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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: TOKiMONSTA On Authenticity & Why 'Lune Rouge' Is "A Celebration Of Life"
Los Angeles native Jennifer Lee has been releasing experimental electronic music as TOKiMONSTA since 2009, beginning with her debut EP, Cosmic Intoxication. Implementing her childhood piano lessons and a desire to experiment with beats and sounds, Lee started to teach herself production and mixing techniques in her early 20s, initially as a hobby. But it wasn’t long before she began making waves in the electronic music community, particularly at L.A.’s popular underground Low End Theory parties, where she befriended artists like Flying Lotus, who signed her to his Brainfeeder label.
By the end of 2015, however, Lee's world came to a screeching halt: She was diagnosed with a rare disease called Moyamoya, in which one of the main arteries to the skull narrows and reduces the supply of blood to the brain. She had two brain surgeries in early 2016, and, as she was recovering, lost her ability to speak and hear, including music. Fortunately, as she healed, Lee gradually regained the ability to hear and make music again.
The result is her third studio album, the dreamy and joyful Lune Rogue, which earned Lee her first GRAMMY nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. We recently sat down with her to learn more about how working on the album helped her heal and reminded her of her voice and purpose as an artist, which is to "make music that makes me happy." We also discussed how excited she is to be recognized alongside her peers (Skrillex called to congratulate her), what she admires about the GRAMMYs, music's shifting representation landscape, and her advice for younger artists.
How did you hear about the news of your first GRAMMY nomination? What was your initial reaction?
I found out about my GRAMMY nomination Friday at 8 A.M. The night before, I played a show in L.A. and I hadn't seen my friends in a while, so we got a little tipsy. Friday I had a show in Hawaii and I didn't pack because I figured I'd wake up early and pack. So Friday morning I wake up in a panic because I haven't packed. I checked my phone and I have all these text messages like, "Hey, congratulations!"
I'm just in a full panic, hungover—which is not a common thing, by the way—and excited and flustered at the same time. I found out I was nominated, then I just sat on the ground amongst all my clothes for a minute and I couldn't figure out how to feel. I was really excited, but it was quite the morning.
It settled in over the day and I got to see everyone else who was nominated, especially in that category, which made me even more excited. Because they're all artists that I really love, all albums that I'd listened to this past year. I think it was the most rewarding and the most amazing to know that I was nominated with all these other amazing artists.
What made you want to pursue making music, and have there been any moments along the way that validated that?
What made me pursue music was my love for music. I think first and foremost, before being a creator, I'm a passionate lover of music. The music I make, I'm just a product of all my influences growing up and all the things I've listened to. When I was younger and was discovering all this music, it was at that first verge where I was like, "Hey, you can just download a program and make music by yourself?" So I downloaded some programs, I watched a bunch of YouTube tutorials, and I taught myself to make music. It was purely because I love music so much and I wanted to contribute. I had all these thoughts in my head and all these ideas I wanted to put down.
Because I had a background in piano, I knew how to create that way. So I started producing in that beginning, and then I was able to meet like-minded producers in L.A., and we had this place that we would hang out called Low End Theory. And my peers have also grown to be amazing, respected artists like Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, Daedelus, and so on.
It was just the right time for me to decide to pursue it fully and I think it was validated by the fact that I was just in such a wonderful moment in music in L.A., where me and my friends were doing some of the coolest sh*t all over. There was no way to say no. "Hey, you can make music forever, potentially?" "Okay, I'll take that."
I think now it's just getting recognized by people all over the world. It's hard to really say, but I definitely feel validated now that I made the decision to do music, because I could have decided not to. I could have been too scared.
In terms of challenges, you've shared that your Moyamoya diagnosis and recovery was incredibly taxing. How did you stay positive and what were your biggest lessons from that experience?
I think when anyone's going through a really trying time, it's not very easy to be positive. But it's also not very productive to be negative. Your life is so fragile. When I found out about my diagnosis, I decided to go in problem solving "let's fix this" mode. I was diagnosed with the disease in December 2015, and at the rate that it progresses—well, actually, that's the thing. No one knows the rate at which it progresses.
To give more detail, the vascularity in your brain starts to shut off. Your brain needs blood and oxygen and all these things—so I decided to really jump on it. I went out of my way to contact the correct doctors. I decided that I didn't want to wait to fix this. I decided to go and get these surgeries on my brain and they left me unable to talk and unable to speak; unable to understand anyone, unable to understand music, unable to make music. With all those things happening, it's not very easy to be positive. But my mind was focused on, "I can get past this."
I don't remember myself being explicitly positive at that time. I knew that I was definitely strong, and I knew that every day that there was progress in my speech faculties and in my ability to understand music. That incremental progress was where the positivity came from. I said, "Well, I see that I'm getting a little bit better. Let's push through this. I know that time is helping. I know that nothing is degrading. I know that I'm healing." And the doctors were saying good things.
So I pushed forward. I think in times of darkness for all of us, it's hard to be positive, but we can try to push forward and just hope and wish and visualize that through this darkness, there's something. There's that light at the end of the tunnel. Which is really cliché, but it's very true. And if you can focus on that and your healing, and on what may come after, that's good. It'll get you through it.
Because all you need to do is get through it. And then once you're there, it's all good. I get to be here. I get to be alive. I get to know that I have many years ahead of me. And it's also given me that opportunity to come to terms with who I am as a person and what I want to do, and what my voice is as a musician too, which is to make music that makes me happy. Because yeah, if I die tomorrow, I don't want to know that I lived on this earth making music that wasn't gratifying to myself.
You worked on Lune Rouge after recovering from the brain surgeries—what parts of the process of working on music again was the most healing or empowering?
You know, it's really hard to understand how it feels to not hear music, because it's in everything. You have no soundtrack to your life. Even now, I don't remember what it's like. It's a part of my memory, and I remember that I went through that, but I don't feel that feeling anymore because my life is full of music again, and sound. And so, when I went through that process and lost that ability [to hear music], when it finally did start to come back, it was very gradual. I started to understand music again, but it took longer for me to start creating music.
I could hear music, but when I would try to go and create, it was bad. But once I was able to get to a point where I think enough time had elapsed and my brain had healed enough where I could make music again, it was the most awesome feeling ever. The gratitude and the feeling I had in my heart was so full, like I know that I'm okay and I'm the same person. You never know when you go through something like that, like I should be grateful I'm alive, but I might not be the same person I was before.
That being said, I'm not superhuman. I think everyone thinks that I went through this crazy surgery and now I can change time or something. I'm still just a normal person. I also didn't have to relearn anything. It was more like the memories and the thoughts, they just started to come back to the surface. So yeah, this whole album was healing and therapeutic for me. It's a celebration of life. And it is every single song I wanted to make.
And all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it was joyful. I wasn't stressed out, I think this album was therapy to me. This album, in that way, means more to me than any other piece of work. It's not like the songs are necessarily better than other songs, because I love all the music I've ever put out. But this is a true milestone for me, and it means that for my family, it means it for everyone that's around me.
LAST THING, i am a completely independent artist. there are no major labels or big companies behind me. there’s no machine driving my project. if i can get here, you gotta know that you can too.
— T᷈O᷈K᷈iM᷈O᷈N᷈S᷈T᷈A᷈ (@TOKiMONSTA) December 7, 2018
Do you feel like getting your first GRAMMY nomination for this album validates your artistic journey in a deeper way?
When I found out that I won, I got a FaceTime from Skrillex, actually. He was in Thailand, somewhere far off, drinking out of a coconut or something. He was at a pool. And he was just like, "Congratulations! This is amazing!"
When I had found out that I was nominated, there was a piece of me—I think it's just self-deprecation—that was like, "I don't know. I'm really happy, but I'm scared. Do I deserve it?" And he just told me, "You know what? Think of it as the cherry on top." He was giving me a pep talk like, "You've been doing this for a long time! You deserve this!"
I don't think that this GRAMMY nomination validates me as a musician, because I know that I'm a musician. That is who I am. But it is nice to see that other people recognize me. So it's more of a recognition like, "We see you. This album is fantastic." I know that someone listened to the album. It's something I'm really happy to have, but it doesn't change who I am.
It will change opportunities in the future, which is really cool. It's also really cool to be able to see that the Recording Academy is listening, and they heard this album from this random person. Because I still look at myself as a random person. It's more and less than validation; it's its own special thing, to get nominated. I feel special.
We're currently living in a time where conversations and gender and equality are finally working their way more into every corner of our lives, both personally and professionally. What challenges, if any, have you faced getting your music heard in a scene that has a long history of gender imbalance?
My experience in music is very different in many ways than other people's. I'll say this first: My approach to music making and my approach to myself as a musician was that my identity wasn't as important as the music that I was making. So I wasn't trying to flash my face, I wasn't trying to point out who I am as much. I mean, if you know, you know. I'm a girl.
But I wasn't out going, "Hey, pay more attention to me because I'm a female musician." It's like, no. I don't deserve more attention because I'm female; I just deserve equal attention, you know? I want people to know that I make music on the caliber as my male peers. And that being said, I always walked this path with that step forward. Music first. And that's helped me in many ways.
I think I have to admit, there are ways in which there were disadvantages thrown my way that I just wasn't aware of. I know there are rumors, people saying that I didn't make any of my own music, that I learned everything from a boyfriend, that a boyfriend made all my music, or that I have a ghost producer.
And because of that, I felt like I had to validate myself further, to show people even more. I had to make the best music. I had to show people that I was producing. I'm very open to people looking at my sessions and teaching people things that I know, and sharing my knowledge so people know that I do know what I'm doing, and I'm willing to share that with you.
It's kind of hard. I mean, we live in a society right now in this very moment, where you can finally be heard by people. And people will look at you as a musician and not approach you with suspicion or whatever. They can look at you and be like, "Oh, you're a female. You make music. Cool." In the past, it wasn't like that, and I think that's the most way I felt injustice.
I've seen the landscape change so much. I feel like I'm in a good place now, and I made it through all that. And now, for all these young women coming up, people that are not male in this world, they have an equal opportunity to pursue music production in this genre, or other genres.
Do you have any advice for younger people trying to break into music?
My main key piece of advice is to be yourself and make music that speaks true to your heart. At the end of the day, I know it's much easier to be like, "Well, this song and this style of music is popular. I should do what that person is doing." No one's going be able to listen to your music and be like, "Oh, you made this." No, it's, "Oh, this sounds like a song someone else could have made."
You need people to disrupt that atmosphere, to disrupt the scenery, in order to have change. You might be the next person that everyone wants to emulate. But no one needs a double, triple, quadruple version of an artist that already exists. And now that the tools are so easy to make music, and it's so easy to make the same kind of music as other people, it's up to you as an artist to feel confident in your voice and what you want to do, and to be the change in that music landscape.
What are you most looking forward to in the New Year? Are there any big projects that you're starting to work on, or looking forward to?
The main thing I'm looking forward to this year is making more music, which is something I look forward to every year and every single day. As far as new projects, the next album. I don't think I ever want to stop creating. I don't want to take any breaks. At any given moment, I want to know that I have something ready to be heard. It doesn't need to be heard by a lot of people, but it needs to be heard by me. I just know that I want to make music and I think sharing it is a big part of who I am. I try not to overshare, so that being said, the big project is probably the next album. I don't know when it'll come out, but I'm definitely working on it.