By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Billion Dollar Boy.
It’s a sticky summer evening in Washington D.C., and things aren’t going exactly to plan for Jessy Lanza.
Perhaps due to humidity or heat, the routine sound and tech check has uncovered some malfunction in Lanza’s arsenal of neon lights – a seriously impressive display of neon – and the Canadian producer and vocalist is working at top speed to figure things out before doors open at DC9.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she texts me preemptively, with stereotypical Northern politeness. “We have a few technical problems – should be done soon.”
As I kill time on DC9’s rooftop bar, I can feel the heavy bass reverberating through the soles of my feet – wave after wave of sustained bellows rising up from the showroom.
Lanza’s been lugging this rig around for close to a year, across Europe and back to her home town of Hamilton, Ontario, and then on a makeshift loop of the continental US. At this point, she’s a seasoned veteran of the road; this kind of trial and tribulation is par for the course. She knows how to coax a performance out of her electronics, as is evident by the records she’s put out over the last couple of years: percussive, propulsive albums punctuated with Lanza’s hyper-expressive vocals and dance sensibilities.
Before I’ve even ordered a second beer, Lanza is standing next to me at the bar, grinning with satisfaction at having solved the problem so quickly.
We walk downstairs and sit on the steps of a closed storefront, invisible to the stream of people making their way to the Jessy Lanza show. As she hides in plain sight among the swelling sea of people who have come here to see her perform, I’m reminded of the unassuming, quiet excellence that is a hallmark of Lanza’s music – a reflection of the talented artist behind the wheel.
Do you feel as if the reception of your music has changed been between Pull My Hair Back and Oh No?
It’s been nice. The first tour I did as a headliner in the US, I was really surprised that anyone came out. [Laughs] This time around, the audiences have been getting bigger, and it’s great.
But, yeah, it’s weird to come to the States and have people know [your music]. Growing up in Canada, you can get really caught in this “CanCon” bubble. There were certain bands that I loved, and I was like [affects deep, goofy voice] “Isn’t Fefe Dobson huge everywhere?!?” [Laughs] Or whatever. It turns out they’re just really big in Canada. It’s great to come to the States and have people come out to the shows.
Oh No has a manic, propulsive quality to it. Even the “slower” tracks crackle with energy. What was going on in your life when you were writing this album? How much of it were you able to piece together while on tour?
I didn’t do any of it while I was on tour. Yep, no, none at all. The album was written between January and July of 2015, and it didn’t come out until this May. So, yeah, we sat on it for a long, long time. [Laughs]
Speaking of “we,” you work regularly with Jeremy Greenspan. How has the collaborative relationship between you two evolved over the last few years? And how has your own approach changed as you’ve matured as a producer and songwriter?
That’s a good question. I don’t know, it’s really hard. Making the records is always such a blur, and it’s weird to think back on that time and what was going on. I think the only consistent is that Jer and I both went to our studios and worked on stuff every day.
I felt more focused this time around and more confident and more sure of what I wanted to do with this record, whereas there were a lot of missteps with the first one. Jer and I wrote a lot of music that didn’t end up on the first record. We wrote, and sent it out to people, and nobody gave a shit about it, because it wasn’t very good. [Laughs] Which is fine! It just took us a while to get into our thing or find our sound or whatever. This time around I was more certain about what I wanted to do.
Whatever happened to the songs you wrote nobody picked up? Did you recycle or pull any ideas from them? Have any of these turned into other songs?
There was a lot of garbage that we never revisited again, but there’s one song that is quite old that I’ve felt has turned into “Never Enough” on Oh No. I felt like I had written that song and rewritten that song three or four times in the past four years. And it started with one of the songs we never did anything with, but I tried to do something with it a couple of times.
I feel like I’ve been trying to write a version of “Love Comedown” for years. [Laughs] And I won’t realize it until my version of “Love Comedown” takes form – a not-good, shitty ripoff. [Laughs]
“It Means I Love You” is rhythmically reminiscent of Afro-Caribbean beats. Is this a coincidence or have you been exploring world music and sounds recently?
Actually, it’s a sample from a Nozinja song. He releases music on Warp Records, and put out an album last year. He’s a South African house artist and producer so ,yeah, similar beats – super fast and syncopated. And the bulk of that song is this really short loop of one his tracks that I added drums on top, plus the vocal and the synth stuff. You heard right. [Laughs]
Let’s go back to the concept of Canada being, in many ways, a self-contained universe when it comes to music and the arts – despite being our closest neighbor, culturally. There are some bands that are huge over there that most Americans don’t know about. Are there any elements from music you grew up listening to in the music that you create that wouldn’t be as obvious to an American audience?
When I think of Canadian Content – actually, no, I’m not going to go down that path. I might get too negative. [Laughs] I really grew up listening to American Top 40 music, mainly hip-hop and RnB. There’s a lot of hip-hop that came out of Toronto, and nobody knows it outside of like Choclair or Kardinal Offishall. I think he kind of broke out a little bit, but I wouldn’t say he influenced me musically.
I really like singer-songwriter stuff, and maybe people wouldn’t expect me to be into that as much. Or maybe they would? I don’t even know. I really like James Taylor, and Carole King, and Joni Mitchell – that’s some good Canadian Content right there!
I’m really into cheesy music, and I’m heavy into Steely Dan. I’ve talked about my love for Steely Dan a lot before. But CanCon stuff? Not so much. [Laughs]
You have a jazz background in vocal performance and piano. What do you think about the way that jazz is seeping back into “mainstream” music production, via guys like Flying Lotus, Ta-Ku, and Nosaj Thing. Do you think you might incorporate more jazz elements into your future work?
It’s hard to say. I don’t think so, but you never know. I remember growing up listening to all that jazzy, backpack rap. And then it went out of fashion for a really long time, but you’re right: It’s totally back. You see guys like Bilal doing songs with Kendrick Lamar! It just seems like the cycle of things coming in and out, and I’m stoked about it. I loved Guru and Talib and Blackstar and Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. That was my shit. I’m happy about it!
I read an interview from a few months ago where you said that there is “a general laziness that centers on profits” when it comes to booking diverse acts for festivals. What would you like to see change, specifically?
I mean, there’s just so much more music out there than the safety nets that people cycle through. I think what it really comes down to is that music, and labels, and festivals are really in this transitional period where I don’t think anybody really knows. Things that were a sure-fire bet aren’t anymore, and it’s just all about money: people don’t want to lose money, people aren’t making money like they used to, and so taking risks on artists that aren’t mainstream, or typical, or don’t play all these festivals – you know what I mean? It’s just so narrow. If people opened up a bit and took more risks, it would benefit a lot of people and the festivals themselves. It’s just very, very safe. You look at the lineups, and they’re all the same.
If you had the chance to curate your own festival, who would be the first three acts you would hope to book? Not guaranteed you’d get them, but they would be the bedrock of your festival.
Oooh. [Pauses] The first person that came to mind was Goblin.
Goblin? Like the Dario Argento soundtrack guys?
[Laughs] Yes! I don’t know why, but they popped into my mind. Maybe because I missed them at a festival that I also played at a couple of years ago. That’s a selfish one – Goblin would be just for me.
Mmm, who else would I really want to book? I’d get my buddy Le1f there, as well as my friend’s band Sourpussy from Hamilton. [Laughs] That’s some lineup, and it would be great. I’d try to get Dean Blunt in there, though I don’t think he’d do it – but I’d try. Maybe Inga Copeland? If I can get them to get back together? Like get Hype Williams back together, and come? That would be amazing.
Where would you host this festival? Would you choose a natural setting or an industrial one?
I think out in the middle of nowhere would be really fun. In the middle of a remote field. I don’t know, I don’t really like festivals. [Laughs] I didn’t go to enough festivals when I was young. Lots of people, of all ages, go to festivals, but I’m just speaking personally.