The electronic collective is a kin to many, but stand successfully on their own.
Words and Interview by Kathy Iandoli.
The internet is a very strange place, and iamamiwhoami makes it even stranger. Roughly three years ago, the Swedish electronic powerhouse began releasing sepia-toned visuals for a whole range of tracks on their YouTube page. Often times the vids portrayed a flaxen, ethereal goddess twisting her way throughout nature, while others included distorted imagery that housed industrial, synthy soundscapes set on fire. The combination was mysterious, yet alluring, representing a combination of horror film imagery with new age sensibilities. The titles to the songs were equally vague, with single letters (i.e. the asymmetrical cut “t” and the darkly delirious “o”), numbers and clusters of words that looked as though they had been plucked from the private journal entries of a young poet. The videos never fell short of several hundred thousand views – and even much greater, as the disco-ignited “y” currently clocks in at over 8.4 million. People obviously took notice. In 2011, at the Swedish equivalent of the Grammys (called the Grammis), iamamiwhoami took home the Innovator Of the Year Award. When their names were announced as the winners, a partially gray-haired unknown woman dressed in black showed up to accept the award. She was casually carrying a large purse like she just arrived in the building, and upon receiving the glass-encased award plaque, handed over a brown envelope to the award announcer. When the announcer opened the envelope, a blank piece of paper was inside. It’s this intense level of odd behavior that consistently keeps fans, blog hounds and the all-around curious eager for more. Who is iamamiwhoami really though? While the leading lady in the music videos was omnipresent (for the most part) throughout this entire process, the initial belief was that iamamiwhoami was actually a passion project from either Christina Aguilera or Lady Gaga. It was actually neither.
Iamamiwhoami is led by frontwoman Jonna Lee and producer Claes Björklund (Lee also shares co-production in the group). While the largest part of iamamiwhoami is the music, the collective surrounding it is equally important. Their visual team includes director Robin Kempe-Bergman, cinematographer and still photographer John Strandh, and set/costume/make up designer Agustin Moreaux. With a whole slew of innovators, iamamiwhoami is quite possibly the next biggest creative project currently existing within the DIY music landscape.
For the trip-hop aficionado, iamamiwhoami is very reminiscent of the earliest days of Portishead, back when Glory Box was thought to be a figment of our imaginations. There are also fragments from the career of Björk, along with sophisticated similarities to newer artists on the radio today. While Beth Gibbons and Geoff Barrow didn’t have the technological advances that Lee and Björklund possess, there’s still a level of untainted purity to iamamiwhoami’s approach. They have music to deliver and are going to great lengths to deliver it. In most ways, the music is being given away for free. However, that trust in a fan base has the makings of a cult following that could sustain the artists’ careers for decades and decades (as evidenced by the aforementioned). Per Jonna Lee, though, her greatest inspiration exists within the “no-walls” walls that she herself built around this whole experiment (she even refers to her creative space as a “laboratory”).
While the music has been flowing for years now, iamamiwhoami’s debut album kin released this past June via iamamiwhoami’s own To Whom It May Concern (in accordance with UK’s Co-Operative Music). Prior to the album’s release, a teaser video circulated on iamamiwhoami’s YouTube channel. The title was kin 20120611, and the entire video was just a blank sheet of paper affixed to a brown background as if it were Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Germany. The blank paper could perhaps be tied to the same blank sheet at the 2011 Grammis, prematurely announcing the album’s arrival. As promised in the numbers 20120611, the album dropped on June 11, 2012.
Sonically, kin equally pushed the boundaries of sound as previous leaks had. The 9-track opus travels from traditionally electronic to soulful, back around to trip-hop and new wave. The song titles remain strange and lowercased, yet letters and symbols are swapped for blunt titles like “sever,” “drops,” “rascal,” “kill” and “goods.” What the album lacks in track numbers it makes up for in quality, as kin takes a burgeoning musical colony to new heights by crafting tracks that could zone in on the music above all. In speaking with ringleader Jonna Lee that was the mission of the group all along. In fact, the whole decision for anonymity leans on the notion that iamamiwhoami is designed for full focus on the creative elements, not the bells and whistles. With kin, this project is being touted as an “audiovisual” album, as the music – which is now sharper with a clearer direction of style – is paired with videos that will release as a 45-minute DVD film. Prior to all of that, the sonic vignettes were released one by one on YouTube for fans to see and hear. It’s a bold move for iamamiwhoami, but what hasn’t been bold about them thus far?
As Jonna Lee takes MTV Iggy readers on a journey into the mastermind of iamamiwhoami, it’s best to leave all inhibitions at the door. You will find no clear-cut solutions to their formula, nor will you understand what is in the cards next for the group. What you will find are clues – clues like the ones fans have been deciphering since 2009 – hinting that this is just the beginning for iamamiwhoami. That’s all we can really hope for at this point.
How would you describe the concept behind iamamiwhoami?
The core of iamamiwhoami is our music, where the lyrics are the script for the story happening and being shared in real time. Then from that, it is expanded with imagery that reflects our development and current state as part of our chronological storyline.
When did you assemble your team behind the music?
I have worked with the same collaborators sonically and visually since the beginning. We share a belief for purpose. I run the laboratory To Whom It May Concern for us to be able to work without creative boundaries.
Early on, song titles that surfaced were very vague, using single letters and symbols. your face was even often blurred. Was it intentional to keep a certain level of anonymity at first?
The intention was to let the work be in focus and push the boundaries of convention in different forms. I didn’t want mine or my collaborators’ previous work to affect what we were in the process of developing.
Before it being revealed that iamamiwhoami was Jonna Lee, everyone thought it was Christina Aguilera. Then Lady Gaga. Was it taken as a compliment to think the music was a brainchild of a pop star?
It’s interesting how individual interpretation can travel with hearsay and become truth to some. We were in the process of creating something new. I knew that when the talk had settled, the work we have done would remain which is what is essential.
Who are some of your influences? There’s a definite Portishead feel. Were they one of them?
Continuing the story both sonically and visually is inspiring. Creating our songs and imagery is an isolated process. The bubble built around the process is solid enough for me to feed off of that for inspiration now.
Your sound travels from super electronic to even soulful – “Play” on kin being a prime example). How do you decide what kinds of songs you’re making on a given day?
Contrasts are fascinating. The mood sprung from the lyrical story sets the tone to what the songs become. Expanding on presenting one emotion in a song is a joy. kin tells mine and our journey of creating it. It’s sound and imagery describes it in episodes.
Do you feel the rise of EDM is making electronic music more accessible or diluting it?
I think development is good in general. Categorizing is not.
How has the response to kin been so far?
Being in the delivery process of kin, I feel very proud to display it and soon also hand it over to its next of kin. I expect it to be embraced by the audience as their own, no matter what emotion it awakens in them. We created it in a shape suited for their compartments.
Being on tour, how does iamamiwhoami’s sound translate live? Do you use live instruments, digital or both?
It is natural and synthetic live, but always organic. Crudity and delicacy and our kin displayed in focus. Its contents are reminded of. And the delivery workers and I present it in its best light.
What was one moment where you realized you were getting famous?
When the Trojan horse was delivered and no one suspected a thing.
If you weren’t here doing this, where do you think you would be?
It is a vast joy being able to create this way with my collaborators. And it is also a necessity.