"There's Always a Streak of Cold in the Warm": An Interview with iamamiwhoami
In a rare interview, iamiwhoami's Jonna Lee opens up about the project's development, its future, and the two full-length albums she scrapped along the way to making the stunning blue.
In many ways, iamamiwhoami is the kind of thing that defies easy categorization.
While the project got its start by releasing those intensely cryptic, puzzle-ridden videos on its YouTube channel, heads were scratched and people soon made a point of finding out whether or not someone well-known was behind it (the name alone begs the question). As it turns out, the name is Jonna Lee, the Swedish songwriter who had put out some albums of fun, straightforward pop-rock in her homeland, and ditched her desire to top the charts. Instead, she invested everything she had -- personally, creatively, and financially -- into this bizarre, otherworldy, and sometimes downright experimental pop collective that made its name by making these cinema-grade, avant-garde videos that beguiled as much as they entertained. When the early "clue" videos soon gave way to something approaching traditional song structures (starting, most notably, with the cryptic, piano-lead wonder that was "b"), people began taking notice, artists like Moby even coming in to ask Lee and musical collaborator Claes Björklund to do a remix of his own work.
Yet the experimental pop of iamami's first songs -- later dubbed bounty -- soon gave way to kin, the group's 2012 album that featured a striking, yeti-informed visual narrative and a more refined and direct collection of songs, the duo's tricky production techniques leading to tracks that were diverse, propulsive, and unlike anything that people were hearing at the time. Following the DVD/CD release of kin -- itself notable given that purchasable goods from the collective were scarce since its 2009 inception -- the complete bounty set was released in 2013 as a stopgap between projects, not so much as peep having been heard since "goods" was posted in June of 2012.
Thus, when "fountain" premiered earlier this year, it just so happened to feature one of the most optimistic melodies we had yet heard from the collective, jettisoning the darkness of prior recordings for something much warmer, even as it acknowledged its past, the black "cube" featured at the end of the kin videos now becoming clear, now filled with water and a fish. iamamiwhoami was continuing its narrative throughline, but clearly communicating to fans that what was coming next was something very different than what they had seen before. Shots of that same black cube burning in a fire was another strong indicator of coming changes.
"The box is our kin that we created with the audience," Lee tells us, talking to PopMatters on the week of release of blue, iamami's third full-length effort. "Its form is basically iamamiwhoami in a box, as creating kin we had to keep within the walls of the traditional ways of consumption to be able to create our first physical album. [In] creating blue, the past can't stand in your way."
Indeed, the end of the "fountain" video directed viewers to visit "generate", a page on her record label's website that called out for donations to help fund and finish the naturalistic, often-aquatic videos that made up blue's visual language. It was a difficult thing to ask, as by the time of blue's release date, only seven of its ten tracks had visual counterparts, a first for the collective.
While the music is propulsive and forward-thinking in its own right, the visual nature of iamamiwhoami is what has lead so many to discover the project in its first place. Lee recently moved behind the camera to help out with that aspect as well, joining in with designer Agustín Moreaux and lens-master John Strandh to help give blue's its strong optic voice. The collective simply calls itself WAVE.
"When I began writing for blue," Lee continues, "WAVE had already existed for a year. The theme of the album and the nature of what iamamiwhoami has developed into made it very natural to let WAVE direct this series as the theme of the album and story was already crystallized. We wanted to take [a] nature film into the pop arena and I have really enjoyed the creative process, even though it has been triple the work load."
And she's not kidding: given the strong themes of each release, there is very little room for flights of fancy or overindulgence. Each iamamiwhoami release feels notably fat free, but that's because Lee is brutal and honest when it comes to knowing what songs fit and what songs don't, even if it has meant that she had to scrap two entire full-length albums in order to get to where she is today.
She explains, "For bounty, each song was created upon each release. There were cuts. Prior to bounty, there was an album that was never released as we didn't like it. For kin, we took more time and some songs did not make the album, but those songs were written for the same scene in the series as those who made it. For blue, we had songs that we didn't choose; it's about what describes the mood and tells the story best and that you feel for unconditionally. Some songs do not for different reasons, and those stay with you. Like, between bounty and kin, I made a whole album that was never released. We can call it 'the first traces of blue.' It's just what is best for the full work in that moment that matters."
While blue is filled to the brim with epic choruses and some soaring bits of synth-pop wonder, the lyrics, conversely, have proven to be rather dark to those who take the time to dig into it, the chorus of penultimate track "the last dancer" noting how it's "a beautiful day to die", even as optimistic key plinks twinkle around Lee's emotive vocals. While most of Lee's lyrics are cryptic enough to belie easy interpretation, she does admit that there's more going on here than what meets the eye. She says, "The 'morbid' undertone reflects the battling of my project's existence and definition of identity. The way we have for five years lived this project and my every second and cent has gone into it. It's not a granted thing that we can continue doing this forever. The contrast you experience between the warmth and euphoric and the darker undercurrent is a translation of my and ours emotional state of mind.
"It's also a way to get you through when creating," she continues, "I needed the brightness when making blue as a new start. I take what I do very seriously so the stakes are high for us. To mention the counterbalance, I do enjoy contrasts. Very few emotions are one sided. There's always a streak of cold in the warm."
While the road to blue has been fraught with challenges (the abandoned full-length album, the request for fans to aide in funding it), part of what has shaped the project has been the actual reactions of the fans themselves. "It's amazing that people feel inspired by our work," she marvels. "That in itself is inspiring to me. The site iambountyfan's engagement, Mark Belan's art, and Unplugged70's acoustic versions of our songs -- I see these interpretations appearing along with the journalists that regularly report about our releases, when our format is not always supported by the traditional music industry. A lot of the time this have been what keeps us going."
So now, with blue finally being made available after a year-long campaign, Lee is able to celebrate the release somewhat even as she is working towards making iamami's future one that can continue for as long as possible. "blue alone took two years from start to finish," she states. "I'm going to sit down and listen and view what we've done, take it all in. See what comes out of it. Constant change and movement forward is the core of iamamiwhoami. So whatever comes next, it will not be a repetition of our past."
Regardless of what iamamiwhoami's future holds (although Lee does hint shat she's looking forward to see how blue will translate into a live concert setting), one thing can be sure: by risking her by-the-numbers pop career for something much more daring and non-traditional, she has not only elevated her own profile, but she managed to carve out a small legacy for what will go down as one of the most ambitious pop music experiments of recent history. That's the funny thing about experimental music: sometimes the experiment actually works, and in iamamiwhoami's case, it's worked spectacularly.