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Napapirji 4 Seasons

TOKiMONSTA on reimagining classical music & her next album

We speak to the electronic musician about playing her part in Napapijri’s multi-sensory ‘4 Seasons’ showcase, which saw her reinterpret Vivaldi’s eponymous concerto

“I have a lot of weird things that happen to me,” laughs TOKiMONSTA, referring to the regularity with which people use that very adjective to describe her distinct, idiosyncratic sound. “I like weird; weird is different. If it wasn't weird, it'd just be the same. No one needs more of the same.” 

She’s right, too: with her bizzaro blend of kaleidoscopic electronic music meets futuristic R&B and hip hop, TOKiMONSTA (real name Jennifer Lee) has crafted something that couldn’t ever belong to anybody else. As one of four artists involved in Napapijri’s 4 Seasons – a multisensory showcase featuring contemporary musicians tasked with tackling Vivaldi’s eponymous concertos – her penchant for crafting the wonderfully unconventional feels right at home.

The premiere – which took place at Bread and Butter, Berlin on September 2 as part of Napapijri’s 30th anniversary celebrations – saw her take to the stage along with Raleigh RitchieSharon Doorson and Berlin’s very own Jan Blomqvist, with each of the aforementioned artists overseeing a season in the reimagining of Vivaldi’s original.

In conjunction with her involvement in the project and the news that new album Lune Rouge is set to drop on October 6, we spoke to TOKiMONSTA about her classical training, finding time for fashion and her experiences as a woman in a notoriously male-dominated realm.

How did you come to be involved with the 4 Seasons project?

TOKiMONSTA: It’s nothing especially magical, you know. They asked me if it was something I was interested in and if I’d wanna be a part of it – I thought it was a really cool concept for the brand – it’s not very often you get these opportunities to recreate, reinterpret or remix classical music. It’s something I grew up playing – I grew up playing classical piano. Vivaldi’s one of my favourite composers from that sort of realm. But yeah, I like taking a stab at anything. ‘Try making a song out of this other song.’ Sure, let’s try it.

I wanted to touch on your training as a pianist – did you grow up in a musical household?

TOKiMONSTA: No! (laughs) I mean, it’s quite common – my mother imposed piano on me, more in the sense to have culture; to know that you have an extracurricular activity. I don’t think my mum imposed those lessons on me with the knowledge that I’d do something in music in the future – I think if she knew that, maybe she wouldn’t have made me do the piano lessons. 

“All music is composed in different ways, the thing with classical music is the composition is always like a story. It doesn’t tend to repeat too much on itself, it’s always fluid and very linear; there’s always a grand ending” – TOKiMONSTA

How did she react when you turned around and told her that you wanted to do music full-time?

TOKiMONSTA: I don’t think she saw that one coming. Even I didn’t think music was a very feasible career. I went to uni and started working in video games – all the while, though, I had been making music while I was in university. Going to concerts, making beats, going to beat battles; I always had my day job and then going out and making beats and playing in LA.

After graduating and doing full-time work, eventually there was a plan where it just made sense to do music full-time. It was the least risky way for me to try. I was young enough to be like, ‘if it doesn’t work out, I can figure it out.’

What was the catalyst for making that decision?

TOKiMONSTA: Getting laid off from my job (laughs).

That’ll do it. To jump back to Vivaldi and Four Seasons: It’s interesting to look at the similarities between classical and electronic music – in terms of composition, progression and such. Is it something you think about, given your background?

TOKiMONSTA: Absolutely. When I touch back at what I took from classical music, I think a lot of it was songwriting. All music is composed in different ways, the thing with classical music is the composition is always like a story. It doesn’t tend to repeat too much on itself, it’s always fluid and very linear; there’s always a grand ending – whether it’s a sad story, a happy story, there’s always a climax. It’s something I think is very valuable.

Where does fashion come into everything for you?

TOKiMONSTA: (Music and fashion) are very hand in hand. They’ve evolved in a very similar way, too. Music has kind of become this mixture of all things; all genres of music now incorporate elements of so many other parts. It used to be so separate, the same as fashion, I think – high-end brands now doing streetwear, things like that. Now, you have indie bands that have, like, trap beats. 

It’s also another way to express yourself. I’m not entirely sure how my music and my dress relate to each other specifically, but I do know when I dress myself in the morning I like to feel comfortable, but I like that I pick an outfit that allows me to express who I am as an individual in a way that’s visual – and different than the music.

Your sound is known for rejecting labels. Does it frustrate you when people try and limit you to singular genres?

TOKiMONSTA: Yeah. ‘Dubstep’. Look what happened to that. I love music so much – so many different types of music. If I can listen to music in a very broad way, why can’t I create music in the same sort of manner? I’ve always jumped around a lot – my music’s not really one sound. Even within one song it’s not one sound. I’m glad that people haven’t been distracted or annoyed by that. 

“When you’re faced with your own mortality, at that point you just wanna make stuff that makes you happy. With this album, I care the least about what other people think and more about what makes me happy and what I wanna create” – TOKiMONSTA 

Your music has been christened as ‘weird sounds’ – what’s the weirdest thing that ever happened to you while performing?

TOKiMONSTA: I don’t know about weird, but there was like this one incident. This girl jumped on stage and was running around back and forth. People were trying to chase her off the stage and she didn't see the floor monitors – they're black because the stage was black. She ran, she tripped and she like fell on her face in front of the entire audience. Everyone just like paused – including myself. But she gets up and then just stage dives into the crowd. I always wondered if she was okay. Hope she has her teeth. 

Your new album Lune Rouge drops in October – what can people expect?

TOKiMONSTA: This is going to sound a little pretentious – I hope it doesn’t sound contrived – but I guess the next step forward on who I am as a musician. I’ve already been down this kind of path and it’s just an evolution of what I’ve been doing. I wouldn’t say it’s like a 360 on what I’ve done before, but I would say that it’s evolved; refined.

This is gonna sound very obvious, but it’s my personal album to date I would say. I made this album after going through a very serious medical thing. When you’re faced with your own mortality, at that point you just wanna make stuff that makes you happy. With this album, I care the least about what other people think and more about what makes me happy and what I wanna create. Making it brought me great joy, listening to it brings me joy and I hope everyone else has that. 

I know that it’s hardly a new narrative, but do you feel that electronic music need to do more support female producers and DJs?

TOKiMONSTA: My experience is varied. I feel like maybe in certain ways, maybe because you’re the only one who does this – the only female or whatever may set you apart – you might have more ears. Maybe you’ll get this opportunity that maybe people won’t if it’s another male in electronic music.

Then there’s that judgement or discreditiation. I’m jumping around, but, for example, in the earlier days people would say I had a ghost producer; they would say I had a boyfriend that taught me everything; or, ‘She’s only where she is ‘cos she’s a girl and her music is whatever.’ Pre-Instagram, you didn’t really see everyone’s faces quite as much. I don’t know what The Chemical Brothers look like. I knew that I was doing something good when it started to show through to the general public, because people would listen to my music not knowing who I was – or what I was. I always found being a female was kind of a distraction from the most important thing: making music.

Because I’m female, and there’s not many, you’re put in a position where you kind of do have to show off to some kind of degree – you’re kind of taking responsibility that you never really asked for. I never really asked to be one of the very few that exist in this kind of realm. To sum it up, I’d always say the same thing: In a list of one to twenty, I would rather be someone’s 20th favourite producer – or DJ – than be their number one female producer. Who cares what everyone is if they’re good?