Jonna Lee of iamamiwhoami Is Making Her Own Rules in Music
V talks to the musician about going solo as ionnalee, her new single, and why she refuses to be worshipped.
V talks to the musician about going solo as ionnalee, her new single, and why she refuses to be worshipped.
Text: Jake Viswanath
You may not know it, but Jonna Lee has been one of the most exciting and visually innovative artists in music for quite some time, as the front woman of electronic duo iamamiwhoami alongside producer Claes Björklund. Together, they created three adventurous records, merging beautiful icy synths with unconventional melodies and structures to create intangible yet dazzling music, each with a strong message to dissect. Now, Jonna is stepping out from the confines of her project and showing what she’s capable of on her own.
ionnalee is not a complete separation from iamamiwhoami, but rather a simple declaration that puts her in the universe as a solo entity. Using the "i" instead of her full birth name establishes her solo music's origins within the duo's repertoire while announcing her own independence as an artist. Her first offering, “Samaritan,” is her most pure pop offering to date with an insanely catchy chorus, but its menacing synths and overlying message makes it distinctly Jonna. As she says, “‘Samaritan’ is me celebrating my artistic independence saying that I’m a creator of my own work and not of the world in 7 days. I’ll create what I want, when I feel like it and no one has to like it.” Now, ionnalee talks to us about the message of new single and asserting her artistic independence, making it clear that she cannot be pushed around. Or worshipped, for that matter.
Why choose to go solo now, why did it feel like the right time?
Because when I started iamamiwhoami in 2009, it was supposed to be an experiment for a year or so, but then it ended up being a permanent thing. I started to create solo music back then, and then I put it on hold for a bit, and then I made iam songs out of it and that has just gone on for seven years. And now, I just felt like I need to catch up with where I was before and to see what comes out of the other end when iam has happened, see how it has affected my artistry.
With the work that you have done so far, what feels different now working solo than working with Claes?
What's different is that the songwriting is more direct, and I’m able to be not responsible for a collective but just be able to be quite more personal, speaking from my point of view rather than the perspective of a whole project. That's a big difference, and I think it's come through in the sound and also the lyrics and visuals.
How did the song come about? It seems like it's about rejection of idol worship in a sense, would you say that's accurate?
I would say that's accurate, just being aware of it and being a female artist from the get-go, but also having lived through iam as a project, which is an alternative project that's meant to be free from the norm so to speak, and we try to be creatively free. The audience that we have is amazing, following us in a quite close way. But even as an alternative artist, there is this tradition of putting a female artist or artist overall on a pedestal, celebrating and looking up to them, using words like "goddess" or “queen,” and I find it so difficult. Seeing it from my point of view, it doesn't seem like a healthy way to view female artists or artists overall because we tend to adapt to that and try to please the audience, so the song is a reaction to looking back at history with how long this has been going on, for as long as people have used words and texts to convey messages.
Absolutely. Would you say that the fact that female artists in the mainstream and alternative worlds are put on a pedestal in turn compromises their artistry and songwriting in a sense?
Yeah, I think there is this strive to please the audience, definitely. Everyone has to strive to become bigger to gain more audience, and the easiest way to do that is aiming to please people. Being uncensored in my lyrics has been a big relief in the music I've been working on. I've been trying to push myself to speak my mind a bit more, not to be too abstract.
Do you think that the fact that you have gone solo will naturally put you up on more of a pedestal?
I felt that this song may do the opposite [laughs].
Yes, but it's difficult. I think iam has been viewed as one artist because I have been the front person. I still get a lot of questions like, "what's the difference? why just change the name?" but it's not just a name change, it's the music I've made that's been a collaboration with another musician very much in-depth, you know?
Speaking of collaborations, I read that you're only collaborating with yourself in a sense. You're writing, producing, singing, all of the music.
It's not only me, I've been doing some collaborations with Claes, who has been involved in different ways, as well as I have been in his own solo projects because we share a studio and we do everything together so it comes naturally. But collaborating with myself as being a producer has been the main thing. I needed to step up and try to see what kind of producer I am on my own because I haven't done my own productions since before iam. But there hasn't been any official collaboration so far with other artists. I'm trying to bear myself to be in my own company and stand it.
For sure. You were saying earlier with this song specifically, you're more direct. Would you say that it's accurate that the new single is more accessible than the music you did with iam or does it still exist in the same realm?
It does exist in the same realm, but it's more direct to most people. I think if you look back at some songs that we've done with iam, songs from Blue and even from Bounty, the pop structure of our music has always been there but the arrangements are not so clear, they're been quite abstract. Long intros, outros, and not so many choruses. "Samaritan" is definitely one of the more direct songs I've made with the pop structure. I think it's as pop as I'll ever be, to be honest, in my format.
And are you comfortable going to that level of pop, or is it completely new to you?
No, I'm very comfortable. When there's a weight of lyric and message and production, structure and arrangement, as long as there's a balance there, I'm comfortable. But I'm definitely a person that listens to pop and loves melodies, but I find it very hard when it's too "chewing gummy," as they say in Swedish.
Let's talk about the video. What would you say that story of the video is?
The video is part of a longer series that I'm making at the moment, we're coordinating production with it now, so it’s the second chapter of an unknown amount. It surrounds a character that is watching herself being projected on TV. It reflects being this independent artist in the world, where there are no rules or any sort of creative freedom, to be honest.
What inspired the aesthetic and the big moments of the video?
The feel of the world of music right now for me is very bleached out, and society almost is becoming less and less articulate and more and more washed out. I'm always inspired by my Swedish folklore and heritage, of course. But working with Comme des Garçons for the costumes I'm wearing has been a big inspiration as to getting a sense of how history is repeating and objectifying itself. The individualism that you can see pretty clearly, I feel, in the Instagrams of the world that is very central for young people and pop stars right now, where it's all about the self and the reflection of yourself and exploring to realize your own mission and dreams. There are the two opposites in the video, there's the more vivid and creatively free side, there's a character from A Sinner's Guide to Holiness that you can see in the video, and then there are the more clean and washed-out white individuals in the television show that's also about self-realization.
Why did you choose to collaborate with Comme des Garçons in the video? What do you feel they brought to the project?
We started working together during Blue, they contacted my label. When we met, I just realized that they have a very similar voice and quite genderless perspective in their work and their way of communicating, and I really admire Rei's designs, so sharing these creative values was a big part of why we spoke about how we could collaborate. Then I told them about the project I was making, and we started looking at what could be done and what the story was. It just felt like the perfect way to continue.
In a part of the video, you use an excerpt from Winston Churchill's speech “The Threat of Nazi Germany,” and I was wondering why you chose to feature that in the video.
The world is a scary place right now, and that speech itself and the feel of what that speech makes in this scene, it portrays exactly what we wanted, that exact thing repeating constantly in history over and over. What he's saying is quite relevant, it's scary that we are beginning to relax with the world becoming more and more developed through things that we're learning, and thinking that we're becoming a better place. Seriously, you get really worried at just the political and environmental state of the world right now, and nothing is going to change. It’s all just repeating itself.
Are you going to be covering any more political themes on whatever you're working on? Is this going to result in an album?
I don't know, but it's not impossible. The format of the album is tricky because it's now a collective item thing. People listen to just individual songs, and I feel like sometimes it's slowing down a lot of good music and people only get to hear some of it. But at the same time, making an album is a creative work that I wouldn't want to be without, so I'm probably going to do an album at the end, but who knows? And I have my own label, I am able to do what I feel like in the moment.
Exactly. So do you plan on getting more political in your future music, however that ends up turning out?
I think with the music that I'm making, getting political is something that just happens when you look around and just take in what's going on right now. That's much of why this is a solo project also. Working within iam, it's always been about the project's development and now it's about looking within but also looking outside of the project to see how the world is affecting the art that I'm making. It's surely going to be lots of reflections because a lot of reflection is going on.
What is your usual creative process when creating a song?
It's different from one song to another. Usually, I'm in the studio making some sort of beats because I love rhythm and I try to think of myself a little more like a rap artist would, I guess, as far as the work with phrasing and melodies. I generally work with beats and melody and lyrics at the same time, so I have this thing where I can't sing the song unless I wrote the lyrics first, because I can't sing it unless I know what I'm singing about. That is not always a good thing, but that's how it usually goes, making beats and running with some sort of melody in my head, and then going for lyrics, and then singing the melody, and then the production. That's the technical side of me.
It's interesting how much emphasis you put on the lyrics.
I feel like there needs to be an intellectual stimulation because, in the past, I remember I got a melody in my head that felt good and we wrote songs around it, but I stopped feeling it somewhere in and then I ended up asking, "What's the song about? What's the theme of this song? What's being said here and why?" So it's a bit more important to communicate something that matters to me at least, and then maybe it doesn't matter to anyone else, but at least it was an honest opinion. I'm probably not the best in making feel-good lyrics and stuff, which I really enjoy listening to, repetitive stuff that just really gets you in a good mood. I don't think I would listen to my own music, to be honest, if I wasn't myself. I'm a person that needs a lot of feel-good to feel good in my life. So the music I'm making is not for feeling good, it's for expecting something.
Have you ever taken a stab at making fun, feel-good music?
I find it really hard. It's a lyrical thing, mainly. The brilliant pop songs that I love have brilliant lyrics, and it can be simple, it doesn't mean it has to be revolving around politics or your whole life story. It can be simple but pretty anthemic. I can do that, I guess, if I felt careless, not worried or not angry or not something. But I think I'm one of those people who always has very strong emotions.
That's okay, especially if you care about what you're turning out.
Exactly. I think I care a little too much almost, and that's why it's difficult. I enjoy being the artist that I am so I wouldn't have it any other way, but I don't think I'm the best person to write more joyful and party-oriented lyrics, you know?
For sure. And it's better to care a little too much than not enough.
You always created these worlds that went along with each IAM album, each with their own aesthetic tone, and I was wondering how the world you're going to create with your new project will differ.
I think there's always a core of all my projects that are all the same, I think. Even with some work before IAM, with some exceptions, there is a narrative throughout and the aesthetic between every visual album we made is different from one another so it's definitely going to be different. And I think "Samaritan" is different from IAM but it's mostly different because it's a development forward. I haven't been like 'let's move this' or 'let's take away that'. It's been more of taking from your inspiration at the moment, which is how the music and the collaboration with Comme des Garçons also affected it. There is a concept to the album, and you work around it, and then once you stand there and you actually feel it and hear the song, then you see what it's become. You don't really know. So with "Samaritan" out, I've only just learned what the aesthetic would be for that part of the series, if you know what I mean. And afterward, it's much more easy to say that 'oh, it was a clear aesthetic in this direction’.
What can we expect next from you?
I'm now filming and recording, doing lots of fun things. I will be releasing material soon, I don't know what soon means—when I'm done with the next chapter. I wouldn't expect the same format from myself that I've been working with for IAM because it's extremely destructive of myself to just work around and do exactly the same procedures for each production.But I'm going to be on tour soon, I haven't been playing shows since 2013. I'm going to be on tour with Royksopp, which is a Norwegian band, I don't know if you know them.
I love their work, actually.
Yeah, they're really nice. I've been working some with them, and we'll be touring from April at Coachella and do a tour, shows in Eastern Europe, America, Southern Europe, and Scandinavia.
Yeah, I'm looking forward to it, it's going to be a lot of fun. It's going go be a contrast because I will, in between the shows, be back to finish this feature, which I think is going to be quite a long feature. That is something that is my biggest thing of course, just finish the production, if it's an album or if it's just individual songs. There will be music soon.
Could you give us an insight into what this music sounds like?
In "Samaritan," there is definitely some sort of play with some sort of hip-hop beat. It's as much hip-hop as I guess, there is a lot of that in my new music because it's so much fun to play around with these beats. And I'm also working a lot with brass, which I've been doing with trumpets and saxophones. I've been going crazy with all of these brass instruments. I wouldn't say that it sounds like "Samaritan," but I won't say that it all sounds different either. I have no idea basically. I think people that have been following me for a while will like what I'm doing, but you never know.