TOKiMONSTA speaks up on losing her ability to make music after brain surgery

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For Jennifer Lee, known by the public by her performer name TOKiMONSTA, the uphill climb into finding her own forward-minded brand of kaleidoscopic electronic music hasn’t exactly been an easy journey. The Los Angeles-based producer just revealed yesterday, Sept. 12, that she wasn’t able to make music after undergoing two brain surgeries in 2015. In fact, she couldn’t even comprehend it as music.

“All music just sounded like noise,” she tells Pitchfork in a very personal OP-ED. “I remember being like, ‘Ooh, this is weird! This is metallic, harsh nonsense to me.’” Lee, who was diagnosed with an extremely rare and fatal brain disease called Moyamoya, eventually regained her ability to produce music.

The only way to treat Moyamoya is brain surgery…[w]ithout any treatment, most people don’t live past 40. I had two options: either sit with it and possibly die thinking about what I should do, or do the surgery as soon as possible.

Though Lee’s mother was the only person to know about her illness during her treatment, she’s now opened up about her story publicly for the first time. Her forthcoming third album, Lune Rouge, out Oct. 6 via her label Young Art Records, is filled exclusively with songs she composed and penned during her long road to recovery. The new album marks an evolutionary shift away from her aggressive, upbeat signature electronic sound into a more emotionally-inspired direction.

The most difficult thing was trying to work on music. I opened Ableton and I couldn’t understand what I was doing, even though at that point my speech was at 90 percent. I tried to make music and it was just garbage. The part of my brain that knew how to put sounds together was broken. I didn’t understand why it didn’t make sense anymore. When you make music, so much of it is intuitive and natural. I could always put sounds together, play a little ditty on the piano. I never had to think about doing it. And then I’m there in front of my computer going, “I don’t understand if this is a good sound or a bad sound. I don’t know if I’m playing a melody.” I didn’t want to pity myself, but it was a heart-wrenching pain.

So I stopped. I gave myself room to recuperate. I maintained hope that my ability to create music would come back. I’m glad I did, because I think if I had pushed myself I would never have found the music again. With the aphasia, if I forced myself to remember a word, it would never come. But if I took the pressure off myself, I would be able to find that word. I gave myself a couple weeks with music to be like, “Just don’t touch this shit—chill out, work on other aspects of your life, try to be normal again.”

TOKiMONSTA shares her story now to not just speak about her personal struggles, but to shed light on Moyamoya since it is such a rare condition. To hear more about how her treatment and recovery inspired tracks on the new album, read the full Pitchfork OP-ED here.

Featured image via John Michael Fulton.

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