As iamamiwhoami’s first London show draws near, Planet Notion brings you our full, unabridged, interview with the project’s navigator, Jonna Lee, alongside exclusive images from our photo-shoot for Issue 059.
What lies at the heart of the iamamiwhoami phenomenon, and its notable ability to keep its audience so continuously beguiled by its output, can be summarised as ‘reciprocal thirst’: on the one hand, the thirst of the enterprise’s dramatis personae to do something creatively fulfilling, loyally mirrored by the unquenchable thirst of the audio-visual saga’s followers for more music and more magical cinematography.
From the very outset, iamamiwhoami positioned itself in a realm where mystery was the watchword, operating as a titillating, never-ending treasure hunt. Sure, there have been other experimental online viral campaigns before and this is not the first time that an artist has chosen to anonymise his or her real identity in favour of an alter-ego. Still, never before has a new act devised such a rich, well-rounded project, backed by an ongoing story arc that instantly engaged its audience and simultaneously tapped into their pop sensibilities.
For Swedish singer-songwriter, Jonna Lee, who was only officially confirmed by her management as iamamiwhoami’s driving force in June this year, the – perhaps subconscious – inception of this extraordinary project can be traced back to 2007. That October, around the time of release of her debut solo album, “10 Pieces, 10 Bruises”, she was interviewed by Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, revealing that her favourite novel was Val McDermid’s “The Grave Tattoo”. In Sweden, the book was translated as “Bounty” and this word ended up becoming one of the central mysteries in iamamiwhoami’s first series of works and, eventually, its title.
“The shape and details of the project weren’t developed then so it was more thoughts of wanting to do music that tickled something inside me and leave things that I wasn’t happy with at the time”, Lee recalls, as we settle into an hour-long interview at her hotel in West London. Moments earlier she apologises for her English, which she fears not to be as good as it used to be when she lived in London years ago. But her command of the language is much better than she suspects and her Scandinavian pronunciation mellifluous. “The evolution of iamamiwhoami has been a slow one”, she continues. “Right now I can touch it but back then it was just an idea. In terms of real thoughts, thoughts that give some kind of conclusion, I would say that it started during the first part of 2009”.
In early 2009 Lee was readying the release of her second solo album, “This Is Jonna Lee”. Working with the record’s producer (and now confirmed iamamiwhoami deputy), Claes Björklund, she was also experimenting with two different cover versions of Nitzer Ebb’s “Violent Playground”, one of which saw the pair opting for a more electro-oriented sound than her usual folky guitar-pop. “I discovered a longing for something new in my life”, she says. “I also wanted to find a counterpart for my music, visually, and do something where there was no creative limitation, so that even if there were only little means or no means at all, there would still be a freedom to do whatever kept us interested. This was just something I needed to do without knowing why I needed it at the time”.
The public’s first encounter with iamamiwhoami came in December 2009, with the fortnightly emergence of a perplexing and increasingly graphic series of YouTube videos sent out to music websites and bloggers from the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. As cryptic teasers for a project no one had previously heard of, they proved to be an instant hook. Going viral, the videos immediately got people speculating as to what their imagery symbolised and, more importantly, the identity of the artist behind them. Christina Aguilera, whose ‘Bionic’ long-player was due in the ensuing months, was the firm favourite.
From the very first video, iamamiwhoami set out its stall to intrigue. The music was instrumental, of an electro-pop ilk, and the visuals were set in a forest whose trees had pulsating human limbs. Occasionally, the arboricultural footage was interspersed with shots of a mud-covered female and, towards the end, the video briefly cut to a film showing the birth of a goat (later replaced by a drawing of a goat due to a copyright infringement claim). The post-hyphen numbers in the title were subsequently deciphered by erudite fans as an alphanumeric spelling of the word ‘EDUCATIONAL’.
With Christmas around the corner, Lee was still doing promo for her album with the release of its third single, “Something So Quiet”. Unbeknown to her label, Razzia Records, however, she was also working on more music and filming for what was, then, her undefined new side-project. “Everything created by us has been done in real time”, Lee says. “So each piece has literally been done weeks before its release”.
Rolling into 2010, the subsequent virals saw the first video’s goat being joined by drawn depictions of an owl, a whale, a bee, a llama and a monkey. By the time the word ‘mandragora’ was identified in the alphanumeric title of the fourth film (also known as the “Papachoo” video), it was becoming abundantly clear that the plot behind the visuals centred around a mandrake – or, a plant which blossoms in human form.
To the uninitiated, mandragorian mythology concerns the semen of a hanged man, which, upon hitting the ground (typically under gallows) sparks the growth of a mandrake root. If you try to pull the root out of the soil, it emits a lethal scream. To avoid their own death, humans would obtain the root by sending dogs to do their dirty work for them. Granted, you end up with a dead pooch but the root is believed to bring its possessor special powers and good fortune, so it’s a fair trade-off all but in the eyes of the RSPCA.
Sure enough, as iamamiwhoami’s series of six teaser videos came to an end, we were left with a mandrake growing out of a wooden shed, a long haired anthropomorphic singing blonde and 6 dogs in receipt of burial in the snow.
Months later, the goat and its fellow animals would transpire to have played a phonetic role in the teasers, with their collective indigenous sounds spelling out the word ‘bounty’. From March 2010 onwards, every few weeks saw the release of a full ‘single’ with an accompanying film, the title of each being an alphabetic letter, again building up to – yep, you guessed it – ‘bounty’. The mostly instrumental musical backdrop of the prelude videos now graduated to fully vocal-led songs of such well-crafted brilliance that ‘o’, ‘t’ and ‘y’ can proudly call themselves three of the very best singles of that year.
“I can say that the bounty series very much reflects different stereotypes of the woman. That is a good key to how I see it”, Lee shares but immediately looks as though she thinks she may have shared too much. “There is, of course, a foundation underneath that but it has to remain unspoken”.
I ask her what came first with ‘bounty’: the mandrake plot or the music. She resolutely confirms that it was the latter. “The music is at the core of this project and that is how it’s been built. Once there was a song then there would come a collaboration between me and the visual director and that’s how the merging of the two would happen, giving it a sync. The stories come after, based on the lyrics as scripts for the visuals. The actual production, of course, wasn’t just a fluke. It wasn’t a coincidence that everything spelt out words and stuff like that but exactly what shape it would come out as was not always clear”.
And what about the thematic ideas? It’s been widely suggested that the inspiration for the storyline comes from the 1911 novel, “Alraune”, by Hanns Heinz Ewers, which fabled the artificial insemination of a prostitute with the semen of a hanged criminal. Was that book an inspiration? “Not that book in particular”, says Lee, after a beat. I want to ask her whether inspiration perhaps came from any of the films based on the novel but she seems deep in thought. After a further pause she shakes her head and continues: “But speaking too much of the process, I think, removes a bit of the magic, you know? I need to leave something for everyone to imagine for themselves. I have my vision. I think it is quite clear sometimes what my vision is. And sometimes it’s less clear and I like that. So I’m not going to answer that too much”.
What further threw people off the scent, in terms of correctly identifying the elusive singing blonde, were rumours of a Sia-penned song called “I Am” on Aguilera’s then forthcoming album. The song indeed later materialised but its title was purely coincidental. It was the investigative work of fans, who had diligently sleuthed their way through every last detail of the iamamiwhoami videos, which eventually helped in deducing that the heavily-disguised Scandinavian-looking figure who appeared in the visuals was Jonna Lee. This discovery happened to explode online just 4 days before Lee was to make an appearance at SXSW in Austin, to promote “This Is Jonna Lee”. Was it a surprise to be rumbled at that point? “Really, we didn’t try to hide it”, she shakes her head. “From ‘b’ and on it’s quite clear, you know? I was surprised, of course, because it [and by ‘it’, I presume she means the disguise of her identity] is not something that was planned, it was something that happened from randomness. One thing happens and leads to another and that’s what has shaped this project into what it is today. It’s interesting![here she smiles collusively]. But I don’t know… I was just thinking, when the idle talk has settled and the work we have done remains, then that is the essential part”. Lee’s use of one of her song titles, ‘idle talk’, in this context adds a further dimension to her explanation. She has handed the ‘idle talk’ line to other interviewers as well, it later transpires.
I tell her that some of the so-called idle talk she refers to included fans’ voiced expectation on discussion forums that she would make some sort of an announcement or a formal ‘reveal’ at her SXSW show. “Oh”, she reflects quietly.
Interestingly, before the unofficial ‘reveal’, Lee had quite a prominent online presence; there was a frequently-updated blog and regular posts on Twitter. As iamamiwhoami was in the gestation period, Lee let a few hints slip online, way before the first YouTube upload materialised. These included a drawing of trees with human arms (hello Prelude visuals!), a tweet about spending a couple of days covered in mud and photos from the sets of some of the videos.
Did she regard the furore of being discovered as an interruption? “Yes. We needed time to find the shape of it and it’s hard to develop something that is still abstract when there are people knocking at your door”. Consequently, Lee relinquished the jonnalee.com website, got rid of her blog and, in April 2010, left Twitter. “Love to you all, see you later alligators”, was her final tweet.
I ask her whether, now that the project is more established, she ever reads fan comments posted online. “I think it’s safe to say that we hear people, meaning the audience that are following us and have been from the beginning… their voices always surface somehow, you know? A communication happened between the project and the audience that was unique and that has shaped it and that, to me, is very valuable. I think we’re blessed with people that are thinking and who are truly interested”.
Words: Doron Davidson-Vidavski
Photography: John Strandh and iamamiwhoami
Stylist: Agustin Moreaux and iamamiwhoami