I think the first record I remember getting really into was Missy Elliott's "Supa Dupa Fly," I remember thinking the cover was really weird because it has the little green fly on it and Missy Elliott looking all badass.
As we sat down outside on the Echoplex patio in Echo Park, Jessy Lanza happily stated “Ah, I love LA.” I agreed, wholeheartedly. This was back in May—a time most of the world calls Spring. But we consider it Summer, which is a major relief to a Canadian like Lanza, as you can imagine. At this point Lanza was already on her third lap through town—the beginning of her busy and incredibly well traveled year. Out of all her visits to LA, this one was my favorite. As I was invited to play some records during the early hours of the night, I figured it would be easy to chat with her before the show. And I was right, it was pretty easy. Especially after having her debut LP “Pull My Hair back” on steady repeat since its release via Hyperdub near the end of 2013, I had a lot on my mind. It almost seems as if I watched her transform from a secret talent into nearly a household name over the course of 2014. But Jessy’s success isn’t a classic tale of summer hype—she’s been learning, creating, and refining basically her entire life. For those unfamiliar, Jessy Lanza comes from a city in Canada called Hamilton, which is about an hour drive from Toronto. While Hamilton never really reached the spotlight status of Toronto, the city is still recognized for its growing arts community – plus it’s also home to Jessy’s collaborator, Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys.
A month prior to this conversation, I caught Jessy’s show two other times in Los Angeles. The first time was a small radio event at University Of California for KXSC Fest, and the second time was opening for Cut Copy at the not-so-small Hollywood Palladium. Since then she’s played pretty much everywhere and is currently supporting Caribou across Europe and North America (tour dates here). Anyway, you get the picture—she’s killing it.
What was your life like while growing up in Hamilton? Did you have any interests outside of music?
It was pretty normal, you know, it’s a smaller city. I was into theater but I was mainly always into music – or anything related to it. All my hobbies growing up sorta revolved around either music or the arts…like my parents forced me to take when I was younger but I really sucked at that so I quit that pretty fast and kept focusing on piano instead.
I figure your parents are super into music then…
Well my dad was a teacher, but both him and my mom were musicians. They put me in music lessons really early and always encouraged me to pursue music.
What was the first record you bought for yourself that wasn’t given to you by friends or family?
I think the first record I remember getting really into was Missy Elliott’s “Supa Dupa Fly,” I remember thinking the cover was really weird because it has the little green fly on it and Missy Elliott looking all badass [laughs].
So that must’ve been right when you were able to seek out music for yourself and figure out what really clicked with you.
Yeah so I was finally allowed to take the bus to the mall and buy CDs from HMV or whatever. Those are probably my earliest memories of discovering music by myself for myself, other than like finding an Ace of Bass CD but that’s some little kid shit [laughs], but they were awesome too! I feel like anyone of a certain age can’t deny…
No shame, you can’t be too embarrassed by the first CDs you ever bought! Those were real times.
‘Cause you’re like 12, you know! Oh – and Eminem – I loved the “Slim Shady” LP, that was a big one too.
I read that your dad used to be a sound guy for after-hours DJs back in the rave days.
He had these hobbies, and one of them was buying speaker equipment off eBay and making his own rigs. And my cousin, who was part of this band Azari & III, would put on raves in Hamilton during the 90s and my dad would set everything up and run the soundboard.
So there was a house scene in Hamilton?
There was, but I was way too young to be a part of it in any way. But there was in the 90s for sure. I think it faded away in the early 2000s.
Was your dad a dance music head?
No he didn’t really give a shit about dance music, he just wanted to set up his speakers and make them sound really good [laughs].
Ah I thought his time spent around those kinds of sounds would have somehow affected your music.
I mean it did in a way because he played in bands and bought all these synths that he heard were super cool – like he bought a DX7, a polymoog, and even a TR-909 at one point. So we had all this awesome analog gear laying around the house when I was way too young to know what to do with it.
I hope all of that stuff was still around your house by the time you figured it out.
The 909 got scooped up, my cousin took it actually. I don’t hold that against him cause I was too young to know [laughs]. But I got a couple of my dad’s synths and a mixing console. He passed away when I was 16, so all this shit was sitting in a closet. My mom was like “if you don’t want to do something with this stuff I’m going to sell it.” So I kind of had a head start that way, in terms of gear. That stuff is expensive, you don’t normally just have it already.
Apart from your family, did you have many friends into similar music around that time?
Yeah in my teens all my friends and I were into mainstream R&B because that’s what pop music was at the time. But it sucked because I remember when Ginuwine came to Hamilton I was too young to see the show since it was 19+. People like that would normally not come through to Hamilton, since most shows happen in Toronto instead. And I wasn’t allowed to go as far as Toronto so I didn’t see that many concerts. But everyone liked stuff like Cirara, Timbaland, Aaliyah.
When did you start learning piano and when did you decide to start studying jazz?
I started piano when I was like 6 years old, and then took classical while I was a teen. And then I went to University for jazz and piano.
Jazz kind of contains the fundamentals of R&B, boogie, funk, etc so it’s all starting to make some sense now.
Going back in time I wish I made that connection [laughs]. I definitely filled in the blanks afterwards. It totally is the fundamentals and I’m so happy I made that decision. But I think at the time, I just knew I didn’t want to go to school for classical music. Jazz was more appealing to me at the time because it’s relatable to pop music. They didn’t have pop music as an option in school.
I bet they have it now. They have classes for everything now.
[Laughs] probably! But yeah, you could either pick from classical or jazz. And jazz seemed more fun, you could solo and stuff so it’s not boring.
You did a YouTube playlist thing a while ago and one of your selections was a Kashif fan, which was I was pretty happy to see.
Oh yeah, he’s amazing!
There are a few similarities with your productions and his, do you consider him an influence?
Definitely, I love his basslines. I love that you can instantly tell it’s a Kashif song and the way he makes everything sound like himself even if the style of one song is totally different from another. I feel like with Kashif, whether it’s a Melba Moore song or an Evelyn King song, they sound different but you can tell he’s behind it.
It’s funny too, because so many tracks of that era and style are some of the best records ever made, but in most cases they’re so simple and stripped down in terms of arrangement. I guess minimalism is the right word.
Totally. I think because I went to school for jazz, everything I was trying to write at first was so overly complicated and dense. Everyone has to go through that and learn as much as possible, but I really wanted to forget the complexity of too many chords. When things get too chordy they can get really lame.
Would you say knowing too much could sometimes make it difficult to keep things simple and move forward with the tracks?
Yeah I think if you just force yourself to keep at it and not fall into old habits then it’s pretty easy to get away from that whole thing.
You’re not really making anything digitally, but is the use of analog gear essential to the development of your music?
For sure. I mean some days are really bad when the gear is acting up and I can’t get anything to sync, and I’ll be sitting there for two hours with some shitty beat that I can’t get to work. And then I’ll turn my 707 back on and it’ll sound amazing. But that’s what’s so great about hardware, you can just stumble upon these sounds and it’s just that much better and you can tell.
I was just going to ask about the role of unpredictable gear.
Yeah, totally played a role in the last record. Especially when I first started working on “Pull My Hair Back,” I had no idea what I was doing. You know, just fucking around with these synths I didn’t really know anything about and just experimenting.
Do you have a typical routine when it comes to songwriting or does it vary with each track? Do you write lyrics first and create around it, or do you just begin with a beat and go from there?
Lyrics are definitely an afterthought for me. I usually start with the beat, or I’ll have some samples I wanna use, or I’ll just turn on one of the drum machines and see what happens. The guy I co-produce with, Jeremy Greenspan, has an 808 which is a lot of fun…
His studio must be pretty crazy.
Yeah he has so much cool shit! But yeah drums come first because that’s the most fun for me.
Being able to bounce ideas off somebody like Jeremy must make it so much easier to move forward when you find yourself stuck on occasion.
Oh completely. I am in admiration of people who can work all alone. I’m pretty bad at finishing stuff and having somebody tell you if something sounds good or shitty is great. I wouldn’t have been able to finish the record without him.
If lyrics are basically secondary in your songwriting process, then do you think you use your voice more like a tool, rather than trying to say too much?
Yeah. Well, I like hooks. Like when I’m listening to other people’s music, the hook is what always grabs me…does it have something memorable that I can sing along to? That’s why I like singing. It’s hard to get that same effect from an instrumental [laughs] but I mean it’s possible. But that’s what I like about the ability to sing – to be able to create a hook.
I saw you play earlier this year at a small university event for KXSC, and then again supporting Cut Copy at a huge venue. Was that second show your first time playing something of that size?
Yeah, that whole tour was my first time playing venues like that. This summer was my first festival run. It’s been pretty nerve wracking, especially since I was playing right at 8pm every night and everyone who was there were diehard Cut Copy fans but it was great. They’re super nice guys, really awesome to be around.
How did that tour come about? Did they just hit you up about it after hearing the record?
I think they put one of my tracks in a DJ mix and we have the same booking agents, so they just reached out and it happened. It worked out!
At this point you’ve done a fair amount of world traveling and you’ve also lived in larger cities like Toronto and Montreal. But you’re still based out of Hamilton. Is the isolation or mellower vibe important to you in some ways?
It’s cheaper, my family is there, I’m comfortable there. I feel like I can work a lot better that way. I’ve tried living in other cities doing creative things and it’s sort of distracting to me. Like when I moved to Montreal, all my friends lived there at the time and we just drank all the time [laughs] so you know, and I had to work all the time too. It’s hard to find a spot where you’re comfortable and able to get work done, so if you find that spot then don’t fuck it up.
Sometimes it’s better to be able to observe the music scene from a distance and be more of an outsider, instead of getting caught up in the middle of where it’s all happening.
Yeah, then there’s that desire, you know? Being on the outside looking in makes you want it that much more. Like “look at all these people doing cool shit!” [laughs], it’s a weird thing. The internet makes it so weird for that. It’s all in your head.
OK so before our time’s up, how about a few crucial long drive mixtapes or albums off the top of your head.
• Rome Fortune’s “Beautiful Pimp” mixtape. I really like that one.
• Meek Mills’ “Dreamchasers 3” mixtape. The cover has his face on it and half of it is a lion’s face, it’s amazing.
• Steve Miller’s “Greatest Hits” [laughs], I listened to that in the van on the way here!
• Teefli’s “Fireworks” mixtape. DJ Mustard produced the whole thing, I love it.
• Jeremih “Late Nights mixtape.” This mixtape came out before his album and I can never get tired of it.
Thanks so much Jessy, hope to see you again soon!
Yeah thanks! I love coming to LA, it’s such a cool city to visit.
For more on Jessy Lanza visit her website