TOKiMONSTA on Overcoming the Odds and Releasing Her Most Personal Album to Date ‘Lune Rouge’

In 2015, Jennifer Lee was diagnosed with a rare brain condition known as Moyamoya. She faced a sobering reality that lead to actual brain surgery, followed by an inability to speak, or even think, properly. Above this, however, she was terrified of the possibility that she may never be able to create music again. Through intensive rehabilitation she eventually regained her basic cognitive functions, including, luckily, her artistry. As a prominent figure in L.A.’s bustling beat-scene, Lee, known by her stage name TOKiMONSTA, has worked with artists like Anderson .Paak and even signed with Flying Lotus’ flagship label Brainfeeder. Through an extensive catalogue of experimental, psychedelic and hip-hop laced albums, she’s back on the saddle with her latest, and most personal release, “Lune Rouge.”

L.A.’s beat Queen hopped on the phone with Entertainment Voice prior to the album’s Oct. 6 release to discuss what it means to drop such a personal record, working with rapper Isaiah Rashad, plus her sci-fi inspired album artwork.  

You’ve said that the album was inspired by your recent health issues. What was your first thought when you decided to turn this trauma into “Lune Rouge?”

I had to deal with the surgery, but no matter what, this new album would have happened. Without the surgery I would have made a new album. With the surgery, it was more or less, if I would be capable of making that album afterwards. The album is definitely a result of the surgery, but regardless I would have tried to make something anyways, but it wouldn’t have come out the same. This album is a result of that experience, but I wouldn’t say that I made the album just because I went through that.

You informed your fans of your condition via social media last month. How did it feel to talk openly about this for the first time?

It was a very conscious decision to share this experience I went through publically. I am aware that there’s a lot of responsibility that’s attached to sharing this story. Had I not shared it with everyone, no one would have suspected it. I wouldn’t ever have to talk about it. Since the day that (Pitchfork) article came out, every conversation that I’ve had with people, up until today, today included, has been about my experience with my brain surgery. Being aware of that, I still thought it was really important for me to share. First of all, I didn’t know it would make a very big impact. For me, I just thought it was my personal hardship. I could only figure that people have gone through situations much more difficult than mine. Especially with all the things that are going on in this world. By sharing it, it was very cathartic for me, but I really hoped it would help others see the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, it’s a small victory and I know other people have gone through more difficult things but, I guess I just hoped that by sharing, it would help anyone else that was sort of questioning the difficulty that they were facing in their own life.

Some readers may wonder how you would create such a personal record as a producer with some songs being totally instrumental. How are you able to insert such intimacy in these tracks that are void of lyrics?

That’s a really good question. There’s something really powerful about instrumental music. It doesn’t steer you in a very specific direction. Like, if I had a song… about a breakup, it may not reach or people may not be able to relate to that song if they’re not going through this specific story that the song is covering. But I think instrumental music is very mood oriented. It can be very personal even though I’m not going out there being like, ‘I have a song titled ‘I Had Brain Surgery’ and all the lyrics are about that.’ I’m still able to create a mood and an emotion, and that mood and emotion transcends the experience to some degree. And even though someone else hasn’t gone through the exact hardship that I went through, I only would hope that the song would still (be) able to help them feel what I went through, even though it’s not directly said in the song. I think music is very emotional and sometimes it can be direct and have that poetic nature, but in the same way, without lyrics, you can still express emotion but to a broader audience.

Because you like to create a narrative within your music. How would you describe the overall story arcs on “Lune Rouge?”

This album is a little different. In the past when I’ve put together bodies of work, I’ve always said that those bodies of work are like a novel and each song is like a chapter in that novel. With this particular album, I look at it more like an anthology. Each song is its own story. They are all married together under this kind of light, overlying theme. In that way, there’s kind of this idea of triumph and joy in living, and for me, this entire album is really a celebration. It brought me great joy to make it and I hope the people that listen to it also feel that. I guess I just went into this album with very little intention. I didn’t want to homogenize the idea of what this album could be by saying it only going to be this style of album. It varies quite a lot and I’m very aware of that. “Lune Rouge” is definitely an epic journey, but it’s a lot of individual epic journeys and stories.

Your album artworks are always worth noting. What can you tell us about the cover of “Lune Rouge?”

I really like visual art and have been fortunate enough to work with some really amazing artists that I’ve been able to collaborate with on my album covers. With this particular album, because the album title has such a strong visual component to it, lune rouge meaning “red moon,” there were so many cool directions that we could go in with this. When I spoke with Max Prentis, who’s the artist that I was able to work with on my album cover, we were discussing themes and ideas and we were both going strong with this idea of (French sci-fi artist) Mœbius. We obviously didn’t want to appropriate his art and copy it, but just the influence by his artistic narrative and the way that he represents, sort of, space and I guess also… the whole graphic novel component as well. I really pushed for that and me and Max were able to come up with this idea, creating this sort of desert landscape, Mœbius-esque world. They kind of take all these different characters and put them in different situations within the reality, the existence, that is “Lune Rouge.”

The single “Bibimbap” is presumably named after the Korean dish of the same name. Being of Korean descent, what is the significance of this particular dish?

I do like it! It’s very tasty. I would say initially I named this song “Bibimbop” as a temp title. I didn’t intend to keep that title. I thought, you know, naming a song after a food would be kind of silly. The song, sonically… I was approaching it in a very serious manner. It’s not really a very lighthearted song. I just thought, this title, is what I want to name the song right now and for this moment this is the first word and title that came to my head when I had to save this file. After mulling it over and thinking about it, I realized I didn’t want to change the name. The title of the song, that food, that dish, very much represents… an amalgamation of all these different sounds and elements that create this harmony in the end. I’m sure that you’re familiar, but bibimbop is rice and all these separate little vegetables and an egg all these different things that are presented to you in this bowl. Essentially, at the end of it, you just have to mash it all together to eat it. This song is very much like that in that is has all these eastern and western elements and I mashed them all together to create this harmony I the song.

What can you tell us about the following tracks?

1. “No Way” (feat. Isaiah Rashad, Joey Purp & Ambré)

“No Way” is a really cool track. I got to work with three artists I really like and three artists that come from very different backgrounds in hip-hop and R&B. Isaiah Rashad is someone that I really admire. He’s actually sampled one of my earlier tracks on his first mixtape that had come out. Since then, we’ve been trying to collaborate again more directly, not via sampling. He’s very particular about the kind of beats he wants to rap on. So we went through this kind of arduous process of like, ‘Well, I have this beat. Do you like it?’ and he’s like ‘Eh, not really.’ He was very forthright and I really appreciate his honesty. I don’t want anyone to work on a track that they’re not really feeling. Finally, I came up with a beat and I sent it to him and he liked it! That was kind of a very triumphant moment because it took, I don’t know, like three years maybe… there was never any pressure. I’ll just make beats every now and then and send them over and he’d be like ‘Eh, I don’t know. Not this one.’ Finally, we landed this one and I was like ‘Amazing, cool.’ Then it went further into the territory of, ‘What if we got other people on it?’ I’m also very good friends with Joey Purp who’s a part of SaveMoney, (a) really awesome rapper from Chicago. I’ve been a big supporter of him since day one. He’s really been pushed into the spotlight recently and has been really shining hard. So it’s really awesome to have him on this track as well. In addition to those two there’s Ambré, who I believe she opened for me on tour once. I didn’t know who she was. She was kind of an act that was presented to me, then I fell in love with her music and her personality. She’s so talented and so amazing. I just wanted to put her on and let her shine with these two other artists that are a bit more established than her. That’s how I kind of A&R’d it and put this whole song together. I felt like a real big shot music producer putting this particular track together (laughs).

2. “Don’t Call Me” (feat. Yuna)

I’m really a big fan of Yuna. I think her music is amazing. Basically my manager and her manager asked both of us if we’d like to work with each other. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity because I love her music so much. Little did I know that she’s a fan of my music as well. Initially we were sending each other music via the internet because she’s from Malaysia, she lives in Kuala Lumpur. During the process of working on music together she was starting to come to LA a bit more often. I believe she lives in LA now, but initially we were just communicated via email until we were able to work in the studio a couple times. She’s amazing as a human being. With this album, all the collaborators and features and people that I genuinely like. They’re not just strangers that I sent music to that sent me back something. Relationships were built off the songs on this album and she’s a person I really like. We send each other text messages and we’ve really built a friendship off of this collaboration.

Lune Rouge” is available Oct. 6 on Apple Music.