Our chat with LA-based musician TOKiMONSTA is what she calls a “cozy interview.” By her description, she’s flanked by two cats. One is her boyfriend’s; the other is Misha, her fluffy-faced, silky gray Scottish Fold who has a propensity for walking across her Rhodes.
An ordinary moment such as this, curled up, on the phone, snuggling with a couple of cats, is something that the pop-meets-hip-hop-meets-psych electronic music artist, born Jennifer Lee, does not take for granted. In 2015, she was diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal disease called Moyamoya, a cerebrovascular disorder caused by blocked arteries at the base of the brain. It left her unable to walk, speak properly, and hear music as anything other than noise. “It was excruciatingly hard on me emotionally,” Lee says. “I had lost all these abilities to function like a normal human being and didn’t know if and when they would come back.”
Those abilities did come back, though it took about a month and a half of intense rehabilitation. Her new album, Lune Rouge is a result of that recovery. It’s not a direct narrative of the difficulties she faced, but rather an emotional translation of the journey, both its painful lows and the joy of coming through on the other side. It sports cinematic qualities, future-pop influences and R&B infusions, but to peg any genre to the Lune Rouge is to miss the point. Here, Lee talks her “medical fiasco,” how her creative process has changed as a result and the simple things in life she enjoys, which includes the aforementioned cats and beer.
Was there an aha moment where you thought, ‘this whole ordeal is going to turn into an album’?
I’ll preface this by saying that I’m always working on music. I don’t have periods of time where I stop touring so I can create an album. My albums are normally a culmination of a collection of ideas made at a certain point in my life. With this one, I had finished a tour and I had gone through a crazy medical fiasco, which left me unable to make music. The moment that I recovered from that whole experience was the seed that started this whole album.
After this whole ordeal, I realized tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and I need to know the art I put on this Earth is something I’m proud of and something that will speak for me when I’m not here.”
What happens with songs that don’t make it on albums?
My biggest critique of the music industry is how wasteful it is with music. So many singers, songwriters, and producers make music and the songs go nowhere. If I have something I think has potential, I’m going to find a way to put it out myself. I’ll find a home for it. A good example of this is a song I have on Lune Rouge called “Bibimbap.” That idea started four years ago, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I held on to it and when I started all the songs for this new album I was inspired to work on it again. I completely changed the direction of it and it wound up being perfect for this album.
I know you’re not supposed to have any favorite songs, but do you feel a special kinship towards one on 'Lune Rouge'?
I have a song called “I Wish I Could” featuring Selah Sue. That song has the biggest attachment for me because, when I was going through these medical issues, it was excruciatingly hard on me emotionally. I had lost all these abilities to function like a normal human being and didn’t know if and when they would come back. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I felt like a potato with a functioning brain on the inside. I was cognizant, but I couldn’t express myself in the way that I wanted to. When I got to the point of existing like I did before, I was really happy. I thought, “This is the moment where I can shine and I can be myself.” That appreciation and excitement culminated into this song. But, the song is also a representation of the struggle and hardship and pain I was going through at the same time. To this day, that song is very empowering but it’s emotional for me to listen to. That song helped me face the cost of what I had dealt with in a healthy way.
What was it like to try and make music again after you recovered?
There were times where the doctors thought I’d have to go to a speech therapist, because I was having difficulty remembering words. Not in a way an average person would notice—like, constant brain farts—but I stuck with it. I’ve never worked so hard at anything in my life. I had to do physical therapy. It was exhausting just to walk around the hospital, which they made me do because I was bedridden for a few weeks. It’s hard to explain what’s it’s like. When I came out of the first or second surgery I tried texting my friends to let them know I was okay, but instead of complete thoughts and words I sent them gibberish. Like drunk texts, essentially. But, in a month and a half, I went from 0 to 100. Once I felt okay, I opened up Ableton and tried to work on some music and the song I made was…really bad. So, I just gave it another week or so and approached it again, and that’s when I made “I Wish I Could.” It was the first song I made upon recovering. It was to me, a sign that everything was going to be okay.
Do you find making music feels different now?
I would say that my approach is different and my mental state is different—it’s renewed and more sincere than it was starting to become. Not to say that my music was insincere, but I was starting to question myself creatively around that time. After this whole ordeal, I realized tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and I need to know the art I put on this Earth is something I’m proud of and something that will speak for me when I’m not here.
I’ve been told you’re quite the beer-drinker.
I am a many-things-drinker, but, yes, I am a beer-drinker.
Do you have any favorites?
I tend to like saisons. I went through a period where I was drinking sours, but I couldn’t tell if I really liked them or if I was trying to challenge myself and tell myself I liked the taste more than I did.
So you like to experiment.
I have a friend who owns a beer bar really close to where I live, so I used to walk there and drink beers a lot. Once I started touring heavily, I wasn’t able to do that as much. But every time I pop in, he pulls out some secret bottle from, like, a crazy recluse in San Diego who makes beer and only comes out with it once a year. I get to try some cool things that way.
What about when you travel for tour?
Belgium and the Netherlands tend to have the beers I like the most. I remember a friend telling me when I was in Germany that they have really stringent rules with what qualifies as beer. It’s like how the French have very specific rules on what qualifies as wine. There’s also a lot of variety in that part of Europe, some places will have over 100 types of beer. So when I’m around there I tend to always find something really interesting and inventive.
When I go to Asheville and Denver, I usually have good beer there, but I never remember what they’re called!”
Do you remember your first beer?
Yeah, I think I was five! My parents thought it would be funny to let me sip a little bit. Obviously, I hated it and thought it tasted like vomit. I was like, “You guys are disgusting, how can you drink this?” It’s more common with Korean families because drinking is so involved in socializing.
Are there Korean beers you enjoy now?
I always felt like drinking in Korea was more functional and not for taste. I believe Koreans are the largest consumers of spirits in the entire world. They drink a lot of soju, which is potato vodka that has about half the amount of alcohol, and then they have very light beers. Only a few companies there make both, so there isn’t much artisanal happening, but the lagers in Korea are pretty good. My favorite one is Hite. Things might have changed and they might have more artisanal beer but I haven’t had any yet.
What drinks do you request on your rider?
I got this idea from a friend of mine who is also really into beer. He likes to put whatever the local craft beer is on his rider. So that’s worked out pretty well for me. It’s great in the US because there’s such a large craft beer community. When I go to Asheville and Denver, I usually have good beer there, but I never remember what they’re called! Oh, you know what, I take that back, that’s the kind of person I am. I have an app I use called Untapped. It’s like the Yelp of beer. I haven’t used it in a while though. Here’s one I liked…it’s out of Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Minnesota, and the beer was their Tank 7 Farmhouse ale.