|Jonna Lee on Demystifying the Aura of Her Viral Fame; Finding Her Voice and Her Die-Hard Fanbase|
|publishing date||May 5, 2019|
|interviewer||Peter Quincy Ng|
|publisher||Swede + Sour|
|photography||Peter Quincy Ng|
In her videos Jonna Lee (ionnalee/iamamiwhoami), carries an imposing presence. Her talons drawn over the bloodied shriek of her piercing falsettos, Lee certainly echoes the sentiment of a mythical being where cryptic words of love and hope beckon wondrous melodies through striking iconoclasm. In reality, what we see with Jonna Lee the performer is quite different. Though her intensity apparent in the palpitations of her rave-driven melodies; analogous to what someone might see in the industrial nightlife of Central and Eastern Europe, ionnalee’s stage presence carries a certain tenderness to it. A tireless worker for her often die-hard audiences, Lee’s performances are vibrant and energetic. There in her live show, vigorous dance routines sandwich between the illuminating wings of “Chasing Lights” and we even see a Russian floating-step that sees her levitate off the ground on during her performance of “y”. With her vocals honeyed and mellow despite their resonant carry, the smoke and mirrors of Lee’s live element showcase Jonna in a different light. It’s a real joy of performance that we see with Jonna, one that shines a light on her oh-so-human vulnerability that we often forget when she’s draped in faux-fur and suited-up in character.
Speaking to Jonna before her show in Toronto in her co-headlining show with TR/ST, we tried to demystify the mythology behind Lee’s eccentric presence. Kind and soft-spoken, the fearless performer seemed somewhat reserved and humbled by the whole concept of even stepping out on a world tour. There speaking about influences and finding her artistic voice and without dredging into drawn-out cliché, Jonna made sure to highlight one very important aspect. Throughout the viral madness of her initial few videos and now a world tour, none of it would have been possible without the undying support of her fans.
We’ve been slowly demystifying Jonna Lee. What’s it like being on tour
so far and meeting your fans through your newly found infamy?
First of all, it’s amazing to fathom all of that; very surreal. It is kind of like you are in a little bubble working alone a lot, or with me and (producer) Claes (Björklund). We don’t have much connection with the music industry or just networks, so coming out seeing this many people and listening; seeing their response, it’s quite new to me. At this (crowd) size especially, it’s overwhelming but positive stuff obviously. It just takes a while just to process everything.
Tell me about your beginnings form Jonna Lee to iamamiwhoami to ionnalee again, and on how you found your artistic voice. You transitioned from largely acoustic singer-songwriter prose with sweet and mellow melodies to a more aggressively electronic and experimental style - striking and shrill.
I didn’t know I had in me, but in the beginning Claes believed in me a lot. In the beginning I tried to find my voice and sound more like this person or that person. I’ve been trying to sound British at first, because I had spent so much time in London in my earlier teens. At first I had also been afraid to do things of the box as we recorded; because me and Claes, it’s the same team you know? We both kind of made our transition.
I remember at first, I was like, “No we need to strip back, no compressors”. I just wanted everything to be super natural and organic, and then when everything came out I was really dissatisfied and felt like I was invisible. We started playing around started to scrap everything. I mean we couldn’t because it was already out, but you know mentally start over. Then we did you know? No rules, let’s just do this.
Now I find we’re back again at it and I needed to connected to my personal point of view, because I’ve grown a lot musically as well. I’m also a better producer than I was ten years ago, so I wanted to see where I was ten years after this project. I don’t know if I am going continue as iam(amiwhoami) right now, but we’ll see. It’s a scary thing as well.
When you first started iamamiwhoami, there was a lot of mystery behind your origins and the mythologies of your persona. Were you worried about how you would be perceived or did you think you have convinced people you were Lady Gaga?
Uh no (laughs), I was not but I was hoping to maintain my anonymity because we were a group. I figured if they figured out our identity, then they’d judge the book and my previous work and everything. At the point of exposure (of my identity) though, we were all really disappointed but then again we never really tried to hide anything. We just took advantage that no one in Sweden really cared about iam(amiwhoami), so we were able to continue for quite a long time. When the whole thing happened though, it was just kind of surreal, you know (being mistaken for) Christina Aguilera, you can really plan that stuff ahead (laughs). I don’t think that sort of viral is happening anymore because everything has changed so much.
iamamiwhoami acquired viral fame, and one of the jokes on YouTube is that 90% of your views amounted from someone typing in one of the letters from b-o-u-n-t-y and the other 10% of fans are of the “COME TO BRAZIL!” trope. Was the concept of viral fame difficult to digest at first? Was there any pressure to keep the viral craze running?
Oh, it can’t be like that, I don’t think you can really do that, that whole thing with typing “y”, that’s just the internet doing its thing. Obviously, the other views are because it’s a great song and video. When that happens, you can’t (do anything to) affect it. You can try to force-feed it by doing the same thing repeatedly but if you look at the fifty-two something videos and continue to do quality things, then they those views will continue to be there. You see that in the shows, with a lot of those fans that have been there for ten years and that is so precious. The media coverage, that’s not connected to the actual work though. That’s connected to something else. It’s about what’s popular at the moment and I can’t compete with that and it has nothing to do with me.
In the age of instant celebrity, you managed to secure infamy without anyone really knowing who you were. For you is that an optimistic feeling?
That’s something that I’m proud of, but perhaps too proud of maybe. It’s rare that something is as pure as something like that, so I’m really happy that happened. Obviously I pointed a lot of people in a direction where if they weren’t interested they wouldn’t follow it, like with the whole identity when it wasn’t this supposed person or whatever, but it’s something that allowed me to tour all over the world.
You’ve recently assumed the persona ionnalee, a stylized spelling of your name. In a way, it has been hard to detach your previous effort iamamiwhoami from your current persona. How are the two similar yet different, and is that something you strive to change?
Mainly iam(amiwhoami) was about us (referring to Claes) internally, but it didn’t appear like it from the outside because I’m the frontperson and I created the project. It was always me and Claes. Claes is the main producer, I am the co-producer, we write all the music together and I write the lyrics and the melodies as well.
But for ionnalee, in iam(amiwhoami), I’ve never written from the point of “I”, from my perspective, my life and what concerns me. Also I produce everything myself but with some collaborations with Claes. He’s always like, “let’s do this!” playing some instruments. We love working together, we share a studio together. We have also had some of the same people working like (videographer) John Strandh and a few other ones were involved with iam(amiwhoami). So (the difference) it feels more like a project, not a person.
Both your projects have a very substantial audiovisual component to them and actually all you’re your singles follow up with a video. That’s quite a daunting task to say the least as music videos are huge commitments in time and in financial resources. How do you keep things fresh without blowing the budget?
Like financially, it’s always a bit of a struggle with how much time we can put in and with what gear we can produce with. We don’t have the funds to rent a lot of expensive stuff, so we relied a lot on what we could afford with our friends and stuff who want to help us create. For example, my brother Viktor (Kumlin) has always been John’s gaffer and cinematographer, even though he’s now a cinematographer himself. That’s one thing, but keeping the quality we will always make something because we feel like we have something to say and that’s easy then. You have the vision, you have the script, you have the song and everything’s together. If I would have continued making a video for every song like with iamamiwhoami that would be something that in the end would be something that wears out. I’m doing things differently now, to be more concentrated because I don’t want to being doing something just for the sake of format, like where I have to make a video.
Going back to the visual aspect, there is definitely the mythology; the mystique of “bounty” and “kin” but what really seems to be the underlying motif is the connection between the human connection to nature and the cosmos. Can you tell us how that inspires you, your imagery and music?
There are two sides to that; there’s creation in what we have done and the normative and traditional ways of doing things, then there’s creation, nature and how we connect to folklore. It’s what I grew up with and what my collaborators also did, so I guess it goes back to a question of visual aspect and it’s aesthetic. It’s a really hard question to answer.
Music is always a collaborative effor especially in the world of Jonna Lee, but what is most surprising is your connection to your fanbase. From the audiovisual aspect of in concert to your live shows, tell us how that has been? I suppose it has to be humbling but at the same time intimidating knowing that you have to deliver essentially for what they have paid for.
They are 50% of everything; they shaped the way the world tour acted. I didn’t think I would have toured (otherwise) because it would have been a hopeless thing. They’re communicating, live-chatting everything, I mean it’s sort of cliché but for ten years that’s really been the core of it all, otherwise it wouldn’t have been as interesting to create. They want to want to be part of it, that’s how I see it.
I know there have been many so-to-speak deeper questions being asked, but being the riddle and enigma you are, there is also an element to absurdity to all of this. Do you ever laugh at the all the toilet paper, cardboard boxes, glasses of milk, aluminum foil, morphsuits and fake fur you’ve used?
I mean that’s part of it; doing it in a different way. I mean I am laughing it all the time, like (the video) for “Some Body” that just came out today, editing it with all the common themes. It’s important to have that self-distance with yourself so that you don’t go in and become too self-absorbed. So humor is a good tool, because it also speaks to people and it’s nice and it makes you feel good and it’s not just (speaking mockingly) fashion! You know, it needs to have its human side.