As left-of-centre as her songs might sound, Canadian artist Jessy Lanza’s take on electronic R ‘n’ B has an undeniable pop sensibility. Albeit one with plenty of kinks running right through it.
“It sounds like a very bizarre kind of Mariah Carey chord progression,” Jessy says of Badly, one of the highlights from her most recent album, All The Time. “But I obviously can’t sing like Mariah Carey at all,” she laughs.
Perhaps in an alternative universe, Jessy would be as successful as the glittering US chanteuse more commonly known for Las Vegas shows than the grittier underground clubs Jessy and her music enlighten. Still, over numerous electronic twists and turns, Jessy has sent her space-age bubblegum pop far beyond the realms of her hometown of Hamilton, via London’s Hyperdub label and long-term musical collaboration with fellow Canadian, Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan.
She made her third record All The Time after uprooting her life to New York, and we speak with her from a current base outside San Francisco, a move she made from the East Coast just before the first Covid-19 lockdown. This sense of a restless, ever-spinning reality is caught inside her new music.
“I moved from Hamilton where I’d lived for most of my life to New York, a change I was excited for, but I underestimated how hard it would be,” she says.
“It felt like a lot of problems were following me around rather than being left behind. So this record is a reflection of the growing pains I went through trying to work them out.”
Welcome to the world of synths
Jessy’s upbringing was rooted in sounds and the machines that make them. Both parents were musicians, while her dad had a PA rental company. It meant she spent much of her childhood at various venues among musical equipment, cables and gear.
“I spent a lot of time going to auctions with my dad to get gear and painting speaker cones. Being in that environment, going to different clubs in Hamilton where I grew up and helping him set things up,” explains Jessy. “I couldn’t stay for the rave as I was only 12 at the time, but I was always around this world.”
“I like to ensure I record everything from the very start of working with a new device. It’s good to have lots of ideas and sketches to go back to as you never know what might come out from those recordings the second time around.”
Though she began her music writing journey began with the piano, this evolved into experimenting with her dad’s equipment, a collection of gear she would add embellish as she grew more confident in her songwriting abilities.
Jessy met long-term collaborator and fellow Hamilton native Jeremy Greenspan from electronic duo the Junior Boys via her love for vintage analogue gear. Jessy ended up performing backing vocals on Junior Boys songs for their 2011 It’s All True album before Jeremy started collaborating on her solo artist material.
“We met through sharing a passion for old synths, particularly the Polymoog, it’s like from 1978 or 79. Jeremy really wanted to record on it, so that’s how our first collaborations began.”
All The Time
Jessy’s previous albums, 2016’s Oh No and her debut, Pull My Hair Back, were recorded with Jeremy together in his Hamilton studio. However, her latest record was made after Jessy had left Hamilton to tap into the bright lights and big city of New York. Although she was looking forward to living in a new environment, the songs stem from a sense of dislocation and feeling out of place in her new home.
“It bothered me that I was feeling this homesick,” she recalls. “I started reflecting on this, how I was in a new relationship, a new city, but feeling just as shitty as I had before I left. It made me think the problems were more to do with me than where I was.”
As discomforting and anxiety-inducing as the situation may first have been, some of the best, most exciting pieces of music Jessy has created were born from this setting. Songs such as Face, Lick In Heaven and Badly are superb, intricate pop songs capable of making you feel as much as prompting you to think.
“I went nuts with layering and experimenting,” Jessy confesses. “I went deep into my studio set up as I was feeling quite lonely and isolated. It meant I poured everything I had into the songs.”
“I spent weeks moving everything around, getting the MIDI going and getting it comfortable,” she continues. “I ended up doing a lot of layering, tinkering with my vocal and doing these different experiments with various sounds.”
The relationship between vocals and her machines seems integral to some of her songs. How does she manipulate her voice?
“I have different plug-ins I like to use. There are Soundtoys plug-ins such as Echoboy, Microshift and Little Altar Boy which are really fun to run a vocal through and see what happens. I also use Primal Tap and Decapitator for drums,” she explains.
“iZotope also makes this great sampler called Iris, which you can get really weird sounds out of. Jeremy has some vocal processors too. On this track called Badly, which has more adlib vocals than I’ve ever done, it gets kind of insane sounding towards the end. It’s just fun to experiment and see what weird sounds we can come up with.”
Inspirations and mentors
Jessy’s close collaborators have helped push her and her sonics ever forward in terms of gear and technique. She cites Jeremy Greenspan’s influence as key in the way she’s embraced and worked with music technology.
“He has a passion for equipment, integrating analogue with newer gear and getting these elements working together,” Jessy says.
Jeremy founded the Junior Boys back in 1999 in Hamilton. Over five well-received records, the outfit achieved worldwide acclaim for their idiosyncratic synth-pop. At the same time, Jeremy has become an in-demand remixer and producer, in part due to his work with Jessy. While ostensibly he’s Jessy’s co-producer, their roles in the record-making process are much more fluid and interchangeable than any titles imply.
“Sometimes, I’ll be stuck on a melody for the chorus, and Jeremy might come up with some ideas,” she states.
“On this record, I wrote all the lyrics, which was a bit different as Jeremy had contributed to this before. Ultimately, all the songs wouldn’t exist without both of us doing something. It’s very much us both pulling together.”
Jeremy and his studio are still in Hamilton. For him, the main difference with Jessy’s latest record and their previous work together was the geography between them.
“As we were in different cities, we were working entirely on our own. That’s very different to the first music we did together,” Greenspan reveals. “But I think the process hasn’t changed too much. Now we have different priorities and interests as we both get more interested in different types of music.”
He believes avoiding being overly precious when writing gives greater freedom to create without any inhibitions. Making mistakes forms an integral part of the journey towards what he considers their more successful musical moments.
“We wrote more songs than we needed for this record,” he explains. “But if we weren’t able to throw out half of our ideas without being egotistical about it, our records would be terrible. There are a lot of bad ideas we get rid of.”
Alongside Jeremy, fellow electronic artist Caribou’s Dan Snaith has also been an inspirational musical figure to Jessy. Putting in some serious miles as a support act on his recent tours have helped her consider how she wants to perform her own music live.
“With Dan, it was about seeing how Caribou function when playing on stage,” she explains. “They have this great balance of being a live band and electronics. I think it’s a challenge to do this well and easy to do it badly.”
“Seeing them play, their setup, how they used Ableton like a brain to shoot information all over the stage to their different stations, that’s been essential in translating how I wanted to play my music live too.”
The Polymoog was the first synth Jessy first cut her musical teeth on, before migrating to a Yamaha DX7 and a Roland Juno-106. By investing hours in these machines, she evolved her creative approach and songwriting process.
“I spent a lot of time recording myself,” she says. “Songs would come when I found a tone or instrument like a drum or vocal phrase. I’d latch onto that and pursue a song from there.”
Many of the songs featured on All The Time were initially recorded in her New York studio, with sketches and ideas exchanged with Jeremy online.
“Without my analogue gear and having the tactile experience that comes with punching in patterns and playing, making music wouldn’t be the same.”
Jessy believes the ability to go into her own space and confront her emotions alone meant she could pour more of herself into her music.
“My studio was the room next to my bedroom in New York, so I had easy access to emotionally dump in there,” she says. “Obviously, this setting led to a lot of stuff emerging which might not have been present if I’d be recording in another studio with more of an audience environment.”
“My setup is in a bit of a shambles where I am right now in San Francisco, but I always have somewhere to record at home.”
With such a long-standing history in equipment, it’s unsurprising Jessy has a love for synths and analogue gear. For this latest record, Yamaha synths were the weapons of choice.
“I have this big, really clunky Yamaha SY77, which I used on the whole record. Jeremy used his DX7 a lot,” reveals Jessy.
“Before I started writing all the time, I’d gotten some semi-modular modular gear too. I had this Moog Sirin, so I spent a lot of time getting them interacting with my other bits of equipment and doing long takes, long passes of the whole song, tweaking and punching in patterns on the fly.”
Working with analogue gear opens up new avenues of creativity, thanks to their occasionally wayward and erratic behaviour. You’re not always sure what these older machines will do or where they’re headed.
“That’s the most fun,” says Jessy. “The unpredictability of gear is exciting, particularly when I don’t really know how to use it.”
Jeremy’s passion for gear has also evolved. He’s gradually moved from Roland to Yamaha equipment for Jessy’s work, while his love for older equipment persists.
“I initially used a Roland Jupiter, Juno and SH-101 as the foundation for most of my production in addition to my modular synths,” he explains. “In the last few years, I’ve increasingly moved towards working with a Yamaha DX7 and Oberheim synths as my main instruments in conjunction with my modular rig for percussion. I also increasingly use very, very old drum machines often built to accompany organs to flesh out ideas I’ve made on synths.”
Jessy’s synths are an integral part of bringing out the warmth and humanity in her creations and keeping the whole process more exciting.
“Without my analogue gear and having the tactile experience that comes with punching in patterns and playing, making music just wouldn’t be the same,” she says.
“I find the most interesting thing is editing together all these mistakes or the weird things that happen during a take.”
“At the same time, there are artists who work in the box, who make incredibly emotive music. You can definitely do it, but it’s harder to achieve; I need my stuff.”
Jessy’s process is one of trial and error, balancing deep research with naïve experimentation.
“You need to be really patient and make sure you read the manual and watch YouTube guides,” she says.
“But make sure you record everything, particularly when you’re first working with a device. I make sure I document those early experiments. I feel like you get interesting sounds when you don’t know what you’re doing at the beginning. Don’t miss it; record it,” she advises.
Jessy also feels creative flows and musical energy can be maintained by walking away from something if it’s proving to be creatively sticky.
“If something isn’t working, and I’m fixating on something, I find that totally sucks the energy out of a song. It’s better to leave it for a couple of days, then come back to it,” she suggests.
“My New York friend DJ Swisha works fast, and if something isn’t happening, he’ll move onto something else. This attitude keeps the fun and energy levels high.”
“I also like to continuously listen to music I love,” she continues. “Nothing inspires me more than hearing a great recording or song – especially when I feel like what I’m doing isn’t quite catching fire.
Jessy is a unique artist in how she’s a singer-songwriter, albeit an electronic one, signed to London’s Hyperdub label. The imprint is renowned as a bastion of great taste, with its fame built on putting out harder, or more esoteric club music jittering between the worlds of dubstep, garage and ethereal ambience. Just check releases from the likes of founder Kode9, and producers such as Burial and Scratcha DVA. But they’ve given Jessy a platform ever since the first release of her first record, Pull My Hair Back.
“Everyone at the label is so supportive,” she says. “I know when they give me feedback, it’s very on it, and I really trust them. They also gave me space. There was no pressure after I put out my record in 2016 to come up with a follow-up quickly.”
With the new album now out in the wider world, and live plans currently scratched, Jessy is trying to work out what the future may have in store.
“I have a really nice separate room here to write in, which is an improvement on my place in New York where there wasn’t much room at all. I’ve been writing a lot as we were supposed to be on tour, and obviously, that hasn’t happened. I’ve been working on a lot of different music and remixes. Still, it’s been a strange time. I just wonder when it will end. Maybe I should just write another album?” Everything crossed Jessy takes her own advice.
All The Time is out now via Hyperdub. Her latest remix of Renegade Breakdown by Marie Davidson, is out via Ninja Tune. Visit jessylanza.com for more information.