Life can seem pretty great up on the stage, dancing with headphones on, playing to a crowds of thousands at every other music festival. And it was for Jennifer Lee (better known by her music alias TOKiMONSTA), until she was diagnosed with a rare neurovascular condition called moyamoya in 2015, which left her unable to walk, talk and listen to or create music. Samantha Ledlin chatted to the international DJ about her struggle with the disease, female empowerment and her new album Lune Rouge dropping this week. 

You'll be releasing your album Lune Rouge this week. Why the title Lune Rouge?

Lune Rouge translates to 'red moon' in French and I did a lot of research about what exactly the red moon means in different cultures, and for the most part it means change. It doesn't mean anything particularly ominous; it just means that something in your life is going to be switched around. With this album there was definitely a big change involved for me personally. I would say that I went through a pretty difficult time right before I started working on this album and that's where the change is for me. I had to go through this significant moment in my life, and though it wasn't super ideal, I would say that it created a change that propelled me forward and allowed me to make the songs I made on this album. I don't think under different circumstances I would have made the same album.

Images: @TOKiMONSTA Instagram

Is this big change you talk about your diagnosis with a neurovascular condition called moyamoya? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah, so about a year and a half ago I was diagnosed with something called moyamoya which is as you said is a neurovascular condition which causes your arteries to narrow. There are two main arteries connected to your brain and those arteries start to narrow and close. If they close you basically have no blood entering your brain, and you don't live if you don't have blood in your brain. Essentially it's terminal without intervention, and I was fortunate enough to catch it before it caused any major problems for me. Others are not as fortunate; a lot of them don't get treatment until they have a stroke an aneurism causing major brain damage.

So I had the surgeries to mitigate this condition - I still have it, but the surgery I had allows my brain to still receive blood. It's like re-routing the blood flow to new highways or freeways. It was a very intense recuperation for me and it left me unable to talk and walk and unable to listen to or create music. I am fortunate also in that I was able to recover from all of those things, as I am speaking to you and I was able to make this album and I can walk around, but the process of getting all of that back was really harsh and I didn't know if I would be able to make music again.

Speaking of making music again, you've collaborated with artists such as Yuna and SAINTS on this album; do you have a personal favourite collaboration?

Not really, and the reason why is the fact that I got to work with all my friends, and if they weren't my friends to begin with, they're people that I ended up developing a really good relationship with.  The song with Yuna for example, that was set up by our management and to be honest I was like 'Yeah of course!'; I was a huge Yuna fan, I think she's amazing! I didn't realise she even knew I existed. But she was also a really big fan of mine and we were really excited to work together. Beyond that, she's really personable and we get a long in general.

TOKiMONSTA and Yuna

It goes the same with all the other tracks too. Someone like Joey Purp who's been a long-time friend of mine and being able to have him on my album is something that I was really excited to have happen. Obviously he's doing really amazingly well right now and I'm super proud of him.

Then there's someone like IO Echo, she's one of my best friends but we've never had the opportunity to work on each other's projects prior. Although we did do a cover once of Mariah Carey. Then Selah Sue, I've never even met her in person yet but we have sent each other these long emotional emails.

That's one of the amazing things about music today, you can make a song with someone even though they live on the other side of the world.

Yeah, it's pretty insane, working on the song with Yuna, she was going back and forth between LA and Malaysia. The internet makes all things possible.

TOKiMONSTA and Lune Rouge album cover

What struggles have you faced or have to overcome being a woman in the electronic music industry?

The struggles have varied. I haven't come across too many difficulties, but there are moments when I am aware that I am seen to have less of an advantage, or perhaps not understanding me or understanding my talents or acknowledging the level of integrity I have as an artist, or not respecting my music in general. It is really easy to become bitter and cynical when things like that happen to you but at the end of the day I have always wanted to maintain my integrity as an artist. I have never tried to overly focus on the fact that I am a female musician. I have ownership of my identity and who I am, but I have always been music first. I would rather be someone's 20th favourite producer, than their number 1 favourite female producer. If my music isn't as good as someone else's, that is totally fine, but I don't want to be looked at as something else.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

Let's see, I've been listening to that Mount Kimbie record a lot and Billie Eilish is really cool. Now that I am on tour I have time to listen to more music, up until this point I have just been working on my set so I still have more things to discover.

Any plans to visit Australia soon?

Yeah I'm playing Laneway in the New Year, so super excited for that.

Tokimonsta's new album Lune Rouge will be available October 6. Listen to 'We Love' from the album below. 

TOKiMONSTA gets real about life and music