If you’d googled iamamiwhoami back in 2009, you’d have found all sorts of speculation about a band, a project, a performer who’s very name alluded to its own ambiguity. Instead of putting a face to it, all you had was a bunch of videos fed through YouTube featuring a distorted, unrecognisable figure. There were all sorts of anecdotes about MTV journalist and awards ceremony stunts, serial numbers, symbols and cryptic pointers to the identity of the elusive female form behind the ambient electronic project.
Somewhere along the line, though, it came to bear that the voice of iamamiwhoami is a Swedish performer, Jonna Lee, with producer Claes Björklund. Even now you’ll find early career interviews with Lee talking candidly about her childhood in a broken home, problems with drug abuse, even a cagey evasion on the subject of the teen runaway’s years in London living with a then unknown Pete Doherty. These days, though, don’t expect any of the sort.
iamamiwhoami by it’s very nature doesn’t lend itself to any sort of personal exposé because the project is much greater than the sum of its parts. Having released its first record since causing a buzz three years ago, kin -out on Cooperative Music -is an expression of iamamiwhoami’s intrinsic connection with its audience. Ideas, lyrics, images are created and shared in conversation with the very people consuming it, making the group’s own label name, To Whom It May Concern, an apt one, to say the least.
To describe the record in terms of music is to sell it short because iamamiwhoami is an endeavour more than an outfit. Encompassing audio and video and involving Lee, Björklund, their collaborators and the very audience they aim to connect with, kin questions the nature of art and the very meaning of our existence.
aqnb: You’ve managed to capture the imagination of a huge group of people using social media and the internet. Because your music is so interactive with your audience, do you feel like you’re trapping it in a physical format with the kin release?
Jonna Lee: The internet is such a democratic venue. People can choose to find it and you can choose how much you want to explain. With us there’s a certain amount of articulation that comes with it and I think it’s interesting to put a few things out there and see what comes out of it. This format is a format that fits into the consumer’s mindset.
aqnb: The internet, generally, is a really fascinating medium to use. It gives you the image of transparency and openness but it can be manipulated in very fascinating and elusive ways.
JL: How do you mean manipulated?
aqnb: When you first started releasing your videos in 2009, you generated quite an interest around you, without revealing much about who you were at all.
JL: I think that’s the motive of iamamiwhoami. When it started, the project, there was no information to communicate. There was no truth. I didn’t know what it was going to become. So, for me, it was about being able to create undisturbed and giving only the information that was there at the time. That has expanded because now there is something to say about it, you know? So, I guess, that also goes in line with a physical release. Being able to talk about it and confirm information that I know is not correct but wasn’t sure about at the beginning. As long as there’s articulation and it’s correct. It’s not manipulative if you’re just choosing to not comment on something. Then it’s up to the observer, what they make of it.
aqnb: Were you using the online medium in the first place to discover yourself outside of your past?
JL: The physical release is for now but who knows what will happen next. It was part of the foundation of creating kin, to create something to be embraced by the audience and can actually be held. Maybe, looking back, I don’t know what’s going to happen but I couldn’t have done this if I had a past. For me, and many of my collaborators, I didn’t want previous works to get in the way of what I wanted to do. It’s always the case, when you have previous work that is known to some degree or whatever. I think it was a necessity for what’s still happening and what’s about to happen, as well. I wouldn’t say that it’s definitely going to mean that all of my forthcoming work will be exactly like kin, or even in the same format, ambition or imagery.
aqnb: Do you feel like your past as a solo artist might still interfere with what you’re doing know?.
JL: No. I think that the image of what I needed to find out is okay for me now, so it doesn’t bother me in some ways. It’s come out and it’s obviously something that you have to be proud of. So, no, it feels like a different time right now.
aqnb: In terms of what you’re doing now, or generally?
JL: I’m speaking of my previous work getting in the way of what I’m doing now.
aqnb: By creating in real time, are you somehow embracing this collective consciousness where you reveal your artistic self to everyone at the same time?
JL: The work that we share, you know, it’s not about making a complete following of my artistic development. It’s also story telling, in communication with the audience that’s following it, so I think it’s not me personally. It’s my project but it does not affect me. Also it’s about creating a unit between two formats, of the song and the visuals.
aqnb: Do you think that interactive storytelling, working in collaboration with your audience, is the future of storytelling?
JL: It might be, who knows. I think it’s so different depending on what you want to do. It’s something that’s informing what I want to do right now. I cant’ speak for it being the future format, I just feel like it’s something for me and it’s for the people that are following me also. We’ll see, you know.
aqnb: You’ve just recently started performing live as iamamiwhoami and I hear it a lot, that the kick you get from performing live is the energy you exchange with a crowd of people.
JL: Definitely. It’s fascinating to see a physical encounter and not having that wall of distance that comes with the internet and the digital platforms. Being very subtle in communication and information that we give out and that comes back to us, that is something that’s so immediate when you play live. So it’s a big difference. It’s also a ‘one moment’ thing, I like the that, something that’s brief and then it’s gone.
aqnb: It seems like the people who are most fascinated by the digital era are those people who remember a time where you didn’t have it. Do you think there’s a certain element of power in that? Where people who don’t know a different way of living would have less control over their own representation through media.
JL: That’s an interesting thought for me. I’ve thought about it. You know, how is life for other people who’ve grown up with all these things? It’s just a natural part of life and it’s always been that way for them. I guess I have an analogue way of thinking in this world, where you can turn off. That’s something I want to keep as well. That ‘function for purpose’ way of thinking is important, I think. I don’t think it’s very broad in the world of sharing and communicating.
aqnb: Yeah, that makes me think about ‘virtual bullying’. I could never understand why it affected young people so much because you can just turn off your computer. But I don’t think they actually have that switch.
JL: Exactly. I think it’s constant for children and young people now. Unless you’ve experienced that analogue era, it’s probably not that easy.
aqnb: The promotional aspect, or awareness-building, aspect of the iamamiwhoami, was that a very considered concept? It’s pretty incredible how much attention you managed to generate and very clever, as well. Was there a master plan behind it all?
JL: There was this idea of creating and sharing in real time and then doing that in a forum where consumption is pretty much a reason for visiting, such as YouTube. I mean, a lot has changed I think, but in the beginning it was mostly things that you consumed very fast and then you spat it out. I wanted to see what would happen if you would create something that had a high artistic value, a motive and all that stuff behind it but no explanation. To display it there amongst those other things. Would people find it? Would people value it? Would it be there for the work or would it be there just to talk about?
Of course, it worked and when people started talking about it I was hoping and waiting for the work to be in focus. Once that happened, and the talk settled, there were people who truly cared about the artistic side of it. But that also very much depends on how you observe it. ‘What is the artistic side of what they’re doing?’ It’s also up to each individual to decide.
There is always a creative idea before sharing but then the actual producing side of the work that we do happens in real time because it’s needed to be able to decide what goes around the work. It’s a discussion that’s constantly there and I wanted to capture that in the lyrics, in the settings, in everything.
aqnb: It’s an interesting point because when you have an idea and you’re frustrated that you can’t get that idea out, you’re presuming the idea was already there in its full form before its creation. But process is also very much a part of the finished product.
JL: Definitely. And the delivery method is as important as the content; that is what’s important. So the promotional aspect, for me, I see that as the work. But I get the questions often about promotion but that’s because it’s in a forum where there are still people who do things for promotional purposes.
aqnb: I guess at the core of it is that age-old idea of ‘what is art?’ The question of whether there should be a discourse outside of the work that the artist engages in or whether the work should just speak for itself.
JL: Oh god… yes. I think kin has a lot to do with that; the actual physical shape of it, the cover of it and the cover of the cover. All of that is connected to that question: judging the cover or the content, the method of delivering it and the actual content of the delivery.
iamamiwhoami performs at the Southbank Centre’s Ether Festival Saturday, October 10, 2012.