Interview: Jessy Lanza
Photos: Adrienne Thomas
Jessy Lanza is a producer, performer, and songwriter from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She’s best known for her albums on Hyperdub Records - Pull My Hair Back (2013), Oh No (2016), and All The Time (2020). At the time of this interview (November 2021), she was preparing to release her entry in the !K7 Records DJ-Kicks mix series.
This is, no doubt, a familiar question, but I wanted to ask about Hamilton - specifically, its Canadian-ness. Is it wrong to think of Hamilton as part of the Upper Midwest?
I think it’s a continuation of the Rust Belt. When I go to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, it all feels pretty familiar. Cities that got left behind. That’s a pretty broad generalization - there’s a bit of a chip on the shoulder sort of feeling, that it used to be something else. That it’s in flux.
How was the atmosphere while you were growing up?
There was like no downtown when I was in high school. There was nowhere to really go other than, like, top-40, jello shooter kind of bars. Which was fine, and I had a lot of fun doing that! But yeah, everyone was kind of talking about what Hamilton used to be like - the 90s were much better, the 80s. I think the life really got sucked out of it as I was growing up, so I was very anxious to get out.
What was your big cultural destination? Where would you go to get out of that bubble?
The jello shooter bar [laughs]. I mean, I would go to Toronto. Some people would play in Hamilton, but the people I really wanted to see were always in Toronto. I took the bus to see, like, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. Talib Kweli came, and none of of that was gonna happen in Hamilton.
What signified to you that you were getting out there, into the big elsewhere?
Getting on the GO bus, which is like the transit between Hamilton and the GTA. Getting on the bus and going to Toronto was always really exciting - even though it was only 40 minutes away, it really seemed… I realize, now that I’m much older, that my dad definitely had like a deathly fear of flying, so we never went anywhere. I didn’t go on a plane until I was like 22 years old.
Did you not go anywhere, or just not fly anywhere?
Both. Our big thing was that we went to Buffalo, to go to Tops Friendly Market because they had all the shit that… it’s a bit different now, but you just couldn’t get stuff in Canada sometimes [laughs]. Stupid, like… salt-free chips, a lot of diet food my dad was into. That was our big trip, going to Buffalo.
Are you like a big lake person? This is, again, all coming from me zooming around Hamilton on Google Maps.
I am a lake person - other than trips to Buffalo, we would go to a cottage every year, on Lake Huron. That was our family vacation.
I know for a while, you had an academic interest in music. Has shifting out of that, into performance, changed your listening stance at all?
Yeah. That was a weird time when I started doing a master’s. I was really, I think, just disconnected from myself, going through the motions of this seeming like the right thing to do. I didn’t have much passion for it, which I why I dropped out - definitely glad that I didn’t go any farther down that path. It seemed respectable, somehow, because I went to school for jazz performance and I knew I wanted to continue doing music. But I didn’t really know how I was going to make that work if I didn’t stay in school and get a master’s, get a PhD. But I was always interested in the role of the singer, I think because being female and growing up, culturally, I was always the singer, never the instrumentalist, always kind of just in a sea of men. So I did gravitate towards that for a bit in academics, but then it just bummed me out. It wasn’t very much fun.
Do you feel like you have an inherent lean towards being a vocalist or an instrumentalist?
I always had a lot more fun playing the piano and singing songs. My dad really pushed me to sing - he thought I should be some kind of Britney Spears. He was very adamant that I do the triple threat thing, that I be an actor, singer… so I did drama school, community theater, but I’m terrible at dancing. I hated dance class; I was never comfortable doing that, I never wanted to do that sort of thing, but my dad definitely pushed me in that direction. Which didn’t work, because I suck at dancing and I’m not good at acting. I liked writing songs, though [laughs].
Did you enjoy theater?
I like going to see musicals with my mom, I took her to see South Pacific not that long ago, that was cool. But I don’t have music passion for theater.
Do you find any connection between that and the performance aspect of being onstage?
Like a negative connection - I had to un-learn a lot of stuff. For a long time I was really uncomfortable on stage because I thought of my dad saying to me “oh, you need to learn some moves," you know [laughs]? I was never good at that, it was never natural, so for a long time I was really uncomfortable before I realized that none of that mattered. Sorry, I’m giving you a lot of the childhood context [laughs] - normally I don’t talk about this kind of stuff.
What were your first forays into recorded music like? I don’t really know of anything prior to Pull My Hair Back.
Lots of really bad singer-songwriter stuff. I played piano and wrote songs that weren’t particularly good. They just weren’t that interesting - I didn’t really have a sound. When I met Jeremy Greenspan, he really encouraged me to experiment recording stuff on my computer. That was the jump.
Were you working from the Feist model of what a female Canadian musician does?
A little bit! That’d be a good comparison. I recruited my friends from jazz school - my friend played upright bass, then the drummer… I was working with what was familiar. And then that wasn’t really panning out, I didn’t feel great about it, and then I started working on my computer and that felt good. Before, I was going to a studio and working with some engineer I didn’t know. They just had shitty ideas, and I would just go along with them. And then I realized I could just experiment myself, which was more fun for me. I think it’s tricky - for me, I didn’t have many mentors when I was growing up. It seems so narrow, it was like these are the things that you can do, and those things didn’t excite me too much. But yeah, you can get stuck pretty easily.
I actually hadn’t ever listened to Junior Boys until just the last week or so. It struck me that a lot of those songs, vocally, are in a sort of mode within which it would seem impossible to express joy. Or maybe “whimsy" is a better word, which is obviously very present in your music.
Yeah, I think Junior Boys music is very careful. It has a very cautious… it’s so well-produced, it’s controlled. Jeremy’s big idols were like John Foxx, or Japan, so that makes sense.
How has it been having a “down" album cycle? All The Time was released at a point where none of the usual next steps of an album roll-out were possible.
It feels a bit weird, looking back on it, but I also feel very lucky that I had these two years to be somewhere where I had a studio, we could film stuff. We were living with my mother-in-law, and so we filmed all these DJ sets in and around my minivan, we had space to do that. If we hadn’t been able to do that, I probably would’ve felt a lot more bummed out about it, but we got to make all these cool videos that if I had been touring, would not have been possible.
On the promotional tip, did it feel like you had to do this kind of simulation of going out into the world and presenting the record by, I guess, engaging digitally?
I certainly felt the pressure to do that, but it’s not easy or fun. “Engaging digitally" doesn’t really come naturally to me. I don’t feel very comfortable with it at all - in fact, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I don’t know if it’s just an age gap thing. All that stuff is very confusing to me, and I try not to think about it too much because it feels like creative poison or something. It’s just hard to know. Which is why it was such a fucked-up two years, because when I meet somebody at a show and see them singing along, you can tell they like it. Whereas when I look on Spotify, it’s like “I don’t know." It’s just a waveform…? Last night in Salt Lake City, I’ve never been there before, and I saw a guy leaving with my record, a shirt… nothing feels better than that. People tell me that my music resonates with them, or they like to get really high and watch the videos - that means the world to me.
Do you have an audience in mind for your music?
I think I make it about myself, but what I want, probably, other people want too. When I was doing the DJ-Kicks mix, trying to pick tracks, I was thinking about what I really like when I’m out, really fucked up, what makes me super happy. And usually it’s vocals, some kind of hook, just something for people to latch onto.
For any mix you’ve done, do you think that you’re able to channel your musical thinking pretty faithfully, or can it come back to feeling a little contrived, or like some kind of branding exercise?
I think it’s definitely tempting, there’s a lot of pressure to try and think of it as a branding exercise and I try to push those thoughts as far away as possible. Because ultimately I want something that people would listen to, or that I could listen to, 10 years from now. Something that doesn’t rely on the context of right now. I think it’s hard not to want to kind of show off a bit in those situations; sometimes DJing can feel like just an exercise in showing off, which doesn’t… I don’t really like that [laughs].
Does it occupy kind of a separate space for you than does performing your own music?
When I think about DJing, I just think about being a fan. Like a fan of music - what’s the most important thing to me is just sharing things that I really like. DJing, to me, is about being enthusiastic. For the DJ-Kicks, I’ve had a list for a long time that’s grown and changed. !K7 asked me to do it in 2017, and the timing didn’t work out, but we finally made it happen this year. Licensing songs is tricky [laughs]. It took from the spring into the summer, I think, then finishing the exclusive tracks and fitting them in with the songs that I licensed.
Was the construction of those tracks influenced by where and how you wanted to slot them in, or was that a separate creative process?
I tried to keep them separate - I think that’s where a lot of the collage stuff on the mix came from, the ambient stuff with my voice. Or some experimental edits with the licensed tracks, because it was hard to blend my exclusive stuff. I think I just kept my head down for two days and tried to make it work.
Digging into the tracklist a bit, it seemed like there was a heavy emphasis on Bandcamp as a source of material.
Definitely. Especially for the vinyl, I tried to pick tracks that weren’t already out on vinyl, that I thought really should be. Like DJ Swisha’s track, or Oyubi’s. Just digital music, where I thought these should totally be on a record.
How’s Hyperdub end up being the landing spot for your music?
Jeremy’s sister went to school with Kode9.
Oh, his whole PhD thing with Mark Fisher?
Yeah, they all went to the University of, like, Gatwick maybe? Or something like that. Outside London somewhere. So there was that connection, and basically Kode9 was the only person that showed any interest in Pull My Hair Back. We had the demos and we sent them to a lot of people, and nobody got back. He was the only one willing to take a chance on it. But yeah, he’s an old friend of Jeremy’s.
I’ve always thought that you were a bit of a wildcard on the Hyperdub roster. I guess at this point the whole roster is wildcards.
It’s a lot of wildcards, yeah. I think the love of r’n’b is really the thread that ties together a lot of artists that seem like they’re coming from really different places. That’s what I see as the foundation for a lot of the artists on that label. Especially with DJing, Ikonika was a huge inspiration. Kode9 was the one who really encouraged me to start DJing, he was so approachable about it. He’s got all his strange spoken-word samples, but it’s just the opposite of pretentious. I feel very appreciative of British people [laughs].
Do you have weird pockets of the US where you’ve found that your music seems particularly resonant?
There’s the obvious places, but I love playing in the Southwest. Phoenix is the Southwest, right? I love Phoenix, I have great shows in Phoenix for whatever reason. Just in Arizona, Tucson too. Which is unexpected, but awesome. I hope I get to play in Albuquerque one day. I just feel like it would go over well. Seems like a strange place. It’s fun to go to the places that are, you know, slightly in, rather than just sticking to the coasts. I love playing in Texas too - Houston’s always really fun.
I know you were at the jello shot bars, but I assume growing up you had some sense of a musical world outside of Hamilton? Where was that creeping in from?
My cousin had a Plastikman tattoo, so I was aware of this rave scene that I had missed, that was kind of in the rearview mirror. My dad also ran a PA rental company and would do raves with my cousin, but I wasn’t old enough to go to them. There was that, there was New York - rap was huge when I was an adolescent. Cam’ron was huge. I had this idea of New York, and then I got to go there on a band trip when I was 15. From that time on, I had this idea that I wanted to move to New York. They just kind of let us loose, like “oh there’s a Bed Bath & Beyond over there, go shopping" or whatever. It wasn’t the greatest - they did as well as they could, we were there for like a concert band competition - but I loved it, I was totally in awe. But it was definitely better once I went back [laughs]. They took us to a fucking Medieval Times. In Jersey, I think. You have a bunch of kids in New York City and that’s the activity.
That’s such a teacher thing though, I can imagine an Ontarian adult being like “you know, I’ve heard about this American thing ‘Medieval Times…’"
[laughs] Yeah, totally.
Outside your cousin’s tattoo, what were the big gateways through which you were able to hear or discover new music?
Not many - listening to the radio, there was a station from Buffalo called WBLK that would come in if you drove that direction on the highway. There was MuchMusic, which was like a Canadian MTV. I just liked what was on TV, music videos. I can remember my friend at university looking on Pitchfork and being really into The Strokes, and I didn’t know what that was. For me, it was radio and television. “Appletree," Erykah Badu, Who Is Jill Scott?, I loved those records. I think because I was in school for jazz, and they seemed to bridge that gap, it seemed accessible to me. I could learn the songs on the piano, like I could pick them out. I loved Mariah Carey, I loved Janet Jackson. Paula Abdul, less so.
Did you feel like a highly formalized musical education kept you from anything that you came back around to later in life?
Yeah, I think the biggest obstacle was the fact that my dad was a music teacher, and a musician, but he was such a hater. He hated everything, he was just kind of bitter. So he could’ve exposed me to the records that he loved - he had a lot of blues records, Albert King, but he just wasn’t very happy. He was just leading me down a bullshit path; instead of just encouraging me to be myself, he was trying to send me down this hyper-sexualized path of singing, dancing. Like “that’s the path for you," but it was really just an obstacle. Just “oh, you’re a girl, you can do this." Which seems kind of laughable, but it was still such a real expectation. I don’t mean to shit on my dad, because he did encourage me to write songs. I remember him telling me how important that is, to hone that skill. You can be a great singer, but if you don’t write songs it’s hard. It’s hard to be a performer.
I would like to commit more to writing for other people - it’s something I think about more than I actually, because it’s something that involves really grinding it out. I can be a bit, not lazy, but I just get really hard on myself if I’m not writing something great. I think to be a good songwriter, for other people especially, you need to do it every day. Sometimes you really have to put your ego aside to get better at that. There’s a lot of rejection. Not even rejection, just… silence. People don’t write back, don’t respond, and you have to be ok with that.