That isn't to say that her output is bad by any means, because it isn't. Her solo material blends elements of catchy indie rock and sunny pop; the kind of music that could easily worm its way into your headphones for the duration of Summer and serve as an aural companion to the woozy warmth of impossibly bright days- or to the balmy and endless nights that follow.
It's also the type of music you would expect to hear nestled comfortably in the background of a hip car commercial, or gracing the previews and pivotal moments of a trendy television show. In other words: It's music that's both catchy and pleasant, versatile and universal; but at the same time, it's lacking just enough distinction and gravity to really grab hold of a sizeable following or to leave a lasting impression.
This makes it tempting to put iamamiwhoami in the wrong context- to view the project as the kind of game-changer you see an artist turn to when both their music and PR s treading water and when both are in need of a hip and fresh makeover. And while those theories may hold some degree of truth, it seems more likely that Jonna Lee simply wanted to stretch herself out creatively in directions that her comparatively straight-forward solo work wouldn't allow.
Iamamiwhoami was conceived in 2009 initially as an anonymous audiovisual project, with Lee uploading a series of lavishly produced videos accompanied by pieces of experimental electronic music to a Youtube account. The videos, along with several cryptic clues, [numerical codes in video titles, mysterious packages sent to journalists] built an air of mystery around the project and it wasn't long before bloggers and journalists alike began offering a number of speculations as to who was behind iamamiwhoami, including Lady Gaga, Goldfrapp, Björk and even fellow native, The Knife.
The digital era has afforded artists the luxury of building and controlling their image and content; it takes little effort on the part of an artist to create a Youtube, Tumblr or Bandcamp, and to filter the image they project onto each of them. This is especially useful for the lesser known or up-and-coming artists looking to virally spread their content, to establish a following, or to even get a co-sign from an established blog or taste-maker.
It's a cost effective means of self promotion, particularly for the artist working with a shoestring budget or lacking push from an established label; it's also a guaranteed method of retaining complete artistic control, but going the viral route does come with its share of problems, especially for those wanting to retain some degree of anonymity while promoting their work. A carefully cultivated mystery can build a good amount of hype, but sooner or later, the curtains are bound to be drawn, leaving the previously obscured artist exposed with nothing to else to stand beside but the music they initially built that mystique around.
The artist in question can even find their credibility online, and if their music isn't able to stand on its own after the mystery has faded, they can find themselves faced with a rapidly diminishing following. Once it was revealed that she was the creative force behind iamamiwhoami, Jonna Lee found herself in a similar scenario, with much of the initial support and interest in the project waning.
WATCH// 'Good Worker'Another contributing factor I think had to do with the distancing effect that the videos had: Working with a cinematographer and director, Lee produced incredibly rich and vivid clips that were almost dream-like in their sequences; ones that possess the kind of quality you would almost expect to find on a fat budgeted, high profile CGI type Hollywood film; your Avatar's and other like minded pictures. That quality inadvertently diminished the role of the music though, occasionally relegating it to the status of a pleasant afterthought, and that made it difficult to put iamamiwhoami into a context other than that of another lavish visual arts project.
Thankfully, those issues are resolved with the arrival of Kin, Lee's first proper studio album under the iamamiwhoami moniker. Similar to the songs that were released virally prior to this album, the songs on here each come as part of a lavishly shot video; the main difference is this time around, the music is given its own space. The album comes with a bonus DVD which houses the videos separately from the music, allowing the listener the option of taking the project in as a whole, or focusing solely on the music itself; and surprisingly enough, not only is the music worth focusing on when separated from its visual counterparts, it's also a lot of fun.
Lee has traded in the backing of a conventional band and indie rock in general in favor of a form experimental pop that synthesizes elements of trip-hop, synth-pop and dream-pop. Gleefully plodding and dense thumping drum machines replace the drumkit and the glimmering haze of synthesizers do away with both bass and guitar; and that's fine, because neither are missed or really needed here. Lee has adopted a different vocal approach as well, one that blends the wild-eyed, playful cooing of Björk with the chilly seduction of Portishead's Beth Gibbons (among others) and is smeared in airy layers of reverb.
Regardless if those artists have swayed any influence on Lee's sound here or not is unclear, but nevertheless, she tosses them into the mix in such a carefree and spirited way, that it doesn't matter where this strain of pop music came from, because it's busy having too much fun to care. Lee tries something a little different on each song, and each time, she succeeds: The rhythmic heartbeat of the drum machine and cool pulse of the synthesizers on 'Good Worker' gives it a distinct 80's synth-pop feel and Lee's vocals are looped and reverbed in a way that gives the impression there's a spectral choir backing her. It's a propulsive number suitable for late night drives along stretches of abandoned roads and for bringing much needed friction to a dance-floor.
Lee ups the ante on 'In Due Order', an honest-to-god dance-floor banger whose plodding, mid-tempo four-on-the-floor beat and fluttering hi-hats collide with screeching, high pitched synthesizers and Lee's startled vocals on the chorus, creating a wind-up and release that's infectious enough to warrant a few dozen plays back to back. The dizzying sense of joy you get from 'In Due Order'carries over into the album's quieter moments as well. Both 'Play' and 'Idle Talk' sound like direct descendents of chillwave: The beats are lethargic, the synthesizers burst like the flashbulb of an old camera and both carry an air of Summer reminiscent of 2009; album opener 'Sever' is a humid piece of after hours trip-hop with a dense beat and spacey, buzzing synthesizers.
Her vocals sound half asleep, dreamy and wide-eyed all at once. Pop music has been approached like this countless times before, but as is the case with any given genre; it cannibalizes and re-purposes its past ideas to fit into a modern context and that shouldn't make the music here any less fun. Kin is an exuberant, fun and creative listen and is Jonna Lee's best work to date.
Kin is out now
Worth listening to...
- In Due Order
- Idle Talk
- Good Worker