Back in 2013 Canadian singer Jessy Lanza put out her stellar debut 'Pull My Hair Back' on London’s illustrious Hyperdub label. It was a woozy and dreamy pop masterpiece, casting Lanza as a near mythical figure on the cover - a pre-code movie starlet commanding her way through instant classics like ‘Keep Moving’. The album was co-produced with fellow Hamilton, Ontario resident Jeremy Greenspan (half of slick and stellar electronic pop duo Junior Boys), adding an utterly perfect sheen to every song. Lanza went on to tour with another Hamiltonian, opening for Caribou on tour in 2014, and contributing breathy vocals to ‘Second Chance' from Caribou’s 'Our Love' in 2015.
After a year of songwriting, recording, and re-recording, Lanza’s back for her second album on Hyperdub, again made in close collaboration with Jeremy Greenspan. 'Oh No' sees a shift in Lanza’s mood, growing more emotionally and musically direct, and often intensely intimate. Slow moving atmospheres like ‘I Talk BB’ dominate the record, and the upbeat danceable tunes blend sporadic influences of shangaan electro and footwork into Lanza’s hook-heavy R&B. 'Oh No' cements Lanza as one of the finest pop songwriters in the world, binding myriad influences into a forward-facing vision of 21st century pop.
We caught up him Jessy via Skype from her Hamilton apartment to talk about living in Hamilton, working with Jeremy Greenspan, and the influence of Yellow Magic Orchestra on 'Oh No'.
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Looking at your time line, there was a bit of a gap in 2015. What was happening between 'Pull My Hair Back' and 'Oh No'?
In 2014 I toured a lot. I did my own tour, and then I did a really big tour opening for Caribou. It was basically in January of 2015 that we really started working on the record, then until summer it was just working on Oh No. And then we had this funny hiccup: Jeremy Greenspan - my writing partner - and I really thought we were done, and we had ten finished tracks which we sent to Hyperdub. They came back saying, "yeah half of this is great.... But the other half we’re not really sure about." So I spent the month of July frantically trying to get more tracks together.
I’m actually pretty happy that they did that, although I think I was pretty annoyed at the time. Yeah, that sounds really annoying!
[laughs] Well I think I wrote ‘VV Violence’ in that time, and ‘Never Enough’... so it was eventually done by August.
So you’re pleased now that Hyperdub did that?
Yeah! The great thing about working with Hyperdub is that they’re really hands-off, and nobody’s telling me that I should do this or that, or go in this direction. But when it comes down to it if there’s something that they don’t like, they won’t release it! I really trust their opinion, and on this one they were really right. I’m glad we went back and revisited the tracks.
How different was the recording process in comparison to the first album? This one seems to really have come together in a specific effort to make a record, while the first one slowly came together after a few years of just working on a song from time to time until you found yourself with an album…
Yeah that’s pretty much how it happened! It took a lot of tracks and a lot of time for Jeremy and I to work out our sound [for the first record]. I remember we sent out this soundcloud link to people with 4 of our songs that I don’t think we ever actually released, and nobody gave a shit. The second time around for 'Oh No' we were both focused on this idea that we wanted to make a poppier record for sure, a bit less stumbling around.
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The great thing about working with Hyperdub is that they’re really hands-off...
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The direction this time is definitely quite different, and quite a bit more energetic at times...
Maybe it was from going on tour with a band like Caribou, where they’re playing really up and at high energy in front of these large audiences - although pop music doesn’t have to be energetic! Then I got super into Yellow Magic Orchestra, especially one of Haruomi Hosono’s side projects: the singer Miharu Koshi. It was just this amazing blend of synthpop and techno, a bit of boogie and disco, just so sample heavy and… that really inspired the record a lot. And then there’s Jeremy’s half of it, and I don’t even know all of the things he’s listening to, but I think we both very much are like sponges. Somehow it all kind of fell into the record.
How did the Yellow Magic Orchestra impact the production? You’ve cited their ‘experimental pop philosophy’ before.
I’ve always been a fan of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s albums - specifically 'Naughty Boys' and 'Technodelic' - but from there I just really got into all the different solo projects. Specifically Haruomi Hosono’s just opened up this whole world to me. They blend genres the best. I think it’s very hard to take a genre like synthpop and techno, and make pop songs out of it. I think it’s a hard thing to do and they do it masterfully. I was really influenced by that, I think more than anything, while making Oh No. There’s something really playful about them too. I don’t really like people that take themselves too seriously.
So, listening to this album now do you think it’s more upbeat?
Well I love the slow songs. I feel a bit closer to them [giggles] I don’t know, I like them more. ‘I Talk BB’ especially is one of my favourite songs off the album because I think it’s a really good demonstration of Jeremy and I working together the best. I think if I had it my way it’d be slow songs released as singles, but nobody ever wants to do that unfortunately.
I agree fully, and I actually found it more bleak and downbeat - and more personal.
Well I felt a lot more comfortable with my voice in general, and I think I was just ready to embrace and sing in a way that maybe wasn’t so obscured by effects. I felt like I’d been self conscious of my voice for a long time, and I think I was just ready to go for it a little bit more on 'Oh No'.
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I felt like I’d been self conscious of my voice for a long time...
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What’s the title of ‘VV Violence’ about?
That song’s not really about anything specific. Like I mentioned before that’s one of the tracks that I made after Hyperdub came back and said we don’t have enough tracks to release. It was summer, and it was hot, and my studio is quite small…. And the vocal booth is even smaller. And when I’m doing vocals you can’t like, run a fan, or anything for obvious reasons. I remember I was going to the studio just thinking "I need to write more music", and feeling frustrated. I felt tapped out at that point, and it was hot. My studio is downtown on the main street here in Hamilton, and there’s a bar really close, and people were drunkenly screaming in the middle of the day… I just couldn’t record anything because there was too much noise and it was so fucking hot! I remember going into the vocal booth and feeling really agitated, and then I wrote that song. Usually I’m not able to write songs really fast, but I wrote that one in an afternoon. I brought it over to Jeremy and he fleshed out the chorus and added this breakdown part, and we finished it really fast. If it’s about anything I think I was just pissed off. [laughs] It’s about being in a bad mood!
Why don’t you tell me a bit about living in Hamilton - is your studio in your home?
No, Jeremy and I both have studios that are like within a block of one another in down-town Hamilton, like a 10 minute walk from my house. Hamilton’s a pretty big city, it’s half a million people. It’s kind of like one of these ‘rust belt’ cities like Pittsburgh or Cleveland in the States. It’s pretty similar in that the steel industry was pretty big, and most people were employed at the steel mills and then obviously that changed, so it’s a bit of a down and out city as well. There is a local art scene, but it’s really small and has a small town feel to it - especially if you’re into music, and even smaller if you’re into electronic music.
I grew up here, and my parents grew up here, I have a very sentimental attachment to the place. I left for a while, but I came back. I find it easy to work here, and I haven’t been able to work creatively anywhere else.
What’s great about Hamilton?
A lot of it is about maintaining a low overhead. I’ve lived in bigger cities like Toronto, or Montreal, but I could never have a studio outside of my house. I think a lot of it is that I spent a long time looking for somebody to work with creatively, and I had people, but it wasn’t until I moved back to Hamilton after school and Jeremy and I started working together that it really fit. It’s about being near to my family. I like something about being outside the centre of things. I like going to visit, but I function better when I have no distractions. I’m boring! I’m a homebody; I like to just be. I like to do my work, but then I like to go home.
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I’m boring! I’m a homebody.
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How has your ongoing collaboration with Jeremy Greenspan developed? Both yours and Junior Boys’ sound have changed a lot recently.
Well, the thing with Jeremy is...Jeremy’s really good at finishing things! He’s very good at structuring pop songs, and arranging stuff. Usually I’ll turn up to the studio with like ten different ideas - a chorus, a verse, an intro - lots of weird ideas, but it’s not a finished song yet. I suck at like, coming up with bridges. I hate bridges! I’m never able to do it in a way that makes sense - but Jeremy’s great at finishing songs, and polishing them. He’s great at finding these weird atonal samples that don’t make any sense, and then making them cohesive.
‘It Means I Love You’ has quite an unusual structure, not so much like a pop song at all. It’s closer to a techno track. How did that one come together?
I started that song with a Nozinja sample - that first little four bar loop, the bass line - then I added the little synth stab chords. I had the vocal I’d done over the loop, and then I added the vocal samples and the drums to flesh it out. But I didn’t quite know where to fit in the breakdown, and the vocal parts, and I remember taking it to Jeremy, and it was his idea to add in that break. He really helped structure it, ‘cuz it was a big mess to begin with.
Is it just conjecture that I see club music in that track?
Since being introduced to DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, I’ve loved their music. I’ve been in awe of what they do and how it affects people. I got to see them play a few times, and yeah I’m very much influenced by that. I’m also so envious of this method of being able to turn out a track in a few hours! The amount of energy they have is something I really admire too.
You started out playing the piano and studied jazz - how has that affected the way you work?
I don’t write behind the piano any more. I find it much easier to write with samples, and that’s usually how I write tracks, is by pulling samples from different places and then messing around with different loops. Usually I start a track with a drum pattern. Going to school for jazz definitely influenced my understanding of chord structures, and I learnt to pick out different parts and rhythms - usually when you go to school for jazz they make you do transcriptions. You learn not only how to play it, but how to write it out. So that always helps me; if I like a chord progression in a song, being able to learn how to play it.
The album cover of 'Oh No' is filled with lots of seemingly meaningful imagery - you’re cowering in the corner beneath a sequined cloak, away from the outside world, surrounded by pot plants in your apartment. Was this meaningful, or just some cool imagery you liked?
That picture is a still from the music for ‘It Means I Love You’. Some things were purposeful, the plants were definitely staged, but that gold thing, the shawl or whatever you want to call it, my friend who directed the video, John Smith, he found that in the garbage basically and just brought it. It was in the refuse bin at the fabric store for like 50 cents. He just happened to bring it and it looked so great with the lights. So using that was just like an accident. We really struggled with what to use for the album cover, but that still just seemed to work.
Yeah, it really guided the way I heard the music. There’s a real intimacy to the music on 'Oh No'. It’s an incredibly intimate pop album in a way.
It’s funny that that reflects in the album. Jeremy and I are definitely in this little insular world; the two of us.
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Words: Tristan Bath