This interview originally appeared in the print edition of RAIN magazine in the spring of 2018.
Interview by Johan Lundgren. Art direction by WAVE. Photography by John Strandh.
The Swedish musician and visual director Jonna Lee has fronted the mysterious project iamamiwhoami for nearly a decade. After five albums and several award-winning videos, she set out as ionnalee with her maiden album, Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten. In this exclusive interview, she speaks with longtime collaborator Johan Lundgren, aka Tungorna, about her new direction.
Johan Lundgren (Tungorna): Where are you now and what are you up to today? Is this a typical ionnalee day?
Jonna Lee: I’m in my workspace, where I’m exporting the final sound for the online version of my film. Yes, it’s a typical ionnalee day, I would say. There is a lot of work of different kinds going on at the same time.
I tend to go from one thing to another and am exhausted at the end of each day.
T: I know that feeling.
JL: Are you like that as well when you make music? Or do you work at one thing at a time?
T: I’m all over the place when I’m making music, always several tracks at a time, but that’s the best way to be on your toes and keep it interesting for yourself. I’m not good at doing one thing at a time, even if I try to.
JL: Yes, it gets a bit repetitive listening to one’s own songs over and over. My process is based on so many different mediums— recording and writing, planning visual production, or editing film—so when I have no deadlines, I do what I feel like on that day, and this is great for not becoming fed up. When I’m “off,” I do things like working with plaster, painting, sewing. You’ve seen my workspace. There are a lot of small stations for any expression, basically. I have deadlines currently, though, so am trying to stick to what I need to do to make the release happen as planned.
T: Speaking of doing several things, you said that ionnalee is an extension of iamamiwhoami, but that they will not exist simultaneously.
JL: When I said that iamamiwhoami will not exist at the same time as my solo work I meant just that. There’s only one of me, so I can only do one large process at a time. iamamiwhoami is a duo that always consists of me and Claes Björklund. John Strandh is a big part of it, too. So, for a release of the magnitude we’ve done before to happen, we all need to be in sync and be available to work together a lot.
The EABF creation [Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten, Lee’s new album and film, released in February] took me two years to make by myself, and Blue, our latest iam release [in 2014], took three years to make as a group. It takes this much time because I’m independent and we don’t rely on external powers, but also because we put so much work into each part and we chose to do a lot of it ourselves and make it all count.
T: Right, so what influenced you to set out as ionnalee?
JL: I set out to do a solo release because it’s long overdue. iamamiwhoami is a constant for many, but we started it as a small side project and put our lives on hold for an undecided amount of time and have just carried on. We were all quite drained after Bounty [iam’s debut audiovisual album, released initially as a series of “episodes” in 2010], but carried on out of lust. From the outside it may look simpler, but as you know, the creative, technical, and release processes are quite huge.
Before the project I was a solo artist, so it was time to reconnect with my own work to see how almost 10 years of working within iamamiwhoami has shaped me. I have no decisions made for the future. Creation should always come out of passion, not from a feeling of obligation or anyone else’s wishes.
You’ve been a part of that whole journey, from before iamamiwhoami through the project to now and you’ll be on tour with me this year. Very cool. What impact do you feel like our live shows as iam have had on you as a musician?
T: It’s been great to be a part of that journey. It’s always been a creative environment—not just the music but also the visual aspect and the fact that it’s possible to do what you
want to do if you have an idea, which is really inspiring. It’s also great to perform with people you know well and with whom you share the same thoughts about music. The iam audience is also so enthusiastic and dedicated and you can really feel that on stag —that we are all in this together. That sort of takes it to another level, which can sound like a cliché, but that’s what it’s all about in the end. It’s easy to forget that when you are isolated in a studio for months. So I’m really looking forward to this tour.
What do you say about going on tour? Is it always exciting or do you prefer being in the studio, creating?
JL: That’s really great to hear! The same goes for me.
I’d say touring and being in the studio are equal but different. I always know that I
will love touring once I’m there, so it’s like a subconscious excitement cluttered with worries such as, “How will we make this and that work?” My head is always wrapped up in the now, and when two things overlap I find that really hard. Like ending one project while beginning pre-production of another now. Once the focus is fully on the next thing, I get nervous and start feeling that joy and anticipation. On stage is where I belong. Now that’s a cliché, but clichés are what they are because they are true to many.
T: Yeah, I know what you mean. You’ve also been out touring with Röyksopp—how was it touring with them compared to with iam?
JL: Touring with my material versus Röyksopp’s is very different, but I love both. With my own show there’s a responsibility beyond the performance that I don’t have with Röyksopp. I don’t need to think about the administration, funding, or anything
like that. It was a revelation for me to be able to focus on performing alone. But creatively I’d say it’s quite similar. Getting to play music with amazing people, making magic together.
Your incredible EP YSTER would do so well live. Are you keen on making that happen?
T: Thanks, yes, I am. Its songs come from hours and hours of experimenting with sounds and different layers, with the versions ending up on the EP not being the definitive ones. I think they are pretty much alive and need to be performed live in some way.
As a solo artist, this was a debut for me and I was able to start with a clean slate and just do whatever I wanted. The title YSTER—which means frisky and playful—was chosen at the last minute. For me it is the opposite of what I think of myself as a person, but there is a side of that in the music that I somehow need to express, and it sort of sums it all up more than being a direction creating the music.
JL: Yes, I can imagine that you don’t see yourself as yster. But I think there’s that side to you as well. One’s dominant personality features are hard to sum up in one word, I guess. I always mistake that word for the Swedish word dyster, which means the opposite—gloomy, dark, sad.
T: Haha, similar. What are your thoughts about your new album and how did you come up with the title?
JL: This album is quite a triumph for me to release. The process of making it has been rough for different reasons. Health, motivation, time, and fears have repeatedly been factors throughout. I vary from seeing it as my best piece yet and being really proud to feeling self-contempt and considering disappearing again for a while. To reboot.
“It’s an open description of an era where everyone markets their individuality almost as a brand and where artists feel their music isn’t special enough on its own anymore”
I know it’s because it’s a personal audiovisual project. My main struggle is with sharing myself in any way. I’ve had it since I started releasing music 20 years ago. Can you relate?
The title Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten is an open description of an era where people are fighting to be seen and heard, where everyone markets and exploits their own individuality almost as a brand on social media and where artists feel their music isn’t special enough on its own anymore. What are your thoughts on this?
T: Yeah, I totally agree with you about people fighting to be seen or heard today, and your title captures that perfectly. You can’t really afford to be off the grid as an artist and you really need to be out there, but that’s the hardest part of the music business today, I think.
JL: Thanks. The title is also a reflection of my own daily fears. The times when I’ve been losing motivation to continue sharing. How not being visible to the traditional music industry and media creates a feeling of isolation and like my work isn’t worth as much, while at the same time, others will borrow from it.
I tell myself I’m not bothered about that stuff, but just like for anyone else, there are “weak” moments when it can get to you, and that’s a hard thing to admit. It has been scary and important to look reality in the eye after having written music and created visuals from within a project for 10 years with iamamiwhoami, and writing from a collaborative point of view.
T: Yeah, I understand. And about sharing oneself as an artist, it’s hard to know where
to draw the line for oneself but still be able to express what you want/need to express. It’s always personal, and I don’t really find the ones who just share a professional side that interesting. One always has to give something away. I think that’s the reason I haven’t made anything as a solo artist before now, because it’s easier to hide a little bit behind others and behind an image that’s not based on an individual. But on the other hand, I always felt a need to make music as a way to connect with people and to just let off some steam, almost like therapy or something, when you really need to let go of some control.
JL: Yes, for me, some emotions can only be communicated clearly through music.
T: Is there a connection in the visual references to your past work?
JL: Yes, there is, in the sense that my artistic evolution is at the core of the storyline, from 2009 until present day.
T: So, is having total control a reason why you produce, write, direct, choreograph, perform, and of course, sing with only a handful of collaborators? What you have achieved is incredible and an inspiration to all of us. Does being independent allow you a certain amount of creative freedom that you otherwise would not have?
JL: Thanks for that. Yes, there are good sides to being able to control your own environment. Being free from regulations. But I dislike the term “control,” as it sounds very harsh and negative. I guess being free to do whatever I want is the reason. I have noticed that, as soon as a third-party player comes into the game, there are deadlines, rules, expectations, and a lot of waiting. Success is the motive that sets the rules. At the same time, I want to grow my audience and make my releases available to people outside our TWIMC [To Whom It May Concern, the independent label founded by Lee in 2010] web shop, but it needs to happen the right way, with people who “get it.”
As an example, a while ago I met a friend from old times who is an artist. He said he was waiting and hoping that he could soon get approval from his label to record a new album. I just remembered the frustration I felt before I started TWIMC—that approach of, “Write more songs and maybe in a year or so we can do a new album, but in the meantime, keep writing.” And once the album was recorded, there was nothing
I could do to affect the outcome. I have so much restless energy and I was just wondering what the hell people were doing at that label all day.
Having your own setup enables you to change this and understand how the industry is built, and mainly ignore all that and do it your way. To begin with, you don’t need anything else but the internet and some ideas. But the workload, which was modest on the label side to begin with, is now a lot bigger.
T: Yeah, and now you also have to deal with Tungorna, haha.
I’ve also experienced the “write more songs” attitude from labels before, so for
me there’s much more freedom being an independent artist. Do you think there are any disadvantages or hurdles you find yourself facing due to being an independent artist and being responsible for a label?
JL: There are a few struggles, like funding productions. I’ve sold my home multiple times to finance work, such as Kin. And I asked the bank to trust the free-thinking artist to fund Blue. I just Kickstarted my world tour to make this process transparent and let the audience decide if I tour or not. Remaining independent is not hard. It’s just making the right choices from the heart.
Otherwise, working with a very small crew is very rewarding but also rough, because we’re all doing multiple things.
T: And is remaining independent becoming harder as your level of success increases?
JL: I’ve heard the line “my success keeps building” before. For me that’s really hard to connect with. When you hear that, how do you see this?
T: It’s one thing if you’re in it for the fame and marketed as a brand of cereal, but I can’t really relate to that.
JL: I am well aware of my audience and I am happy if they’re growing. I want them to. But nowadays success is mostly measured by streaming numbers and, being almost subcultural, in a sense, that says nothing to me. And I have adopted two dogs and work 24/7, so I just notice that I work more than I should and hope no one barks during song tracking. Things often look different from the outside, I think.
And the reason I do all these things myself is, to be completely honest, mainly because I am actually pretty good at a lot of things. I’m feeling the self-contempt well up here, but there’s a reason I’ve learnt to master a lot of tasks and that reason is genuine interest in expression. You’ve known me pretty well for about 16 years now and you know there are a lot of things I love doing. The feeling of putting emotion into voice, sound, pictures, and text and learning new things is my biggest thrill.
T: Yeah, we’ve known each other a long time and I know there are a lot of things you love doing and that you’re not afraid of trying something new.
JL: Are you visually interested? I know you love film, for example. Would you go beyond music and do photography or film?
T: At some point maybe, but for the moment I’m sticking to what I know. And I can lose myself completely in a piano or some music software or whatever, just creating sounds or melodies for no other purpose than to get to a certain feeling or emotion. And I need to take the easy way to get there, without struggling with equipment or techniques I’m not that familiar with. I’m a bit lazy in that sense. But I really love photography and film, and find them really inspiring when I create music as well, and I love to work with people who I trust when it comes to the visual aspect.
JL: I lean more to the obsessive side, as you know. Do you find traveling as much as you have been these past years, living in different countries, has made you more forward thinking about music making?
I think your music is quite daring and multilayered, not at all suggestive of you taking a comfortable approach. So the laziness is probably only valid in comparison with the pop-cultural world we live in, which has the attention span of a three-year-old.
T: Yeah, traveling and living in different countries has been the push I needed to do something of my own. It’s easier when you get away from your safety net and old routines, and that ends up in the music, as you say. I always try to make music that I don’t have a 100% control over, if that makes any sense, just to surprise myself and see what happens. If I know exactly what I’m doing, I get easily bored. And living in London now, for instance, helps—you can never really have this place under control.
What could be a next step for you? Will music always be at the center of things?
JL: Yes, music will be the center. But I am so much in the now that I have no idea where I’ll land and where my head and health will be at after this project. I will tour first of all and see what sounds I start hearing afterwards. I don’t take continuation of my career as an artist for granted anymore. Just finishing this audiovisual side of things and being able to go on tour now is a major thing. And you? More Tungorna, please—I’m telling you as your label boss.
T: Yeah, I’m always in the now, I think— or yesterday, even. I can never really plan ahead, so the only thing I know is that there’s definitely gonna be more Tungorna music this year—I need to please my label boss. And I’m going on tour with the amazing ionnalee, and then we’ll take it from there.
JL: Well, this is kindness. Thank you. I’m looking forward to meeting the audience and having you on tour.