The Internet turned 25 this year and still very few musicians have figured out what to do with it. That makes Jonna Lee more than a little bit special. As the front-person for iamamiwhoami, she has created something entirely unique. An audiovisual extravaganza that was born five years ago through YouTube.
“At that time, it wasn’t an arena for art or creatives,” explains the Swedish songwriter.
“There were good music videos there, but people were using YouTube more for consumption like watching fun clips of drunk Russians. So putting something that has a high artistic value on there was kind of an experiment to see if it would stand out.”
Even without the mystery of being posted from an anonymous account, you figure that iamamiwhoami’s channel would have found an audience. It’s not everyday you see a woman clad in tar-black paint and licking white goo from a tree trunk in pristine high definition. What’s more surprising is the scale of its success: 31 million views and counting. That’s enough people to form a community, enough to fund a new album: BLUE.
It’s all we talk about, it’s all we think about, it’s all we do
And so the third iamamiwhoami record was paid for by fans and created with complete independence. The process starts off with lyrics and script before expanding into all manner of mind-boggling imagery. Along the way, Jonna, Claes Björklund and her other collaborators control its production, manufacturing and distribution. If this process strikes you as a tad intense, then you’d be utterly correct.
“It’s all we talk about, it’s all we think about, it’s all we do,” she reveals. “…My whole life is on the internet.”
Watch the video for BLUE’s fountain and you’ll see why. Gorgeous aerial shots of coastline vistas are married to a semaphore- indebted dance routine that Lee performs while dressed in a see-through plastic body suit. It’s like a Kate Bush video with the surrealism amped up to eleven. Amazing, in other words.
“Water is a symbol for the online world that we live in,” says Lee. “I feel like I started in the physical era and my head in this new world is like being stuck in water. Wanting to grasp these new opportunities of being a digital artist.”
BLUE follows on from Jonna’s Kin and Bounty as a record with a distinct theme. It’s these epic visions of what pop should be that have allowed her to build such an adoring fanbase. One that documents her every artistic turn on an encyclopedic wiki website – even that time she performed at Way Out West festival on a bed of toilet paper.
What’s so inspiring about the bizarre, beguiling world of Jonna Lee is that those who follow it have bought wholesale into the project. They have made it more than the sum of one Swede’s escapist fantasies, and that’s a lot to take in. Especially when you’re dedicating three years of your life to each new creative cycle.
“I’m constantly affected by how we’re received,” says Jonna. “I feel overwhelmed a lot of the time. I keep my expectations low, but the fact that it’s growing and a lot of people are very emotional about it.”
Much like FKA Twigs’ cinematic vision of love and loneliness, iamamiwhoami can’t be embraced from a distance. It’s not a free download to your iPhone or a surprise release you can inhale and be done with. What’s required is your time, and that’s an investment that could be repaid with a funeral pyre.
We’re communicating in real-time with people that follow the project, I’m very aware of what people are experiencing.
The project’s first ‘gig’ was streamed live on YouTube and saw one lucky fan seemingly burned alive in a coffin. This is how Lee interacts with her fans, with symbols instead of selfies. She doesn’t engage with Facebook or Twitter, everything that’s meant to be said is already there on YouTube.
“We’re communicating in real-time with people that follow the project,” says Jonna. “I’m very aware of what people are experiencing. If you play a concert you get the same reaction, but verbally instead of emotionally.”
It’s these contrasting extremes that make iamamiwhoami an ongoing fascination. Despite being made possible by technology, its videos are exclusively set in woodland and by waterfalls – places that have been left untarnished by Buzzfeed and Tinder.
Likewise for all the weighty subject matter Lee addresses, she’s got a wicked sense of humour. One of the most enduring moments of her debut live show was a lingering shot of someone dry-humping the forest around them.
More seriously, you have to wonder whether Jonna has outgrown the album format. Especially since her music is just the foundation of what she does.
“In my world the songs and videos are never separated,” she replies. “Some people don’t really care about the visuals. People have told me straight up that, ‘I’m not interested.’ I’m a very visual person but others are not.”
Sometimes, it seems like you’ve got to wait for the world to catch up with your ambition.
Make no mistake, Lee is a trailblazer through and through. In another 25 years, she may well be a curio. A quaint vision of the future when today’s record-tour-repeat cycle is obsolete. For the moment, she feels like a vital signpost towards what it could be.
If only Jonna could explain what exactly she does for a living. Songwriting? Directing? Something else entirely.
“I try to avoid that question,” she replies. “I find it very hard to explain.”
One day soon, we’ll have an answer.