We all have our battles. After all, they make us who we are – for better and for worse. And yet for Jennifer Lee, also known as the abstract electronic music phenomenon Tokimonsta, the nature of her struggle didn’t merely threaten to shape her career as a musician: it threatened to outright end it.
Lee shocked her fans and the electronic music community earlier this year when she announced via an emotional Facebook post that she had been diagnosed with Moyamoya disease, a rare and potentially fatal brain disorder that affects vascularity.
“It was interesting because I wasn’t having any major symptoms,” Lee says. “My doctor had already scheduled for me to get an MRI on my back because I was having shoulder pains – typical, you know? But right before I was going to go to that appointment, I had this instance where I was walking and I couldn’t feel my foot.
“I called my doctor and told her about it, so she added a brain scan as well. It turned out it was Moyamoya. I’m definitely glad I was able to catch it a bit earlier than most people do, because it tends to hit people hard. I basically had what would be considered a mini stroke.”
Lee’s career as an internationally acclaimed musician came to a screeching halt following two invasive brain surgery procedures that forced her to re-learn how to speak and walk. But most pressing for the young artist was the ever-looming possibility that she might lose her natural creativity; that her future might have to be put on hold permanently.
“I had pretty severe aphasia, meaning I was unable to understand communication from other people. The pool of words that I could pull from had shrunk. So, you have this huge vocabulary bank, and you can choose all these words, but I could only choose a few. I couldn’t remember them, but I was cognitively aware: like I totally knew that I wanted to communicate something but there was no way to get myself to speak normally.
I basically had what would be considered a mini stroke.
“Music was very much the same, and the first time I listened to music it just sounded insane – like noise. I was probably listening to something quite mellow, and it just sounded like harsh metallic sounds. It was completely nonsensical and had no rhythm. I guess my brain just couldn’t comprehend music.”
Lee’s new album Lune Rouge is the result of more than a year’s worth of rehabilitation, much of it slow and painful. “Music in general is a very complicated experience – you have the rhythm, the melody… There’s all these things going on. It took a lot of re-developing and re-establishing my taste in music.”
As a result of that process, Lune Rouge was born out of a flurry of false starts, and there were times when Lee had to put music “on the back burner” to protect herself from the strain of it all. “When I first started trying to create again … I was aware enough to know this music I was making was not good. It was very disheartening to know that I just wasn’t where I was before. I couldn’t bear to force myself to come to terms with the fact that I might not be able to make music again.
“I gave it a few weeks, and the very first song on the new record is the very first one I made after everything. It’s very special to me, and it was a sign that everything was going to be okay – if I made that song, I knew from here on out that I was going to be able to create. I was very unsure up until that point, and I was scared.”
More broadly, Lee was spurned on by the importance of staying connected and involved in the electronic music scene as a woman, and she is hyper aware that her scene is far too frequently dominated by men. “I look at every festival that I play and there are never enough women,’’ Lee says. “There’s a festival I’m playing over new years and I think the only female musicians are me and Alison Wonderland – the rest of them are all guys. And it’s a pretty large festival.”
That said, Lee readily admits the problem has no easy solution, and she doesn’t think men in positions of power are actively trying to uphold a broken and damaging status quo. “I don’t think it’s explicit – I don’t think promoters are like, ‘Nah, we can’t get these girls: we just need more men, power to the men, fuck these women.’ I think it’s more of a systemic issue – I think it’s about the music culture, the music industry, marketing.”
I look at every festival that I play and there are never enough women.
That’s not to say that Lee thinks we should all hang back and hope that the problem solves itself. She believes in staying active; in fighting the powers that be, and forcing change however she can. “Festivals have so much autonomy that they have the power to just switch things around and say, ‘Let’s have some more female festival headliners; lets have more female musicians.’
“But I would say in the context of this whole grander conversation that I’m not the kind of person that’s really into like, all-female festivals. I think that’s discriminatory in itself. Like, don’t do a female music stage at a festival – that’s super lame. Just put everyone on the same stage together, and make it about the music and everyone participating.”
Lune Rouge is out now through Positive Feedback. Tokimonsta plays Laneway Festival 2018 at the Sydney College Of The Arts on Sunday February 4.