Jennifer Lee, better known as TOKiMONSTA, spent 10 years making music at the highest level. With a résumé that includes releases on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label, and collaborations with names like Anderson .Paak, her thoughtful, atmospheric beats propelled her own star to world-class festivals. Until one day, she woke up and couldn’t hear music.
In late 2015, Lee was diagnosed with moyamoya disease, a very rare disorder that constricts arteries in the brain. The illness, if left untreated, can lead to aneurysms and strokes as blood pushes through much smaller arteries in an attempt to bypass the restriction. After Lee read the implications, she immediately found a surgeon who would operate.
“Obviously, it was very disheartening to find out,” she tells the Georgia Straight on the line from Chicago. “It was something that I hadn’t seen coming necessarily. It’s essentially terminal without intervention, so my only option was to get it taken care of as quickly as possible. I could have waited, but because it has an unknown progression, it could have been that the disease progressed within a week, or within 10 years, but no one would know.”
Her operation—which involved taking arteries from the scalp and placing them on top of the brain to allow the blood to reroute—left her with some crippling side effects. At first, she lost the ability to speak. As her muscles shrank from lying in a hospital bed for months, she lost the ability to easily move. Most difficult of all for the producer, however, was when she lost the ability to comprehend music.
“What is a sound?” she asks herself. “What makes a sound become music? A lot of that is your brain’s ability to translate sounds into music. After having the surgery, they tinkered with my brain. Music didn’t sound like anything at that point. It just sounded like noise—any random noise. And when I say noise, I mean imagined white noise. It’s not offensive, it’s not inoffensive. It’s there, and you know that it’s there, but it doesn’t mean anything more than just that. I wasn’t a potato. I was very cognizant that I was supposed to be hearing music, but it wasn’t registering in my brain that way.”
Lee’s struggle makes the completion of her fifth full-length album, Lune Rouge, even more remarkable. Regaining her ability to write rich and glossy electronic tracks, complete with her experimental hip-hop twang, was a difficult journey. Rather than waking up and immediately recovering her talent for production, relearning how to make music was a slow, monthslong process, with each day offering baby steps forward. It wasn’t until she penned the track “I Wish I Could” that she knew she would get her gift back.
“I maintained a level of optimism because I could see improvement in every area of my life,” she says. “Even though I couldn’t make music in the very beginning, a week or two later this was the song that I made. When it came together, I was blown away. As an artist or musician, you fully surprise yourself. Sometimes you hear something, and you’re like, ‘Wow, did I just make this?’ and I had one of those moments. It was as good a song as I could have made before the surgery. That let me know that everything was going to be A-OK.”
The record signals a leap forward in Lee’s production. A number of tracks, tinged with melancholic minor settings, seem cathartic. Others are both upbeat and powerful, with features from stars like MNDR and Joey Purp propelling the club-ready jams onto Spotify playlists. Treating the album more as an anthology—a collection of stories—rather than a single narrative made up of different chapters, Lee has created a record worthy of her celebrated catalogue.
“I learned that life is short,” she says. “As a musician, you’re being pulled in so many directions. Your creative direction is always influenced by the people around you. You can feel like you become less and less your own the more attention you get. I ask myself, ‘If I listen to this tomorrow, will I be happy with what I made today?’ If the world was ending tomorrow, I know I’ve shared my vision with the world, and not someone else’s.”
TOKiMONSTA plays the Vogue Theatre on Monday (October 15).
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays