to this kind of like “DJ world”. I wasn’t prepared for it, and playing in front of people was horrifying and frightening. I didn’t know if I was doing anything right. But I just did my own thing, which is good. Over the years, I learned how to refine my own thing and also keep the audience in mind. Obviously, I want to make sure that I express myself as an artist, but I know that if I have fun, they have fun, we all have fun together. We also get to have this shared experience, and I get to be educational without being educational too. There’s a lot of cool things you can do by being a performer, and I’ve also learned that they’re very separate.
I never made music to play out, you know how people are like, “I’m going to make a DJ edit of this one song”? I never really did that, so it’s been a learning process to figure out how to incorporate my own music into a live setting. I definitely think that everyday I’m learning how to be a better producer and a better performer.
Do you remember what your first show was like as TOKiMONSTA?
[whispers] Oh man. It was not good.
I think I had my computer and this Korg control, it’s like a 16 pad thing. I had to put all of my stuff on top of turntables because there was no space on the table and I’m pretty sure it didn’t start correctly and maybe it stopped a few times inbetween. The main thing is that I didn’t stop. I made it all the way through my set, but I was definitely like, “Woah, I’ve gotta really work on this.” Practicing at home isn’t how it’s necessarily going to be live. It’s a funny thing to think about for sure and it’s cool to see that I’ve come so far. There’s definitely photos of me from that time, and you probably can’t see the terror in my face, but it’s there.
Do you ever look back on those moments and reflect?
Yeah, I can laugh about it now. I was so green and again, my music was more intended to be listened to. I can pat myself on the back.
You can catch TOKiMONSTA as she tours Australia this February as part of Laneway Festival.
Laneway Festival, Adelaide
Friday, February 2
Laneway Festival, Melbourne
Saturday, February 3
Laneway Festival, Sydney
Sunday, February 4
TOKiMONSTA ft. Milan, Jade Le Flay, Krystel Diola
Manning Bar, Sydney
Thursday, February 8
Grab tix here.
Max Watts, Melbourne
Friday, February 9
Grab tix here.
Laneway Festival, Brisbane
Saturday, February 10
Laneway Festival, Fremantle
Sunday, February 11
Photo by John Michael Fulton
Words by Caitlin Medcalf