How goes one even begin to properly describe iamamiwhoami?
When that first cryptic, otherworldly video came out in early 2010, heads turned: what was this? It was surreal music set to a stunning set of videos, each subsequent clip getting even stranger than the last one. The videos started going viral, and before long, people began asking questions: who was the mysterious woman at the center of these films and who was behind it all?
The rumors flew wildly: was it a new project from Goldfrapp? The latest set from Trent Reznor? Christina Aguilera unleashing her freaky side? Absolutely no one knew, and all the above artists had to issue denials as to what this was, which only added fuel to the speculative fire. Eventually, after deciphering some clues — both intended and unintentional — clever internet researches discovered that it was Swedish singer-songwriter Jonna Lee, whose previous songs were of a very different nature.
Yet just when people thought they had “figured out” what the project was, it began taking off. The songs began taking on more traditional forms, a loose narrative started forming in the videos (although many different hands were involved in the project, it was soon revealed that Claes Björklund was Lee’s primary visual collaborator), and as the project began picking up steam, the collective known as iamamiwhoami began score more high profile gigs, even remixing a song for Moby (and let’s not forget their staged, utterly surreal concert they had streaming for one night and one night only). After years of effort, this offbeat audiovisual collective were starting to make some larger commercial inroads.
So after intriguing and beguiling audiences for nearly two years, this summer saw the release of kin, iamamiwhoami’s first official album, complete with a DVD that featured videos for each of the songs, here telling a narrative involving large mop-like creatures dancing and frolicking, inviting Lee to join in in their Wookie games. Yet despite the pop star artifice that the videos exhibit (and, it could be argued, deliberately make fun of), there were sweet moments of Lee walking away, lost in emotion, becoming one with the elaborate sets that surrounded her, and suddenly the visual side of kin feels more like an extended David Lynch music video, complete with a gravitas all its own. Although all the videos are free for viewing online, there’s still nothing quite like seeing the whole thing in DVD quality, the vinyl edition of kin bringing brilliant songs like “Play” and the industrial grind of “In Due Order” to life.
Thus, just as the album is picking up critical momentum and iamamiwhoami readies various live appearances overseas, Jonna Lee has granted PopMatters a rare interview, speaking about the project’s origins, its evolution amidst the reaction directly from the fans, and that the album’s straight black cover is actually a portrait of something you may not have noticed the first time you watched the video for “Goods” …
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Let’s dive right into things: how did this project come into being?
It was a consequence of stagnation and looking for other ways of expression. It would never have come to life if it wasn’t necessary. A year or so before I started sharing our work, I was experimenting with new and ways of vocal and visual expression and sounds together with Claes Björklund, parallel to the final releases of my previous work. When there was enough progression it was clear that I needed to start over. The idea of working without creative limitations drove me to challenge myself and my musical and visual collaborators. Having no means to work with demanded a lot from us. And it brought out the true passion for the motives of creation.
What, for you, were the initial goals you set out to accomplish when creating this?
To invent freely without boundaries set from myself, convention or the outside world and to let myself go. I was part of an establishment where I didn’t share ideals or beliefs. To visualize songs letting film embody the music I find enthralling. I’m expanding on that. It can be a demanding format for the observer, but when it is right it’s most fulfilling.
I can never shake off the sense that the visuals aren’t just integral to the iamamiwhoami experience as much as they are necessary. Everything — from the early videos to even the concert performance — has been intrinsically tied in to the extraordinary visual vocabulary you’ve created. Do the visual aspects from this project stem from the music or the other way around? (Or are both created in tandem?)
The visual world of iamamiwhoami is sprung from the core of the music in shape of lyrics and mood. Then they grow together synchronized when I work with our visual collaborators. The lyrics tell the story of the project’s evolution in real time. The vocals communicates it in emotion and the music paints the landscapes of the songs’ state of mind. The visuals enhances and expands this but also has a life of it’s own.
That being said, what lead to the decision to give kin a solid black cover?
In “Goods” I present kin packaged in a shape suited for consumption. The shape iamamiwhoami needed to adopt to be able to deliver it. The cover of kin is the portrait of the black box. The simple may not seem grand at first glance but looking closer at it’s contents can be rewarding, depending on if you choose to experience it from the inside or the outside of it’s boundaries.
I find kin itself an absolutely extraordinary effort, and yet while the album is gorgeous and unique in its own right, I almost feel that listening to the album is different than watching kin the film. The songs in kin I feel can be interpreted, appropriated for each listener (somewhat non-specific to a degree, if that makes sense), but with kin the film, it’s almost as if you’re providing your own interpretation of those songs, telling a more direct story about family, when you do and do not feel excluded.
It is interesting how similar experiences differ for each individual listener and viewer. As my words describing our contents of kin are few, I’m glad it can still be evident I am communicating my version through our work. I think the listening experience leaves more to interpretation as the audiovisual experience is speaking to different senses in tandem and tells iamamiwhoami’s journey of the creation of kin and the obstacles encountered while in the process of making.
I’m very curious as to whether fan reaction has influenced this project at all. I see in the litany of YouTube videos that fans constantly offer up their own summaries/interpretations as to what the “story” of kin is (and what lead up to kin), while certain fans have taken it upon themselves to record the album, track-by-track, acoustically (as the man who goes by the name Unplugged70 has beautifully done). You’ve reached out to people to do their own remixes before — has the feedback you’ve noticed changed the project at any point?
The silent conversation with the audience is ongoing and their own creative process is constantly shaping what we do, hearable and showing in all our work. Now we have created something together in the shape of kin to care for, so I value our relationship highly and also trust they will care for it and make sure it grows.
There’s a definite evolution to iamamiwhoami, as the early prelude material was very abstract, sometimes deliberately distant. Now, with kin, there are some moments that are deliberately pop, often spectacularly so. Was the turn towards “accessibility” at all deliberate or was that just how the project evolved?
Thank you. What you are mentioning is very much relevant for kin. What it communicates in sound and imagery is what we wanted it to be. It is where we are at this very moment and how iamamiwhoami sound when solidifying the essence of the fluid in our previous work. What happens from here remains to be heard and seen.
Carrying in that vein, my personal favorite track from the album remains “Play“, which struck me on a deeply emotional level. When looking back on kin, is there a personal favorite moment that jumps out to you? If so, why?
The songs of kin all represents one emotion, one event or one obstacle. All emotions I embrace even though some are hard to stay with. So I feel maternal affection for all episodes of kin. It is probably still too soon to see what pieces that linger in me.
Last but not least, this project started nearly three years ago. Given all that has transpired since then, up to and including the release of kin, what has been your biggest regret about the project, and, conversely, what has been your proudest accomplishment?
I’m a solid believer in no regrets. It is joy to be able to be inspired and working with people that I love. Having my own label enabling us to be creatively free. Although the amount of work has proven to take it’s toll sometimes. A proud accomplishment is creating something that engages me and my collaborators and also the audience.