The mysterious collective are a pop cult like no other. In her home city of Stockholm, frontwoman Jonna Lee explains how she made her musical myths a reality.
Welcome to the world of iamamiwhoami, a fantasy land where trees have limbs, semi-naked creatures writhe around in inky black goo and women lick semen off tree trunks. Swedish pop auteur Jonna Lee doesn’t just craft an odd and beautiful audiovisual world, but as the iamamiwhoami collective’s face, voice and driving force, has you venturing around a netherworld of the subverted familiar. In her DIY videos, you’ll find her dancing around in her underwear with what looks like a yeti, playing a piano wrapped in cellophane while sporting giant fake eyelashes and gyrating on a bed made of loo rolls. “I don’t even know what a traditional artist is,” she says. “But I know that everything we do has a purpose and a substance.”
We have been summoned to meet Lee in a surprisingly sweltering Stockholm, with the clear instruction to join her on a precise park bench overlooking a water feature that depicts Norse god Thor slaying the fanged sea serpent Jörmungandr, which seems loaded with significance. With her new album BLUE thematically saturated with water and including tracks such as “Fountain” and “Hunting for Pearls”, positioning us in a spot where a Nordic fountain bubbles away within peripheral vision seems deliberately orchestrated to provide the perfect setting to explore her latest inspirations. Then, a translucent figure in retina-burning all-white, seemingly unaffected by the clammy heat, arrives: “Hello,” she says. “Where shall we go?”
iamamiwhoami wasn’t supposed to be the name of the self-started project Lee embarked on with music producer Claes Björklund, but the moniker was picked up by online fans from a YouTube channel hosting their mystery-shrouded debut video teaser in December 2009. Lee’s cult following has created a Wikipedia-style website – a scarily detailed fact emporium that covers the videos’ recurring characters and various themes, including a section discussing the significance of bird poo.
But this is more than just an unknowable art project with some tantalising clues scattered around like breadcrumbs. Musically, iamamiwhoami fuses the softer side of Fever Ray’s more immediate moments with the occasionally clattering work of fellow forward-thinkers such as Planningtorock and Björk. It also threads a lineage to pure pop practitioners such as Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. The link to the former is fused not only by the way music and visuals are intrinsically connected, but also in the close bond between artist and audience. “They’ve influenced the direction of all of it, and who I am right now,” Lee states of her followers. The first iamamiwhoami live show – streamed online in real time – included the ritualistic ‘burning’ of one specially chosen fan.
But while Lady Gaga’s recent attempts to fuse art and pop were undone by her desperation to remain the most famous person on the planet, for Lee – now perched on the edge of a bench overlooking the glorious sprawl of Stockholm – mainstream success seems terrifying. Could she ever envision a world where iamamiwhoami might have a number one single? Her bleach-blonde eyebrows shoot skywards for a moment. “I think it would change a lot of things,” she states slowly. “It would be very unexpected. I don’t know what would happen. I cannot be a traditional artist,” she continues, flustered at this idea of her reality trying to mix, like oil and water, with the world of playlists, Twitter countdowns and chart placings.
This January Lee started a donation page called Generate, enabling the audience (or generators) to help fund what would become BLUE. “I know that all that’s needed is ‘we’ and ‘them’,” she says. “They supported our independence basically and they seem to feel responsible (for it) as much as I do. I don’t think I could continue doing what I do like this in another form.” In a way, the album is a tribute to the digital mechanisms that allow the iamamiwhoami project to exist in the first place. “The album is completely drenched in water,” she says. “It’s a metaphor for the digital world and the qualities of water such as cleansing, its force, and the way it brings things forward. The digital world is just like this huge ocean and there’s so much to discover.”
Sitting overlooking the Stockholm skyline, Lee’s piercing blue eyes are framed by flashes of on-brand turquoise makeup. Her look is a far cry from her previous musical incarnation, where, looking markedly more mainstream, she recorded two albums of mildly diverting acoustic strumalongs under her own name – at the same time as the first few iamamiwhoami videos and snippets of songs were causing digital mayhem. “It was something I did because I didn’t want people to talk about who was behind it. I wanted it to be this hidden thing and then when it got bigger that became an issue,” she says, punctuating the understatement with a soft giggle. Bored, she did a volte-face as radical as singer-songwriter Katie Melua suddenly deciding she wanted to work with Evian Christ and only have her videos directed by Chris Cunningham.
Lee wanted to subvert the normality of her home country, a place she left briefly when she moved from the small southern town of Linköping to London as a teenager, before being drawn back to Stockholm. “Obviously I was inspired by nature and what I grew up with and where I go, but also the people and the normative lifestyle we have here,” she states carefully. “We’re a very ‘in the middle’ kind of people. The normal can be beautiful, but it’s fun to take that out of its context and put it in a place where it’s considered it shouldn’t be. The normal is safe and something that we know, but when you look at it from a different angle it can be quite frightening or unfamiliar. It’s interesting to pervert it and twist it to see where you end up.”
Her new, digitally synthesised reality is also a reality in which time itself is almost irrelevant. Most of the visuals flit between nature and the man-made, focusing on ideas of folklore in some, and starkly minimalist modern architecture in others. “In order to create something where it’s not part of this reality and it’s an enhanced reality, certain elements had to be removed,” she explains. “Function is a key element for me – why is it there? What’s this item doing there? Does it have a connection? What should I be wearing when I’m doing this? Sometimes you can go so far with that it’s hard to justify anything and that’s something I’m struggling with.”
To celebrate the newfound sense of ease that permeates BLUE’s lush synthpop, our photoshoot is Lee’s first with an outside photographer. “I want people to hear the album and see the videos,” she says. “I don’t want to play it to myself in the closet. I am obviously reaching my audience, which is great, but it’s important to try to let others be creative around you, as long as it’s within the frame of what we’re doing. With the concept of this album, I think it’s easier for me to do that because I can be descriptive about what elements need to be there.”
Citing the cocksuredness of Kanye’s Yeezus’s lack of artwork and singles as something to be celebrated, Lee too seems to have developed a confidence that allows her to let her work speak for itself through her music and videos, without having to overly explain herself. “For iam it would be too much information for the audience because the lyrics are so clear, if you listen to them,” she says. “With BLUE you will be able to hear them because I worked a lot on trying to be clearer with that, in terms of the way I’m actually articulating them. I had to dare myself to do that because when it’s something as fluid as what we do, every step towards directness is also a scary step to take.”
“It’s reality in a fictive world,” she continues. “I’m living this, you know. For me, it’s my personal experience of iam and what’s happening around it, what the audience are doing. That’s my life. So in that sense it’s so personal. But it’s not about my private self after I turn the lights off and when I sleep. It is me writing from within this project. All of the songs we’ve ever made are written that way.” So are there songs about relationships? “With the audience, yes.” Are there any love songs? “Yes there are, but it’s not to a person, it’s to a lot of people. I’m not a robot, so everything is connected to something else but I don’t see it revolving around my personal life. It all stems from emotion.”
iamamiwhoami, the project, seems so all-consuming it’s easy to worry for Lee’s sanity. She says she’s not stopped working on it since her first video was uploaded almost five years ago, and the world it’s created appears to be so prevailing it’s hard to figure out where it starts and stops. She says her friends and family have a vague idea of what she does, “but it’s so far from this physical world, to go into it deeply you need to go fully into it online.” She sees it as a timeline with no apparent end, although she knows she can’t keep doing it for too much longer (“I might be alone on my island in a few years and won’t find my way back,” she half laughs).
Just before she wanders off as quickly as she arrived, back to her creative hub somewhere near the sea, she mentions the album title again, specifically its use of full caps. As with everything, it serves a purpose. “It’s more clear and direct as an album,” she says, getting up to leave. “It’s more of a shout from the mountains.” Jonna Lee’s roar may not be the loudest in today’s pop landscape, but you feel she is just beginning to bare her teeth.