"It's my responsibility to talk about it" – TOKiMONSTA, Moyamoya & The Making Of Lune Rouge
The Los Angeles electronic musician also reflects on the changing LA beat scene ahead of shows at Laneway Festival next month.
Header photo by John Michael Fulton.
Wedged in between collaborations with SAINTS and MNDR on her 2017 record Lune Rouge, TOKiMONSTA's I Wish I Could sounds like any other single you'd expect from the long-time Los Angeles beat-maker. It's characteristically bright and uplifting – like much of Lune Rouge – with Selah Sue's emotive vocals soaring above a driving electronic production which is about as precise and intricate as much of TOKiMONSTA's previous work. However, for TOKiMONSTA – the accomplished project of Los Angeles musician and DJ Jennifer Lee – it means a whole lot more. I Wish I Could was the first major single that Lee wrote after recovering from Moyamoya disease, a rare condition in which arteries in the brain are constricted, blocking blood flow in crucial areas of the brain which can lead to stroke-like effects, seizures and other life-threatening complications. Diagnosed in late 2015, what followed was a whirlwind of a few months for Lee, which included two major brain surgeries, extensive rehabilitation (which included relearning speaking abilities and basic comprehension) and having to exercise her brain to reignite her musical spark.
Lune Rouge is her first album since recovering from the condition, and for an incredibly personal record built upon recent hardships, it's surprisingly bright and joyous. Focused on lush electronic productions and guest vocal features, Lune Rouge sees TOKiMONSTA dive into the world of electro-pop – a realm she's finally embracing after dipping her toes in the sound on her previous projects. Guests including TDE rapper Isaiah Rashad, SAINTS and MNDR feel comfortably at home above glistening summery productions, productions that combine Lee's roots in hip-hop-inspired beats with her smooth and more recent pop-leaning instrumentals. "Lune Rouge is the culmination of all the experiences I've encountered so far," Lee explained with the album release late last year. "During its creation, I faced some of the most difficult and uplifting moments of my life. Seeing myself at the edge of my own mortality and how I chose to move past is a story told in this album."
Speaking over the phone from her Los Angeles home, TOKiMONSTA reflects on her past two years. It's been four months since the release of Lune Rouge and five months since she first publicised her experiences with Moyamoya in a powerful op-ed piece for Pitchfork, which was the first time many people outside of her close-knit friends and family heard about her experiences. It's been a whirlwind few months for the musician, who continues to strive as one of electronic's most forward-thinking and talented artists despite everything thrown against her. Be sure to catch TOKiMONSTA at this year's Laneway Festival and her accompanying sideshows, which kicks off in Adelaide on February 2nd – full dates at the bottom of the interview.
Recording a full-length album is a massive undertaking for any musician, and I know Lune Rouge isn't your first album, but it came under some pretty intense and unique circumstances. Can you tell me about the years leading up to Lune Rouge and your experiences with Moyamoya?
In 2015, I was touring my previous release and there was one point in the tour where we stopped in LA. While we were in LA, I stopped by my house for a few days and I had this strange experience where I couldn't feel my foot from my knee down. It was no more than a few seconds, but I thought it was quite strange. I went to my doctor about a different issue with my back, and I mentioned this weird symptom to her and she recommended I get an MRI on my brain at the same time.
Once that happened, I find out from the radiologist that it's highly likely I have Moyamoya based off this symptoms that were showing up in the vascular channels in my brain – the blood work, essentially. My arteries were shrinking in distinct zones – like freeways being narrowed down so all the cars can only travel in one lane. I was getting just 5% blood flow on one half of my brain, and only around 10-12% on the other side. It was very alarming, so I reached out to some specialists at Stanford University – one of the only hospitals in the US which have a program for this incredibly rare disease – and they gave me my options. I really didn't have any other than surgery. No-one knows how the disease progresses, but it always ends with your arteries shrinking all the way to nothing. That was December 2015. We scheduled the first surgery for the first week of 2016 – for one side of my brain – and the other surgery for the other half of my brain the week after. So basically, I was having these two massive brain surgeries a week apart from each other.
At the time, I was just like "we need to fix it." I didn't give myself too much time to worry, like, I remember telling a few people about it – basically a very small handful of friends and family – and being really calm about it because I had a plan of attack, I knew what I was going to do. That said, it became very sobering when I had to fill out my will and my directive - so, if I become paralysed or whatever from the surgery do we pull the plug or do I stay paralysed - things like that. You don't want to have to think about that, but I think it's something everyone should have up to date because you never know what can happen, y'know? I was dealing with some pretty heavy anxiety before the surgery and having to work out all these big things, but for the surgery, they just put me to sleep. I'm sure it was gruesome and gross but I didn't even care – I was out of it completely.
Well, at least you weren't awake while they were operating.
Yeah, I mean I don't exactly want to wake up while they're drilling my head open or glueing it shut, that would be bad [laughs].
Right after the surgery, I was tired and I was propped up on a lot of drugs. The 24 hours following the surgery was so awful though because they're not allowed to let you sleep. They have to wake you up every hour to do small neurological tests; it's so bad. The first surgery wasn't too bad and the recovery was okay – I didn't feel too great but I was still responsive and myself, like I could talk and think and play games with my friends. But after the second surgery, I woke up not being able to speak. Like, I woke up and I just could not talk. I also started getting stroke-like symptoms on the left side of my body, even though I wasn't having a stroke. I would have moments where my entire left side would go numb, or I would get a droopy face. It was really stressful. After about a month or so though, I basically got all my physical and mental abilities back again and I was feeling a lot more myself.
How did it shape your ability to listen to, write and produce music?
I feel like people get disappointed when I say I don't have a superhero-like rebound after my surgery. I didn't have to relearn music or anything like that; it was basically like my brain was bruised during the surgery and I forgot everything. But as the swelling went down, I just remembered everything again – I think the trauma might've just knocked all my knowledge out of me. I didn't have to relearn anything. That said, I had to exercise my brain into allowing me to tap back into that creative way of thinking for writing music, but it wasn't like I didn't know Ableton anymore. Once everything came back to me, I knew how to use Ableton again. I knew how I liked to listen to music – things like that.
I actually recently reopened the first attempt I had at making music post-surgery, which I haven't actually opened since I made it, and it's really bad. But I tried! At least I made something!
Photo by Nikko Lamere.
You've mentioned that you kept the news of your diagnosis and surgeries to just close friends and family, but over the past year, you've talked about your experience a lot – whether it's through the album [Lune Rouge], interviews, op-eds or other forms. Looking back at the past twelve months, does it feel therapeutic to share your experiences with the public?
When I had gone through the surgery and I knew I was better – like, I was back to good ol' TOKiMONSTA and I knew everything was going to be okay, which would've been around March 2015 – I just didn't want to talk about it. I didn't mention it to anyone. I looked the same aside from my face being a little swollen, and I just pushed it to the back of my mind and thought to myself, "I have a second chance, I'm not going to think about what I went through."
About a year and a half later is when I finally started talking about it, and I realised how much it pained me to discuss. I didn't give myself any time to process what I had experienced and I just didn't accept that I had been through a traumatic experience like that. I think that being able to share your story – even repeatedly, even though I could get so tired of explaining it time and time again – it's always therapeutic every time. I have to remind myself that it's something I went through.
In a way, I acknowledge the perseverance I had at the time – not to pat myself on the back or anything and be like "yeah! You're the woman! You went through that!" – but it's like yeah, you hurt. That time was painful, but you got over it, and now you get to share that experience with other people in hopes that they'll be able to get through their own difficult experiences. It's still difficult to talk about, and I every time I talk about it I'm brought back to that time and it's very hard, but I still think it's my responsibility to talk about it because you never know who might need this story to get through whatever they're going through.
Exactly, and you never know. I know it's a rare condition, but someone could be going through the same thing and dealing with the same anxiety you were feeling at the time.
You'd actually be surprised I think. I've had quite a few people reach out with the exact same disease - it's very rare, but it's out there.
Do you spend much time in Los Angeles anymore with recording and touring schedules?
I've made it a point this year to spend more time at home and to create more in a space that's not temporary. Lune Rouge was made a lot at home, as well as in hotel rooms and on aeroplanes, which I think was great. It was a celebration, I guess, of being alive after the whole situation. After having toured so extensively, I realised that staying at home and venturing away less would be better for my overall health. Being at home and creating at home is a whole different energy and staying in the city – like, the city is reflected upon in your music and I kind of want more of that. I also want to be able to connect with my musician friends in LA and be able to work with people in the studio and create new projects and new ideas and a lot of that doesn't require everyone to be in one place, but I think it helps.
How has the Los Angeles electronic scene changed over your career?
Oh, it's so different. At that time, it was more cutting edge to create instrumental music the way all of us were doing. No one was doing that. Now, everyone in LA makes beats and there's this post-post-generation of this LA beats scene. It's interesting how you can suddenly see the influence in electronic because of this scene. Like, some producers may not even know about the beat scene or those days, but regardless, I find that the atmosphere here is very supportive and people cross-pollinate here. Electronic producers go to indie shows. Rappers and beat-heads, singer-songwriters and beat-heads – they all intertwine. People are making house music and techno now when they used to make beats. It's very apparent how diverse our scene is. I think it's really cool. There's less of a stigma to dip your toes in another area of music which I think is hard anywhere else.
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