Less than a week ago, Los Angeles–based DJ and producer Jennifer Lee—better known by her stage name, Tokimonsta—kicked off a tour promoting her fifth full-length album, Lune Rouge, to be released October 6. That tour includes a stop at Las Vegas’ very own Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival, as she plays the Fremont Stage on September 24.
Tokimonsta’s past collaborations with Gavin Turek, MNDR and Anderson .Paak have fueled the artist’s increasing popularity. That synergetic spirit lives on in her latest album, with tracks featuring veteran synthpop singer-songwriter MNDR and new names like Isaiah Rashad (of Top Dawg Entertainment), Yuna, Selah Sue and Io Echo. The collaborative effort harnessed inspiration from different corners of the globe to produce what Lee calls her most personal piece of work to date.
Lee was diagnosed with Moyamoya, a rare brain disease, at the end of 2015. After undergoing surgery, Lee struggled with aphasia—a complication from the surgery that caused her to lose her ability to understand language, speak and even make music. In a piece she wrote for Pitchfork about her struggle with the disease, she said, “Sadness allowed me to regain some clarity. I knew I had to overcome it.”
And Tokimonsta has wasted no time facing some of the toughest challenges she’s ever faced. Vegas Seven caught up with her to talk about the new album and seeing the beauty in life.
I saw on Instagram that you’ve taken to bouldering [rock climbing]. What got you into that?
I got into bouldering about two years ago. … I have these long lengths of time when I’m not at home; it’s just been hard to really progress and be a super strong climber-girl. But I have had more time over the summer. With this tour in particular, I actually brought my climbing shoes with me.
“Don’t Call (featuring Yuna)” was the first single off Lune Rouge. It sounds like it’s about heartbreak. Why did you choose to open with that one?
I lead with that because it was just one of the songs that resonated. … I really enjoyed the whole process of making it with [Yuna]. It’s interesting because when we were talking about it, we were … discussing things like people she’s had in her life who just kind of come out of nowhere. [People who are] trying to call to get you back and they never treat you quite right.
Did Yuna come over to the U.S. to record it? Or did you record with her in Malaysia?
In the very beginning I had a handful of instrumentals that I sent to her and she sort of recorded [over] some of them. … She’s back and forth a lot between Malaysia and L.A., and she does actually spend a decent amount of time in L.A. When we decided to meet in person … we actually worked on quite a few songs.
I think we both agreed with the songs that we were working on. [But] it felt like there was so much more potential—and it wasn’t that she didn’t do a good job or [that] she wasn’t capable. But I felt like it was me. [The] instrumentals that I had sent her—they were just lacking. Her vocals are just so amazing, and the song was so amazing that I just had to do something more with them.
So, [I changed “Don’t Call”] to a different instrumental. I took her a cappella, I took all instrumental away from that, and created a completely new song. It completely changed the mood. Maybe one day the original will come out, but it’s vastly different from how we originally had it.
It’s a real work in progress and I’m really proud of it because … [often] the music industry is very wasteful and no one tends to work on music. … It’s always been a plan for me to really bring out the potential of a song and to continue to work on it. … Music doesn’t deserve to be thrown away like that.
“Life is beautiful”—true or false?
If everything was beautiful all the time, what [would] beauty be? You need [the ugly] to appreciate the other. … I would say this from my own personal experiences. When you live through the ugly side of life, you really do see how beautiful and amazing it is.
Tokimonsta Sunday, 5:35 p.m., Fremont Stage