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How Electronic/R&B Musician Jessy Lanza's Setbacks Helped Evolve Her Sound

How Electronic/R&B Musician Jessy Lanza's Setbacks Helped Evolve Her Sound

At the Hyperdub listening party for Jessy Lanza’s new album Oh No, the Canadian electronic/R&B musician sits in the corner in a vintage pink Vail sweatshirt, curling her neon-yellow painted fingernails around a perspiring craft beer while DJ Spinn passes her a joint. We’re at the SubPac offices in downtown LA, vibrating to the beat of her new album, Oh No. (SubPac is “a patent-pending tactile audio technology” that “transfers low frequencies directly to your body and provides you with a new physical dimension to the music experience.” Put simply, it’s a subwoofer backpack, and we’re all wearing them.)

Oh No bumps. I told Jessy when we spoke the previous day at the boutique Koreatown hotel where she’s staying that Oh No feels livelier than her first album. On 2013’s Pull My Hair Back, Jessy teamed up Jeremy Greenspan of electronic pop group Junior Boys, whom she met from frequenting one of two bars in her self-described “scrappy” hometown of Hamilton, Ontario (at the edge of the Toronto suburbs) that doesn’t foster “just [getting] in fights with people.” When Jessy first met Jeremy, she had just moved back in with her mom after dropping out of grad school. She had basically no money, and no plan aside from a general desire to make music. But things changed when Jeremy gave Jessy a copy of Logic, a music sequencing program, and asked her to do studio sessions for Junior Boys. After realizing they had similar taste, a natural collaboration took off between the two.

Pull My Hair Back was described by critics as “languid,” “floating,” “glacial,” “sparse,” “ethereal,” “lovelorn” and “almost weightless.” Her collaboration last year with footwork icons Dj Spinn & Taso was similarly deemed a “sultry, slow-burn” by Pitchfork. But after touring with Caribou and watching DJ Spinn perform, Jessy was inspired to put more energy into her music. While Pull My Hair Back reminds Jessy of lying in her bed stoned late at night, on her latest, Oh No, she hopes to give her audience a more euphoric experience.

In our conversation with Jessy below, we discuss her parents playing Eurythmics covers at strip clubs in the ‘80s, Canadian radio’s unfortunate obsession with classic rock, and giving her music “the weed test.” Oh No drops this Friday, May 13th on London label Hyperdub, but you can stream it now on Noisey.

ANNA DORN: I was just watching the video for “It Means I Love You.” I’m obsessed.
JESSY LANZA: Oh, thanks. My friend John [Smith] who directed the video basically found that gold fabric in the garbage. He was doing all these slow motion Instagram videos with it. He brought it to the shoot and it ended up being the focal point of the whole video.

Where was it filmed?
On my friend’s farm. My friend grows tomatoes there. It was filmed in November in Hamilton [Ontario, where Jessy lives and was raised].

What’s Hamilton like?
It’s about half a million people. It’s right where the suburbs of Toronto end. It’s its own city, but it used to be a steel town, so it’s a bit down and out. But it’s been having a rejuvenation because Toronto is so expensive. I lived in Toronto like 8 years ago. It has its own scene, but I don’t go there a lot.

Do you plan to stay in Hamilton?
Yes, because it’s good to keep a low overhead. My family is there and I have a studio there. It’s like the only place where I could afford to have a studio. I mean, it’s like a closet [laughs]. But it’s better than being at home.

Do you get recognized in Hamilton?
No, because nobody cares.

What do they play on the radio there?
It’s so shit. Toronto is a diverse city, but the radio is so classic rock. Like if I have to hear “More Than a Feeling” one more time...

“It Means I Love You,” filmed in Hamilton, Ontario, where Jessy was born and raised.

Can you tell me about how you got connected with DJ Spinn and Taso for the You Never Show Your Love EP?
It was all through Hyperdub. They release DJ Spinn’s music and they released DJ Rashad’s music. I told Steve Goodman, the owner of Hyperdub, that I was a really big fan. I met them a few times and passed a vocal along to them. I put it at a footwork tempo, which is 160 BPM. A lot of time went by. DJ Rashad passed away and I didn’t think it would get finished. Then DJ Spinn finally sent it back to me, but at like 80 BPM. It was slowed down. So it turned out differently from how I expected.

Other than footwork, what other music do you like to listen to?
R&B and hip-hop in terms of new stuff. I also like disco, funk, boogie. There’s always a new song that someone is waiting to show you.

And you also DJ?
Yeah. I haven’t been doing it for very long. I love making mixes, but doing it live is really different. I’ve only recently started DJing in public. I love playing [my own music] live, but DJing is its own thing. It’s nice to get to sit down and listen to tons of music all day and pick out the ones you want to play. Finding music can be hit or miss.

Where do you normally find music?
I like this blog called Beat Electric. It’s run by this guy—actually I don’t even know who it is, but he’s obviously obsessed with digging for things that no one else has heard before. He uploads the vinyl to the website. I also find music through friends. Or on a YouTube binge. When people have a good find, they typically upload it to YouTube. It’s unpredictable in terms of what’s going to pop up on the sidebar. I’ve made lots of discoveries that way. Or I’ll go through my bookmarks. It’ll be really late and I’ll be really stoned and I’ll have forgotten about my bookmarks.

Do you typically smoke when you work?
No, it’s more like to go to sleep. Or a social thing. It’s not the most productive state for me. It’s good for going home and listening to what I’ve done. I give it the “weed test.” It’s a good editing tool.

Off Jessy Lanza’s collaborative EP with DJ Spinn & Taso from the legendary Chicago footwork collective Teklife.

Can you tell me about making your first single, “Kathy Lee”?
Yeah. I was listening to this song by the 504 Boyz, this really dirty song called “I Can Tell.” It’s totally filthy-weird. You should listen to it. I was listening to that and it kind of inspired “Kathy Lee.” And then there is this Kate Upton video by [Terry Richardson]… where she’s dancing in a bathing suit and does a dance called “Cat Daddy.” It’s been watched like millions of times. I took a sample of her saying the words from the YouTube video. And the way her vocals looped, it ended up sounding like “Kathy Lee” instead of “Cat Daddy.” I took it to Jer [Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys] and he put this modular stuff on it, which gave it more of a shape.

What is your music background?
Well, both of my parents are really into music; they’re both musicians. They put me in piano when I was really young, when I was like 8. I studied classical music when I was a teenager. I went to school for Jazz music. I only started doing musical professionally in the past few years. I used to teach music—private piano lessons—but now I’m not around enough to do weekly lessons.

“It really came out of me having no money.”

What kind of musicians were your parents?
They were mostly a cover band. Like before DJs, bands would go to bars and stay for the weekend and be the “bar band.” My parents shifted with the times. They would do CSNY covers first, and then in ‘80s, more Eurythmics covers. This was back when people could make a lot of money being a band for the weekend in Northern Ontario. My dad was a teacher full-time, and then they would play on the weekends in shithole bars and strip clubs.

When did you get into electronic music?
There was this funny time when moved back [to Hamilton] after living away in Montreal. I had dropped out of school. I started a Masters in music history and it... wasn’t good. So I left and then invested all of my money into moving. I moved back in with mom. I didn’t have any money and I didn’t know what to do. I mean I knew I wanted to do music. Up until that point, I had been paying friends I went to school with to do sessions. I wrote songs, but they were more like—singer-songwriter. I would go to studio and pay a sound engineer.

It never occurred to me that I could do it myself. Then started hanging out with Jeremy, who gave me a copy of Logic, a music sequencing program. I had that program and a laptop and I would watch YouTube tutorials. I would work in Jeremy’s studio.

It really came out of me having no money. Once I got the hang of it, it became much more approachable than I ever thought. It was weird that [making electronic music] had never occurred to me before Jeremy.

How did you meet Jeremy [Greenspan]?
Jeremy is from Hamilton too. My best friend growing up is the other guy in Junior Boys’ little sister. I loved Junior Boys in high school. They were really successful band from Hamilton, and also Amy’s older brother’s band.

But it wasn’t until I moved back that me and Jeremy became close. Hamilton is pretty small if you’re into music. I would just see him around. There aren’t many bars or places to hang out. There are maybe two places you might go that aren’t like meat market-type places. Or places where you just get in fights with people. It’s that kind of town. It’s scrappy. People get disgustingly drunk. So there are a few places you can go that aren’t that.

He asked me to do session work on It’s All True, the Junior Boys album. Nothing I did made it onto the album. I played piano and sang. They wanted a female voice. But around that time we realized we were both into same kind of music.

We did my whole first album together. Everything we do is 50/50. He mixed the first album. Mixing is a whole different thing. I get over the song. David Psutka from Egyptrixx mixed the recent album. If David didn’t mix it, Jeremy and I probably would have killed each other. Jer would have like “Mix 15,” and I would be like, “This sounds exactly the fucking same!”

Can you tell me about Oh No?
It’s weird to think about because it’s been done for so long—since the end of summer last year. I trust, especially with independent labels, that they know when is the best time. It all depends on what they have planned that year. There is all the behind the scenes stuff—all the press and stuff. Lots of planning goes into releasing an album. The waiting is something I’ve had to get used to. I don’t want to wait anymore. I just want to move on. But timing is important, especially if you’re an independent artist.

I imagine that’s frustrating. I have a fear whenever I’m working on a piece of writing that someone else is going to write the same thing before I’m published.
Yeah, I have this paranoia that I go on Twitter and someone announces an album called “Oh No.”

What was the album’s inspiration?
Musically, I was listening to a lot Yellow Magic Orchestra and a singer called Miharu Koshi. Yellow Magic Orchestra is this weird kind of mix of lots of different genres. It has techno elements, but also boogie and funk. No one does genre-blending like they do.

Why is your album called “Oh No”?
In past few years, doing music has become what I do to make money. I mean, it’s my passion, but it’s always been an escape. I was just trying to express my anxiety about being in music as a way to live and support myself. Because it’s such an unpredictable path. And I’m such a keyed up person that it doesn’t necessarily seem healthy for me. But I can’t not do it.

It’s hard to not know when you’re going to get good news and when it’s going to be bad news. You have to sort of let it happen. You can’t get too excited but you also can’t get down. It’s just weird always kind of existing and never knowing when you’re going to get really great news or really bad news. And then I realized that’s kind of like living, you never know what’s going to happen. That sounds so cliché...

No, it makes perfect sense.
Thinking about that makes me feel kind of crazy. It’s a mind-fuck. Because most of the time nothing happens. It’s just all the same. The album title came out of me thinking about that. And my own self-obsession.

This album feels more upbeat than your other stuff.
It’s partially what I was listening to at the time. Partially being on tour. I opened for Caribou on his European and American tours. Just seeing people get lost in Caribou’s music. It inspired me to put more energy into my music. And seeing DJ Spinn & Taso as well. They had footwork dancers with them. It was really amazing to watch the crowd respond. It was really euphoric.

I’ve read several reviews that refer to your music as “glacial.” Do you see it that way?
I don’t think I’ve ever heard “glacial.” I see it as kind of the opposite. When I think of the first album, I think of laying in bed with my headphones and feeling really high. Thinking, “I like this one because it feels really warm.” Jer and I used a lot of analog equipment to give it that feel. I don’t think of it as icy.

The word I’ve heard more is “ethereal.” What is ethereal again? Like airy?

Everything I learned in singing lessons is just the opposite of what I considered to be good or what appeals to me.

Yeah, like angelic.
Yeah. “Of the ether.” I can definitely see that.

You have a very distinctive singing voice.
Oh, thank you. I always took classical singing lessons. When I was taught how to sing well, it was kind of the opposite of what makes a good pop singer. Like enunciating. I think what makes a voice “good” is that it’s recognizable. Singers can be a dime a dozen. I’ve always been kind of worried that my voice is boring. That’s why I felt the need to manipulate my voice and get into the production aspect. Everything I learned in singing lessons is just the opposite of what I considered to be good or what appeals to me.

What do you mean?
I wanted to learn “Natural Woman” when I was like 11. And I had this teacher who was such a bitch when I think back on it. She was like, “You’re not Aretha Franklin.” Like obviously not! I always felt like I had to develop a really belty voice, which isn’t what I am at all.

Do you get anxiety playing live?
It used to be worse when I was alone. I had trouble getting myself pumped up. I would be really excited but not in an effective way. I would be a bit of a wreck. Now I have a drummer and she’s great. She’s a friend from Hamilton. She’s a great drummer. And it’s great to see people respond to her. It’s more fun to have somebody to play with. I used to have to amp myself up alone. That wasn’t as fun.


Stream Oh No on Noisey before its release on Hyperdub this Friday. Pre-order it here on Bandcamp. Jessy Lanza will be kicking off a nationwide tour starting in June. Photos by Alex Welsh.

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