LA producer Jennifer Lee crafts melodies that ebb and flow with a fluid grace so beguiling that you can place a song as hers within a few seconds. Inhabiting an ambient middle-ground between EDM, hip-hop, and R&B, they sigh and swell before surging forward in a wave of heady beats and smoky synths.
As larger-than-life beat magician TOKiMONSTA (“toki” from the Korean for “rabbit,” a nod to her Korean-American heritage), Lee has perfected the art of creating vast, intricate soundscapes that seem near-sentient in their complexity. In the seven years since her debut album appeared under Flying Lotus’s coveted Brainfeeder imprint, that talent has propelled the twenty-something to the head of the California club scene, as well as through a slew of full-lengths and mini-albums.
But this fall’s “Lune Rouge,” her third major release and “most personal work,” as Lee refers to it by phone from the West Coast, could signal TOKiMONSTA’s breakthrough to mainstream pop stardom. Out Oct. 6, it’s a gorgeous mirage of a record, gliding through fogged-up tropical jams, ambitious instrumentals, and euphoric electronica anthems. An accompanying world tour will take her through The Sinclair in Cambridge Oct. 10.
Though Lee wryly observes that most good artists bring a personal touch to their music, “Lune Rouge” was personal in a different way; she was on the cusp of composing the album when a health scare forced her out of the studio and into surgery.
“I was diagnosed with a condition called moyamoya,” Lee says. “The potential for me to die within a short amount of time was very imminent.”
Moyamoya, a rare vascular disorder, constricts the walls of the internal carotid arteries, reducing blood flow to the brain and increasing chances of a blood clot, stroke, or aneurysm. For Lee, who exhibited few symptoms, news that her arteries were 90 percent closed came as a complete shock. She was rushed through two brain surgeries in January 2016 and spent the next few weeks recovering, only to find herself suffering from acute aphasia and unable to speak to or comprehend the people around her.
Eventually, her language returned — but there was a catch.
“My ability to create or listen to music was nearly completely gone,” recalls Lee. “It sounded completely alien to me, I didn’t understand it, and it didn’t sound nice anymore. It was heartbreaking.”
Remaining hopeful, she released “Fovere,” an EP she’d completed before surgery, and took time off, reflecting on the ordeal.
“I only had a couple of weeks [after learning of the condition, but before surgery] to fully look at my life and see what I’d done, and understand I might not live,” she says. “Once you’re faced with your own mortality, I think your priorities change as an artist.”
Slowly but surely, as Lee edged back into the studio, something clicked, and instinct gradually guided her creative process toward what would become “Lune Rouge.”
In many ways, the project continues the classical-versus-futuristic contrast that has dominated her previous work. But Lee brings to it two new ingredients: an undercurrent of joy that reflected her relief post-surgery, and a roster of collaborators (including Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna and Chicago M.C. Joey Purp) with whom she felt a meaningful connection.
“Whenever I decide to work with someone who’s in different realms from myself, I take a gamble,” she explains. “I hope that, when we create together, it will be the best of both worlds.”
One of the record’s most salient bits of sonic synergy arrives around its midway mark, on the rapturous single “We Love,” a collaboration with singer/producer MNDR that crystallizes the new-lease-on-life exuberance suffused throughout “Lune Rouge.”
It’s the pair’s second collaboration. By phone, MNDR (real name: Amanda Lucille Warner) says she’s proud of that fact – not to mention that she’s a devout TOKiMONSTA fan herself.
“For me, the song is about vibrating at a high level and being present in the moment you’re in,” she says. In working with Lee on “We Love,” the singer came away stunned not only by the producer’s renewed grip on her sound, but by her ability to also mix the music she was making.
“That is buck-wild unusual,” she says, laughing. “I said to her, ‘I cannot effing believe you mixed your album — you should be given a Grammy for that.’”
But for Lee, handling as many facets of the album as possible was part of her healing process, allowing her to demonstrate the fullest extent of her skill set to listeners and herself. It’s not difficult to find deeper meaning in the record’s title, referring to a rare lunar event that culturally signifies transition. As she gears up for the album release and this fall’s world tour, Lee is bringing TOKiMONSTA forward into a fresh phase, armed with luminous new beats and ambitions you could describe as astronomical.