Jessy Lanza's Music Makes Life's Smallest Irritations Feel Meaningful
The Canadian singer and producer combats everyday anxiety and stress on her sophomore album 'Oh No.'
All photos by Aaron Wynia
Jessy Lanza is sitting on a suspiciously stained leather couch in a tiny room upstairs at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, telling me about her studio where she recorded her sophomore album, Oh No. It's located in Hamilton—the nearby southern Ontario city where she was born and lives today—above a rowdy bar where at night it often sounds like patrons are "getting into crazy fights and screaming."
This street level hostility made its way onto "VV Violence," the second track on Oh No, which the electro-R&B singer and producer tracked out on a particularly rough night. "You're stressing me, yeah I say it to your face, but it doesn't mean a thing, no!" cheers Lanza, sounding both sardonically cute and brilliantly sarcastic. The song rides with a peppy fury that recalls Grimes' 2015 single "Kill V. Maim"—a cheer squad anthem you can headbang to.
"I remember being in a really shit mood when I recorded the vocals for that song," she reveals when asked about the inspiration for the track. "Maybe the rage turned into something else, but the only mood I can think of is being really fucking angry."
While the follow-up to her well-received 2013 Hyperdub debut Pull My Hair Back is upbeat enough to soundtrack pre-drinks, sensual enough for long nights in, and contemplative enough for a walk home from the party at dawn, making it provided a different sort of outlet for Lanza: a capsule for the inner tantrums that come parceled with modern life.
"I totally rage out about irrational things that I'd be embarrassed to share with people I care about, let alone people that don't know me," she says, referencing minor annoying interactions with strangers on the street or passing cars while riding her bike to the studio. "I really hate that about myself, that I can't just be more relaxed."
On Oh No, she's worked out a way to turn these banal irritations into an enticing journey through complex feeling-states, one where malice is laced with sweetness and vice versa. Her flair for cryptic pop lyrics and catchy, if half-buried, vocal runs has only strengthened. For the first time in career, it's as though Lanza were willing to admit—albeit modestly—that she has a special voice.
"I've always been really anxious and self-conscious about my singing voice," she explains. "On this album, I stopped being shy about the fact that I don't have a diva powerhouse voice." She acknowledges partner and co-collaborator Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys—and an appreciation for eclectic voices of singers like Mick Jagger—for instilling in her the confidence to break further away from her past as a trained jazz musician, having studied performance and piano at Montreal's McGill University.
"Jeremy was like, 'You kind of have a shitty voice, just work with it!'" she recalls with a laugh, quickly adding that the comment was meant to be taken positively. "Mick Jagger has a fucking terrible voice. If you do things with confidence, that's your thing. You don't have to have a strong clear voice to have a good voice. I like weird voices."
Like her first album, Lanza recorded Oh No with co-writing and co-production from Greenspan. Since Pull My Hair Back came out, she's been outspoken about how some listeners and media had the false impression that the music was all Greenspan, when in fact their process is far more collaborative. While Lanza's self-assurance as a singer has grown, production remains her primary focus.
"I definitely don't consider myself a singer-singer," she says. "I need to do the production, and I need to do something to my vocals or have some role in treating things." To help her recreate the album's complex digital rhythms—"So many of the drum tracks that Jeremy and I do are very quantized and really fast, a human couldn't possibly play them"—she's recruited a drummer, Tori Tizzard, for live shows. This addition has afforded her the freedom to roam around onstage while singing, untethered to her gear table.
After tonight's show, the last date of a North American tour with Junior Boys, she'll go back home to prepare for a string of headlining solo dates. While Lanza does comment on the dubious state of the aforementioned green room couch, she's clearly at ease in dingy venues, thanks in part to a youth spent tagging along with her late father—a musician who designed sound systems for a living—to underground parties throughout the city.
Lanza attributes her fondness for performance spaces to these early adventures, where she'd assist her father by "wrapping cords or taping stuff." "I totally adored my dad for bringing me into this world," she explains. "That had a big effect on me. Because of that I had this fondness for being in clubs, especially when they're empty, before everything's happening."
Nicknamed "The Hammer" or "Steeltown" by residents, Hamilton—an industrial city with a population just over a half million people—comes up often in conversation with Lanza. The video for her break-through single, "Kathy Lee," features footage of life on the city streets—the very streets that provide inspiration for Lanza's music.
"Capturing the city where I'm from has always been important to me," she says. "What's great about Hamilton is a lot of people want to write it off as a shithole, but if you look deeper, you'll find something worthwhile there, and that's what I try to do." For Lanza and Greenspan, inspiration strikes best at home in the familiar and the mundane—a word she keeps coming back to, whether we're talking about her art or her private life.
Embracing unpredictability has informed her recording process, and she tells me about spending long days in her studio watching hours upon hours of YouTube videos, ranging from the practical (production tutorials) to the esoteric (ASMR and unboxing videos). "I could just piss the day away watching YouTube," she admits. "Six hours of doing nothing and feeling guilty about it, and then I'll watch one video that will have one little musical thing, or one line of a song, that will spark an idea."
Born in 1985, Lanza is a cusp millennial—something she laments, despite crediting much of her sultry, post-techno R&B sound to the genre-smashing power of the internet.
"The thing that sucks about being a cusp millennial," she explains, "Is we're just gonna miss all the really cool shit—artificial intelligence, uploading your consciousness into the cloud or another person, sharing a virtual realm. I think all that amazing stuff is going to start happening just as the millennials are all going to start dying. That's what I'm really bummed out about."
Lanza imagines the future of twenty-first century pop music and technology will be deeply intertwined.
"Being able to live through someone's experience is a limitless idea," she says. "I'm not saying I want to let people live inside my head, but if people are interested—what does it feel like to be me when I'm singing a certain song, or when I have one of my rage attacks?" she ponders. "People are creeps, they're very voyeuristic, and it seems like the ultimate voyeurism to be able to share an experience like that."
Our conversation takes a a dark turn when we circle back to Lanza's last THUMP interview, where she joked about calling her next album Hipster Rat Cunt, a reference to some of the malicious cyber comments she's received during her time in the public eye. Will the age of the AI cloud be ruined by random angry individuals unable to otherwise channel their own mundane irritations?
"I hope people don't fuck it up," she mulls. "The ethics of becoming post-human... We don't even have the language written in the laws to protect women online." While this future might be a long way off, Lanza sees art as a way teach haters and trolls about empathy by allowing users to "experience someone's experience but then come back to yourself."
She also hopes Oh No can help inspire listeners to combat their anxieties and irrational impulses by embracing, and even cherishing, the banal. "The reality is you could die at any moment, so it's better to appreciate what you have and where you are," she says. "That sounds really morbid, or like bullshit, but it's helped me deal with depression or anxiety. If I just relax and think 'It's bad for your health to be thinking this way,' it helps me be nicer."
Oh No is out May 13 via Hyperdub Records (Geej Recordings in Canada).
Kristel Jax is on Twitter.