Covid-19 cannot contain ionnalee. After releasing her lockdown album-playlist, Kronologi, in weekly instalments earlier this year, she also curated and performed a visually spectacular, full-length, online concert, streamed on YouTube on 2 September. Broadcast live from a remote Swedish island, Konsert combined the future with the past in typical ionnalee fashion: delivering fan favourites from her ten-year back catalogue as well as debuting a brand-new single, Machinee. Oh, and did I mention Imogen Heap made a surprise appearance?! This truly was the socially distant, virtual gathering we all needed.
ionnalee is the latest artistic venture from Jonna Lee, a Swedish singer-songwriter, producer, and audiovisual artist who is no stranger to YouTube. Back in 2010, she and producer Claes Björklund launched their enigmatic online project iamamiwhoami: an audiovisual series combining transcendental Kate Bush-style vocals, dark but shimmering synth-pop melodies and uncanny videos. Shrouded in mystique, the videos merged images from Sweden’s folklore and natural landscape with a kind of dystopian, sci-fi aesthetic that wouldn’t look out of place in an Aphex Twin video.

After releasing three albums under iamamiwhoami, Lee went solo in 2017 and has since released another three as ionnalee. A decade since her creative work first appeared on our computer screens, it seems Lee has no intention of logging off. “As I can’t be where you are,” she says, introducing Konsert, “I welcome you to my island.” And gosh are we glad to be invited. Right now, when the world is stuck inside, kept apart and slowed down by a pandemic, we need the infectiously catchy music of ionnalee more than ever. Keeping us moving, bringing us together and reminding us of different, more enchanting futures.
I just watched your livestream performance, Konsert, and my oh my, what a spectacle it was! In the midst of a global pandemic, the live music show is one of Covid-19’s countless casualties. Like many artists, you used the online concert to perform and connect virtually with fans worldwide as restrictions on travel and mass gathering prevent us from enjoying this in the flesh. However, you were using the online concert format long before coronavirus hit, with In Concert airing in 2011 and Concert in Blue in 2015. Did the experience feel different this time around when there was no alternative option but to perform virtually?
Thanks, I take that as a compliment! Yes, there was a bigger sense of urgency in creating a bond with people on a distance, and I’ve never had guest artists in my live installations, so that also created a new sense of communication. We couldn’t see each other but had to use our imagination.
Do you enjoy the process? How does it differ to performing live in a venue packed with fans?
Yes, a lot. This way of performing is what I do best I think. It’s different, of course, but having created 50+ standalone story-based visual episodes the past decade I am quite used to communicating with my audience through a camera. In a venue, you get a direct reaction from people – singing, screaming –, which is amazing and slightly scary, but I am always one hundred per cent in my own world when performing, so it’s not all that different.
Speaking of fans, did you read the stream of adoring comments that came rolling in as soon as Konsert began? I counted over a hundred in the first thirty seconds!?
I watched it back the day after the show and relived it from their point of view. Cried a bit over a glass of wine and laughed at things you didn’t have time to reflect on during the show. All of it was incredible.
When coronavirus unfortunately cancelled your world tour earlier this year, you released the album Kronologi instead: a mixture of live takes, previously unpublished material and alternative versions of older songs. You even painted original watercolours for the cover art of each new song, uploaded on a weekly basis. All this and a full-length online show! Would it be fair to say that lockdown was relatively conducive to your creative process?
I began to work with some productions I had already started for my tour and created the Kronologi playlist, which then became a mixtape-like album for my followers to have something to look forward to each week through lockdown. Doing all of this made me feel like I wasn’t gonna be defeated by the situation, and it also gave some aid financially, as cancelling a tour is a massive financial blow when you produce on your own. Not only do you lose the funds you were going to earn, but you also lose the pre-production costs.
In the midst of that stress, I felt confident I would solve it somehow. The whole situation I was in as an independent musician and how governments decided to deal with the support for the arts made me realise how music and art are taken for granted even though everyone consumes them, and that you really need to know your own worth and feel the audience’s support to keep going. So I felt creative but also a bit apprehensive about the future.
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As well as some iconic outfit changes from yourself and your long-time collaborator Claes Björklund (his underpants look was my personal fave), Konsert featured some really exciting guest appearances. I was gagged to see Imogen Heap and Vander von Odd come broadcasting in! Who have been some of your favourite artists to work with?
Thanks! Those changes were stressful! Claes sported our well-known by fans y-front briefs in the most fashionable way. I think these guest artists have one thing in common and it is that they are all experimental, daring and independent artists who push boundaries within electronic music. I haven’t worked with that many artists though. I tend to stay in my shack, but other artists I’ve recorded with whom I really love are Jamie Irrepressible and Jennie Abrahamson.
It is now ten years since your first major audiovisual project, iamamiwhoami, was conceived. Your videos have always been distinctively quirky: a cocktail of quasi-mythical folklore and campy space-age futurism rooted in Sweden’s gorgeous natural landscapes. Where do you find your artistic inspiration? Has this changed over the past decade?
I have a strong sense of who I am creatively, and I use that and expand on it even though it’s more difficult defining identity. It stems from being an outsider from an early age, and also literally being outside all the time. I just feel like a part of nature that is no more or no less important than anything or anyone else. The work that I do is a chronological story to me. I just write the next chapter now.
Your work has always delighted in contradiction: combining nature with technology. I noticed, for example, that you sang into a microphone tied to a mossy branch in your recent isolation live in Ödeshög video. In your brand new single, Machinee, there is a moment where I couldn’t tell if I was hearing birds or sirens. How do you relate to the natural environment in comparison to the world of machines?
I like analogue machinery and I like to paint a sonic picture to enhance the mood in music. There is something exciting in that. In regards to my ‘branch stand, ’it was a quick solution because I didn’t have a mic stand.
Another contradiction often noted in your work is the way you combine the future with the past. In 2017, AnOther Magazine described your music as being “imbued with experiences past, yet marking the dawn of a new era.” What do you envision for the ‘new era ’of music? Is it rooted in the past?
The past is always present. It’s always our reference point. As for my future, I am more open to it now.
As an audio-visual artist who came to fame through YouTube, how do you feel about the astrological rise of TikTok and its impact on the music industry? Are we going to see more audiovisual artists emerge as video technology grows increasingly accessible to a younger generation?
Maybe. The music scene is way different now from ten years ago. The struggle is real for independent artists, and the question is who will be ready to face that struggle moving forward. There will always be emerging artists.
And what can we expect to emerge from the world of ionnalee in the next few months? Once we finally get hold of a vaccine for coronavirus and life goes back to normal, will your world tour be rescheduled? I hope so!
I feel very happy with Konsert; it was a massive project to create. I’m trying to find that balance between giving all for a project during a long time and then dealing with the void that follows a release in a quick-consuming world. Rest is needed, and hopefully touring is possible in a near future.
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