The indomitable Jonna Lee: Building the audiovisual dream of iamamiwhoami
From 2009 YouTube to immersive shows in 2023: “I do songwriting, music production, directing, some mixing and mastering, film editing, all design, conceptual and bases of physical editions, merch design…”
Jonna Lee, the artist behind iamamiwhoami
When Jonna Lee was young, no one believed she could fulfil her dream of becoming an artist.
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“That was the one thing I didn’t have growing up. Someone to say ‘You can do whatever you want’. It was always ‘You can’t do that. That’s not possible. You can’t work in music. Stop singing,’” Lee says to MusicTech from her home in Sweden. “I was isolated from all kinds of dreams about being an artist.”
That isolation just further inspired Lee to reach her goals, solo. She’s now not just an artist, but her dream has come to fruition in an incomparable fashion as the audiovisual project iamamiwhoami, a project she sees as limitless:
“Everything is possible because I have all the tools to create whatever I want,” Lee says.
Lee describes iamamiwhoami as a “multimedia entity,” and every song ever released through it – including the 38 songs across four studio albums – is linked to a video that lives on YouTube for free.
Together, these videos create one continuous narrative, which has spanned the entire history of the project; starting with its launch in December 2009, running through to her latest album, 2022’s Be Here Soon, and she is currently working on her new album as well.
Over the past 13 years, Lee as the main character in this story has explored numerous lush environments near her native Sweden, built simple but effective set pieces out of materials like cardboard boxes and toilet paper, dreaming up a cast of peculiar characters (such as giant wolves) that represent different aspects of her vision and personality.
To maintain complete control over such an in-depth and layered narrative, Lee takes the lead on everything. That means anything on the artistic side and the logistical side, through her label To Whom It May Concern (TWIMC).
“I do songwriting, music production, directing, some mixing and mastering, film editing, all design, conceptual and bases of physical editions, merch design. I like being able to do the full thing, but if I’m not good enough at a certain task at a certain moment, I will have someone else do it if it’s financially possible.
“Then there’s the label side where I do things like strategy and lots of admin. Stuff that I wish I didn’t have to but I must do because I run my own company,” Lee says. “Every one of my collaborators has their own careers aside from [iamamiwhoami], so the only person that lives and breathes my work is myself,” Lee says.
At TWIMC Lee has two teams: her creative team and her label team.
On the creative side, Lee works with Claes Björklund to make the music and John Strandh to produce the videos and tour visuals. Occasionally she’ll outsource mixing and mastering, too.
On the label side, Agneta Edgren is on finance, and Daniel Harding handles administration.
In the early stages, the team was larger. Lee collaborated with other filmmakers, including Robin Kempe-Bergman and Agustin Moreaux, but overall, smaller was better for Lee. And, though she had always been involved in the visual process, Lee and Strandh took it over for 2014’s BLUE, which led to Lee being in a familiar position.
“We hadn’t directed before so we were really concerned. I was told by people that I was working with at the time that I wasn’t capable. ‘Don’t do that. It’s not your thing. You have to let others do things. It can’t just be you’,” Lee says.
More than taking over directing, on BLUE, Lee’s character travels away from the sylvan atmospheres of the Scandinavian forests of earlier videos and towards pristine coastal landscapes.
So not only was the artist taking on a new challenge, she was applying it to a completely new setting, and all she had was filming equipment she rented by the day and a laptop to do the editing and grain.
“That really made the whole BLUE process so hard because I was so insecure, but we kept on doing it,” Lee says. “After that, it was much easier because we felt confident.”
From that point on the process only became more intimate, collaborative, and technologically simple.
“The tools I use are the same as they were, but I would say I use less, as I do more myself now. We have built a solid foundation and a creative trust,” Lee says.
For example, though TWIMC has a shared studio space, Lee and Björklund would produce music in separate rooms for previous albums, only finalising tracks after they aligned on individual creations.
On Be Here Soon, they worked closer than ever – literally.
“We sat down together in a room and wrote all the songs with an instrument each and a mic plugged in. We wanted to make one of those albums that are written there and then; then we produced those together,” Lee says. “We brought in a band – well, actually, just a drummer. We played the rest of the instruments. That’s band enough for me.”
The entire time Lee and Björklund are working on the music, Strandh is in the periphery as well. So when he and Lee start writing scripts for the videos, he creates his connection to the music.
“When you’re working with someone who works in drama and features like [Strandh], then it’s much more interesting to get a different take on it,” Lee says. “We are all connected to the story we’ve been telling for 13 years. It’s a fun way to work.”
Even for independent artists, the creative aspect is the fun part, but without an infrastructure to share the music, the fun can’t make their money (let alone continue an audiovisual narrative for 13 years).
But Lee wasn’t going to let something like a distribution deal prevent her from fulfilling her dreams. So at the beginning of the narrative, she devised a release strategy that included standard methods like emailing blog writers, but she also used tools that set her apart: real-time sharing and YouTube, which in 2009 looked far different than it does today.
“There was less content [on YouTube] that had high artistic value. There were a lot of home videos, music videos in low resolution. Some live footage, some cats, drunk people. It was fun. YouTube at the time was really cool,” Lee says.
Lee capitalised on the cool factor and launched the project by sharing prelude videos on YouTube that were 90 seconds or less (short for budget constraints, not to serve the algorithm). They followed the same aesthetic Lee has applied throughout the project: wondrous organic backdrops paired with her dreamy electronic music.
Upon release, something strange happened. The videos went viral – at least, that’s what we call it now.
“There was no such thing as ‘viral’. That was really new. Organic virality as well. Not algorithm made. It was just happening,” Lee says.
The millions of views that were coming to iamamiwhoami were based on genuine interest from a worldwide community, and the fact that the releases were coming in real-time further fueled this interest.
Had a label been running this project, they would have made all the videos in advance and released them on a carefully delineated schedule. However, in another stroke of innovation, Lee decided to instead put out the videos as they were being finished. No timeline or calendar. The viral community had to wait on pins and needles for what was coming next.
This was the case for every iamamiwhoami album including Be Here Soon, even though Lee discovered just as they were beginning the filming process that she was expecting a child.
“Music is my passion but also my living, so I decided to roll with it and let the pregnancy be part of the filming and narrative and the album was released as planned. It was terrifying and it felt important at the same time,” Lee says.
don’t wait for me, the first video for Be Here Soon, was posted on March 31, 2022, and as new videos were posted, Lee’s pregnancy became more apparent, with her performing in bodysuits that accentuated her growing belly.
On May 25, 2022, her son Bauer was born. The next day, the penultimate video, call my name, was posted. Fans had to wait until July 8 for the final video, walking on air, so Lee could spend some time with her baby.
Bauer’s birthday is public knowledge because Lee is embracing another tool in the fulfilment of her dream of being an artist: social media.
She is not an early adopter of platforms like Instagram and Twitter, though, only opening accounts in 2017, and so rather than driving innovation on these channels she finds herself asking the same questions as every artist in 2023, whether they’re independent or not: ‘How much to share? What to share? What is cool?’
“I want to share my creative process with the people that follow in a way that feels good, and you don’t even know what that means until you’re actually doing it. I’m just trying to dare to be myself,” Lee says. “In the long scheme of things, does it matter that I have that Instagram account? Because I think without those accounts I wouldn’t have toured. I wouldn’t have the sense that people want to see this.”
Lee just capped a tour with iamamiwhoami in Brazil this month. Clearly, more people want to see her perform, and through social media, she is currently “generating” (another way of saying crowdfunding) new music in 2024.
At the time of writing, she’s reached three out of five goals for the funding. The third tier is equal to three new songs and videos, with the fourth being a full album and the fifth being another complete audiovisual entry in the narrative of iamamiwhoami.
Relying on donations from the public may not be the most typical way to produce new music. But, in 2023, myriad people around the world believe in Jonna Lee and are supporting her as she fulfils her dream of becoming an artist.
Learn more about iamamiwhoami. https://ionnalee.com/
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