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Interview: Jessy Lanza Talks 'Columbo,' Weed Tests, and Her New Album

On May 19, 2016

by Blake Gillespie

JessyLanza4Jessy Lanza is breaking the mold as a Canadian-born pop star in the making. Her perspective is Views from the Hammer, which is what Hamilton, ON locals fondly and colloquially call their city. She’s collaborated with Dan Snaith of Caribou, DJ Spinn of the TEKlife collective, and her songwriting partner is fellow Hammer homebody Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys. Each collaboration offers textural influence in the sound of Oh No, her sophomore masterpiece, but Lanza’s sound is defined by an ambition to be Terius Nash, aka The-Dream. Oh No in that way, is a dynamic pop record. It catapults Lanza atop bongo grooves, crystalline synths, and fans of her minimalism on Pull My Hair Back are teased further as the breadth of the record sustains an infectiousness that never lets go. Her off-the-radar habitat allows her the creative freedom and relaxation to explore immense pop sounds from a quiet distance. That is, until it’s time to tour.

I spoke with Lanza on a call from Hamilton, ON. We discussed the process of following up a breakout debut, the non-pressure that comes with having a complimentary writing partner, giving her new album the ‘weed test’, and of course, 1970s hit detective television series Columbo. It was the day after Views from the 6 dropped and the state of Canadian rap ambassador Drake was on our immediate minds.

Did you stay up last night and download the new Drake?

I haven’t yet. I feel like all I’m looking at is different kids on the cover of the CN Tower. People sitting on different stuff really high up. People from Hamilton superimposing themselves on a tall apartment building here. I have a little time to listen to it later today.

What was your life like after the release of Pull My Hair Back?

I got to travel a lot more than I had before that. Not to sound boring, but pretty similar. Nothing really changed, except for me getting to go to a lot of different places and play shows.

I still live in Hamilton.

Did you enjoy the touring life?

It has perks. I really like playing shows. I don’t love airports, but who does like airports? I think it made me realize how much of a homebody I am.

What is it about airports that bothers you?

I turn into a mad person as soon as I walk in there. It’s just an anxiety that I feel embarrassed to admit to and so it turns into this seething rage [laughs]. Everybody else is probably feeling a similar way that they don’t want to admit to, so it’s just that interaction. But you know it’s a good lesson in self-control.

Going into this record did you consciously want to create a division between this sound and the sound on Pull My Hair Back?

I think with Oh No Jeremy [Greenspan] and I were a lot more focused on what we wanted to do. On the first record we’d only been working together a year. We were both experimenting a bit and did not know exactly what we would set out to do. We ended up finishing the album and having songs that seemed to fit together as a record. For Oh No I think we were both focused on this idea that we would make a much poppier record.

Oh No deals with finding an inner peace.

I think it’s about doing something positive with the energy you have whether it’s positive or negative.

So it wasn’t the success of the first album that distracted you from inner peace?

I’ve always been a kind of anxious person. I think lots of people are and it’s a very normal thing to deal with. Music’s always been a really great distraction or escape, whatever you want to call it. Having the first record do well was unexpected and music stopped being this casual thing in my life that I do for fun and it also became my career. It became this tension where it’s an escape, but it’s also how I make money.

It doesn’t matter what your job is, you’ll always come up against that. I think music in particular is pretty unpredictable. Working through the album and the title of the album are just me learning to deal with being easy [going] with things and not getting too stressed out about it. It’s easy to get caught up in the unpredictability of music and it can make you crazy sometimes.

Did you discuss this anxiety a lot with your writing partner Jeremy Greenspan going into this record?

The thing I really like about working with Jeremy is that we don’t talk about anything [laughs].

These are more my inner musings about why I do what I do. With Jeremy it’s great because we just go into the studio and it’s like “do you have stuff to work on?” and if it’s a yes, then we work on it and if we don’t, we don’t. We don’t spend time talking about concepts or themes on things.

Does it feel intuitive?

For a really long time I struggled with writing on my own and writing with other people and not have it work out the way I wanted. I think that’s why Jeremy and I did the second record together as well because it’s really fun working with him and he’s also not the type of person that goes into the studio and has an ego about things. He’s not afraid to try different stuff. I think we’re both willing to admit when something isn’t going well and be ok with that. Is this shitty? And just let it go.

The title track “Oh No,” how many version of that did you go through?

That song was a real shit show. There are just so many different parts. Actually trying to get it in shape to do it live, we realized the whole thing is out of tune. It’s in tune with itself, but not with a piano. Our friend David Psutka, who goes under the name Egyptrixx, he came to Hamilton and helped mix that whole record.

When Jeremy and David mixed the record together, I get to a point where I can’t deal with there being 14 versions. I think mixing is a whole nother art unto itself. David really helped stop these endless… it starts to become where I can’t hear the difference any more and I don’t know if I like this song anymore. I don’t think it would have gotten done if he hadn’t come and helped us.

There’s just so many different movements and stylistic touch tones within that song. It had me wondering where it even began.

It began with an MPC. I bought an MPC 2000. I was really determined to use it. We made a drum beat using it.

Why did you purchase an MPC? And how much did you end up using it on the record?

The MPC was totally inspired by DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn and the Footwork guys. I had the chance to work with and have their music introduced to me and become a really big fan. I’d watch these behind the scenes videos before I ever got to meet them and talk to them about how they work. They would always talk about how the MPC was how they made those tracks. I was really so inspired that I wanted to get one.

On the album there were other tracks that got cut where I use the MPC more. It creeps in there in little ways. I think Jeremy and I, the way that we work is that we do a lot of layering of parts. I don’t think it’s the instrument we used the most, but it’s definitely on there a little bit.

I imagine you spent a significant amount of time sequencing this record.

It’s tough. Jeremy loves bridges. I’m always like no, we have too many parts to this fucking song [laughs]. Sometimes he’s right.

We had a couple different versions of the record. There were a bunch of songs we thought would end up on the record and Hyperdub didn’t want to release certain songs. It took a long time. We’d always give it the weed test. That was the good test. That’s how we figured it out.

I’m pretty sure I know what you mean, but can you elaborate on the weed test?

I can’t go to my studio and smoke weed all day and write music. I just get too paranoid or tired. Things that don’t translate to being productive. But yeah, the weed test of just getting very high, putting headphones on, and listening to the whole album from beginning to end is a nice way to hear things differently. Different things occur to you while you’re listening. If I can listen to it and be OK with the order while I’m high that’s usually a good indication that we’re good.

I get that. I think the car test is another good option.

Yeah! The car and weed, but not together. Not at the same time, but they are good editing tools for sure.

Any plans to keep collaborating with the TEKlife crew?

I actually saw DJ Spinn last week and he gave me a whole USB full of stuff. So maybe! I have to go through it. I hope so.

What is the track “Vivica” about?

Vivica is a character from an episode of the show Columbo. I don’t know if you watch it, but it’s like an old… it’s with the actor Peter Falk. It’s a 70s detective show. He’s always asking a lot of questions. It’s not really about anything, but this character from Columbo.

I thought she had a cool name and was kind of a sad lady. So, I wrote a song about her.

I’m pretty bad with lyrics and I get too focused about what the song is going to be about. I find that if I approach the song from a more casual place then it usually turns out better.

Jessy Lanza's Oh No is out now, and is for sale in our Member's Store


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