When iamamiwhoami step out onto the stage at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall this week, their transition from YouTube dissenters to fully-fledged international popstars will at last be complete.
Their sold-out appearance at the Southbank Centre’s Ether 2012 is a major coup for the festival, presenting Jonna Lee and her creative team (most notably songwriting and producing partner Claes Björklund) for the first time outside of their native Sweden since they crept out from the liminal fringes of YouTube straight into the frenzied glare of every music blog and gossip portal from Tokyo to Taunton. The buzz that ensued was partly down to the exceptionally brilliant timing of those first few visual teasers, which arrived in time to whip up an expectant public eager for new albums from the likes of Björk, Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera, but there was no denying the delicious otherness of the heavily symbolic film shorts and alien soundtracks. (In this post-Bionic world, don’t we all feel a little bit silly?)
Strong suspicion that Lee was the mastermind behind iamamiwhoami arose in the wake of their first full song, ‘b’, and it’s fair to say that interest in the project began to wane a little once the Aguileriacs and Little Monsters scuttled disappointedly back to their bedroom shrines. But for a substantial core of fans, or “significant others” as Jonna now describes them, the chord had been struck and iamamiwhoami was fixed in their imaginations for good. Every word and every action has been analysed for clues with each metamorphosis; from the preludes to the “bounty” series to last November’s brilliantly staged online concert (during which Lee appeared to ritually sacrifice one of her own fans), through to the gradual reveal of the nine audiovisual riddles of their debut album kin, unveiled at two-week intervals in the run up to the release. Continuing to take the central premise of postmodernism – that interpretation is everything – to an extreme, Lee is relatively terse when it comes to discussing her craft. She’s no longer answering interview questions with decontextualised lyrical extracts, but iamamiwhoami remains a creature of few words. Alan Pedder dug deep and was rewarded with the following nuggets.
You seem to have invested a lot of yourself, emotionally, into this project. Do you think you have discovered sides of yourself that you perhaps never really knew existed in the process?
Yes I find new characteristics appear. It is a development.
Your last album as Jonna Lee came out in February 2009, just ten months before the first iamamiwhoami video. How long had the iamamiwhoami idea been growing in you?
The first songs of iamamiwhoami came to life in late 2008 along with thoughts of a visual expansion of them.
Were you surprised when people started throwing mainstream names around like Christina Aguilera when the first video came out, or by how much fuss was made?
Yes. I was in the process of growing something from the abstract. So I blocked out the noise for us to be able to focus on finding our shape.
Was there a point where you were worried that the fuss that was being made about your true identity might overshadow the innovation behind iamamiwhoami?
I have been confident in the work we do and our motives for doing it. It is interesting how the synergy of hearsay and interpretation can become truth to some. A brief glance gives less dimension. A closer look is more rewarding when it comes to iamamiwhoami.
Before iamamiwhoami you had expressed some annoyance at being constantly referred to in the press as a “female singer-songwriter with a guitar”. Do you feel that iamamiwhoami was, at least partly, an attempt to steer the conversation away from gender towards art?
Experiencing convention in its purest form and working within boundaries started the process of what I do now. I don’t believe in over articulation. There’s beauty in the individual interpretation.
How did you feel at being unmasked so soon after the video for ‘b’ came out? Was the decision to show your faces (albeit slightly disguised) a deliberate concession to people’s desire to know the real name behind the music?
At that time my identity was not articulated nor hidden to not let mine or my collaborators past work disturb or take focus from the present. I shut off my surroundings and spent all energy on creating.
You’ve talked a bit about iamamiwhoami being a conversation with your audience and it has been a very intense one at times. Did it worry you when online interest in the project started to wane, as online interest always does, or were you too busy focusing on creating to pay any mind to that sort of thing?
The sensation of novelty is rarely deep going. The idle talk settling allowed our work to be in focus. For me gaining popularity is not the reason for creating. It is to invent and express. Then share our work with those whom it may concern.
This being the internet, anything viral attracts at least a few people who like to loudly voice their negative opinions. Did you consider those opinions to be a part of the conversation too?
The audience uniformity in action is burning through, but everything surrounding iamamiwhoami I would say is a part of it.
Do you think that if you had been working with a label that there would have been a lot pressure to capitalise on the buzz when it was at its peak? That the whole iamamiwhoami project would have turned out very differently?
Yes. Me building a solid house for the creative process and the way we’re sharing it was the only way for iamamiwhoami to have a life as our foundation is based on being able to create freely without boundaries.
During the making of kin, was there much internal debate about the ordering of the tracks and the videos? How long did it take to form a complete vision of the story that you wanted to tell with these songs and videos?
The process of Kin started after our first live show in August 2011 where I had my first physical encounter with the audience. After nine months of hard labour I displayed it and now it is being delivered to its next of kin. It was made chronologically both sonically and visually in real time, as all our work is to preserve the now. The same way it is also delivered to you and is best experienced. Kin is iamamiwhoami in a shape that can be embraced by the audience. It tells the story of iamamiwhoami’s process of its creation and the sacrifices and made along the way.
Who did you work with to create the videos for Kin? Has it been the same people all along over the past three years, or have you collaborated with other visual artists as well?
The same visual collaborators have been with us since the beginning [Robin Kempe-Bergman as director, John Strandh as cinematographer and still photographer, and Agustin Moreaux in charge of set and costume design as well as make-up]. Creating is an isolated process.
You’ve spoken about wanting to create a space in which iamamiwhoami can have longevity. How do you see the band developing from here, either in terms of your art or of remaining on the edges of the traditional music industry?
I’m now in midst of delivering kin to my significant others so they can care for it. Talking about it with you is also part of the creative process. As we create in real time, I will see where it will take us after the delivery is complete and when I have a need to build new songs and a purpose for further communication.
iamamiwhoami has won a number of awards, including Digital Genius at this year’s MTV OMAs. Do awards mean anything to you as an artist, or is that purely an industry thing that is very much outside of what iamamiwhoami is about?
It is appreciation in different forms. It is convention celebrating the irregular. An interesting juxtaposition which should be celebrated itself.
Finally, now that you are doing more traditional interviews, I thought it might be fun to pose some of the questions from your first interview again:
Is this a spiritual journey?
It is the contrasts of the emotional and indifferent journey of iamamiwhoami in episodes.
Can you be trusted?
Trusted. But not relied on.
Is there anything of greater value than identity?
iamamiwhoami will perform at the Southbank Centre’s Ether Festival on 10 October, and the album Kin is available now via Coop.