Hamilton, Ontario’s Jessy Lanza records vocals in her studio’s isolation booth, almost always alone, most often in the dead of night. Although out of necessity–it’s too noisy to work during the day because it’s on a main street–the approach seems ideal for the kind of music she makes: industrious, deeply intimate, utterly electrifying dance pop. On her newest record, Oh No, Lanza’s performance is sassier, stronger, and more disruptive than the bulk of her 2013 debut, Pull My Hair Back. Production-wise, the two records are nearly night and day. Brighter, faster, and more lucid, Oh No is refreshing, risk-taking R&B that never falls short–definitely among the best summer albums of the year.
Read our interview with Lanza below.
Indie Current: I saw your perform in New York earlier this month, and I had such a great time. What will you be doing between now and your next tour?
Jessy Lanza: I’m doing a couple of videos, hopefully we’ll get those rolling. I go on tour in Europe May 14th and then I’m back for like a week in June and the next American tour, my headline tour starts June 15th.
IC: What song are you most excited for fans to hear off Oh No?
JL: Oh, I’m excited for the slow ones. I’m always excited for the slow ones, but I don’t know if that’s… I don’t know if my interests are like other people’s. But yeah, “I Talk BB,” for sure. “Could Be U, ” I’m really excited for people to hear.
IC: Which Oh No track do you get most excited to dance to?
JL: (laughs) For me personally? (laughs again) When I’m playing live, “Never Enough” is always really fun, I think because the person that I play with–Tori, she plays the drums–she sings on that one, so that helps me get into it a bit more. I’m gonna try to get her to sing on everything…which she like won’t do.
IC: I saw you perform a few years back. It’s been really awesome to see the transition of you expanding your set from a solo setup. I wanted to know what influenced your decision to bring Tori on board.
JL: I always wanted to have another person to play live with me, but when I first started touring it wasn’t realistic. I couldn’t afford it and didn’t quite know how to bring someone else in. But the more I played live and the more that I toured with other people, like touring with Caribou was pretty inspiring, because they have two drum sets.
Seeing other bands I’m always a little weary of how best to integrate electronic music with acoustic instruments. I think you have to be careful because it can go bad pretty easy. With Tori, she’s doing a mix of samples with a sample pad and acoustic stuff, so yeah, I mean it’s so much more fun having another person onstage with you. I don’t think I’m quite enough of a spazz to make it fun for people just to watch me alone. Some people just have this crazy energy, where they can like pull it off alone, but I think I work best with a buddy.
IC: How did you two meet?
JL: She’s from Hamilton as well. Her boyfriend works at my boyfriend’s bar. Hamilton’s not that big a town, especially if you live close to downtown. She was in another local band here, I’ve known her for a few years.
IC: Is it at all important for you to have a female supporting musician onstage, or is that not really something you’re thinking about?
JL: It wasn’t like… I mean, it is easier in the sense that like, I don’t have to worry about kind of reaching out to some random, I guess any random person. I think what was more important was that it was a friend. It was somebody that I knew and somebody who I was comfortable with. I think the most important thing when it comes to touring with somebody, of course you want them to be good and for you guys to have a musical chemistry, but like you have to get along with them or else it can really be a bad time. (laughs) Obviously.
IC: Was this her first tour with you?
JL: Yeah, we had done some one-off shows previous to this, but this is like our first. We did a European tour with Junior Boys right before and then the American one.
IC: Did having Tori on the tour change the way you approached performing at all?
JL: I definitely felt like I could move away from my table. You know, I have like a table in front of me. Before, I felt like moving away from the table was hard. I don’t know, mentally I couldn’t do it. Tori, she has a really great energy, and it’s really nice–I know it’s a really cliche thing to say–but it’s so nice to have her energy up onstage. I think the audience really responds also to seeing a live drummer and seeing her movement and I feed off of that. It’s definitely improved the whole experience for me as well.
IC: Did the general collaborative formula for Pull My Hair Back stay the same for Oh No, with you and Jeremy Greenspan starting with a drum beat and passing ideas back and forth between each other?
JL: Yeah, it all stays pretty much the same. I always think of our recording process as being almost accidental. I always find that it’s like a random.. I could spend like the whole day or many days in my studio, just like not doing fucking anything productive. Just fucking around on YouTube, and a lot of the time I’m not even watching, a lot of the time I’m listening to music, randomly listening to different stuff and maybe I’ll find a sample in there and that will inspire a song or maybe I’ll hear a song I never heard before and be like, oh this is amazing I want to write something like this, and that will be a jumping off point. But the only consistent thing is we both go to our studios every day and eventually one of us comes up with something that sounds sort of..
I mean, usually it’s me starting like ten unfinished minute-long ideas and playing them for Jeremy and being like, well what do you think of this? Do you like this one? This one? And he usually picks like two that he’s interested in. But I’ve heard him also say, like same with me, I can be fucking around with a patch and it just sounds likes shit and I leave for a while and come back and turn on my sequencer and all of a sudden it’s playing. Or I can turn on my 707 and it’s like, woah, this actually sounds really cool. That’s just kind of like an accident, the machines are sort of accidentally playing something. I’m not saying that happens all the time, but it does happen and I have started songs like that. It seems almost kind of by luck that you stumble upon things. But without doing it and going everyday it would never happen.
IC: The press release for Oh No alluded to the fact that your music making process, which used to calm your nerves, is now an anxiety-filled experience. To what extent is anxiety a definitive aspect of your new record, and in what ways do you think this anxiety might have a positive effect?
JL: Well I kind of named the album (laughs)… It’s based on this idea that I’m always kind of worrying about something, and I think people in general are always worried about something. Yeah. It’s weird. I’ve always done music in that I’ve always been interested in performing and singing and teaching. It’s always been a really big part of my life and it’s always been an escape for me, so when things went well with Pull My Hair Back and people were interested and I got to tour, the opportunity to make another record, it was kind of like this thing I used as an escape also became kind of a stress.
If you’re prone to anxiety, doing music could possibly be one of the worst careers to choose just because it’s so unpredictable. The nature of the industry is like, you know, things could be going really well and you could be getting great offers. And then the same day actually you don’t have that offer at all and actually you’re not getting any of that money that you thought you were gonna get. So it’s just dealing with being cool and calm (laughs uncomfortably) in the face of all of that, because if you don’t actively tell yourself that it’s all going to be okay–that one way or another it’s all going to work out, hopefully–I think you really can kind of go crazy. I think I was thinking about all that with the album and naming the album. I mean, I’m still thinking about it now.
IC: Where was the video for “It Means I Love You” filmed?
JL: On our friend Gary’s farm just outside of Hamilton. He has all these hoop houses that he uses to grow tomatoes prematurely because they get really hot. I think Jeremy had the idea, like, why don’t we use one of Gary’s weird, plastic hoop houses? And we kind of fleshed-out the idea with some plants and lights. We were just trying to work with a pretty minimal budget, like, what can we do to make this video interesting to watch.
IC: I love to watch that video, it’s so beautiful. Was the album cover taken during that video shoot as well?
JL: Yeah, Cody Preston who actually did the lighting for the video–A bunch of people had snapped a bunch of different shots and the one he took, it was like, yeah this would definitely work for the cover.
IC: How long ago did you start writing the songs on Oh No? When did you finish the record?
JL: I think the oldest song is “Could Be U,” which I think was like a demo from maybe two summers ago. But we really started writing the album in January of last year and then finished it in the summer.
IC: Were the tracks all written and recorded in the same time period, or was the process more spread out and sporadic?
JL: It was the winter of 2015 that we really did that album and then we wrapped it all up that summer.
IC: Currently, my favorite song on the record is the title track, “Oh No.” Can you tell me a little about how this song was written, what it might be about?
JL: Yeah. That song, it’s a weird one. It started with me trying to get my MPC working. I bought this old MPC. It’s like an MPC 2000, so there’s no seamless way to hook it up to your computer. I had to buy a scuzzy drive and then transfer all my samples through…Anyway, I didn’t have a problem. I really wanted to use it. So we sampled a bunch of stuff and then did that beat on the MPC and it started it with that. And basically Jeremy went for a riff using his modular rig, so that made a lot of the weird blippy, bloopy sounds that are happening all over the record. And we did a lot of sequencing using his Jupiter 8. The thing that really sticks out about that song, thinking of working on it, is that there are so many parts. So many different synth parts and synths and layers of chords. We really had to pare stuff back, and I think even then it sounds kind of like a mess. (laughs)
IC: When writing lyrics for the Jessy Lanza project do your ever try to embody a fictional persona?
JL: For me, and I think for Jeremy as well, it all hinges on a phrase or one kind of hooky thing. I know that Jeremy does not give a shit about lyrics, I think maybe he used to put more thought into it. I think for my stuff at least, he’s not so concerned about any sort of overarching seam. It’s weird because normally I write most of the lyrics, for Oh No especially, but Jeremy wrote most of the lyrics for the track you’re talking about. Which is like an anomaly, because usually I write all of them. He took “oh no” as a hook and just kind of ran with it. To be honest, I have no fucking idea what that song is about. (laughs)
IC: What was it like to collaborate with Caribou? In addition to vocals and songwriting, did you have an influence on the production of “Second Chance”?
JL: No, not really. There were three songs that Dan threw my way. I worked on some production on a few songs, but those ones ended up getting cut and the one that ended up being the one that Dan was interested in finishing was “Second Chance,” which was really just vocals that we basically did back and forth through Dropbox.
IC: Is there anymore material from The Galleria in store for us?
JL: I hope so. I’ve been talking with Morgan, just about timing. I mean, the project with Morgan, that was all done through email, but we were thinking that it would nice for me to be down there and do something a bit quicker. It takes so long going back and forth, anyways, long story short. I really, really hope we do, in the next few months, because we’ve been talking about it and we both really want to.
IC: If you could collaborate with any female musician, dead or alive, who would it be?
JL: There’s this singer named Carmen who I really love. I think she’s still alive. She lives in Miami, I think. I think my friend actually reached out to her to see if she would come do a show in Hamilton, but I don’t know. It fell through or something. But yeah, she’s amazing. Such an incredible voice.
IC: What’s the first song you think of when you think of Carmen?
JL: Oh, “Throw Down.” “Time To Move” is a really good one, too.
JL: Yeah, I remember hearing DJ Rashad, I think the song was called “Drums.” And it’s just such a crazy song. That was right before Double Cup came out. But that was really my first introduction, having Kode9 from Hyperdub send me that record. I heard his stuff on Dance Mania before, which is like the beginnings of that Chicago, really fast style, but I didn’t really know anything about footwork until it was introduced to me through Hyperdub, and then I just really fell in love with Double Cup. And then DJ Spinn’s older stuff. He has this really kind of jazz song called “Feelin You” that’s a bit older.
IC: Did you ever get a chance to meet DJ Rashad before he passed?
JL: I did. I met him at SXSW. We played a Resident Advisor showcase together, so that was cool to hang out with him there. We also played this really funny show together at the University of Southern California. It was a weird thing because it was just him and I and Spinn playing. We got to hang out then, too. Yeah, that was a funny show.
IC: What was your impression of him?
JL: He was just super nice, really friendly, really happy, really warm guy. Yeah. It’s not like I really knew him. We knew of each other through Hyperdub or whatever but he was super nice.
Which Yellow Magic Orchestra album is your favorite right now?
JL: I really like Naughty Boys.
IC: Do you think that record also had the most influence on Oh No?
JL: It’s hard to say. I think, as much as Yellow Magic Orchestra the band is obviously a huge influence on the record, I think their side projects are just as much an influence. Especially the stuff that Harumi Hosono produced. His solo albums, like Philharmony is a big favorite of mine, as well as the album Pacific. That album really helped me get through a lot of… just like not being able to sleep.
IC: Oh my god. I love that album.
JL: Isn’t it great? It’s weird and the last track is “Cosmic Surfing,” which is like this weird, kind of disco. I love that record so much. And all the stuff he did with Miharu Koshi, too. The record Tutu was a huge influence for Oh No.
IC: While reading through your previous interviews, I got the sense that you’re a pretty voracious music listener. Is there any new or obscure music you’ve recently discovered that you’re obsessing over?
JL: There’s this guy named Dwight Sykes who… I can’t really figure out what.. I’m almost kind of thinking he’s actually not from like 20 years ago, he’s actually just new. I think he’s just this artist from Niagara Falls, New York who does this weird, it kind of sounds like Dam-Funk but weirder and less accessible. It’s really kind of lo-fi.. You should check him out. I put one of his songs on a mix that I did not that long ago. He’s really strange and I can’t quite figure out what he’s about.
IC: Are there any dates that you’re exceptionally excited for on your upcoming tour? How do you imagine your opening act for the North American tour, DJ Taye, will set the tone for your shows?
JL: I’m so excited that Taye is gonna come. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out, but now that it’s happening. I mean, I was a little worried that like maybe Taye would get people a little too hyped up and I would be like a letdown. But I think it’ll be fine. Hopefully people won’t get too amped, because I think DJ Taye has an experimental side as well. I don’t think it’s all about getting turned up with Taye.
I’m really excited to play Primavera. I didn’t think that was going to happen either. I’m not gonna say it was a dream come true, but I’m really happy that I’m playing it. I love touring in America. Going down the west coast is always really great. Driving around the States is awesome, it’s kind of my favorite part of touring.
IC: Is there anything else you think I should know about the new record?
JL: The only thing that I would say is that our friend David, he helped us mix the whole thing and if it wasn’t for him, I swear, it wouldn’t have gotten finished and Jeremy and I would’ve like killed each other. (laughs) He plays under the name EGYPTRIXX. He mixed the whole record, he came from Toronto to Hamilton and I really don’t know what we would’ve done without him. (laughs again)
Jessy Lanza is currently touring North America. Oh No is out now via Hyperdub. Stream it via Spotify and peep tour dates below.
June 16 – Chicago – Empty Bottle – tickets
June 17 – Minneapolis – Triple Rock Social Club – tickets
June 21 – Vancouver – Alexander Gastown – tickets
June 22 – Seattle – The Crocodile – tickets
June 23 – Portland – Doug Fir Lounge – tickets
June 25 – San Francisco – Rickshaw Stop – tickets
June 26 – Los Angeles – Echoplex – tickets
June 27 – Phoenix – Valley Bar – tickets
June 29 – Austin – The Parish – tickets
June 30 – Dallas – Club Dada – tickets
July 01 – Houston – Rudyard’s British Pub – tickets
July 02 – New Orleans – Gasa Gasa – tickets
July 05 – Carrboro – Cat’s Cradle Backroom – tickets
July 06 – Washington, D.C. – DC9 – tickets
July 07 – Philadelphia – Johnny Brenda’s – tickets
July 08 – New York – Bowery Ballroom – tickets
July 09 – Brooklyn – Baby’s All Right – tickets
July 11 – Allston – Great Scott – tickets
July 12 – Portsmouth – 3S Artspace – tickets
July 14 – Montreal – La Sala Rossa – tickets
July 15 – Toronto – Lee’s Place – tickets