|What Can You Do with Nothing?|
|publishing date||August 30, 2012|
|photography||iamamiwhoami: John Strandh|
What Can You Do with Nothing?
- The mysterious iamamiwhoami is a sublime marriage of electro-pop fireworks and rich, confounding video. Doron Davidson-Vidavski is granted a rare interview with its created, Nordic musician Jonna Lee; it is illustrated by an exclusive photoshoot allusively enriching the iamamiwhoami story, to be poured over by the project's obsessive fans.
What lies at the heart of the iamamiwhoami phenomenon, and its notable ability to keep its audience so continuously beguiled by its output, can be summarised as ‘reciprocal thirst’: on the one hand, the thirst of the enterprise’s dramatis personae to do something creatively fulfilling, loyally mirrored by the unquenchable thirst of the audio-visual saga’s followers for more music and more magical cinematography.
From the very outset, iamamiwhoami positioned itself in a realm where mystery was the watchword, operating as a titillating, never-ending treasure hunt. Sure, there have been other experimental online viral campaigns before and this is not the first time that an artist has chosen to anonymise his or her real identity in favour of an alter-ego. Still, never before has a new act devised such a rich, well-rounded project, backed by an ongoing story arc that instantly engaged its audience and simultaneously tapped into their pop sensibilities.
For Swedish singer-songwriter, Jonna Lee, who was only officially confirmed by her management as iamamiwhoami’s driving force in June this year, the – perhaps subconscious – inception of this extraordinary project can be traced back to 2007. That October, around the time of release of her debut solo album, “10 Pieces, 10 Bruises”, she was interviewed by Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, revealing that her favourite novel was Val McDermid’s “The Grave Tattoo”. In Sweden, the book was translated as “Bounty” and this word ended up becoming one of the central mysteries in iamamiwhoami’s first series of works and, eventually, its title.
“The shape and details of the project weren’t developed then so it was more thoughts of wanting to do music that tickled something inside me and leave things that I wasn’t happy with at the time”, Lee recalls, as we settle into an hour-long interview at her hotel in West London. Moments earlier she apologises for her English, which she fears not to be as good as it used to be when she lived in London years ago. But her command of the language is much better than she suspects and her Scandinavian pronunciation mellifluous. “The evolution of iamamiwhoami has been a slow one”, she continues. “Right now I can touch it but back then it was just an idea. In terms of real thoughts, thoughts that give some kind of conclusion, I would say that it started during the first part of 2009”.
In early 2009 Lee was readying the release of her second solo album, “This Is Jonna Lee”. Working with the record’s producer (and now confirmed iamamiwhoami deputy), Claes Björklund, she was also experimenting with two different cover versions of Nitzer Ebb’s “Violent Playground”, one of which saw the pair opting for a more electro-oriented sound than her usual folky guitar-pop. “I discovered a longing for something new in my life”, she says. “I also wanted to find a counterpart for my music, visually, and do something where there was no creative limitation, so that even if there were only little means or no means at all, there would still be a freedom to do whatever kept us interested. This was just something I needed to do without knowing why I needed it at the time”.
The public’s first encounter with iamamiwhoami came in December 2009, with the fortnightly emergence of a perplexing and increasingly graphic series of YouTube videos sent out to music websites and bloggers from the e-mail address email@example.com. As cryptic teasers for a project no one had previously heard of, they proved to be an instant hook. Going viral, the videos immediately got people speculating as to what their imagery symbolised and, more importantly, the identity of the artist behind them. Christina Aguilera, whose ‘Bionic’ long-player was due in the ensuing months, was the firm favourite.
From the very first video, iamamiwhoami set out its stall to intrigue. The music was instrumental, of an electro-pop ilk, and the visuals were set in a forest whose trees had pulsating human limbs. Occasionally, the arboricultural footage was interspersed with shots of a mud-covered female and, towards the end, the video briefly cut to a film showing the birth of a goat (later replaced by a drawing of a goat due to a copyright infringement claim). The post-hyphen numbers in the title were subsequently deciphered by erudite fans as an alphanumeric spelling of the word ‘EDUCATIONAL’.
With Christmas around the corner, Lee was still doing promo for her album with the release of its third single, “Something So Quiet”. Unbeknown to her label, Razzia Records, however, she was also working on more music and filming for what was, then, her undefined new side-project. “Everything created by us has been done in real time”, Lee says. “So each piece has literally been done weeks before its release”.
Rolling into 2010, the subsequent virals saw the first video’s goat being joined by drawn depictions of an owl, a whale, a bee, a llama and a monkey. By the time the word ‘mandragora’ was identified in the alphanumeric title of the fourth film (also known as the “Papachoo” video), it was becoming abundantly clear that the plot behind the visuals centred around a mandrake – or, a plant which blossoms in human form.
To the uninitiated, mandragorian mythology concerns the semen of a hanged man, which, upon hitting the ground (typically under gallows) sparks the growth of a mandrake root. If you try to pull the root out of the soil, it emits a lethal scream. To avoid their own death, humans would obtain the root by sending dogs to do their dirty work for them. Granted, you end up with a dead pooch but the root is believed to bring its possessor special powers and good fortune, so it’s a fair trade-off all but in the eyes of the RSPCA.
Sure enough, as iamamiwhoami’s series of six teaser videos came to an end, we were left with a mandrake growing out of a wooden shed, a long haired anthropomorphic singing blonde and 6 dogs in receipt of burial in the snow.
Months later, the goat and its fellow animals would transpire to have played a phonetic role in the teasers, with their collective indigenous sounds spelling out the word ‘bounty’. From March 2010 onwards, every few weeks saw the release of a full ‘single’ with an accompanying film, the title of each being an alphabetic letter, again building up to – yep, you guessed it – ‘bounty’. The mostly instrumental musical backdrop of the prelude videos now graduated to fully vocal-led songs of such well-crafted brilliance that ‘o’, ‘t’ and ‘y’ can proudly call themselves three of the very best singles of that year.
“I can say that the bounty series very much reflects different stereotypes of the woman. That is a good key to how I see it”, Lee shares but immediately looks as though she thinks she may have shared too much. “There is, of course, a foundation underneath that but it has to remain unspoken”.
I ask her what came first with ‘bounty’: the mandrake plot or the music. She resolutely confirms that it was the latter. “The music is at the core of this project and that is how it’s been built. Once there was a song then there would come a collaboration between me and the visual director and that’s how the merging of the two would happen, giving it a sync. The stories come after, based on the lyrics as scripts for the visuals. The actual production, of course, wasn’t just a fluke. It wasn’t a coincidence that everything spelt out words and stuff like that but exactly what shape it would come out as was not always clear”.
And what about the thematic ideas? It’s been widely suggested that the inspiration for the storyline comes from the 1911 novel, “Alraune”, by Hanns Heinz Ewers, which fabled the artificial insemination of a prostitute with the semen of a hanged criminal. Was that book an inspiration? “Not that book in particular”, says Lee, after a beat. I want to ask her whether inspiration perhaps came from any of the films based on the novel but she seems deep in thought. After a further pause she shakes her head and continues: “But speaking too much of the process, I think, removes a bit of the magic, you know? I need to leave something for everyone to imagine for themselves. I have my vision. I think it is quite clear sometimes what my vision is. And sometimes it’s less clear and I like that. So I’m not going to answer that too much”.
What further threw people off the scent, in terms of correctly identifying the elusive singing blonde, were rumours of a Sia-penned song called “I Am” on Aguilera’s then forthcoming album. The song indeed later materialised but its title was purely coincidental. It was the investigative work of fans, who had diligently sleuthed their way through every last detail of the iamamiwhoami videos, which eventually helped in deducing that the heavily-disguised Scandinavian-looking figure who appeared in the visuals was Jonna Lee. This discovery happened to explode online just 4 days before Lee was to make an appearance at SXSW in Austin, to promote “This Is Jonna Lee”. Was it a surprise to be rumbled at that point? “Really, we didn’t try to hide it”, she shakes her head. “From ‘b’ and on it’s quite clear, you know? I was surprised, of course, because it [and by ‘it’, I presume she means the disguise of her identity] is not something that was planned, it was something that happened from randomness. One thing happens and leads to another and that’s what has shaped this project into what it is today. It’s interesting![here she smiles collusively]. But I don’t know… I was just thinking, when the idle talk has settled and the work we have done remains, then that is the essential part”. Lee’s use of one of her song titles, ‘idle talk’, in this context adds a further dimension to her explanation. She has handed the ‘idle talk’ line to other interviewers as well, it later transpires.
I tell her that some of the so-called idle talk she refers to included fans’ voiced expectation on discussion forums that she would make some sort of an announcement or a formal ‘reveal’ at her SXSW show. “Oh”, she reflects quietly.
Interestingly, before the unofficial ‘reveal’, Lee had quite a prominent online presence; there was a frequently-updated blog and regular posts on Twitter. As iamamiwhoami was in the gestation period, Lee let a few hints slip online, way before the first YouTube upload materialised. These included a drawing of trees with human arms (hello Prelude visuals!), a tweet about spending a couple of days covered in mud and photos from the sets of some of the videos.
Did she regard the furore of being discovered as an interruption? “Yes. We needed time to find the shape of it and it’s hard to develop something that is still abstract when there are people knocking at your door”. Consequently, Lee relinquished the jonnalee.com website, got rid of her blog and, in April 2010, left Twitter. “Love to you all, see you later alligators”, was her final tweet.
I ask her whether, now that the project is more established, she ever reads fan comments posted online. “I think it’s safe to say that we hear people, meaning the audience that are following us and have been from the beginning… their voices always surface somehow, you know? A communication happened between the project and the audience that was unique and that has shaped it and that, to me, is very valuable. I think we’re blessed with people that are thinking and who are truly interested”.
We’ve established that iamamiwhoami is definitely not Christina Aguilera. But who is it? Lee? Lee and Björklund? “It’s an entity, I guess. It’s me in collaboration with amazing people that I love”, she says. Contrary to speculation, fellow-Swede, Viktor Kumlin, to whom the direction of Lee’s “Something So Quiet” video has been attributed, is not the creator of the iamamiwhoami visuals. “It’s always been Robin Kempe-Bergman”, Lee clarifies. “There was the idea of creating a world, visually, around the music, on my behalf. Robin and I have worked together previously and we started playing around with the ideas for [iamamiwhoami]. Then John [Strandh, the cinematographer] and Agustin [Moreaux, the set, costume and make-up designer] came along. Me and Claes were already a team, musically. And that’s how it’s been since”.
What of the name ‘iamamiwhoami’? At the beginning, followers of the project thought it was merely a nom de plume for an established artist. Very few thought it could actually be the name of a new act. On the Popjustice.com message boards, a forum member called duckface tentatively dared: “What if this is just a new artist called iamamiwhoami?” Another member swiftly replied: “Well I’m fucked if I’m going to HMV and asking for that…!” Lee explains: “It started as a name of something that you can’t touch and you don’t know what it is. And the name reflects that, I think, as we weren’t an act when it started – we were just experimenting so I wouldn’t say it was the name of an act then. It was more of a, how to say it…” Here, she pauses as she searches for the English word. Struggling, she smiles and offers the Swedish word, ‘väsen’, instead. Väsen, I later find out, means an essence. “It was something you couldn’t touch. Something abstract. A way of bringing our idea into the world. Once the first release, ‘b’, was out, it was definitely the name we chose for the act but not before that”. Incidentally, she pronounces the name: I am – am I – who am I.
Similarly, the phrase ‘To Whom It May Concern’, which appeared on the artwork of the ‘bounty’ singles, eventually ended up being the name of Lee’s own record label. “It took a little time before we figured out how to share what we were doing with our audience and when that came and I knew how, which was that I should do it myself, then ‘To Whom It May Concern’ became the name of the label”.
The communication between artist and audience which Lee mentions earlier, reached an altogether new level when, almost a year on from the project’s starting point, iamamiwhoami followed up bounty’s series finale, ‘y’, with a live concert filmed in a Swedish field and streamed online. Airing just after midnight (UK time) on a wintry night in the middle of November 2010, it was an eerie and captivating twist to the saga. A few weeks previously, iamamiwhoami had asked YouTube subscribers to nominate one of their number to take part in the event. During the concert, it was made to appear as though the selected fan, known by his online moniker as ShootUpTheStation (or SUTS), was being burnt alive inside a cardboard box.
I ask Lee what SUTS’ role in the concert was. “His role was representing the audience and he bravely travelled without knowing where he was going, may he rest in peace”, she replies with the tiniest of smiles. “And I can tell you that he was there to interact and to set an example”. When I ask if she can expand on that, Lee again refers to not wanting to reveal too much about the creative process. She is, however, prepared to confirm that the online gig was indeed live and was all filmed in one go, “because the representative was unaware of what was happening and he hadn’t been able to get information or been able to speak to anyone of us, so we collected him at his hotel room and started the concert”, she says. “It was as live as you saw it”.
With the online concert done, things suddenly went quiet on the iamamiwhoami front. Months went past without the YouTube account being logged into and just when fans were coming to terms with the fact that the project may well have come to a definitive close, a new song and video, ‘; john’, appeared online. One of the entity’s dancier numbers, ‘; john’ also heralded the announcement that iamamiwhoami was to appear live at Gothenburg’s Way Out West festival. Travelling to Sweden especially for this show, it was fascinating for me to watch how the project managed so smoothly to translate its online-only endeavour to a live experience before an actual audience. I ask Lee about the preparation that went into Way Out West and the online concert. “It’s very much the same each time something is being created”, she says. “But it is a different thing when you’re recording and doing something live. It was very exciting. There was no distance between the audience and us. And with [the online concert] even though we didn’t have the audience there, we had the representative, so it felt so real”.
Our discussion then turns to what inspires Lee’s creative process. Is there, for example, any musician or artist from whom she draws inspiration? “There are so many, of course”, she nods. “I guess all artists have their role models. I had mine when I was still searching for my way and when [the iamamiwhoami project] happened there was kind of… well, the inspiration came from itself, it sort of fed itself, you know? And then I started realising what it would sound like. So, after a while, the main focus was just to keep finding the core of that. And that is what inspires me. I don’t know if that’s how everybody works but I really like that feeling because it grows to be its own bubble”.
At the risk of appearing brash by talking about money, I quiz Lee as to how the project has been funded. “Part of the challenge was to see: what can we do with nothing? And that’s literally what we did”, she offers thoughtfully. “There was borrowing of gear, both on the music and visual side, but we have used tools that anyone could use to create things so that’s what has kept me so inspired all the time. Of course we have to spend money but it all came from us”.
The iamamiwhoami YouTube channel has had nearly 18,000,000 views to date. I ask Lee whether she has kept a tab on how many legal downloads of their tracks this has translated to. “Yes”, she says and then pauses. “But all I can say about that, really, is that the support that we’ve had has enabled us to continue and now we’re still pretty much in the same position as we’ve always been because I think the want is bigger, of course, and that’s a good thing. As long as that is the reality then it can continue”.
I suggest that it must be difficult starting such an ambitious work without knowing how it would be received. Money aside, the investment of time and effort in this project has clearly been substantial and it shows. “Thank you”, she says. “All of us – we live for what we do. So, obviously, people have been working on a certain level of professionalism. That’s the foundation of iamamiwhoami, because we believe that it has a bigger value than cost, to work without limitations. Having no means is also a limitation but I think you need something to tell you – ‘no, this is not possible, so how are you going to solve this?’, you know?”. Looking back at what she has created with relatively little means must make her very proud, then. “Yes, I am very proud of all of us and also thankful for the help we have had from friends that have been inspired enough to help us. I feel very lucky to be able to do something where I am extremely passionate and I don’t separate myself from my work. It’s something that has a real life and it doesn’t end when I go home in the evening. It’s quite amazing”.
Up to this point, our conversation seems to go very well. I then unwittingly slip up by commenting on Lee’s acting in the videos, which I consider to be very good. She is visibly taken aback. “I never thought of it as acting and, of course, I guess that’s the way that you would see it but it’s so emotional singing your songs and I love conveying emotion in different expressions and it can be by sound or a visual thing. I love the merging of the two art forms”. After following the project for more than two and a half years, it takes a misplaced remark to help me understand that, for Lee, the woman we see in the iamamiwhoami videos is not a character. It is her.
And so we come to that woman’s latest journey, ‘kin’, the first physical embodiment of iamamiwhoami’s work and the closest that the entity has come to putting out a straightforward album. An audio-visual story in nine chapters, it arrived in the shops on CD/Vinyl with an accompanying DVD this month, via a sole distribution deal with Cooperative Music. Each of the new songs was initially unveiled on YouTube fortnightly in the run up to a smaller-scale release through To Whom It May Concern’s website back in June. ‘kin’ is also the reason for Lee’s willingness to break her long silence and speak to interviewers about iamamiwhoami. “Evolution has its course in a way and then you do something that needs to be able to be embraced by people in a shape that people can embrace and it’s natural to talk about”, she rationalises.
The record itself acts as further demonstration of Lee’s intricate song-writing and, as could be expected, the visuals created for the tracks (which segue together into one 45-minute long film) are engrossing as they are confusing. You find yourself enthralled by what you’re watching, notwithstanding the experience at times being an uncomfortable one.
We discuss the point at which the vision for ‘kin’ arose. “I would say that, as soon as the show at Way Out West was completed, then the process of growing ‘kin’ started”, she explains. Were any of the songs for the project already written by that point or is that when the writing started? “That’s when it started”, Lee nods. “When we began sharing ‘kin’ I was still working on ‘kin’. That’s how real-time our work is. With ‘; john’ and [follow-up single] ‘clump’… they were the tail-end of the development for the ‘bounty’ time-period and now there is a new chapter, in a way. I don’t really consider it as something cut into pieces, I see it as a natural following”.
I ask her what the first song she wrote for ‘kin’ was and, after a moment’s thought, she tells me it was ‘sever’, the album’s opener. ‘sever’ is a beautiful slice of electro-sombreness which, in its final minute, erupts into fireworks of synths and harmonies. It’s a dramatic introduction to a record full of stunning melodies, quirky arrangements and moody crescendos. Encouraged by Lee’s willingness to answer this question, I press on: were the songs written in the order that they appear on the album? She takes a moment to think. “Mmm. I don’t think I can answer that, unfortunately. I feel that that process is so sacred to me, so…”, she shrugs as she lets the moment pass.
When Lee is prepared to comment on a lyric or a song, one is, nevertheless, often left none-the-wiser. On the song ‘in due order’ Lee sings: “We don’t ask for anything, your lives could have been unaffected; we don’t ask you to give all, it won’t make us more than what is reflected”. I wonder whether here she is directly addressing fans. Lee considers this and says: “That’s just me controlling me. Showing my true sides, I guess, and contrasting to the lustfulness of playing that happens before that”. The ‘playing’ is, presumably, a reference to the song ‘play’ which precedes this track on ‘kin’.
Another song whose lyrics may be viewed as reflective of the relationship between iamamiwhoami and fans is ‘n’ from the ‘bounty’ series, where Lee trills: “Tell me how the story ends now”. Followers of the project are always eager to decipher its messages and find out the plot’s direction. Is this lyric a reference to that? “It’s a reflection of consumption and demands and of letting yourself be consumed”, Lee explains. We are to make of that what we will.
When I ask why the ‘u’ segment of the ‘bounty’ series was split into two tracks, Lee looks away, possibly deciding whether or not to comment on this. Eventually she says: “They are two different songs. I think they also belong together. The meaning of them both artistically… they have a place together”.
And what about the protagonist in ‘kin’ ? Is she the same character we know and love from the ‘bounty’ series? “You’re following the same woman throughout all our work from the beginning”, Lee confirms.
The final cut from ‘kin’ is the foot-stomping track, ‘goods’ which comes armed with infectious beats and a chorus straight out of Saturday Night Fever. In the video for ‘goods’ we see Lee dancing inside a square black box – it is, seemingly, the same box she lovingly holds in various publicity shots for the album. The assumption was that the physical copies of ‘kin’ were to arrive in black boxes. Not so. I ask Lee if she can help shed some light as to the meaning of the black box. “It is our kin, you know? It was conceived and processed through our meeting with the audience at the show that you were at. I’m delivering it after hard labour and that is pretty much it. I think those words are pretty clear if you add them together… [looking at me quizzically] I think you must be confused?”
I take a moment to think about her explanation. So ‘kin’ and the black box are something that came to you as part of your interaction with the audience at Way Out West? “Yes”, she nods. “A very close encounter with the audience. And that’s something that gave birth to ‘kin’ and now it’s ready to be delivered. It is a symbol for this encounter that we had with the audience and it’s also a symbol of the shape that we needed ‘kin’ to be in, to be able to deliver it in a way that people could embrace, because I think a lot of our previous works have been more fluid in their shape than ‘kin’ is. But you know, it’s like with lyrics. For me, if you read the script to the film, you might not like it anymore and sometimes the book is even better than the film. People being able to have their own meaning for it – that is, for me, so important”.
Is the critics’ reception of ‘kin’ something which interests her? “I don’t know”, Lee replies. “I guess it’s of importance to a lot of people, you know? But I am so happy with what I am doing that it doesn’t matter, creatively. So, no. There hasn’t been any time to think about it, even. I see this release just as I saw ‘bounty’ as a release. The biggest difference, of course, is talking to you and feeling that now I have something to say and I want to share it”.
Going back to our earlier discussion about the lyrics to ‘n’, I ask Lee whether it is clear to her at this stage where the story will go from here. “No. I must deliver ‘kin’ and once it’s out of my system, that’s when a new process usually begins, you know? But I’m that woman so we’ll have to see what will happen to me and, throughout this, anything can happen”.
Would she ever consider releasing the ‘bounty’ series on a physical format, like ‘kin’? “I don’t know. We’ll see”, she smiles. And what about touring? With several European festival appearances under her belt and the entity’s first UK show taking place in October at the South Bank Centre, might there be an iamamiwhoami tour? “I want to display my kin to as many people as possible and we’re prepared for that”, Lee says.
As our time together comes to an end, I ask Lee whether she can see herself treading the iamamiwhoami path for the rest of her musical career. “I know I will be singing my songs”, she tells me. “But I am so very much in the now and the present, as a person, so I think it’s impossible to answer that”.
iamamiwhoami’s lyrics often make reference to the inter-dependence of the entity and its followers on one another. Again, it comes down to that reciprocal thirst. One particular lyric goes further and, to these ears, sums up the project itself perfectly. “Mass confusion; never been so damn excited”, Lee sings on a track challengingly titled ‘.’ which was debuted at the end of 2010’s online concert. As I reconsider Lee’s answers to my questions, I realise that I am pretty much still confused. Conversely, Lee’s secrecy about the project and the ideas behind it helps make sense of the role of that confusion in the experience: I, for one, have never been so damn excited.