Who Is…Jessy Lanza

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 09.11.13 in Who Is...?s

File under: Bewitching, minimalist R&B that's part Kraftwerk, part coldwave

From: Hamilton, Ontario

Personae: Jessy Lanza, Jeremy Greenspan

Pull My Hair Back

Jessy Lanza

Jessy Lanza’s debut album, Pull My Hair Back, strikes a careful balance of hot and cold. On the one hand, there are songs like “Fuck Diamond,” “Against the Wall” and the title track, not to mention a general air of R&B at its most suggestive: heavy lids and bated breath and scraps of discarded clothing paving the way to the feather bed. But someone must have left the window open, because an icy chill hangs over everything. Lanza and co-producer Jeremy Greenspan, of Junior Boys, favor cool analog synthesizers and crisp vintage drum machines, overlaying jittery R&B grooves with an eerie sheen that’s part Kraftwerk, part coldwave. In the midst of it all, channeled through delicate electronic processing, Lanza’s breathy voice fills the room like so many tendrils of dry ice.

That such a slinky, ethereal sound should find a home on Kode 9′s Hyperdub label might seem odd, given the imprint’s emphasis on twisted, hard-charging club music. But, taken alongside Cooly G’s 2012 album Playin’ Me and Ikonika’s recent Aerotropolis, Pull My Hair Back confirms Hyperdub’s standing as a conduit for unusual new mutations in R&B.

Philip Sherburne spoke with Lanza over Skype from her home in Hamilton, Ontario; she talked about vintage synths, the perils of a musical upbringing and Jed the Dancing Guy.

On Hamilton, Ontario:

It’s a weird city, for sure. At one point it used to be thriving. There was a lot of steel here; it’s kind of like Pittsburgh. But now the steel industry does maybe 20 percent of what it used to. There are a lot of really impoverished parts of Hamilton, but in the past five years there’s been a sort of revival. A lot of people from Toronto move here because it’s less expensive. Musically, there’s a lot of cool stuff going on, because usually people in Hamilton don’t really care what’s going on outside Hamilton. There’s a great music scene, which is what I really like about it. And it’s not expensive to live, which is great.

On the vintage synthesizers bequeathed to her by her late father:

You can play jazz chords on the piano and they sound pretty cheesy, but put them on a PolyMoog, and they sound awesome. It was only when I met Jeremy and we started working on tracks that it started to come together. He’s like, “I want to hang out with you and use the stuff in your studio!”

On her musical training:

I did classical stuff when I was a teenager. I did Royal Conservatory piano and I took classical singing lessons, but I don’t really think of myself as being a trained singer. There are soul singers that I really idolize, like Evelyn Champagne King or Candi Staton — they just have crazy perfect voices. I can’t sing like them. I just try to do what I can, you know?

On trying to forget her musical training:

I have to turn off the part of my brain that’s like, “If you do this seventh chord and it resolves to this one…” All those techniques. Jazz music’s kind of the first pop music — all the structures are there. And I have to work hard not to make things fucking cheesy and terrible. That’s the one thing I have to try to avoid: using too many of the chord progressions I learned in school. Fighting not to make it too obvious is the thing I’m always trying to do. Jeremy’s big into chords, though. He likes a good chord.

On her use of melisma:

I think that’s just from listening to, like, one Aaliyah song for 10 years. It kind of sinks into your brain and it’s just there to fall back on. When I was growing up, I listened to mainstream R&B. I really like old R&B, 2000s R&B, all different kinds of R&B. All the varieties of R&B!

On lyrics and meaning:

I find writing lyrics really hard. I really hate the sound of lyrics that I’ve written. If I think about them too much, it sounds so labored and really unnatural. A lot of times I do a whole bunch of vocal takes, and then I listen back to them the next day, and I’m like, “Fuck, I have no idea what I’m saying, but I really like the way it sounds, so I’m just going to keep it.” I try not to think too much about having something that was really cohesive or that I had thought about deeply for days on end, or pontificating on some subject…I try not to think too much about it, and just use what sounds right in that musical moment. That sounds fuckin’ cheesy, but whatever.

On the album’s sexual slant:

It all just stacked up that way. You see all these song titles in front of you, and you’re like, “Yeah, this seems like it’s all about fucking, for sure.” It turned out that way, but that wasn’t the intention for all of them. For some of them, yeah. I guess it’s because I listen to so much R&B, or pop music in general, it’s all about sex or love, and that was in my brain and it’s what came out.

On teaching piano:

It’s great, because kids are hilarious. They’re totally weird. I book my own clients, and usually it’s family friends and their friends. I’m well acquainted with all the families I work with. All the kids are really nice and they want to do it. It’s only if you have a kid that hates it that [it] sucks. But I try to keep the two spheres far removed. I had this show I played in Hamilton, down at this bayfront, family-friendly festival thing. A couple of the moms found out about it and were like, “We’re going to come! We’re going to bring our kids.” And I was like, fuck, now I can’t play a lot of stuff.

On Jed the Dancing Guy, the star of her “Kathy Lee” video:

He’s just this guy who has just been dancing around Hamilton for years. We thought that he might be schizophrenic, or have serious mental issues, but I found him on Facebook and wrote him a message and we met up and talked. It’s not like he’s a totally normal guy, but he’s not mentally disturbed. I think he had some life experience where his mother was going to die, and then she recovered, and he had prayed to God that if she got better he would dance and sing for the rest of his life; it’s some story like that. I think he’s very religious. He just goes for it every day. You’ll see him on the shittiest day in February, like the worst fucking day you can imagine, where you don’t even want to go outside, and he’ll just be shossing down Main Street, singing to his MP3 player. We were always like, “What the fuck is he listening to?” We had no idea. Then he put his ear bud up, and he listens to, like, Serbian folk songs. Which is not what you would think. He really gets going a lot of the time. It’s amazing that he’s listening to this male a cappella chanting.

He was really professional about the whole video shoot, though. He was a really good sport. He hung out with us for like eight hours.