The list of artists who graduate from being unable to comprehend music to playing Coachella in three months is understandably short. In early 2016, TOKiMONSTA — the beatmaking moniker of L.A.’s Jennifer Lee — joined (or possibly founded) that list.
In an essay for Pitchfork in September, she publicly detailed her struggle with Moyamoya, a rare and potentially life-threatening brain condition, for the first time. A duo of surgeries early last year ensured she would continue to live, but they also temporarily rendered her incapable of comprehending language, barely able to walk and unable to recognize music as more than harsh tones. The following months were spent quietly, sometimes agonizingly, concentrated on her recovery and regaining her ability to make music, all without telling her fans and most of her collaborators until after.
Lee’s newest record Lune Rouge, which came out earlier this month (Oct. 6), both exists because of these experiences and rings out like a celebration despite them. Like the best of TOKiMONSTA’s work, Lune Rouge is a metallic lattice of beats that oscillate between “shoulder-side whisper” and “tree falling at the far side of a canyon” without ever losing the sense of bliss that buoys them. One of its highlights, the anthemic “I Wish I Could,” was the first track where Lee felt her old powers returning, after several weeks of creating in fits and starts. Belgium-based soul singer Selah Sue, the track’s featured vocalist, became her (almost lone) confidante, even as the two lived continents apart and have still never met face-to-face.
Lee spoke to Billboard about the aftermath of her revelations, South Park’s surprising role in her recovery, and the ownership that comes with offering the public a glimpse into your private trauma.
Billboard: You wrote in Pitchfork that your beats tell a story, and given the background of Lune Rouge, these beats are quite personal. How did what your experience change your approach to constructing the music?
TOKiMONSTA: My approach to creating on this album, methodically, was not too different than in the past. What made this album more personal is the fact that I was even able to make it. I had brain surgery about a year and a half ago, and it left me unable to communicate, unable to use my motor skills all the way, and left me unable to understand or listen to music. When you can’t understand and listen to music, you can’t really make it, either.
I was really going through all that chaos and that hardship. Coming out on the other side, it was through all that that I was able to make this album, and that’s why this album is so personal. When something that means so much to you is taken away from you and then given back to you, you are given a second chance. For me, I gained this renewed perspective on my music in general. I wanted all the songs to be personal — I made these songs for myself, I didn’t try to satiate the needs of anyone else.
Choosing people to collaborate with must’ve been special to you, then.
I always want to work with people that I have a general vibe with, a good rapport with. Even though there were a lot of new collaborators with this album — I had never collaborated with Yuna or Selah Sue in the past. Through this album, I was able to develop a friendship, especially with Selah Sue. She’s someone who I’ve still never met in person, I’ve never talked on the phone with, we’ve just sent each other these long personal emails.
At that time, no one knew. I hadn’t even told a lot of my friends what I had gone through. I just sort of dipped out — you know, it was the holidays, no one really notices. Here was a song that I had made that was so symbolic of my graduation into health again, I couldn’t just send it to [Selah]…. I had to tell her, “These are the things I had gone through, this is the first song I was able to make. I think it’s really important for you to know that.” I basically spilled my guts to a complete stranger from another country in an email, and she ended it being so warm and sensitive. She was going through her own personal struggles, and the creation of the song became cathartic for the both of us.
How did you end up getting involved with Selah?
It was a kind of formal method: “There’s this artist, she’d really like to work with you,” very managerial. I didn’t even think she would know I was alive. I never thought I’d even be able to collaborate with these people, I thought they were just so far out of my reach, on this other level. For them to even know that I existed was really cool, and I was kind of amazed and flattered that they’re reaching out to work on my project as well.
Even though the introductions were formal, it ended up being really great. We send each other emails, I’ll send them a text every now and then. I would say that longer-standing relationships have developed from these songs. Everyone on the album was friendly, great, amazing people. I don’t think I could make music with someone I didn’t really like.
Did you end up telling any of the other featured artists after Selah?
The only one who knew from the very get-go was [Ioanna Gika of synthpop band] Io Echo, because she’s one of my closest friends. We’ve done little collaborations with each other in the past, but she’s such a dear friend of mine and she’s so talented, I wanted to see if we could make a song for my album. Seeing that she was a friend first and foremost — not through music — she was the one who was aware when I got diagnosed, when I got surgery. She was there [when I was] waiting for a response afterwards.
What about when the others found out? Was it not until the article?
I don’t think any of them knew about it until it came out in Pitchfork. It’s the same reason why I didn’t tell many people, initially. No one would’ve known anyway. I didn’t want that to cast a shadow on the rest of the music, which I found to be more joyful. Once you tell someone a sad story, even when you’re past it, everyone’s always like, “Are you okay?” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah.” It’s been a year and a half, I’m pretty cool now.
That always seems to be a paradox of talking about how tragedy impacts art. It’s important background to how it was made, but then there’s a flush of fans that come to it because they think it’s ‘about’ whatever sad circumstances it was made under.
Yes, absolutely. I tried to be as aware as possible, and think about all the peripheral attention that would come to me because of the story that I’m sharing. There’s a responsibility that comes with sharing a story like this as well. Now you’re sharing something personal with the world, and the world now knows more about you, but the world will now want to share personal things with you as well. People are also inquisitive, they want to ask, “So what is it that you have? Do you still have it?” People think that it’s brain cancer when it’s not; some people semi-read the article, so they think I’m still recovering or that I’m going to get sick. I take it in stride and realize [it’s] for the greater good.
Initially, I didn’t know it was going to make any impact. I guess since that I had gotten over it myself, I thought no one would care I’d gone through that. Not in an insensitive way, but I didn’t think that it would actually touch people. I was so blown away by the response. It’s totally okay if people ask me about this for the rest of my life, because I will have this disease for the rest of my life. Because of the surgery, I can live like any other person, I’m just routed a little differently up here. I can go skydiving, I can go snorkeling, I can do all these normal things.
What was going back into the studio for the first time like?
Going back into the studio was difficult, I think that it took a moment for me to gain the courage to do so. Once I realized that I couldn’t listen to music the same way as before, I just stopped listening to music in the same way as, ‘If there’s a song you don’t like, why would you even listen to it?’ It just turned into noise. Once I started listening to music again, gradually, the music started to make more and more sense.
[Making music] didn’t come back to me right away. I knew what I was supposed to do; I still knew how to use Ableton and all my tools, but I the melodies weren’t clicking like they used to. I couldn’t mix anything, either. It was a little discouraging in the beginning, but it was a start. I mean, it was bad, but it wasn’t like-a-child bad. Once it felt as though the second pass was a little bit more successful, I made a completely different song. Eventually, I took a third stab a week later and that was when I created “I Wish I Could,” and realized that everything was going to be great. I was like, “holy shit, this is more-brain-power, pre-surgery awesome.” It was a milestone for me.
It was definitely a gradual progression in terms of how I could process music, very much hand-in-hand with how I was able to start speaking again. My first language essentially became a foreign language to me, I couldn’t speak it or understand it. In the beginning, I had a small bank of words that I could use, and every day that passed, that bank of words and my grammar would grow. I would be able to speak fuller sentences, be more coherent of what other people were saying. Music progressed in the same way. But there was no “a-ha” song. I kind of wish there was, but music is around you at all times. Even once the theme to The Simpsons started making sense — little things like that — you’re like, “Oh! I get it!”
It would’ve been a little disappointing if elevator music was the thing that clicked with you first.
It could’ve been, to be honest. It probably was some kind of TV, because I would just watch TV all the time. I couldn’t follow everything, but it was stimulating and a good way to exercise my brain to a certain capacity. I’d watch a show that wasn’t too difficult, so I’d watch a lot of South Park. I can’t watch Portlandia. I tried watching that when I was recovering from my surgery and I was like, “I don’t understand the jokes! I don’t know what they’re saying! What is this theme song?” It’s ruined for me forever [Laughs]. But I watched lots of South Park, then graduated to other things. That’s when I realized music was making sense.
Were your first post-surgery shows in March/April 2016 any different for you?
I kind of developed a slightly crippling social anxiety after that surgery. I think it was because I was indoors for so long with a small group of people. Being outside for long periods of time made me feel uncomfortable. I recovered from that really quickly, but that was something I wasn’t used to: “Why is it that I feel kind of scared around people right now?” I went to my [FOVERE] EP release [in March], and that was my first time being around people. I didn’t stay for too long.
Then I basically DJ’d a friend’s birthday. I hadn’t played up until then, and that ended up being really fun. I had more shows lined up in March, and by the time I played Coachella in April, I would say I was back into the swing of things. This whole process has been, “Look forward, try not to think too much about how uncomfortable you feel at the moment.” You’ll get to that next step, and it’ll get easier and easier. That was my approach to everything.
Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do live that you’ve never had a chance to yet?
I think that everything is within the realm of possibility, it’s having the time to develop those ideas. Kind of unrelated: I’ve always wanted to stage dive, but I’m just a little scared [laughs].
Oh yeah! I saw that happen to another artist at Coachella once — I won’t name the band. The guy was riffing and he totally thought the people were going to catch him. He jumped off his speaker and everyone split. He crawled back onstage and had his head down for a moment while he was strumming his guitar.
I think it’s because he walked over to the side — and I’m like, “if you wanna jump, you should just jump in the middle.” If you’re a really heavy guy, maybe don’t jump, or if you’ve got [elevator] shoes. Maybe one day, if there’s a really dense crowd in which no one can move, and people have to be like this [raises hands]. I’m also not good at jumping, so if it’s with a barrier I feel like I’d get caught. And they always end up shoving you to the back of the crowd anyway.
And then how do you get back without making the song seven minutes long?
I know, that’s the thing! That’s why I’d do it when someone else is playing. Then I have the luxury of being like, “just send me to the back, I’ll just walk back around.”
A lot of the discussion around this album is likely to be clouded by the Pitchfork article. Is there anything you think that’s being left out of the conversation around this record?
I would say that to contextualize the album, I had to share that story. They’re very much hand-in-hand, and if I didn’t go through that harrowing experience, I absolutely would’ve still made an album, I just wouldn’t have made this one. Every necessary experience had to happen for me to make this album. If it had to have been all this stuff, then at least I came out of it and still made this album. It can be a little clouded, but it’s necessary. I think if I can share a story like this and it does help someone get through their own hardships, then it was well worth sharing.