By most measures, it’s another regular night in the life of a touring musician. It’s around 11:30 p.m. on an unseasonably warm Saturday night in October, and Jennifer Lee welcomes me onto her tour bus parked outside of Washington DC’s U Street Music Hall. A line of eager fans waiting to enter the venue wraps around the block, 20 feet away but a world apart from the quiet confines of the sleek, upscale cruiser we sit in. Lee is warm and welcoming, introducing me to her aunt, sister, and cousins – all of whom have made the trek into town to spend some time with her before the show. However, the last two years have been quite the journey for the producer and DJ better known as TOKiMONSTA.
Despite suffering from migraines for close to a decade, it wasn’t until the fall of 2015 that Lee discovered she had Moyamoya – a rare condition where the main arteries in your brain begin to shrink, forcing blood to run through secondary and minor vessels. This disease, Japanese for “puff of smoke”, can lead to stroke, or aneurysm, or arterial thrombosis. Her life in jeopardy, the only viable solution for Lee’s survival was to undergo brain surgery – at the risk of permanently losing certain cognitive functions, including the ability to speak clearly and to make music. This is a daunting concept for any layperson; it’s horrifying for a musician.
With limited options and running out of time, Lee underwent brain surgery at Stanford Medical Center in January of 2016. Remarkably, by April of that year, she was playing a packed set in the Sahara Tent at Coachella
“None of my collaborators knew what I was going through, even if I knew them from before. Well, Io Echo knew, because she’s one of my closest friends, but I never shared the story with the rest of them,” Lee confesses bluntly.
The bus is full of people – family, friends, and professional handlers – but all are being remarkably quiet and considerate of Lee’s request that they keep their conversation to a minimum while our interview takes place, to help her better focus. She’s as charismatic and excitable as ever, and clearly happy to be back to doing what she loves.
“I’m just celebrating now. Let’s make some music.”
TOKiMONSTA’s latest record, Lune Rouge is out now on Young Art Records.
Brightest Young Things: So, how are you?
Jennifer Lee: [Laughs] I’m great, you know! I feel great – it’s the end of this leg of the tour and I’m in a good mood. Yeah, everything right now is good for me. Health-wise and energy-wise I feel great, and my outlook on life in general is very positive right now.
BYT: I read the Pitchfork story, and it was the first time you had shared about your health issues. You performed multiple shows, including Coachella, just three or so months after having brain surgery. What made you want to share your story, and why share it now?
Lee: So, those decisions are hand in hand. The main reason for the timing of the story is because I needed to share that story to contextualize my latest album. This album is only a result of that experience – and let’s say hypothetically that I didn’t have to go through all those things. I would have definitely made another album, but it would have been very different from this one.
In terms of why I decided to share this story in general… First of all, I have to say I thought about it very long and hard. I went a long time without telling anyone about this experience, and no one would have known. Not just that – I knew to some degree that after I shared this it would be something that was talked about all the time, and it would definitely be in the line of sight.
There’s a lot of responsibility involved in sharing a very personal story with a lot of people, and it’s easier for others not to know about things – and I know that. But in terms of the general climate, socially, these are things people have to deal with on a daily basis. We hear so many negative stories but rarely do we get positivity. We have memes of cute cats and puppies and things like that, but if they didn’t exist, people would be a lot more unhappy. We need more things like that.
Beyond that, it’s a story of something I went through and survived. If anyone can hear this story and think “if she made it, I can make it” – that means the world to me. I will say, I had no idea it would make the kind of waves that it did. I kind of figured that everyone goes through really hard things in their lives, and things that are more difficult than what I went through, and in different ways. In that way, I didn’t want to be really braggy or victimizing myself, or using this disease as a form of tokenism. I wanted to share it so people know that I went through this thing, and it sucked, but hey, look – here I am! [Laughs] That’s my long-winded way of answering: I felt it could help a few people out.
BYT: You’ve talked about this being deeply personal, and something you vacillated about sharing. As a producer, composer, and songwriter, now that you’ve shared this aspect of your personal life is there anything that remains off-limits, topic-wise?
Lee: Nothing is ever off-limits. I’m always open to questions asked, and it will be up to me at that moment to decide if I want to answer or not. I’ve always been the kind of artist that wanted to focus so much more on the music than all these other things. For example, “what does it feel like to be a female in a male dominated industry?” [Rolls her eyes]
BYT: I imagine you get that one a lot.
Lee: That question is always asked in the same way, and after a while it can be a bit exhausting to be asked that. But then I realize again the responsibility I have. I didn’t set out to be a role model for anyone, but I embrace that it’s the position I’m put in. I don’t want to be irresponsible in any way; I’m not here to be anything to anyone, but seeing that I am something to some people, I want to let them know that I can be an artist with integrity, hold myself accountable for things, and be an example even though that’s not what I set out to do.
BYT: It’s interesting you mention that question specifically. I interviewed Madeline Kenney and Sadie DuPuis from Speedy Ortiz, and they’ve both brought it up as being the number one topic that’s broached.
Lee: I think it’s a necessary conversation. Some people would say “why do you have to ask that? It shouldn’t be a topic.” But in my opinion, as exasperating as it can be to get asked that, you can only bring an issue to life by talking about it. But it won’t be an issue anymore until we stop talking about it. Until we get to that point there will need to be an educational conversation, because some people don’t know! It’s not until the last couple of years that people have been talking about bookers at festivals for female artists, bla bla bla bla bla.
It’s kind of weird – I’m aware of what I am, but I focus so much on myself as a musician and as an artist that I don’t even notice that I’m the only female on a festival bill. I’m just like “oh I’m playing this festival.”I haven’t been very deeply involved in this greater outreach because my approach to equality is integration. I’m not into separatism, or an all-female festival. It’s good and empowering but it doesn’t allow for the bigger picture to get accomplished. We all need to be at the same festival – that’s always been my approach. I get asked about it all the time and I always have the same thing to say about it. [Laughs] I kind of want to put it on a card! But I will always answer that question and try to be well-rounded in terms of approaching that conversation.
BYT: I know you grew up in LA, and that you’re a big hip-hop head.
Lee: [Faux scuzzily] Oh, yezzz.
BYT: Reading your story, I know you had some difficulty composing music – but also making sense of sounds during the process of recovery. Is there any one moment during this period that you were listening to someone else’s music and you felt like you were ‘back’?
Lee: I’ve been asked this question a couple of times, and it wasn’t really like that – I didn’t have a ‘lightbulb’ moment. My comprehension of music very much goes hand in hand with my comprehension of language and communication, so everything was gradual. The best way to explain it is with my language: in the very beginning I could only pull from a limited universe of words, and every day that passed I could start using from a larger pool of words, with more complicated grammar. It slowly increased, although even the day I was discharged from Stanford [Medicine] I didn’t know how to put my right thumb to my left ear – yet cognitively, I could understand that I should be able to do that. Why was it so hard for me to do that? It was a weird way that the circuitry was broken up. [Pauses, puts right thumb to left ear] See? [Laughs]
It was very much in the same way with music; noise eventually softened into music. The thing about my approach to music, or getting back into listening to it, is that I don’t have to listen to music, but you have to speak. When you are hearing a song you don’t like, you can just turn it off. But every song was a song I didn’t like, so I didn’t listen to any music and allowed myself to heal in a lot of different areas. My brain is all jumbled up, and music is not the tippy-top – I just want to talk to my sister, or text my friends. I could cognitively try to do that but it made no sense. It’s a bizarre feeling.
Eventually there was a point where music started to make sense again – we’re surrounded by it. There’s music in the car, on the street, in restaurants. And slowly I was able to comprehend music again, and then I was able to make it. You can’t really make music if you don’t understand it. There was no ‘aha’ moment, but at some point I figured I would give it a try again.
BYT: Thank you for sharing that. Now that you’re feeling good, you’ve made this well-received album. You found this interesting wide range of vocalists to give voice to many of the things you were feeling and thinking as a result of your experiences last year. How do you foster these relationships and collaborations? Does it happen organically or do you reach out cold?
Lee: It happens in two parts: being introduced to the person, and fostering the relationship. The introductions can come from any area; friends putting us in touch. It could be my manager and someone like Selah Sue’s manager talking and thinking we’d sound amazing together. Sometimes I underestimate my range and don’t reach out to someone because I’m not sure if they know me and my music – and I don’t want to be weird! I don’t want to overstep my boundaries or assume too much.
Selah Sue came up and I’m a huge fan. I didn’t know she knew about my music, but our managers connected us via email. And that’s the second part: where does the conversation happen? I set forth in a very cheerful way, but I definitely show some vulnerability. I can’t make music with people I don’t like being around. And to be clear – we’ve never spent time together; I’ve never met her, but these email exchanges were so personal. It was honest.
With this particular song, ‘I Wish I Could’ with Selah Sue – how could I not tell her? This was the first song I wrote after the surgery. It was very emotional. She was so understanding of my situation and was going through her own stuff as well. She was kind enough to make sure that they lyrics represented both of our struggles, and this song was cathartic for her as well. We ended up making a song that is really meaningful to me and most representative of what I went through. I have listened to that song a zillion gazillion times. It makes me really emotional and brings me back to a time I don’t really want to think about.
Once I recovered I was like “Coachella! Let’s do all this stuff, let’s not think about the fact that I have two holes in my head, or whatever. When you feel good, you don’t want to think about it. But that song and the story is allowing me to face the things I went through, and is helping me to get more comfortable.