Jennifer Lee, aka TOKiMONSTA, creates colourful, intricately textured electronic music born of her classical training in piano. An amalgamation of pop, R&B and hip hop influence, her new full length Lune Rouge is out now on her own imprint Young Art Records.
It’s been four years since the release of her last album – 2013’s Half Shadows – during which time TOKiMONSTA battled and overcame a rare brain disease called Moyamoya. After surgery on two different parts of her brain Lee defeated the disease, but recovery was incredibly tough. Whilst her thoughts remained lucid, she lost the ability to speak and her extensive time in a hospital bed left her almost unable to walk due to muscle atrophy.
Once Lee’s speech had recovered, going back into the studio she had another devastating realisation: her brain had forgotten how to hear, appreciate and create music. After some time, some quiet, some space to recuperate and acknowledge her grief, Lee found her sound again. Hot off the back of the release of her most personal project to date, we caught up with the brave, triumphant TOKiMONSTA on how her ordeal has impacted her sound and her soul.
How would you describe your sound to someone that’s never heard your material before?
I would say it’s a marriage of electronic music and hip hop. It can exist in different spectrums; from very light and ethereal to more heavy and aggressive. In other words, it’s difficult to describe!
If you could pick one song on the record that means the most to you, what would it be and why?
‘I Wish I Could’. It was the first song I was able to create after undergoing brain surgery.
Can you talk a bit about the collaborations on the record and how those relationships came about?
Some of the collaborations on this album are with friends I’ve known for a long time, Joey Purp, IO Echo and Ambre. Others were more recent, formal introductions like Isaiah Rashad, Yuna and Selah Sue. I say formal, but I’ve been lucky to develop real connections with all of the artists on the record. It’s those close connections and relationships that build great collaborations.
Who would you say has influenced this record the most, and why?
I wouldn’t say there’s specific artists that have influenced Lune Rouge, it’s more built from many different experiences.
As you were regaining your ability to hear, make and enjoy music, what did you find yourself listening to that was particularly comforting?
Honestly, no music was comforting. After surgery my brain was unable to process the sounds into anything I was hearing into anything positive. Every song became a song I didn’t like. It was depressing.
Similarly, do you find your preferences sonically have changed in the process?
Once I regained my comprehension of music, my tastes and interests were the same. It wasn’t a case of re-learning, rather I had to wait for my brain to go back to how it was.
Have you noticed any significant differences in your production process before and after your surgery?
Not particularly. The biggest change is my attitude towards my career and my craft. I want to make music that brings me joy rather than creating music to satiate the needs of others. At the end of the day, I’ll leave this earth proud of my body of work that will live on.
After going through such an ordeal and coming out making a record that, above all, makes you happy, how would you say your perspective, goals and aspirations have changed?
I put less pressure on myself to create in a manner that is competitive. That is to say, just because the music industry says one thing, it’s okay for me to make something else more representative of myself. If I believe in myself and love what I do, it doesn’t matter what other people think.
If you could give a young aspiring musician one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be yourself. It’s easy to follow the crowd or make music built to be accepted. Change never comes from people making the same thing over and over. Your unique sound will set you apart.