ionnalee is currently in the middle of something unusual in the music world: launching a solo career for a second time.
Her first go at it was back in 2007 when she basically presented herself as Jonna Lee, a Swedish Sheryl Crow-type. She had a clear sense of what makes for a
rich pop melody, but arguably not a firm hold of what made her truly distinct, despite titling her second album This is Jonna Lee. Even with her Ed Harcourt duets and shoulda-been hit singles, something was lacking. So instead of mapping out a new album to strengthen her musical identity, she went the opposite route: she hid from public view.
Working with producer Claes Björklund, the audio-visual iamamiwhoami project started out as a series of cryptic, clue-ridden YouTube videos that left viewers wondering who was producing these otherworldly clips with high production values and boundary-pushing electronic music. It took months, but Internet sleuths eventually figured out it was Lee, yet the gimmick of it all didn’t diminish the project one bit — in fact, it endeared iamamiwhoami to enough people that Lee was able to put out three whole audio-visual albums as well as a location-staged live set, soon racking up touring credentials by sharing international stages with the likes of Röyksopp.
Despite teasing out songs throughout most of 2017, this year sees the release of
Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten, the debut solo release from ionnalee, a name which comes off as an amalgam of both Jonna Lee and iamamiwhoami. To say that her newest venture is anticipated by fans would be an understatement: her month-long Kickstarter to help fund her world tour was paid for in just five days.
In her third interview with
PopMatters, things start off with a simple question: why is this a ionnalee project and not something released under the iamamiwhoami guise?
“Because iamamiwhoami is a duo that includes my long-time collaborator, music producer Claes Björklund, who has produced all iamamiwhoami albums,” she starts. “This album, however, was produced by me. On the surface it may not look or sound as a huge difference, as we see images of me in both projects and Claes is more of a silent partner visually. But the process of making this audio-visual has been very different. My solo work is made from my own perspective. Not from the perspective of an art project in relation to its audience. In my solo project, I take accountability for all my own mischiefs.”
Yet starting a solo project by itself is ambitious: forming a record label to release it (as well as the albums and singles put out by her collaborators) was a whole different thing entirely. To Whom It May Concern was the home for all of iamamiwhoami’s adventures, but since the release of the first album
Bounty in 2010, Lee’s life has been filled with non-stop work and little time for a break. It wasn’t until the press release for the Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten that it was revealed that she had been diagnosed with thyroid disorder, which came with a possibility that she might lose her ability to sing. Refusing to accept that fate, she launched headfirst into the creation of the new album.
“Artistically and personally a lot has transpired during the past ten years,” Lee tells us. “The risk of not being able to use my voice as before was a major thing that shaped my mindset. I don’t feel like I have time for any nonsense and I don’t think anyone has, but we tend to forget that. Taking the step to catch up with my solo work has been liberating in the sense that I don’t feel obliged to do things a certain way, which I have done within the project with the backstory we have. Also, I think touring with Röyksopp helped me coming out of my shell too.”
Starting with ”
Samaritan” in March of 2017, Lee slowly began teasing out propulsive, triumphant new songs, melding dance-pop rhythms with the stomp of an action movie orchestral score and, of course, her impeccable visuals to accompany all of it. Her ever-devoted fans, of course, immediately noted how some of the new songs had their bones in the early iamamwhoami material. Was Lee mining the teased-but-unreleased bits of her project’s past to help create the sound of her solo future?
“It wasn’t so much digging through old stuff,” she explains. “When iamamiwhoami started I was a solo artist with a career. Creating iamamiwhoami was a complete life turn around. I put all my solo work on hold for an undecided time. Then I went through a nine-year metamorphic creative process and here I am in 2018. Making this album has been to connect with who I was and how iamamiwhoami has shaped my artistry. There were songs that me and Claes began writing at the early ‘iam’ stages that we couldn’t or didn’t want to finish for different reasons at that time. ‘Gone’ is one of them. It is a triumph now writing that short snippet that we released in 2009 into a full song. For me, it summarizes this whole journey.
“A lot of songs are freshly made within the past two years,” she continues. “There are no reworked songs, only snippets written into full songs, so I consider everything new. ‘Simmer Down’ is a verse me and Claes wrote before iamamiwhoami began for what was then ‘our new side project’ completed now with a chorus that I wrote whilst on tour with Röyksopp the other summer. ‘Like Hell’ is the song with most legacy from ‘iam’.
“I think most artists release songs they started on at some point and then picked it up again years later to shape or finish it. It’s the beauty of songwriting to revisit different stages of one’s development at different times.”
While the music of ionnalee may be familiar sounding to those who have followed her for years, the big revelation on
Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten is the stark and confrontational lyrical stance that Lee takes, no longer cloaking her themes in the same kind of labyrinthine metaphors she had prior. The aforementioned “Samaritan”, for example, is a pointed number about belief in religion or, more aptly, the lack thereof: “I don’t believe in a god, let’s leave religion out of all this / I don’t remember promising my life and soul to bring you all bliss.” Some may point to these themes as controversial, but Lee takes it all in stride.
“First I wanna say that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs,” she clarifies. “Whatever works, is my general mindset. I embrace differences and want to have a fully open mind. Myself, I’ve grown up closely connected to church without having any religious beliefs. Science has been my thing. Church was the one place where I could exercise singing, and I loved that.
“I’m historically and generally very interested in human and animal behavior,” she continues. “From a historical point of view, I think that religions have played an important role in unifying and creating a universal view of how to live and face the human reality. Today the icons we worship have millions of followers on Instagram instead of gathering audience by holding a mass. We need a 2.0 joint worldview now more than ever.
“‘Samaritan’ is written as a declaration of my own views, and is drawing parallels between how we iconize artists in the same way history shows that humans have been doing forever. And I’m questioning the expectations we have on the ones we put on a pedestal. The whole audiovisual of
EABF draws these parallels between then and now both aesthetically, sonically and in its ideology.”
So that begs the question: how do the visual and the audio intermix with each other? In what ways are the aesthetically different? “The album holds the visual aesthetic in lyrics, titles, artworks, and sounds,” Lee tells us. “I put all focus on creating the album to be a sonic journey, the way some timeless albums have been made in the past. Something you’d want to listen to in a full experience rather than one-off tracks. I love albums like that. I’ve heard so many ‘no one cares about albums anymore’ that I wanted to make a proper one that will stand in time. Full on requiem.
“Watching the film, it is not subject to the music. I’d say it’s more the other way around this time. Both telling the same story in totally different ways. Sometimes the film enhances what the music is communicating. Lyrics are sometimes used spoken, acapella, and there is dialogue and monologue unrelated to the album but carrying the joint story forward. Here the music functions partly as a soundtrack and in parts as crossover music video.”
While managing a film and music project that co-exist with each other at the same time would be a daunting task for anyone, Lee doesn’t let the stresses of it compromise her vision. If anything, branching out solo has unleashed a striking new side to her compositions, perhaps no more telling than on the song “Temple”, which, for an album that explores themes of mortality and legacy-building, contains a terse line in the form of “These bitches make me ill”. It’s somewhat shocking for fans to hear Lee swear like this on record, and made one wonder where this anger stems from, and whom she’s “calling out” here. Is this anger a reaction to something or part of her new artistic approach in full?
“Yes, I have been angry as a welcomed output from not feeling anything at all,” Lee admits. “The background for this is that my health, first of all, hasn’t been good for a few years. Whilst this has been ongoing, I have been in constant work progress with iamamiwhoami since 2009 handing out body and soul without any emotional and physical resources. ‘Temple’ is written as my mind went. Verses are a monologue where I was honestly blurbing out my own reaction to my current state, and showing my insecurities: of protecting my work, which is often borrowed from ‘as my legacy is echoed on repeat’ and to be honest that’s pretty difficult to admit.
“Discussing society’s expectations of a 36-year-old female ‘I saunter on and on to carry your daughter’. Meeting the audience expectations, ‘so you can show your unconditional love,’ I have an incredible audience support, but working below the radar independently can sometimes make me feel invisible. When you lose your health things gets real all of a sudden and censorship is gone.”
So here it is: Jonna Lee at her most raw, her most unfiltered on
Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten. You could argue there here she’s presenting her most authentic self, but in truth, the Lee of the iam projects was a completely separate entity from the Lee of now. Both entities were bold, but ionnalee feels real, relatable. Although this could arguably her second solo career, she’s not so much declaring who she is as much as what she wants, which is to be remembered long after she shuffles off this mortal coil.
If the response to her fans has been any indication, there’s for her to be afraid to be forgotten: she’s going to be remembered for decades to come.