TOKiMONSTA – otherwise known as Jennifer Lee – has never been a fan of sticking to a signature sound.
The heavyweight LA-based producer has enjoyed a steady ascent to stardom on the back of an astoundingly diverse, multifarious back catalog, bursting with unpredictably original material and carefully-tweaked remixes from artists like The Drums and Jessie Ware. On top of that, Lee's also found time in between her exhausting global touring schedule (seriously, the woman is a machine) to produce for other artists (Gavin Turek) and kickstart her very own label Young Art Records.
Lee's latest mini-LP 'Fovere' is seven tracks of pure electronic ecstasy; from the adventurous, snappy "Giving Up" (featuring Jonny Pierce) to the effortlessly cool trap-tinged KRNE/Anderson .Paak collab "Put It Down" (that's one strong squad), Lee's wise, rich musical touch is instantly recognisable.
We caught up with Lee on her last day at home before jetting out for a huge season of touring (including sets at Coachella!) and found out all about her love affair with LA, forming a personable connection with her feature vocalists and the redundancy of gender labels in the music industry.
Best Before: Hey Jennifer! Where am I speaking to you from?
Jennifer Lee: Hey! I'm actually in my living room at home in LA.
Do you still get to spend a lot of time at home, or has the tour life sort of taken away from that?
JL: I've actually taken the last two months off! But today is my last day at home. Tomorrow is the first of many, many days of touring and TOKiMONSTA commitments.
I love how you took two months off, but you still released 'Fovere' in that time.
JL: *Laughs* Exactly. Even in my downtime, I'm still always kind of working. But even just taking two months off from touring has been really nice. I tend to go back and forth between the two though, so I don't end up away for too long.
Have you picked up any new hobbies while you've been at home?
JL: I've been trying to exercise more, actually. I've just been trying to take better care of myself. When you're on tour, you tend to neglect yourself a little bit. I've been working on myself, and trying to be healthier. I've been trying to catch up on more music too – I've been exploring a little bit. Even though it's considered downtime, I've still been working on my set. A new album means a new set and a year of playing out my new tracks. I've been working out how everything fits in terms of new transitions. Basically, I was still working over my whole break. *Laughs*
When you're always on the road and nothing is consistent or constant, it's so difficult to take proper care of yourself.
JL: Exactly. Most of my time on tour is spent in airports or on planes – you don't actually get to stop and explore the places you're playing in. It's definitely never like a holiday. *Laughs*
I genuinely don't think I would be making the kind of music I am if I didn't grow up in LA. To be honest, I don't even know if I would be making music.
Have you been diving into the scene in LA while you've been home?
JL: That's all the time for me. Whenever I'm back in LA, there's always something to do or go to. I know Pusha T is playing tonight, so I'll probably go to that. There's a constant stream of amazing things happening every single day of the week. I really enjoy experiencing LA and everything that it has to offer.
Was that something you had growing up as a producer in LA? Did going to shows and events inspire your craft?
JL: Completely. I genuinely don't think I would be making the kind of music I am if I didn't grow up in LA. To be honest, I don't even know if I would be making music. The city has such a strong impact on me, and being around so many other like-minded producers has always compelled me to be constantly creating and working harder.
Across your whole body of work, there seems to be a stylistic freedom; you don't care for genre boundaries or maintaining a signature sound. It sounds like you make the music you're feeling, when you want and how you want. Is that right?
JL: That's exactly how I feel.
Is there ever any fear that you'll leap into new genres or styles too quickly and alienate your fans or lose an audience?
JL: I go with my heart. My fans understand that as an artist, not just as a musician, you want to be able to create whatever feels natural to you. That means not limiting yourself. I definitely understand that with every artist, there's a sound or approach you expect them to follow, but I feel like that's almost like caging a bird, you know? You're grounding them in one spot and preventing them from ever exploring other options. They could be doing amazing things that, if approached with an open mind, could be really embraced. People who listen to my music generally see it as more of a journey than an expectation; let's see where we go together, and hopefully I nail it. If I don't, I probably won't do it again.
Your last mini-LP 'Desiderium' was centred around the idea of longing for something that has been lost. For 'Fovere', are you in a new headspace? What were you gravitating towards in terms of the themes behind the new album?
JL: I'm definitely in a different headspace. I feel that 'Fovere' is sort of a part two to 'Desiderium'. The word 'Fovere' is a Latin word which means 'to cherish'. 'Desiderium' is about mourning that which we've lost, but 'Fovere' is all about cherishing what we still have. For me, 'Fovere' is all about relishing in the body of work I've created and looking back and being like, "Ok, let's listen to all the songs I've made in the past and revisit things I'd abandoned, or ideas I'd forgot about, or things that I used to do that I totally didn't remember doing". There were so many elements that I found that needed to be brought back.
You’ve made a return to the piano for ‘Fovere’. Was that a result of looking back at your old material?
JL: Yeah. It’s me going back to a slightly more organic sound, but bringing the piano back into focus is also me going back even further to my origins in music in general, which was classical piano. It was about making this album something more musical, rather than something more technical. A lot of other producers are going to be more technically refined than me. I must say, I can hold my own – I definitely know some nerdy shit about music – but I can’t offer that above someone else. What I can offer is my own musical sensibilities, my melodies, and my sensibilities.
Tracks like “Giving Up” are quite introspective and dark in terms of subject matter. Was that a purposeful choice?
JL: I think it’s a juxtaposition. The beat itself is quite light-hearted on its own, but when Johnny sings over it, it changes everything. I didn’t tell him what to write – he wrote what he felt was something he needed to expressed. He could have been going through something quite personal at the time, and as a result, the song is very specific, very sad and slightly bitter. When we put that against the beat, it created something entirely different. It’s a very cathartic song. I feel like it’s a song about releasing frustration from within; It’s very freeing, in a way. I hope he feels better after making it.
Can you tell me about the process of working with the feature vocalists on ‘Fovere’?
JL: I really, really enjoy working with vocalists. I think it’s amazing! There’s a quality to it that can elevate a song so much. That being said, I think I’m also having a reaction to making so many songs with vocalists. I’m in a phase at the moment where I want to make a lot more instrumental music. I feel like everything I do is a reaction to what I’d done in the past. I try to constantly be changing, but not in a way that feels too drastic.
You didn’t just work with feature vocalists on ‘Fovere’ – you also enlisted up-and-coming producer KRNE on “Put It Down”. Can you fill me in on that collaboration?
JL: With KRNE, it was actually really interesting how the beat started for “Put It Down”. All KRNE sent me was a work-in-progress version of the chords in the opening string hook, 808 bass and some light drums. From there, I worked out most of the track and then sent it back to him to make some little changes here and there. He worked on the percussion a little bit more, and added some extra little elements in there. It was really interesting, because it was like he was handing me this bare idea, and I was able to run with it and turn it into this bigger, more fleshed-out track. He sent it to me because he didn’t know what to do with it. *Laughs* It was really fun, and it was the first time I really collaborated deeply with another producer.
I would rather be someone's 20th-favourite producer than their number one female producer.
When did Anderson .Paak come into the fray?
JL: When the bare track arrived, I knew I could do something amazing with it, and I spent basically a whole day working on it. As I was finishing up, I ended up thinking, "You know what this needs? a melody." It wasn't quite at a level where it could be an instrumental song, and I didn't want to make a festival EDM trap song. To have a singer on it would make it authentic and organic, and who else than Anderson? He's like my brother. I asked him if he was down, and he totally was. We went into the studio, and I was with him while he was writing to get exactly what we wanted. I'm always happy when I work with Anderson.
I can tell that you guys are very close – not just creatively, but in life, as friends. What have you learnt from Anderson in terms of your music?
JL: Where do I start? Anderson provides something in music for me that I can't. We actually have a lot of music we've done together that isn't out. Whenever I see him work, it's actually insane. I don't even know how he creates all his amazing lyrics and cadences and melodies. I think he's just a genuine talent, and I'm so glad that he's catching on like wildfire now. It helps that he's amazing in person too. We can bang out two songs in one day sometimes, if it feels right. He's always surprising me, but there's times where I'm sure I surprise him too.
I heard you say a few years ago that you always wanted to be seen as just a producer, not a "female producer". Do you feel that there's been any progression or change since then in terms of how people label you?
JL: It's a question that comes up a lot, but I've come to the conclusion that it's probably necessary for me to talk about it. The fact that people ask is because it is still an issue. I still hold on tight to the idea that there should be no gender separation in the music industry, and I don't think there's anyone who isn't guilty of widening that divide. Women do it too; there's a whole culture around it, but I don't want to be cynical. I want to support other woman as well.
It baffles me, because your ability to play music isn't affected at all by your gender identity.
JL: It's ridiculous, because are we going to eventually be saying "Oh, you're my favourite transgender producer"? Why are we categorising that? To be honest, I would rather be someone's 20th-favourite producer than their number one female producer. I mean, I want to be able to hang with everyone else. I hope that's a reality one day.
'Fovere' is out now – you can purchase it right here.