In Conversation With… TOKiMONSTA
It’s been quite a year for Jennifer Lee, better known by her stage name TOKiMONSTA. The 30 year old Los Angles native who is known for her forward-thinking mix-mash of hip-hop/r&b meets electronic music has been battling more than just beat-making this year. With two surgeries under her belt in the fight against the rare brain disease Moyamoya, Lee has shown immense growth and strength, both in her personal life, as well as her music.
We caught up with TOKiMONSTA prior to her headlining performance during Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival to talk about her ongoing recovery, latest studio album, plus so much more from TOKi’s past, present and future.
Hi Jenn, thank you for taking the time to speak with us amidst the release of your third studio album Lune Rouge, as well as quite the busy tour schedule. How has life been treating you these last few months, both on tour and outside of tour life?
My life right now is basically on tour, I’ve never really been off tour aside from little breaks here and there. It’s sort of melded into one lifestyle, sometimes on tour, sometimes not. I would say life’s been treating me pretty well. I’m quite fortunate to be on a tour bus this round so it’s been comfortable and life has been really exciting. Now that my new album Lune Rouge is actually out (as of October 6th) it’s been really great to play these shows and see the response because there’s been so much lead up before I released this album. You never know what the response will be like when you put out a project, it could be very good, it could be bad. I was relieved to know that everyone kind of understood my album and at the end of the day, I’m glad I made it because it made me really happy. Now that it’s out there the whole tour has been even more fantastic.
It’s such a beautiful piece of artistry and your fans are grateful for its release. You’ve had quite a year so far… thank you for opening up about your personal life, both directly via the internet and social media, and also indirectly through the music on your new album. Lune Rouge is your third studio album and it shows a deeper, more vulnerable side of TOKi in comparison to the playfulness of some earlier works such as ‘Midnight Menu’ and ‘Creature Dreams.’ You were challenged to find the depth of your strength these past few years and you’ve been conquering that challenge. Aside from the obvious, how is TOKiMONSTA different post album release this time around, in comparison to when ‘Half Shadows’ dropped in 2013, and ‘Midnight Menu’ back in 2010?
Essentially I would like to look at myself as the same artist that I was during those times. I guess with each release that I put out I’m further down this creative path that I’ve been on. I’m definitely a more mature artist and in a sense, I’ve kind of come full circle with this album and there’s this freedom that I have again that I started to lose sight of a couple of years ago as I was progressing as an artist. There’s this freedom that I had when I first started making music where there was no pressure – I still had a day job and I created for pure art. No one had any expectations of me because no one knew who I was. I’ve always tried to stay very grounded and I would always remind myself that it was very important to not lose sight of why I became a musician and why I decided to go on this journey. You do start to feel like you’re being pulled in different directions by your fans or by other peoples expectations, and all these extraneous stimulus that have this indirect effect on the way that you perceive yourself and your music. Right as I was starting to feel a little lost I went through the whole personal experience with my health. With this album I sort of gained this renewed perspective on who I was and am as an artist. Though I don’t think the music is super drastically different than the kind of music I’ve made in the past, my view on how I create and who I’m creating for has definitely gone back to a more pure place.
“I don’t want to feel like there’s a huge disconnect between me and the people who listen to my music. I feel like in a lot of ways if they are listening to my music, which is really personal, we must have something in common with each other.”
That is definitely felt throughout the album. Though we love all of your music, watching you progress from earlier works to this latest album has been quite special. Lune Rouge is at the top of our list of truly outstanding works. What does Lune Rouge mean to you?
The direct translation of Lune Rouge means “Red Moon” in French. To me, Lune Rouge signifies change. Leading up to the point of which I decided to name this album I was looking into the idea and concept, the iconography around the idea of the red moon. Whenever people think of a red moon it can be kind of spooky, or it can have this ominous relation to the sound of it. I did research and looked into its cultural perspective and historical perspective on what a red moon means and found that it mostly just means a significant change. A significant change does not need to be a bad change, just something different. In my life I encountered a very personal change and that was through the experience I had to endure at the start of this album. I would say that, though I wish I did not have to go through the kind of physical trauma that I did, at the end that was the change that allowed me to make this album. I don’t want to say that it was a good thing, but I am really proud of this body of work and I am so glad I was able to make it and I know that no matter what, if I didn’t have to go through the surgeries that I had gone through I would have still made music. There’s nothing that would have stopped me from making an album. I would have not made this particular album if I had not gone through those experiences, so that is where Lune Rouge came from.
It’s a very unique and well thought out name, and quite fitting since the red moon passed not too long ago. And who doesn’t love a good astrology reference?
Yeah! My album was released on the harvest moon, we did that on purpose.
So where does Jennifer Lee end and TOKiMONSTA begin? Are they two different entities, or always as one?
That’s actually a really great question. I try to stay true to myself at all times. I would say that the person that people meet on stage, or right off the stage, is the same person that I am when I’m at home watching TV and playing with my cat. I don’t try to be overly glamorous or take on a persona when I’m on stage. There’s a different energy about me when I’m performing on stage, but at the end of the day, I want to stay as real as possible. I don’t want to feel like there’s a huge disconnect between me and the people who listen to my music. I feel like in a lot of ways if they are listening to my music, which is really personal, we must have something in common with each other. It’s not true all the time, but if you meet someone and you both like the same obscure band then you’re like, “Whoa, for some reason we like the same band so we must have something in common.” Even if you may not have a lot of other things in common it’s still one trait that you will share. If people like my music and I’m the one that made it, then we have something in common. I would say that my fans see very much of Jennifer Lee in TOKiMONSTA, but Jennifer Lee doesn’t make for a very cool artist name which is why I didn’t choose it. (laughs)
TOKiMONSTA is definitely a very cool artist name and it’s important to stay true to yourself. Your fans have connected to who you are as an individual, as well as an artist since your inception, but now more-so than ever. Speaking of your nickname, we understand that TOKiMONSTA translates to “rabbit monsta” in Korean… how did you come to call yourself TOKiMONSTA?
I would like to think that there is a very profound reason as to why I ended up with this name, but it’s not that profound, I guess. “TOKi” was a nickname that my family gave me when I was younger because I had big teeth and big cheeks, and “monsta” is just monster with an A at the end. TOKiMONSTA essentially was a screen-name or chat name that I used to have when I was younger and I moved that over to be my artist name. It’s kind of millennial of me, but that’s where that came from. I believe over the years the nickname has grown to have more meaning and it has become, to some degree, more relatable to the kind of music and kind of artist that I am. You have this “TOKiMONSTA”, it’s kind of cute and kind of scary, the beautiful and the ugly. There’s this sort of dichotomy between these two opposites and I think that’s very present in a lot of my music. There’s always a beautiful or serene, sort of brighter side, and there’s always something deeper to counterbalance that.
A combination of many elements and we love a good AIM reference [if you know, you know]. I’ve always felt classic hip-hop and electronica influences in your music. By classic, I mean beats inspired by the golden age of these genres which falls between the 80s and 90s. What, or who inspired your early sound when you started making beats in college?
I would say The RZA from Wu-Tang and DJ Shadow. I guess when you’re trying to find your identity and trying to learn the skills to do so it’s really easy to be like, “Okay, I’m going to try to make a Wu-Tang beat, or something else.” You want to see if you can at least achieve a vision, and with that era of me learning how to make beats those were the guys I was trying to go for. The beats were… OKAY (laughs), they weren’t bad, but I definitely branched out from there. I’m glad that those were the influences that were present because, at the end of the day, I’m just a culmination and a product of all the things and all the influences that I’ve experienced and listened to up until this point.
Those aren’t the worst names to be inspired by, we actually saw RZA in Detroit last year and that was quite an experience. What has kept you inspired to keep making innovative, forward-thinking music?
I think, to some degree, never being satisfied. I wouldn’t want to say that I’m dissatisfied with where I am and where my music is, but there’s always so much more to achieve. Even in putting out this album now, I know that I have some things that I want to create that will be one step beyond this album. And I know that when I put that album out I’ll already be itching to make something after that. To keep creating and to try new things, and to constantly challenge myself. To some degree, always knowing that there’s something more that can be done and that there are more ways in which my music can evolve. That means creatively, but also the technical components. I mix all my sounds, I don’t send my music to engineers and that’s something that I worked on a lot with this current album. Just the sonic quality and really getting nitty gritty with all the technical stuff, which can make you feel kind of crazy after a while when you’re just sitting in the studio for a month straight with all these plugins, looking at numbers and graphs. But that’s also the exciting and challenging part about being a producer, how you’re going to go and carve out your sound as well as create these melodies, and how you can combine those two to create something that’s truly from you. And then think about how can you approve upon that for the next one. It’s the challenge of the lack of satisfaction.
“It’s a bunch of musically inclined people understanding what you do and not looking at you like you’re a total weirdo; if anything they’re appreciating you more because they know exactly what you’re doing, or they’re there to experiment with you… New York just has a really special energy about it.”
You are absolutely three hundred and sixty degrees of an artist and it’s felt through your music. East Coasters were enamored at the announcement of you headlining Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival this year. What can we expect from this Thursday’s performance at House of Yes that we may not have witnessed from TOKiMONSTA in previous years?
This generation of my life is by far the most personal. It has a very strong perspective look-back on my entire discography. I think in recent years it’s been a lot of, “oh ya know, I’m DJ’ing and mixing in some of my songs and making some edits, performing them and creating this atmosphere in that way,” but with this particular live show it’s more intimate, it has a very subtle energy about it and it definitely is meant for me and the audience to meander together in this little budding journey. I’m really glad that I was able to put this live show together because there’s so much pressure on you to create so much high energy. You create a high energy show when you’re around a lot of “dance people,” or people that do like dance music, but then also for me, I’m surrounded by a lot of people that like electronic music that is not dance-oriented. I was trying to find where I fall in between and what I can do, what kind of experience can I bring to my listeners in a live setting. I believe I found that balance with this live show; it will be different than all the previous live shows I’ve done in New York, ever. It’s just new, overall and I’m really happy to bring this to New York and allow people in Brooklyn to really get a peek into this new part of my life and my music.
House of Yes is a great, intimate venue and we are very much looking forward to what you have in store for tomorrow’s performance. You are certainly no stranger to New York City. What is one of your favorite things about playing in this city, both as an artist and as a visitor?
Visiting New York, I would say fooood — (good choice!) — Playing in New York, I would say the openness of the audience in general. There’s no place in the world like Brooklyn, New York. That whole zone is so unique and there’s so much history there. You can always tell when you go and play for a city that has been the birthplace of many other sounds; you feel their appreciation for music and knowing that they themselves have that creative ability within them. You know it’s a bunch of musically inclined people understanding what you do and not looking at you like you’re a total weirdo; if anything they’re appreciating you more because they know exactly what you’re doing, or they’re there to experiment with you and what you’re trying to go for. New York is always really special and there’s always stuff to do… you can walk around and discover so much. You don’t really get that in LA, which is where I’m from. New York just has a really special energy about it.
It truly is the city that never sleeps…
No never, and I don’t think I ever sleep when I’m there either…being one with the city.
You have to embrace it for what it is, and you can always sleep when you get back to LA. So for our final question: What is the most positive change that’s come to fruition since your surgeries?
There are a couple of things actually. I touched on this earlier… I think the best thing that has happened to me since I’ve started to manage the disease because I actually still have it but with the surgeries, I am able to live with it. It’s really that new perspective that I have on my music and my career, and who I am as an artist. Understanding that at any point all of this can be taken away so you should really just do what you like and do it for yourself, and just enjoy the fact that you are able to create, and whoever’s along for that journey is meant to be there for you. That’s the perspective that I’ve gained and it means a lot to me. Also, I have a lot less headaches now sooo fewer headaches and a new perspective on who I am as an artist. Those are the two best things that have happened after that whole experience.
Catch TOKiMONSTA during Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival this Thursday, October 12 – Presales are sold out so arrive early if you want to witness the magic.
PHOTO CREDIT: John Michael Fulton