iamamiwhoami Jonna Lee (2022)
Photo: John Strandh

Time Is iamamiwhoami’s Worst Enemy and Best Friend on ‘Be Here Soon’

Swedish synthpop revolutionary Jonna Lee revives her iamamiwhoami moniker and takes on time to give us her forceful folk album, Be Here Soon.

Be Here Soon
To Whom It May Concern
3 June 2022

One of the scariest sentences ever written occurs in the 2000 Mark Z. Danielewski novel House of Leaves. A character starts to lose their sanity as they start sensing an unseen presence encroaching. They have no active descriptors for it, only feelings they know to be true: “It is hungry. It is immortal. Worse, it knows nothing of whim.”

This is the sense that some people feel about the concept of time itself. It is constant, unchanging yet always changing, and unsympathetic. An eternity with your most beloved sounds idyllic, but sometimes lasting heartache can feel like its own torturous hell. While you can usually sum up a pop musician’s output in one word (e.g., they sing odes of “love”, or have themes of “identity”, or are mining “trauma”), most are of phrases we’ve heard many times before. Every artist is unique in their summations, but when it comes to the ever-evolving synth-art project, iamamiwhoami, you can summarize their music under the theme of “time”.

You’d think that with a name like iamamiwhoami, their output would be focused on identity. Yet the winking moniker that helped generate buzz about the mysterious, almost Lynch-ian music video clips that started populating in December of 2009 is just that: a name for a project. The riddle of who is making this music in question has long since been solved, but the moniker stuck, and now one-time aspiring Swedish folk artist Jonna Lee has gained a following for her genre-breaking brand of electro songcraft.

What’s most striking about Lee’s output is the specific way that her project has evolved. Following 2014’s surprisingly sprightly Blue, Lee started recording under the hybrid name ionnalee, straddling the line between her early folk-rock days and the digital ballads that brought her into prominence. After ditching the iam guise, a serious health scare caused Lee to question how well her time was being spent, thus pushing her to craft an ode to the legacies we leave outside this mortal plane on 2018’s Everyone Afraid to Be Forgotten. The title points to how time was very much on Lee’s mind. That was shortly followed by a record that looked toward the strange fates that await us in the decades to come with 2019’s Remember the Future. Whether intentionally or not, time became a defining part of her songwriting, as she viewed it as valuable and not something to be wasted.

Be Here Soon is her fourth full-length under the revived iamamiwhoami moniker and her eighth studio record. In a surprise to many fans, the album tilts away from the heavy keyboard lifting of previous iam albums in favor of understated tempos and lush acoustic guitar work, even featuring a collaboration with one of Sweden’s folk-rock elder statesmen, Lars Winnerbäck. Be Here Soon reunited the classic iam team of Lee working in tandem with music producer Claes Björklund and filmmaker John Strandh. Yet unlike other iam outings, this visual album was created with a very specific deadline: with Björklund having recently become a father, Jonna Lee soon discovered she was pregnant with her first child.

“The album process was planned and ongoing, and I made a decision to carry out the project once I learned there was more than one delivery happening,” Lee jokes when speaking with PopMatters. The timing proved interesting, as, in early 2021, she put on Konsert, a unique live staging of her catalog with special guests (like Imogen Heap and Zola Jesus), and debuted new material. While the world was in lockdown, she kept creating, and in the music video for her standalone 2021 single “summer never ended the damage was all mine”, eagle-eared fans caught a glimpse of what would later become “Zeven”, the shuffling third track from Be Here Soon.

“We’d just begun recording for this album as I filmed [the clip for ‘summer’],” she tells us. “So the whole of 2021 was dedicated to writing, recording, mixing, and script writing, and then filming the visual album series took place spring of 2022. We’d just written ‘Zeven’ at this point.”

Overall, the process was different this time, as not only was parenthood on the mind of the collaborators, but so was figuring out how to make the best vision for iam in the Covid era. Sweden was unique in not imposing lockdowns but instead asking people to follow common-sense prevention measures voluntarily. Notably, after dropping a full-length visual to correspond with her every release from iam’s inception, 2019’s Remember the Future bucked the trend and instead only had a few promo videos. With Be Here Soon, the script was flipped, and some wondered what compelled Lee to once again create a music video for every track on the album, several of which featured Lee donning a cunning new wolf suit.

“Me and my collaborators felt it was fun to get back up in the saddle and see what iamamiwhoami sounds and looks like now,” she explains. “Even if we work together with my solo work as well, making an iamamiwhoami audiovisual album is a completely different ordeal and a very demanding process for us all, but mostly for me in regards to leading a team and dedicating years to both the audio and visual process of this size independently. I know what the costs are. So much fun and joy comes from it, and so much self-doubt as well. But there’s no hiding that each audiovisual series demands a lot of time, willpower, and passion, for it to become something really great.”

While fans were quick to pick up the new song “Thunder Lightning” as an instant classic, with its lines about one can “strike without a warning”, the pregnant Lee as depicted on the album’s cover art is not someone who is docile. For an album that goes back to a more acoustic/folk-based sound like the early Jonna Lee records, some could misconstrue it as being softer and gentler, but the opposite is true. In the lyrics, Lee speaks about how she’s “got malice pumping in my veins” and, on a slightly different side of the spectrum with “Zeven”, she has “got a severed tongue and a razor-sharp vision”. These striking descriptors aren’t so much violent as they are pointed, at times even aggressive. To hear Lee describe it, the themes go even beyond notions of power.

“This is an ominous record, but then I’ve always been that kind of lyricist when looking back at my full body of work,” she observes. “There’s a clear line between all albums, even if the packaging or deliverance can fool you to think otherwise. Painting a picture of one’s darker sides using black paint can get very literal and feel banal. I like to play with swift contrasts. There’s a mellow darkness in these songs that’s portrayed best the way they sound now, with a bittersweetness. ‘Zeven’ is about life with diagnosed OCD and shows the bigger picture of how that affects our creative process and life in general. The album is about the killer inside me.”

Lee is deeply protective of her work, and on Twitter, is unafraid to hold her ground. Happy to respond to criticisms and even (without naming names) going as far as to mention that “I know that it was considered a ‘limitation’ to be visibly pregnant in images and videos and possibly considered ‘not as appealing’ to many and especially to the media because I’m a woman. When I hear shit like that, I blow full force in the opposite direction. Challenge accepted.” That explains why she puts her pregnant body front and center in the “Thunder Lightning” visual. Yet even with her power and pride on full display, she describes the creation of Be Here Now as being more relaxed than ever before.

“[These songs] were all written and recorded in a living state,” she notes. “None were forced, rewritten, or produced in multiple versions. We just wanted to make an album that resonated with us as much as music did when we first discovered music. It’s a dramaturgical listening. We wrote the album from start to finish and recorded it in a live setup, single takes, letting the rough edges stay and no hiding in layers. Normally we can rework a lot until sometimes the feeling dissolves. So this was our challenge. Not overworking gave a sense of relief as well, which made the process much more fun than it sometimes has been. But all album processes have their charm, and they’re always different.”

As for any musical disagreements she had with Björklund during the creation of the songs, she says that “Normally we’d have at least a few, but as both of us have grown to become good producers, this time the vision was much more clear to us, rather than for previous albums. There was such a clear timeline with both of us becoming parents during this recording and filming that we felt eager to make this album one for the books. So as much as I’d like to share some tasty gossip: this album process has been the most fun we’ve had working both audio and visuals since we started and there was a sense of mutual respect for our soon to be 20 years of collaboration that had a strengthening presence throughout.”

The ballad “A Thousand Years” depicts the amount of time she’d love to spend with her beloved or taking care of unaccomplished things (depending on how you interpret it). When asked if she too views the concept of time as being a defining aspect of her discography, she’s blunt on her assessment: “I see time as being everyone’s worst enemy and best friend. We can’t contain it, but we live it like it’s never-ending. Each new work represents me and my context/collaborations in a moment in time. Things we go through, personal, worldly, or as a group. Adding to this, the past few years, health has put some pressure on me, and time has been a present factor. I don’t take my ability to sing or will to produce new work for granted.”

Lee is deeply conscious of her history and where her journey has taken her but isn’t much one for reminiscing on the past. When asked what specifically is contained in the iam/ionna vaults, she speculates that “I think there’s a lot of music in our vaults, but right now it feels so much more important to stay in the present, even when it reflects the past. In the end, every minute spent on something past is one lost on something new and exciting.”

Photo: John Strandh / Courtesy of Mute Records

Yet a lack of explicit nostalgia won’t prevent Lee from continuing to perform. While the pandemic-born Koncert was very much designed as a gift for fans, she sees the future filled with opportunities to see her vast discography performed in person, epitomizing the title of Be Here Soon. “We are going on a world tour in 2023. We’re really looking forward to it. We begin with a few dates in Europe and then America for a more extensive route, and then we’ll be back to Europe for more dates in the summer and fall. We are also hoping to be able to return to South America.

“We really like making live music an organic process,” she continues. “Even when the setup has been 100 percent electronic, I like to make new versions and edits to keep the creative flow going and excite myself and the audience. A live experience should be that moment shared with that audience. The next night will be something else.”

This connection and need to perform well for her fans is very much reciprocated because Lee has a large fandom that goes beyond mere supportive tweets. They obsessively track her every chart entry and playlist placement, going as far as to create tribute albums for her, and they are even in the process of fundraising for a full-bore tribute concert. Lee, of course, has taken note.

“Having creative fans is a blessing,” she beams. “Many are very expressive and have so much talent. I’m thankful to have support because being independent, you’re often invisible to the music industry – media, charts, awards, playlists, and all that. If the fans are there and they feed off of your work to create for themselves, then you don’t need the industry. I’m so lucky in that sense. But I still get provoked by not being invited to the never-ending party. Always plotting my revenge,” she laughs.

“I think the relationship [with the fans] is evolving with the work and with us as people,” she continues. “Some have followed our releases since we started, they might have been 17 at the time, and they’re now approaching 30. It’s a beautiful thing being part of and soundtracking someone’s life and development. iamamiwhoami was in the early days about keeping distance to the extent of it being impossible to exist as a person within the project. There was no interaction with fans. My work now is more about just being. This way, I can be more connected to followers as well.”

Although Lee is not much for looking back on her past, she’s been more open about revisiting as of late, even touring previous locations from her visuals in the “Don’t Wait for Me” clip. Yet most surprising of all was when she dug out a treat before the Be Here Now promotional cycle. It was an explicit acknowledgment of one of her earliest gigs: doing vocals for long-forgotten techno-pop act Rolling Circus. Fans quickly found the recordings and zeroed in on the must-be-heard-to-be-believed single “Enchilada Love“. Lee looks at her start with a sense of deep acknowledgment of how big a moment it was, even if the songs remain somewhat alien to her self-written legacy.

“This whole release is based on not beating around the bush and looking at the bigger picture with warmth,” she says. “Rather than just staring intensively at some parts where you looked your best, to recognize the personal journey. Rolling Circus was a huge moment for me as a kid, and I had to work hard to get out of my then reality and create something new for myself at an early age. That was also a very different time from now, when there were fewer ways to be an artist. No internet, no social media, no talent TV shows. Music was a completely unthinkable thing to do for a living, for someone growing up in the Nordic countryside. One was a dreamer to believe there was something else coming from a working-class family. And now I can even look at that mindset, that annoyed me so much growing up, with warmth.”

In the early iamamiwhoami days, Lee often decorated her song titles with dates, like “20101104” (which corresponds to when her first filmed concert special premiered). Now, 20220525 can be added to the list, as that is when her baby boy Bauer was born, with proud father John Strandh standing by. As she notes, time is everyone’s worst enemy and best friend. It may not know anything of whim, but this time is different for Lee and most everyone, really. This is a time of joy; this is a time of celebration. The pandemic era has ravaged the lives of countless many, but some are finally seeing a light near the end, and in some cases, are turning to their craft to create something even more magnanimous. Everyone may be afraid to be forgotten, but with Be Here Now released and a growing family of collaborators, fans, and now a child, it’s clear that no one’s going to forget about Jonna Lee.