With a unique spin on her music, TOKiMONTA has been forcefully thriving in the dance music industry. Moving from what was just a hobby into what is shaping up to be a successful music career, her talents have brought her on stage at the most notable festivals like Coachella, WMC, Camp Bisco among others, on tour with Skrillex, signed to Ultra Records, and now she has just released her brand new full-length album "Half Shadows."
TOKiMONSTA, real name Jennifer Lee, recently stopped by to talk about her new album, her video with MDNR for "Go With It," where her name comes from, and tells us what famous monster she would be if she could be any monster in the world! Check it out below:
Where does your name “TOKiMONSTA” come from? Because your real name is Jennifer Lee!
"Toki" means rabbit in Korean, and “monsta” with the “a” was how I decided to write “monster,” that’s usually with an “er.” It was a high school iChat/AOL screen name, and when I started making music, I just kind of adopted it. “Toki” itself is like a childhood nickname, so I just kind of took my iChat screen name – which doesn’t work anymore! No one can message me on that. So I took that, made it my artist name, and now it’s grown to be really significant. It kind of represents this yin and yang, the idea of opposing characteristics. Like something that’s kind of cute, and something kind of scary and serious. So I think a lot of my music is also like that. There’s a lot of serene elements as well as a lot of aggressive elements in some of the things that I do.
How would you describe your music? It’s very diverse!
I think with a lot of musicians, it’s a little uncharacteristic to have sounds range so far from each other. But, for me, I kind of like that idea of making music that sounds diverse and different, but works together on the same kind of theme. The idea that they all kind of fit into certain kind of moods that somehow kind of coordinate with each other. It’s one of those weird ways that I approach what I do.
You were classically-trained, but how did you get into producing and performing live?
Well, getting into producing is because I liked music a lot, and I always wanted to make beats. I started off mostly doing just classic hip-hop stuff. From there, someone showed me a program, like how everyone starts now-a-days, they download some software to start producing. And then, from there, it became a hobby of mine. You know, some people play video games, or knit, and I used to make beats in my college dorm room. And then, from there, I was just like “Cool, this is it. I’m just going to do it as a hobby.” I was going to have a full-time job, and then just make music. Until eventually, I decided I would try out music because I got laid off from two jobs! I basically said “F*** this” and I’m just going to start making music. It was also a practical decision because my music was doing quite well at the time, or starting to pick up. Then from there, once my music became more known, people wanted to see me perform, and now luckily I’ve been able to do this full-time for a little while now. I could’ve ended up somewhere else, but for some reason I’m here, and I’m really glad. I just thought it was impractical to be a musician, that’s why it never crossed my mind.
Since you’re classically trained, how does that affect your music today, or does it at all?
I think generally speaking, it has a direct correlation with how I approach music because there’s a lot of things about piano, that I like and dislike, that I explicitly try to avoid or incorporate in my music, because of my history with classical music. I think that the musicality of classical music is what I like a lot. All music is musical, but with piano, it has so many parts and elements, and melodies. Especially now, with electronic music, people don’t work so much with melody, as repetition – which is cool too because repetitive things also have this kind of appeal, more like building sounds versus, I like the idea of still building melodies. What I don’t like is, there’s a lot of rules and constraints in classical music, and the way things should be done, or how things should be phrased, or how you can’t do it this way. I don’t like that stuff, so I purposely try to break all the rules in that aspect.
Tell us about your new album “Half Shadows?”
It’s my sophomore album, and the first release I’ve put out in at least two years. I think two years ago I put out an EP on Brainfeeder. So this is a long time coming. It’s not like I wasn’t ready to put out an album before now, since the last one. But I think that I just wanted to compile the right kind of music, and then once I compiled it, this was the best time to release it. Up until now, I’ve always put out new music, I just did it the way that we do it now, just free internet streaming. Now I’ve finally compiled all my best tracks, put them out, I’m really proud of them. There’s a lot more vocals than my tracks in the past, but I think in a good way. I always treat vocals more like an instrument anyway.
Tell us about your music video for “Go With It” – you do make a few cameos! Did you play a part in coming up with the concept?
I said I wanted to be in it as little as possible. I chose the guys who directed it, it was the High5Collective - specifically it was Mitch DeQuilettes. He directed it, and he ran the concept by me, and we brainstormed a little bit. A lot of the ideas were his, but I would help him refine it a little bit. So we came up with this idea of the main character, the protagonist, is basically like a douchebag. And then obviously he goes through this life-changing experience, and at the end, we don’t know what’s going to happen with him. That, we came up with together at the end. Because the original ending wasn’t supposed to be like that. He was supposed to wake up in his regular reality and go about his day. Also, it starts to get really sweet, and I don’t like things to be really sweet. So I feel like that kind of pulled back and brought it to the actual reality of where he was at before. I’m really proud of it, because I like that I was able to participate in it. Obviously all the cinematography, the directing, is all on the director, and the cast members. Especially MDNR, she actually did acting and good cameos. I just had to press a few buttons, I’m definitely not an “in-front-of-the-camera” kind of person. But I’m really proud of it, I’ve never done anything like that.
How did you come into remixing Justin Timberlake?
People don’t realize it, but the way that a lot of remixes work is that these big labels have departments that just like, send it out to a lot of people to remix. This one came along, and it seemed like a fun track to remix. I just put it out on my own, they didn’t really pick it up as official one, but at this point I don’t really care. I just thought it was a fun thing to work on!
What’s next? Do you have plans to tour or are you going back into the studio?
Well now that the album is out, I have to tour. I say that because I like touring, I don’t love touring. So I have to go back on tour. I’m going to Europe in June, and to Australia sometime in the summer, which is their winter so it’s like terrible timing! And then I’m going to Asia in August, and then hopefully boot up my more manicured live set in the fall. I want to kind of re-invent my live set a bit, and then hopefully tour that in the fall. And then after that I just want to be in the studio again. I like being in the studio the most. I get to stay at home with my animals, and in my pajamas, and never have to put on make-up. But I like touring too because I’m ready to go back out.
What kind of animals do you have at home?
I have a cat and a dog. A 13-year-old dog, and like a 7-month-old cat. The cat’s name is Misha, we named it after this promoter I met in Russia. He was like a really silly kid, but kind of immature, but like a good heart. So I named it after him. And then my dog’s name is Kaeri, I adopted her and she just came with that name.
If you could be any famous monster in history, who would you be?
This is going to sound kind of obvious, hopefully it shouldn’t, but I like Totoro a lot. Well, I’m Korean, but it’s like this popular Japanese film, I mean it’s popular here too. They came out with like a dubbed over version. But Totoro is like this big, giant, fluffy, monster, but cute thing. I like him a lot, so I’d rather be him. Because he’s like intimidating but he’s cute!
Photo Credit The Everett Collection
Photos by Katherine Tyler