From Hamilton To The World
Talking to us from the tiny city of Hamilton, Ontario in Canada, synth-pop artist Jessy Lanza makes it clear to us how much this place means to her. It's almost a love-hate relationship for Lanza. Hamilton has obviously played a major role in her development as an artist but even more so it's the fear of rejection that shadows her.
Perhaps it has to do with operating in such a predominantly male industry. The numbers are staggering, 16% of artists registered with PRS in the UK are female, and oddly enough the same goes for the number of women represented at festivals. Jessy Lanza is understandably rattled by the imbalance, but the 30-year-old Canadian is beating the boys at their own game.
A self-confessed gear nerd, she is consistently hailed by critics for her breezy, melancholy synth-pop, uniting people from all sides of the music world in appreciation. Speaking to her after the release of her second LP, Oh No, we were pleasantly surprised by her refreshing candidness and down-to-earth nature. Perhaps this charming demeanour is a symptom of being raised in a small city. For Jessy Lanza it all started in Hamilton, Ontario, and it’s where we started our interview.
So where in the world are you right now?
I’m in Hamilton, in the town where I live usually.
Right, you live quite near to your parents where you grew up.
Yeah only about a 5-minute drive from them.
Is that because of comfort, you know, getting home cooked meals?
No, my mum doesn’t really cook for me anymore. But I do like to see her. I don’t know I have this. . . I think for a long time I thought of myself as someone that wanted to be away from where I grew up and wanted to get as far away from Hamilton as possible but I realized over time that I’m actually much more comfortable being close to my family, and I need it in a way. It is a comfort thing for sure, especially because I spend so much time away from home.
You’re deep in the thick of touring the new record. Are you somewhat shocked when you visit a new city somewhere in the world and they react to your music favorably?
Well I’ve been to Europe a lot which I find is very similar. But it always just depends show to show. Sometimes I’ll think I’m going to have a great show and that I really understand the audience, and then I won’t have a good show at all. But then for instance I played in Phoenix Arizona for the first time like three weeks ago and I thought, “oh this show is gonna be shit. There’s not going to be anyone there. It’s going to be brutal.” I had this whole idea of what Phoenix was going to be like and then it was amazing. These totally weird people were so awesome and had driven like six hours from Albuquerque or something to come to the show. I’m playing in Russia for the first time in a couple of weeks and I’m very curious about how that will go.
You’ve said that your musical compass was shaped by your parents.
Yeah my parents used to play in cover bands, but they played rock music, they played Crosby, Stills & Nash covers. That was in the 70s and then I think when they got into the 80s they got more into like Eurhythmics and Billy Idol. But yeah both my parents were very musical. My dad really wanted me to do music from a young age and thankfully I had some ability and I liked it, so it worked out. He always encouraged me to sing and play piano.
What do your parents make of your success now and your body of work?
My dad passed away when I was 16. My mum is so supportive. I think she likes my music, she’s always saying, “I don’t know how you and Jeremy come up with this stuff.”
That reminds me of Mac Demarco. Did you know that his mum has more of an active role in his career than he does?
I actually didn’t know that, but I was nominated for a Polaris prize in the same year that he was (that’s like the Canadian Mercury Prize) and he was there with his mum. They were so sweet.
I’m really enjoying your new album Oh No. It’s been a few years since your last record. How do you feel it’s been received so far? Has it met your expectations? And do you care about what the critics have to say?
I’m very happy that people seem to like the new record, and I definitely went through a period of time where I was really freaked out by the idea that people would hate it. But I had to let go of that to finish the album.
You seem very hard on yourself.
Yeah I am. Coming from Hamilton, there’s a real feeling of, “oh so you think you’re special” kind of thing. It’s kind of this attitude, like, “oh you’ve been on an airplane, you must think you’re pretty special.” It’s a down and out place. People don’t leave Hamilton. But I mean all of this is a lack of opportunity. There’s a lot of poverty.
I just learned that Eugene Levy is from Hamilton.
Yes, actually he was in love with my mum. They went to the same high school and sang in a Peter, Paul and Mary cover band. I always say to my mum, “we could have had that American pie life!”
"Actually (Eugene Levy) was in love with my mum. They went to the same high school and sang in a Peter, Paul and Mary cover band. I always say to my mum, “we could have had that American pie life!”
On Hamilton's prodigal son, Eugene Levy
You would have the most amazing eyebrows ever.
Yeah they’re very. . . sculpted.
This is the greatest fact I’ve ever heard.
Yeah they got together recently. They have this other friend Dave who was the other. . . he was Paul. And they tried to go back over their folk repertoire.
You put the record together with your partner in crime Jeremy Greenspan, who is also your partner outside of music. How do you balance work and domestic life? Have you managed to maintain a fairly peaceful existence?
It’s hard because we not only live together but we have this project together. There’s not a lot of separation between our domestic life and our professional life, but we try as hard as we can to be normal about it and be practical. But yeah it is hard sometimes.
He brings a lot to the table. I was a huge fan of Junior Boys and I remember when their first and second albums came out Last Exit and So This Is Goodbye. I was so intrigued by this beautiful melodic electronic sound, but then we never seemed to hear from them again. It seemed like they fell off the radar a little bit.
They’ve released a lot of albums! I mean they’ve been around for a long time and I think the projects we’ve worked on together have been. . . I’m not trying to sound full of myself, but I think it’s been really liberating for Jeremy because he has never been particularly comfortable being front and centre and being a touring musician. He doesn’t like touring at all. When we started this project I wanted to make it a band because it was both of us, but he just couldn’t stand the thought of touring with another band. He wanted to make it my face and my name so that he could work on the music with me but not have to be a part of the touring. I think Jeremy is a lot more comfortable as someone who gets to live in the studio and not go and present it around the world.
The first time I actually heard your voice properly was on Caribou’s Second Chance and it was really arresting. It stopped me in my tracks. What kind of response did you get after that took off? What did that song do in terms of helping your career?
Dan Snaith has been so generous to me. They took me on tour with them and I sang that song with them every night for like two and half months. It’s hard for me to gauge what that song might have done for me. I mean like you said you listened to it and looked me up, and a lot of people who had never heard of me before may have done the same, or maybe not, I don’t really know. But the opportunity to work with Dan and tour with him was huge. A lot of people tell me now that they saw me in 2014 with Caribou, so it definitely means a lot.
The track that I really love on the new album is Could Be U, it reminds me of the Cocteau Twins.
Oh my god, thank you! I love them. I’m glad you like that song. It’s actually also my favourite song off of Oh No.
What are the things that affect you outside of music? As an artist I’m sure you tend to take on everything that you see, hear and touch in daily life, so what are those things that help develop you as an artist?
Yeah I’ve thought about that before when people ask me what I write my songs about and if there are any themes for my song writing. I think maybe it comes back to Hamilton in a kind of abstract way. If I think about a feeling that I bring into my music it is most often rejection. Whether it’s fear of rejection or being rejected, and I feel like Hamilton is the rejected city.
That’s interesting because you’ve mentioned fear of rejection already a couple of times in this interview. You said were worried about people in Phoenix not liking your music and then also not being able to read reviews in case they’re bad.
Yeah, I’m always battling this thing of really not wanting people to hate what I do, and at the same time thinking, “well if they hate it, then fuck them.” I’m always going back and forth between those two things and it’s strange. I think it motivates so much of what I do if I actually think about it. I’m always in admiration of people who seem to just float along doing what they do and not care. I hate that I feel this need to impress and please people, but I’m so driven by that.
Do you think this has anything to do with the fact that you’re a female working in a very male dominated environment? I read a shocking statistic recently which was only 16% of artists registered with PRS (the music copyright, royalties and licensing society of the UK) are female. What are your thoughts on the whole issue?
Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on men and women alike to impress people, but I feel like for women especially there’s this idea that you have to be good, you have to be sweet, you have to be hot, you have to be all of these things. I’m not saying anything new, we all know this, but it’s exhausting. Sometimes you just think, “Why do I have to fulfil all of these things?” Sometimes I really want to just be a total bitch and say, “fuck you, I don’t care what you think.” But then you don’t want to come off as rude because it’s so easy to write women off that are assertive.
It seems like you have women like Patti Smith and Kim Gordon who are assertive and can talk about the things that affect them, but then if you’re not those people and you don’t talk about it then you’re seen as this sweet, cute, pretty girl that can be taken advantage of.
Yeah it’s kind of like there’s no in-between.
The thing that freaks me out the most is, as you’ve said, if you look at festival line-ups and promotional material for any gear company, it’s like women don’t exist or don’t use the products, and if you look at the writers at Resident Advisor, or Fader they are mostly all men.
They are. It is very much a boy’s circle jerk. It sucks. There’s not a lot of variation in the perspective. But I don’t mean to write off. . . obviously there’s lots of different kinds of writers, but I think it is worth mentioning the statistic you brought up and the fact that it is very male dominated and doesn’t seem to be changing all that quickly.
If you look at the writers at Resident Advisor, or Fader they are mostly all men. Jessy Lanza: They are. It is very much a boy's circle jerk. It sucks.
On being a female producer in a male dominated industry
Well there’s even another issue I wanted to talk to you about and that’s race. You’re with this label Hyperdub and you work in this kind of music, juke, trap, R&B, mostly associated with African-American culture. What is your view of being a young white girl in this scene?
Yeah, that came up a lot with the first record. I had journalists asking how I felt about R&B being popular again and how I felt about hipster R&B. They meant white person R&B. I never knew quite how to answer the question because for me R&B has always been pop music, it’s always been the music that my friends and I listened to, and it influenced my musical development so much. So it’s hard to talk about and to be honest I don’t know. I don’t feel uncomfortable about it but I just don’t really know how to address it in a way that is constructive. I was definitely more aware of it on the first record.
I know that DJ Rashad was a formative influence on you, so it must be kind of a spin-out to love what he does and then end up on the same label.
Yeah I know, it’s crazy. It was so weird how everything fell into place and I would never have thought that Kode9 would really be the only person who had any interest in releasing our music at all. It’s a strange turn of events because I’d always really admired the label.
The other interesting thing I just found out was that Tinashe put the call out to you for some beats?
Well not to me exactly. I think her management put out a call to all of the hip London labels, like Night Slugs or Numbers. It’s kind of the Kanye West approach, they’re like these cultural fucking octopuses, they have tentacles everywhere. They have so many producers and I think that’s how they turn over content so quickly, they have so many different people working on things at the same time. So Jeremy and I submitted something but I don’t even know if anyone ever listened to it or if they just thought it was garbage.
I love how you put it, cultural octopus is the perfect term to describe these mainstream R&B and Pop artists like Beyoncé and Kanye who have like 3000 writers on one song. What’s your take on this technique of just trying to get as many reference points as possible?
It’s bizarre. For me it all seems to be about making as much money as possible, which I don’t understand really. I mean I do understand it, I don’t like the idea of being poor either, but they’re just kind of monsters about it. It seems like people have this fascination right now with total megalomania, and it’s accepted and revered. I don’t understand that.
There’s a very different, tenderised side of R&B. Girls like SZA, Jhena Aiko, Kehlani and a couple of others, even Kendrick, really thoughtful, interesting R&B producers.
Yeah more contemplative stuff. I’m just happy that backpack rap is back again. I thought it was gone forever but it’s back.
Can you explain backpack rap?
So when I was in high school I loved like Guru and Erykah Badu and Jill Scott.
Digable Planets? I loved them. They’re touring again.
Are they really? I didn’t know that! See that’s so fucking great, they’re back. It’s amazing to see how jazz and hip-hop is back. Kendrick Lamar’s album reminds me very much of music that I loved quite a long time ago. Flying Lotus and Erykah Badu have had this resurgence. Everything has circled back again. That’s a good point that you made, when I was talking about this love of megalomania and sheer arrogance. On the flipside there is this movement of contemplation. There’s always both things happening at the same time for sure.
Do you have a local record store that you like to go to in Hamilton?
Yeah there’s a great record store called Cheapies and another one called Dr Disc that’s been around forever.
What do you think of Kanye West?
I like that song All Day. I think that one track is genius, but in general I’m not a fan. I just don’t think his music is very good.
"I’m always in admiration of people who seem to just float along doing what they do and not care."
On pleasing the music world
So let’s talk about your influences. I hear you have an unhealthy obsession with Yellow Magic Orchestra and its side projects.
Yeah I became very obsessed with knowing their entire discography.
You also mentioned Steely Dan so I’m wondering what specifically informed this latest record and what’s interesting you right now?
Thinking back, it’s weird to think about the period of time when I was making the record and what I was listening to. All I remember about that time was having really bad insomnia, not being able to sleep and then going on the internet and listening to all of these Haruomi Hosono solo albums and things that he had produced for singers like Akiko Yano. Akiko Yano is like a whole other thing, she’s Ryuichi Sakamoto’s wife who has a lot of songwriting credits on their songs as well. So just exploring all these albums that I had never been exposed to or heard of before. Other than that, I think the music Jeremy and I follow the closest in terms of new music is mainstream R&B and hip-hop, so we were always listening to a lot of that as well. It’s so weird to think back to that time. Eight months went by and all I can remember is not sleeping, and doing a lot of dicking around on youtube. Thankfully the album got finished, though I don’t know how really.
So much of my creative process depends on accidents and stumbling upon something, like a lyric in a song I’ve never noticed before. Or I’ll decide to learn the chords to a song I like and suddenly that will turn into something else, but it’s uncertain where inspiration is going to hit, so my strategy is just to go over to my studio and sit there all day. Sometimes nothing will happen and other times it does, but it always seems like an accident.
Jessy Lanza’s Oh No is out now via Hyperdub
It’s such a sentimental place for me. My friend Ken always talks about spirit walks, whenever I’m stressed he’s like, “sounds like someone needs a spirit walk”, so the RBG is my go to place. I’ve been walking in that forest since I was a kid and I still walk there with my mum, so it’s a real happy place.
I could watch that movie on a continuous loop forever. It’s my comfort place for sure.