Jessy Lanza “I think it’s about picking underground elements and — it’s how you blend them.”

Photo: Hollie Pocsal

Jessy Lanza has been in the midst of a big break the last few years. After being named one of XLR8R’s Best New Artists of 2013, nominated for Canada’s Polaris Music Prize, and signing to Kode9’s Hyperdub imprint, the Canadian producer/songwriter has been gearing up to release her latest, Oh No, on May 13 through Hyperdub.

Lanza has worked with techno and footwork icons like Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys and DJ Spinn and Taso in the past, who've helped out on records like 2013's Pull My Hair Back and You Never Show Your Love EP. Here, Lanza returns with Greenspan to bring us a new sound.

TMT sat down with Lanza to talk songwriting, collaboration, and honing your voice in a sea of pop production.

How was playing Berghain last night? Does it feel like it's lived up to it's name? I've never actually been there for bands before, only DJ sets.

Yeah, for band's the setup is a little bit different. I mean, the place is stunning no matter what, and they had a great soundsystem. Everything was great.

Can you talk a little bit about your background? You grew up playing piano, right?

Yeah, so I went to school for music and started working on my first album about four years ago with Jeremy [Greenspan] in Hamilton.

What's it like working with Greenspan? Do you approach him with lyrical snippets or he approach you with musical ideas or how does it all come together?

So, we both generally work from our own studios and start things separately, putting together like these little 30-second loops that we don't know what to do with, and later come together to sort of flesh them out and bounce ideas around. It's a frustrating process individually, but working together has been good.

Coming from a jazz background, do you think that that has at all influenced the way you work? Like do you build tunes around classic progressions or find melodies, then write chords beneath them following classic structures or anything?

No, no absolutely not. [laughs] I think that's a formula for some awful music honestly. I mean studying jazz helped me understand patterns in other pop songs and learn to listen for progressions, which is great. But as far as writing other songs, it has limitations that hit you very quickly.

Do you still live in Hamilton? Do you think the town influences your work at all, other than place of upbringing?

Yeah, I think it's nice to have a place outside of all the speed of fast-pace[d] places. I've got a lot of friends that've moved there at various times, but the music I was making at the time was never as good as I wanted. And I also like living in a place where no one gives a shit about what I'm doing. [laughs] It's just a normal working-class city.

Have you ever been recognized or anything in the area?

No, no [laughs] no one cares at all. I think you can get caught up in the bubble of where you are if that place is where everything is supposed to be happening. Not that it necessarily is to you, but I think that that can maybe not be so great for a creative process sometimes. For me, personally. I can't speak for other people.

Do you think that seclusion culturally helps your songwriting?

Yeah, I mean I've never lived in a big American city, but I've lived in Montreal before and I just never could work there. I did make music, but it was really shitty music. I just was distracted. I find that I can work really well in Hamilton, probably because Jeremy is there and we work really well together.

Are there ever issues with control working collaboratively with producers like Greenspan or DJ Spinn or whoever? Are there ever issues keeping your voice independent from everything?

Because I write on my own projects with Jeremy, whose opinion I really trust, and that's never been too much of a problem. I really love what he brings to the project so that's never a problem. One of the reasons why I like working with Hyperdub so much is that they are really supportive of what we want to do. They have a very hands-off kind of approach a lot like how we write the album and it's like when you're done, you send out your music and if we think it's shit, then we tell you and we won't release those songs, you know? They're never trying to push you in one direction and they're always really supportive. I mean they're always honest. Like if I send them something that they don't like, they'll be like, "No we're not going to release that." But it's not until the final. I send them songs, then they tell me what they like and don't like. Which is good.

So there's no pressure to fit a Hyperdub sound or anything?

No, no absolutely not.

Do you feel influenced by that stuff being on the label or being tangential to those artists?

I don’t feel influenced by music that comes out of the UK, but I definitely am very influenced by DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, Taso, and the whole footwork scene, which was introduced to me by Kode9 and through Hyperdub. But I mean that’s a Chicago thing.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the appeal of ambivalence in songwriting, and a lot of r&b tends to thrive on a sort of ‘ambivalent desire’ that can be personal and evocative to a lot of people. Why do you think your music resonates with people? Does it land the way you’d like it to?

Well when I first started working with Jeremy, and even prior to that as well, I was putting a lot of thought into lyrics and trying to convey something, a story, or like a sentiment or whatever and I found that the songs just turned out really…not great? Too forced, too labored. I remember having this conversation with Jeremy about how he approaches lyric-writing which is to not take it so seriously and focus more on phrases that might catch people. Or something that doesn’t necessarily mean something in the moment, but can develop meaning once you get the rest of the song happening. You know like the Beatles wrote a song about a ball going up and down a slide. It doesn’t have to be something of great importance. I remember after having that conversation with him it kind of freed up my ideas of what I could do lyrically and I think the solution was to not think so much about it. Lyrics are tough for me, so I try to be as carefree with it as possible.

And what do you find works for you? As opposed to thinking about it too much?

Sometimes something that somebody said. You’ll overhear a conversation on the street or talk to one of your friends or find a phrase in a show. Something like that can catch you and you can like carry it out into a song. I think that works sometimes, but I always find that they’re kind of accidents that you stumble into that end up working in the song. I think that if I spent too long thinking about it, then I’d shut it down. If it’s not working, I don’t spend too long trying to labor on the lyrics.

Yeah, I mean that can be hard in a genre like r&b that’s supposed to be sensual and evocative or whatever. Do you ever worry about what r&b is ‘supposed to be’ and how your approaching it and that corresponds with what you listen to, what you like, or what you envisioned it should sound like?

What do you mean? I’m not sure I understand the question.

I guess, is there ever an issue between the ‘ideal sound’ you’re after and what your influences are? Versus what it’s coming across to the public as?

Well I think that that centrally is our music. Jeremy and I both really love modern r&b and that’s what we listen to the most. I mean we’re influenced by lots of other genres and people, but I think at the heart of it, it’s that we both really love pop music, right? R&b is pop music to me. Jeremy and I — when we’re writing, we’re trying to emulate people who can make these radio hits like The Dream, for instance. I think we both wish that we could write “Umbrella,” but neither of us really can and our music is the result of that. We both really wish that we could write top-40 pop music, but I don’t think either of us are particularly good at it. So what happened is the record [laughs].

Is there a conflict between the underground influences of techno, or Hyperdub and this pop sensibility that you’re trying to pull across to what seems like an underground audience?

I don’t think of it that way. If you look a band like Yellow Magic Orchestra were a huge influence for both of us when we were working on Oh No. Their music is so poppy and they integrate all these techno elements like sampling and the very Kraftwerk-sounding elements into these pop songs and they do it so well. It doesn’t seem forced, it doesn’t seem weird, it’s like this perfect blend of funk and pop music and almost classical and techno. They do it very well and were massive pop stars in Japan, North America and Europe. I think it’s about picking underground elements and — it’s how you blend them.

Well that’s all I’ve got in terms of questions, is there anything else you wanna add about the new record or anything?

It’s out Friday the 13th of May. And you should buy it [laughs]. That’s all I gotta say.

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