A relatively small, but devout group of people woke up on the morning of April 26 in an eager but different state than they found themselves that evening. Making her long-awaited Toronto debut, ionnalee (born Jonna Lee) took to the Phoenix stage with figurative open arms to hug her faithful and finally treat them to a live performance. Not a frequent touring artist, understandable given the costs of a very independent artist based in Sweden, her previous closest distances were Chicago and Brooklyn. Seeing a local stop on her North American tour was a relief for the devout, many of whom had helped Lee raise over $100,000 to mount her previous tour. While many (your author included) hoped their cities of residence or something within traveling distance would be named on that tour, helping one of their favourite artists spread her music was reason enough to contribute.
Jonna Lee, in her current form, has previously performed as or under iamamiwhoami and most recently, ionnalee. While as iam, Lee released a total of 5 albums, including the stunning Concert In Blue. Last year’s Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten was a departure from her previous project, choosing a less collective and more singular, Lee-focused project. She took care of much of the production and programming on the album and found a new sonic direction. Harder beats and somewhat less reliant on an oversmoothed beauty, ionnalee’s music seems to (sadly to some fans) shrug off some of the opulence of previous releases. With just about a year between albums, several singles have been released from the upcoming Remember The Future, arriving on May 31. Finding her way to North America for her longest tour yet, Jonna Lee made 3 Canadian appearances in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The tour closed with two shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Toronto’s appearance was a co-headline with TR/ST, who guested on the last album, as well as onstage to perform Harvest. The show began with musical cohort, Tungorna taking the stage. Jonna Lee followed clad in her Comme des Garçons bodysuit to open the show with SOME BODY, one of only three songs (along with OPEN SEA and ISLANDER) played off the just-released album, Remember The Future. With its stabbing bassline and pounding drums, the audience immediately fell into beat. The first half of the set included many looks to previous albums, pulling out tracks like o, t and y from 2013’s Bounty and fountain, goods and chasing kites from her 2014 album Blue, the latter being an obvious fan favourite and possibly the closest thing to a Jonna Lee hit. With each passing song, the audience approval grew louder and louder as did the shy smile on Lee’s face. It’s a lovely occurrence to witness when the crowd’s roars keep interrupting an artist’s attempts to speak. As Lee’s set closed, she brought on (Winnipeg-born, Toronto-dwelling) headliner TR/ST to guest, as he did, on her previous album cut, HARVEST. ionnaee’s set closed with the Blue stomper, goods. Again, the audience cheers and applauded almost in an effort to keep their wintery angel from leaving. When the house lights came on, the view was a room full of ear-to-ear grins and some glistening eyes. For many, having experienced their first real-life glimpses of Jonna Lee, this was the end of a fan’s long journey.
The reason for this show and tour were to showcase some of the music from Jonna Lee’s second album as ionnalee. Sometimes it feels a flowchart is necessary to navigate all her projects, but my recommendation is to just listen. Last February, the album title was revealed as REMEMBER THE FUTURE (stylized in all caps, as Lee seems to love to play with letter cases). Along with the title, the first single, OPEN SEA was released. The second single, SOME BODY followed in April.
Today, May 30, the album is being released. Having rolled an advance stream through my ears for the last couple weeks, in my opinion, mark it as another achievement by Jonna Lee. Unlike EVERYONE AFRAID TO BE FORGOTTEN, REMEMBER THE FUTURE was co-produced by Lee along with frequent collaborators, Claes Björklund and Röyksopp. Musically, she has delivered more than just an extension of the previous album. RTF signifies a step forward for ionnalee as a culmination of her independence while honouring strengths taken from previous iam releases. While the pre-released tracks have demonstrated this, deeper cuts like the almost seven minute, Matters. This track layers a duet by Lee and Zola Jesus over a supportive pulsing bass that seems to lyrically warn of the coming world we’re facing due to climate crises as the song fades out to ethereal soaring voices. The song segues into an instrumental soundscape, Islander that gives over to a minimalist four on the floor Kraftwerkian beat before again dissolving into angelic flourishes.
The title track confirms the theme of the album. Urging us to consider how our actions today determine the landscape of what is to come. Whether these songs are interpreted as such or woven into a less negative, contrasting motif, Jonna Lee renders each song with a depth of melody and grace in harmony that hints to positivity. Crystal takes us close to what may be a slow jam R & B song for ionnalee and features another vocal guest on RTF. Joined this time by Swedish singer, Jennie Abrahamson, the two similar voices entwine throughout the entire track to great effect. Race Against is an aural portrait that hints at the album’s theme with the sole barely-audible lyrics being “Race against. Human, repent. Race to the end“. Silence My Drum, brings the album back to featuring Lee’s voice and stands as one of my favourite tracks. In an unusual turn, the penultimate track on REMEMBER THE FUTURE is a cover. Jonna Lee takes her turn at David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s gorgeous Mysteries of Love from the former’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet. Ending the album is I Keep, a gentler comedown that reminds us to not get in our own way. It’s a fitting close that ties a bright bow atop REMEMBER THE FUTURE.
As a vocalist and lyricist, Jonna Lee is rich in emotion. When coupled with the warm, yet deceptively complex music, her projects are now known for, it can feel overwhelming. However, there’s an earnest undercurrent to Lee’s projects that prevent her music from being misconstrued as grandiose or overblown. ionnalee possess no pretense. It’s this art over artifice that allows her audience to feel their relationship as more intimate than expected. For fans, the growth, flair and power that has doubled with each of Jonna Lee’s releases is dual-edged. While a rise in popularity might result in more tours and visits to new cities, the idea of sharing their favoured unsung artist with more fans on larger, more distant stages is a bittersweet agreement.