TOKIMONSTA had to learn how to hear mu­sic again

JEN­NIFER LEE,

The Georgia Straight - - Music - By Kate Wil­son

bet­ter known as TOKIMONSTA, spent 10 years mak­ing mu­sic at the high­est level. With a ré­sumé that in­cludes re­leases on Fly­ing Lo­tus’s Brain­feeder la­bel, and col­lab­o­ra­tions with names like An­der­son .Paak, her thought­ful, at­mo­spheric beats pro­pelled her own star to world-class fes­ti­vals. Un­til one day, she woke up and couldn’t hear mu­sic.

In late 2015, Lee was di­ag­nosed with moy­amoya dis­ease, a very rare dis­or­der that con­stricts ar­ter­ies in the brain. The ill­ness, if left un­treated, can lead to aneurysms and strokes as blood pushes through much smaller ar­ter­ies in an at­tempt to by­pass the restric­tion. Af­ter Lee read the im­pli­ca­tions, she im­me­di­ately found a sur­geon who would op­er­ate.

“Ob­vi­ously, it was very dis­heart­en­ing to find out,” she tells the Ge­or­gia Straight on the line from Chicago. “It was some­thing that I hadn’t seen com­ing nec­es­sar­ily. It’s es­sen­tially ter­mi­nal with­out in­ter­ven­tion, so my only op­tion was to get it taken care of as quickly as pos­si­ble. I could have waited, but be­cause it has an un­known pro­gres­sion, it could have been that the dis­ease pro­gressed within a week, or within 10 years, but no one would know.”

Her oper­a­tion—which in­volved tak­ing ar­ter­ies from the scalp and plac­ing them on top of the brain to al­low the blood to reroute—left her with some crip­pling side ef­fects. At first, she lost the abil­ity to speak. As her mus­cles shrank from ly­ing in a hos­pi­tal bed for months, she lost the abil­ity to eas­ily move. Most dif­fi­cult of all for the pro­ducer, how­ever, was when she lost the abil­ity to com­pre­hend mu­sic.

“What is a sound?” she asks her­self. “What makes a sound be­come mu­sic? A lot of that is your brain’s abil­ity to trans­late sounds into mu­sic. Af­ter hav­ing the surgery, they tin­kered with my brain. Mu­sic didn’t sound like any­thing at that point. It just sounded like noise—any ran­dom noise. And when I say noise, I mean imag­ined white noise. It’s not of­fen­sive, it’s not in­of­fen­sive. It’s there, and you know that it’s there, but it doesn’t mean any­thing more than just that. I wasn’t a potato. I was very cog­nizant that I was sup­posed to be hear­ing mu­sic, but it wasn’t reg­is­ter­ing in my brain that way.”

Lee’s strug­gle makes the com­ple­tion of her fifth full-length al­bum, Lune Rouge, even more re­mark­able.

Lune Rouge.

Re­gain­ing her abil­ity to write rich and glossy elec­tronic tracks, com­plete with her ex­per­i­men­tal hip-hop twang, was a dif­fi­cult jour­ney. Rather than wak­ing up and im­me­di­ately re­cov­er­ing her tal­ent for pro­duc­tion, re­learn­ing how to make mu­sic was a slow, month­s­long process, with each day of­fer­ing baby steps for­ward. It wasn’t un­til she penned the track “I Wish I Could” that she knew she would get her gift back.

“I main­tained a level of op­ti­mism be­cause I could see im­prove­ment in ev­ery area of my life,” she says. “Even though I couldn’t make mu­sic in the very be­gin­ning, a week or two later this was the song that I made. When it came to­gether, I was blown away. As an artist or mu­si­cian, you fully sur­prise your­self. Some­times you hear some­thing, and you’re like, ‘Wow, did I just make this?’ and I had one of those mo­ments. It was as good a song as I could have made be­fore the surgery. That let me know that ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be A-OK.”

The record sig­nals a leap for­ward in Lee’s pro­duc­tion. A num­ber of tracks, tinged with melan­cholic mi­nor set- tings, seem cathar­tic. Oth­ers are both up­beat and pow­er­ful, with fea­tures from stars like MNDR and Joey Purp pro­pelling the club-ready jams onto Spo­tify playlists. Treat­ing the al­bum more as an an­thol­ogy—a col­lec­tion of sto­ries—rather than a sin­gle nar­ra­tive made up of dif­fer­ent chap­ters, Lee has cre­ated a record wor­thy of her cel­e­brated cat­a­logue.

“I learned that life is short,” she says. “As a mu­si­cian, you’re be­ing pulled in so many di­rec­tions. Your cre­ative di­rec­tion is al­ways in­flu­enced by the peo­ple around you. You can feel like you be­come less and less your own the more at­ten­tion you get. I ask my­self, ‘If I lis­ten to this to­mor­row, will I be happy with what I made to­day?’ If the world was end­ing to­mor­row, I know I’ve shared my vi­sion with the world, and not some­one else’s.”

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