ionnalee represents both a new beginning, and the continuation of a story still unfolding. A decade into her solo career, and a step outside of the pioneering audiovisual world she spearheaded and helped create, in the shape of the enigmatic audiovisual project, iamamiwhoami. Swedish pop maverick, Jonna Lee, presents her rawer, more upfront solo project.
Presented in March via a punchy debut single, “SAMARITAN” arrived with a typically mesmerising visual world in alliance with COMME des GARÇONS. Now that alliance continues into the second single, “NOT HUMAN”, offering up a slice of gallant space disco that hinges, appropriately enough, on the idea of transformation.
Whilst iamamiwhoami was, musically, the work of two people (Lee, alongside music producer Claes Björklund), ionnalee’s music is the creative vision of one person, fully in control of her output and unafraid to leave her mark.
“ionnalee is me, with a history stretching further back than iamamiwhoami, continuing my progress past it”, Lee explains. “I collaborated mostly with myself and pushed through from co-producer to producer, experimenting with the mixing of organic and electronic genres, moods, soundscapes and beats, putting my voice in focus.”
Although, to many, iamamiwhoami was seen as the rebirth of Jonna Lee after the release of two very different early albums in her own name, that process has actually reached fruition via ionnalee. Released in 2007 and 2009, Lee’s early solo work was the result of compromise — a word that has since been erased from her vocabulary.
“It’s about making music for the passion of it and releasing my work as it’s intended to be received”, she says. “It’s less money, but there are no boundaries, no deadlines and no censorship. I want to be able to look back on my full body of work in the larger perspective and know that it was made with pure intentions.”
What followed this plunge into independence, i.e. the creation of iamamiwhoami, is now part of recent musical folklore, from the enigmatic videos shared via emails containing no information, to the abstract visual clues, the slow-burn electronic pop, the online hysteria, the rumours (was it Lady Gaga? was it Björk?), the eventual reveal, the interviews with the likes of Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, and Schön, the immersive live experiences, the fanmade wikis and webpages sharing theories, the full emersion into another world. A world gathering over 40 million views and a constantly growing online following, bordering the subcultural.
Over the course of seven years, Lee, Björklund, and an array of visual collaborators (many of whom have assisted with the ionnalee project) helped remind people of the glorious escapism of music, creating three albums of crystalline pop (2012’s kin, 2013’s bounty, and 2014’s BLUE) that worked both within the framework of films and as standalone albums. But it was that visual element that was so pioneering, with the concept of a visual album, one that now seems less alien than it did seven years ago. “I make audiovisuals because I love to merge the two. Visuals will always be important to me. I am an artist that uses different ways of expression: I sing, write, produce, paint, direct, edit, dance. It’s all a big giant fiesta in my workspace.”
Following the release of BLUE, Björklund and Lee decided to focus on their own, separate musical endeavours, with Lee keen to create songs from a more personal perspective that didn’t need to fit into the iamamiwhoami world. “After 7 years with iamamiwhoami, I’ve been researching what I am stripped away of it in the raw”, she says. “So this is more of a solo project because I’ve been facing my mirror image for the first time in a while. What connects the two projects is that they are written from my point of view but from different perspectives; within a project and as part of an entity, or, as of now, personally and looking at life through a wider lens.”
That wider lens snapped into focus on first single “SAMARITAN”, which tackles modern-day culture’s restrictive obsession with worshipping and idolising female artists. “i don’t believe in a god, let’s leave religion out of all this”, Lee sings over pulsating marching band beats. At the root of the song, is both the poison of expectations and the desire to avoid falling into their trap. “There’s an underlying strive for female artists to live up to a real unhealthy ideal and I think it’s my responsibility to do what I can to change that.”
With the urgent vocals much more centred in the mix, “SAMARITAN” and “NOT HUMAN”’s undeniable boldness and sense of direct impact are no accident. “It’s the result of a period of frustration and anxiety,” Lee explains, “like a release from a low I have been living with for a while. I’ve dealt with some realness in terms of health issues for the past few years, having been facing a risk of losing my voice permanently. With that, my perspective has become clearer.”
The pulsating “NOT HUMAN” (“the urge is animal, i’m not human” runs its unshakeable chorus) also represents a playful partial opening up of the creative process, with the song co-written alongside the equally forward-thinking Com Truise, and with Lee as the producer.
So while the name ionnalee may initially suggest a disconnect between the music and the person creating it, it’s actually the latest part of a thread that weaves throughout Lee’s career. “There’s a symbolic separation with the ‘i’ as a symbol of my solo work, pre and post iamamiwhoami.”
Another unifying element is the fusion between audio and visual, this time via an alliance with fashion and art house COMME des GARÇONS. “They have an alternative point of view, beautifully artistic designs that bends the rules, they have a strong voice and a gender-neutral perspective”, Lee says of their mutual passions.
ionnalee is a project with a clear, personal vision that’s unafraid to make bold pop music available to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Part of this process started in April at Coachella, where Lee joined her friends Röyksopp on stage for two rapturously received shows (Rolling Stone listed them as one of the highlights of the festival), as well as separate sold-out headline gigs in LA and San Francisco. With a summer tour with Röyksopp still to come in Europe, and a ionnalee tour in the works, it finally feels like the world is going to hear the music Jonna Lee has always been trying to make.
“With this project, I felt the need to explore what I am as a solo artist through the process of iamamiwhoami, and reconnect with creating from a personal standpoint”, Lee explains.
This is just the beginning. Welcome to a new world.
words by Michael Cragg