On the 6th of October, longstanding Californian electronic music producer Jennifer Lee bka TOKiMONSTA will release her third full-length album, Lune Rouge. Featuring guest appearances from the likes of Isaiah Rashad, Joey Purp, Yuna, and Selah Sue, Lune Rouge is easily Lee’s most intimate and personal album yet. Marrying the psychedelic beatscapes she released through Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label in the early 2010s with the high-gloss sounds she’s pushed in more recent years through Ultra Records and her very own Young Arts Records, Lune Rouge is Lee operating in peak form. Across its running time, she scales new heights of emotion and aesthetic while continuing to head toward her apex.
Lune Rouge came into sharp focus for Lee following her intense battle with a rare brain disease called Moyamoya, and the grueling months she spent relearning how to speak, write, and engage with music while recovering from two surgeries for it in 2016. It was a battle she essentially fought in secret, with support from only her immediate family and closest friends. Earlier this month, she opened up to Pitchfork, in the hope sharing her experience might help others. In the best way possible, the response hit her like a tidal wave. On Monday the 29th of January, Lee will return to New Zealand. Having played here a few times before, she’s coming back to present her new Lune Rouge live show for St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival at Auckland’s Albert Park Precinct.
With Lune Rouge out in less than a month, and her Laneway appearance locked in, we got on the phone to talk to her about the relationship between music and art, going public about her battle with Moyamoya, and how she’s approaching life post-recovery.
First off, the music on Lune Rouge is beautiful, but you’ve also paired it up with some equally special artwork. Could you tell us about the artist you worked with?
Sure. I worked with this artist from Sydney named Max Prentis. He was someone I was following on instagram, and I thought his style was really amazing. Conceptually when we were thinking about the visual elements for Lune Rouge – which means red moon – we were thinking about space as an idea. Once we got into space, we started thinking it should be in a graphic novel style. I really thought a lot about visual cues like [the work of French illustrator] Moebius aka Jean Giraud. I’m a big fan of Moebius as well. Max Prentis is Max Prentis, he’s not Moebius, but then there is this wonderful aesthetic thing that is very fluid in that way. They’re kind of fluid with each other.
I approached Max, explained the concept, and how we’d like to do the album artwork, and he was down for it. As you see the single artwork come out, you’ll notice that each piece of artwork is different and it’s almost like it’s telling the story the story of these two characters. This traveler and her space cat guy who is kinda with her. That’s sort of how it came to be, in a very vague way.
The Moebius reference is very relevant for me. The artwork took me straight to his classic graphic novel Arzach, and the illustration work he did with cult Chilean-French artist Alejandro Jodorowsky when they were creating their great space opera, The Incal.
Moebius has some very iconic works, many of which are set in these barren landscapes. I think the one thing I’ve always really appreciated with Moebius’ work is his [sense of] perspective. The perspective he presents in Arzach is amazing to me. The way he can work with perspective to make a work feel more immersive is something I really enjoyed and appreciated about his artwork. I also love his palate and the simplicity, it’s simplicity mixed with detail. With the artwork we chose for this album, we definitely wanted to keep that barren landscape idea, you know, like going to an unknown planet. I’m hoping that some point we might turn it into a more cohesive graphic novel with a set storyline and all these things, but we haven’t got that far yet. So far it’s just explorations.
As you told Pitchfork, in 2016 you spent several months recovering from two brain surgeries after being diagnosed with a rare brain disease called Moyamoya. While you recovering, you kept your situation private. I’m wondering what it’s been like to talk about it in public?
First of all, I had no idea this story was going to have the sort of effect it’s had. I’d already dealt with it, so I just didn’t know if it would really reach anyone or have any impact. I just thought I was telling my personal story. I guess it was such a difficult time for me that once I was past it, I was really past it. I didn’t want to go back and revisit that time that much, but in terms of contextualising the album, I had to tell the story.
Once you tell people a story and it comes out, you gain another responsibility. You become responsible for our experiences and sharing them with people. When you share your pain, or your experiences with other people in a way they can relate to, or is cathartic for them, that comes back towards you. I’m getting lots of messages and stories from other people with the same condition or other conditions, and other types of heartache and medical trauma they’ve had to deal with. I knew it was going to be emotionally taxing, and if you put something out there, you’re responsible for it.
In that regard, I did consider just not telling anyone. No one noticed up until now. I went through a few months of being absent, and then I just popped back up. I was the same; nothing changed, no one could tell. But at the end of the day, times are tough right now, and I knew that if I presented this the way I wanted to, it would be worth telling and sharing with people.
Still, it must have been, and still be, pretty tough at times.
Also, I didn’t want to talk about it in a way where I was victimising myself. I’m no victim. I came out the other side. Also, I didn’t want to look like I was being advantageous with something terrible I went through and using that to garner pity. I didn’t want to misuse my experience to make people feel bad for me and buy my album. I didn’t want that. I overthought it so much. Everyone was like, just tell it, and it will sound earnest. I’m glad that’s the way it came off. I’m aware. Ever since that Pitchfork article came out, I’ve been asked about it every single day. All these people at my shows come up and hug me, and talk to me about it. This is something I’d buried super deep until now. Once I was past it, I didn’t want to talk about it. Now I have to talk about it every day. It’s hard in a sense, but I think it’s good for me, in that I can be there for other people.
In that article, you talk about music not sounding like music for a time. I’m wondering if you can explain how you got back to hearing music properly, and what that was like?
I always relate being able to understand music to the same way my speech came back. At the start, I could only pull from a very small pool of words with my speech and communication. I could only say, “sad,” “hungry,” “pain,” etc. Every day, that pool of words would increase, and I’d be able to say, “I’m hungry,” or pull some more words together. My language got better and my grammar slowly improved, and that’s kind of how music was too in terms of rediscovering my ability to hear it again. The first time I heard any songs, they were like shrapnel, harsh and metallic.
As the days progressed, it would sound a little bit less harsh, and I would make more sense of it. Brains are very complicated, and music is very mathematical in a lot of ways. All these sounds were jumbled up, just like people’s words were jumbled up. Internally I was cognitively aware. I was aware of what I’d like to say to people, and I was aware that I couldn’t hear music as I used. I was aware it didn’t sound right. Eventually, it started slowly coming back and sounding normal.
Do you feel like you’ve been given a second chance with music?
I think so. I’d like to look at is as half being fate and destiny, but I also like looking at it from a very logical perspective. I’m here, and I’m going to live each day as I should. The reality is there is no future. The future does not exist. I’m grateful for every additional day I’m on this planet. I made it out of this period of time in a very fortunate way. I’m healthy, I’m aware, I know that this is something I have to live with forever, so I’m going to be conscious of it. A lot of people don’t get that, so I’m very grateful and grounded in understanding that my pain is no worse than anyone else’s, and no less. Everyone has hardship and heartache. I understand that this is my circumstances.
In terms of having a second chance at making music, I would say, yeah I guess so, but I also want to look at it like everyday I make music is a new day I should be grateful for. I get a second chance every single day I suppose. It sounds kind of pretentious, but coming from where it comes from, it really is like that. Every day is a second chance.
You can control what you say, but you can’t control how people interpret it.
I mean what I say. I’m just happy to have been able to put this album together, and I’m grateful to be talking with you on the phone, and looking at a bunch of google images of Moebius art right now, so you know, it’s good, it’s a good day. I’m glad that I’m here to have this sort of regular day.
Catch Tokimonsta live at Laneway Festival 2018, and purchase tickets here.