Electronic R&B Artist Jessy Lanza Wants to Make You Dance
'I was really focused on this idea that I wanted to make a record that was at least a lot poppier than the first one," says Jessy Lanza. The genre-blurring singer and producer is referring to her debut album, Pull My Hair Back, which was nominated for the 2014 Canadian Polaris prize a big deal in Canada, where I'm from. I've managed to catch her on the phone at the beginning of her European tour to promote her new album, Oh No, freshly out from U.K. dance label Hyperdub. She's a long way from her home in Hamilton, Ontario, getting ready to play the second of back-to-back sold-out shows in London before she hits New York in July.
"It takes a lot of concentration and energy to deliver a whole set of slow burners," she says, referring to the minimalist, atmospheric tracks that made up most of her first album, which featured sultry rhythms and basslines layered under sparse vocals that owed a debt to Nineties r&b. "It takes a lot of energy to do fast songs too, but usually those songs get the audience going as well, so you can kind of feed off that."
She answers my questions cheerfully, but occasionally I can hear Lanza stifle a yawn, the fatigue from a busy few months catching up with her. She already toured Europe earlier this spring, opening for Junior Boys; Lanza frequently works closely with the electropop duo's Jeremy Greenspan, with whom she co-wrote and produced both her albums. (Lanza credits him with penning Oh No's title track. "I actually have no idea what that song's about," she says with a laugh. Greenspan, for his part, tells the Voice that the songs he writes for her "can go in different directions depending on Jessy's ideas or enthusiasm.")
Oh No is filled with nods to different genres and influences. It's the type of album that could soundtrack both a trendy gallery opening and a rooftop party, one that rewards careful listening but doesn't require it. Sure, it has a few slower jams the mellow "I Talk BB" sounds like it could have been written for Pull My Hair Back but Lanza mostly shows she's ready to let loose. In "VV Violence" (the "VV" stands for "very very"), she breaks out of her trademark high, breathy vocal register to open with the bratty chant, "Yeah, I say it to your face, but it doesn't mean a thing, no!" before rolling into an infectious, make-your-foot-tap drumbeat.
"Her sound has grown, evolved, and maybe sounds a bit more confident than the first album," says Kode9 (né Steve Goodman), the London-based DJ and owner of Hyperdub. "She shares elements with Prince, Eighties boogie, freestyle, Patrice Rushen, and r&b vocalists, in particular Aaliyah."
Lanza's electronic influences, it might be argued, come at least indirectly from her father, who ran a speaker rental business that served as a de facto crash course in electronic music production. (He and her mother were also both musicians, mostly playing in cover bands.) "[My father] bought synthesizers and drum machines," she says. "That sort of stuff was always around my house, but I didn't really take an interest in actually learning how to use it until, like, seven or eight years ago."
Instead, she first went on to study classical and jazz piano. But Lanza kept an open mind when approaching different genres. An uncle who lived in Japan introduced her to 1980s-era Japanese pop; she credits the Tokyo-based electro group Yellow Magic Orchestra as being a major influence on Oh No, and lately she has become obsessed with the legendary and prolific Akiko Yano's frenetic 1981 album, Tadaima. She also admits to listening to a lot of AM radio in Hamilton, which keeps 1970s acts like James Taylor and Steely Dan in heavy rotation. "I'm a big sucker for solo Lindsey Buckingham records," Lanza says. "Maybe that's not surprising, though."
Hamilton, a sleepy industrial city with a burgeoning arts scene located just southeast of Toronto, ended up being hospitable to her experimental urges. It's where she met Greenspan, as well as composer Dan Snaith, who performs under the stage name Caribou. "Jessy has a unique combination of skills as an artist," Snaith tells the Voice via email. She knows a ton about recorded music and has a "traditional harmonic and melodic" songwriting instinct, he says. "Crucially, though, she can take all that knowledge and distill it with her own sensibility to make something unique."
That's evident on the new record, which regularly approaches familiar pop territory only to make a sharp turn with a sudden vocal squeak or an uncanny rhythm pattern. It was while touring with Caribou that Lanza was inspired to venture into more dance-friendly pop. "Just seeing people respond to [Caribou] every night, there was an amount of energy that, when playing myself, I don't think I quite experienced," she says. "I absorbed that in some way, just this envy of wanting to be the one to make people really lose their minds."
Though Lanza still has a summer of touring ahead, Oh No has already proven itself to be another critical hit, an amalgam of niche international and anachronistic influences seamlessly blended into ten relatively accessible tracks. Canada has already excitedly laid claim to her artistry (as we do), but now she's primed to take over the rest of the world. As for how successfully it holds up as a dance record? That's for the audience to decide.