In May I wrote about Jessy Lanza’s luminous sophomore album, Oh No, a record driven as much by her skill as an experimental electronic composer as it is by her singular voice. The electronic music world is even more male-dominated than the rest of the music industry, and Lanza shines like a beacon in a genre that can seem particularly dark or uncreative. But even if both of her solo albums–2013’s Pull My Hair Back (which was short-listed for the Polaris Prize) and this year’s Oh No–have been met with critical acclaim and success, that doesn’t mean things have always been easy for her.
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Lanza attended Concordia University in Montreal to study jazz performance and piano, then began pursuing a Masters in Musicology at McGill University. Upon realizing that the study of music history was was preventing her from actually making music, Lanza dropped out of grad school and moved back in with her mom. Despite her jazz background, she was drawn to R&B, hip-hop, and dance music, partially because of her father’s love for those genres; while she was growing up, he worked installing sound systems in dance clubs. So back at home, Lanza began teaching herself music production by watching YouTube videos, and learning how to play her dad’s old synthesizer under the tutelage of Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys) who traded the lessons for some help with sessions on the Junior Boys’ 2010 album It’s All True.
Eventually, Kode9 (aka Steve Goodman) of Hyperdub heard some of their sessions through Greenspan and was interested in more music from Lanza, so her debut album Pull My Hair Back came out via storied UK electronic label in 2013. Greenspan has remained her creative partner throughout her career, and the two also worked together extensively on the follow-up to her debut, Oh No. Tonight, Lanza will play songs off that record–and surely others–for her headlining set at the Bowery Ballroom, one of the many stops on her recent tour behind her new record. Calling from the road earlier this week to talk about her album, her experience as a self-taught producer, and the stories behind some of these new songs, Lanza was bubbly and personable, as much in line with her intimate, mesmerizing, and accessible musical persona as an artist could possibly be. Read our conversation below.
Since your early background was in studying piano, jazz, and more traditional music composition how did you transition from that into more experimental and electronic production? Well, I’d done a degree in performance and I was in school for what was basically jazz history, working toward a degree that was much more writing-based. But I didn’t like it at all! So I ended up dropping out and moved back to Hamilton, Ontario, where I lived in with my mom. I’d spent a lot of money on school–which obviously didn’t work out–so I didn’t have any money. When I’d worked in studios I always had to pay to use their equipment, their engineer, etc. It also cost a lot of money to pay my friends, or whoever played with me, and I didn’t have the money for that.
But I still really wanted to record my own music and my own songs, so I began teaching myself how to use software on my computer. I learned by looking things up on YouTube, and eventually through my writing partner Jeremy Greenspan, who gave me a copy of the music production software Logic. I taught myself how to record using software and software instruments. Also, because my dad was also a musician he had a few pieces of equipment lying around the house–a couple synthesizers, a drum machine–so I started with what I had around me.
So you were basically self-taught? Well, it mostly came out of having no money! I had to use what I had around me, which, after I started doing that, I don’t know why it never occurred to me before.
I read that you were also involved with teaching younger girls how to use music software? Yes, although, that’s a consistent thing in my life. That was a workshop that, actually, my friend Christina Sealey was the one who started the whole thing, and then I got on board as an instructor. It was a month-long thing where I was basically teaching teenage girls how to use Ableton. I would love to do it again, but it’s not cheap to have 20 laptops with soundcards and Ableton installed etc. But it was really fun and such a good experience. I think it feels really overwhelming from the outside, like how to get started learning these programs. But it’s actually just so easy you have somebody to say: No, all you need is A, B, and C, and this is how you hook it up.
Electronic music can be intimidating even as a listener! I don’t really listen to a ton of it, so when I do, it often ends up feeling very foreign or very distant to me. But when I listen to your music it feels familiar and intimate in a way that I’m not used to. I love how you’ll leave in the giggles or the vocal fry–those elements feel really welcoming for someone who doesn’t feel super connected or that that genre is not super accessible to me. Both Jeremy [Greenspan] and I have such a soft spot for singer-songwriters–especially singer-songwriters from the 70s. We’re obsessed with like 10cc, or Godley & Creme, Steely Dan, and we use instruments that are in the same palette as that, to evoke maybe Carole King or James Taylor. We’re love the songcraft of writing pop songs and writing catchy songs. That might be where that familiarity kicks in–it’s because we’re both so engaged with that world and we’re listening to that kind of music all the time, as well as a lot of other dance music and…other genres.
One of my other favorite songs on the record is “It Means I Love You.” Can you talk a little bit about the process behind writing that one maybe? That song is funny because it originally came from an angry place. I don’t if you’ve had this experience, where, like, walking around–and like, I don’t walking around beaming and smiling. Maybe it’s a self-defense mechanism? I don’t know. Anyway, men, specifically, on the street say things like You’re prettier if you smile… And I’m just like Fuck you! I was having one of those days where my natural instinct is probably to lose eye contact and look away, but that day I felt like Fuck them! I’m going to stare them fucking down. How dare them tell me how to look? And tell me what to do? So, originally, the song came from that place, and then later it turned kind of sweet. As I started writing more lyrics it got sweeter.
You said your goal for Oh No was to write a pop album. Did that change your style or your approach? How do you characterize what makes a pop album?
I’m always thinking about songs being memorable and catchy, having good hooks and melodies. That’s always been important to me–on the first album as well. Because I worked with Caribou, and Morgan Geist on this project called The Galleria, and we were putting out these really upbeat songs I was really influenced by that. I wanted to make a record that had more clarity in the vocals and had more of those stereotypical pop elements for people to latch onto. But I love pop music and I think that’s what Jeremy and I are always striving for, but I don’t know if it turned out that way–I mean, it’s not Top 40 music.
There are so many influences in your style–footwork, R&B, Japanese pop–how do you go about combining all those different elements? They really just seep in–it’s never a really conscious thing. But I think what Jeremy and I are always trying to do is make sure that our music sounds like us. That’s what I admire so much about a band like Yellow Magic Orchestra. Or, Haruomi Hosono, he’s the producer from that band, and he has done a lot of other projects for other artists. But regardless of who he’s with, it always sounds like him. There’s so many different genres that you can hear in Yellow Magic Orchestra’s music but it always sounds so much like them. It’s unmistakable. That’s been a huge influence for me, in my own music, is trying to make something that is unmistakably like me–me and Jeremy.
As far as your voice, I’ve seen you mention before in interviews that it isn’t “diva powerhouse,” which is actually something I love about it. I think it’s spectacular. Do you remember when you first sort of understood that your voice was special or different in some way, when you began to feel comfortable with it? It took me a really long time to embrace that my voice was not a ‘belty’ voice. I always admired singers who wre really powerful and diva vocalists. Then again, one of my favorite singers of all-time is Sylvester, and he’s got a crazy voice–definitely a diva-style of singing, but also he’s got a totally weird voice. It took me a lot of time to recognize that I didn’t have to be anything other than what I want to be. I think for a long time I thought I had to please somebody other than myself. It took me a really long time to just embrace that my voice is not typical and what’s special is that it sounds like me. That’s the important thing.
Oh No is out now via Hyperdub. Get it here and get tickets to her Bowery show tonight here.