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A Quietus Interview

A Fluid Trip: Jessy Lanza Interviewed
John Thorp , May 23rd, 2016 09:30

Jessy Lanza talks to John Thorp about the intersection between R&B, juke and pop

Portrait by Alex Welsh

“I don’t feel as paralysed with fear when she’s there”, Jessy Lanza reassures me, followed by one of many frequent, knowing laughs. Lanza is reflecting on the benefits of her live drummer, Tori, a friend from her hometown. She’s a recent, welcome addition to the compelling, formerly solo live show developed in front of increasingly huge live audiences supporting the likes of Caribou and Junior Boys. It’s not that Lanza isn't a confident, compelling performer in her own right, but she’s more than aware of what she might have been up against.

“I’m not gonna lie, some of those shows were pretty rough”, Lanza recalls. “It was really nice to go back to Brussels recently. The last show I had done there was opening for Caribou at this really nice venue, but it was one of those really quiet shows, with a decibel limit, where I could hear the tinkling of glasses at the front. I was like, “Just kill me, I wanna disappear.” Obviously people are not there for me, they’re like, “Who the fuck is this girl?” But I think going out there by yourself, people respect that you’re at least brave. And I went back and did such a great show, one of the best of that tour. You never know who you’re winning over out there.”

Despite the requisite nerves, since the 2013 release of her debut LP, Pull My Hair Back, Lanza has not struggled to win audiences over. A soulful, experimental pop record indebted to golden era R&B beat makers such as Timbaland, yet filtered through woozy atmospherics all of her own, it arrived as a roundly well received progression from the always forward thinking UK imprint Hyperdub.

On it’s follow up, Oh No, Lanza ushers her vision out of the reverb and into the light, offering just shy of 40 minutes of truly individual dance music laced with energy and positivity. Lanza, in her early thirties and a student of jazz, might not seem like an obvious candidate for pop stardom. Yet with Oh No, she has produced an authentic statement of glorious musical intent. "I want to make people feel good and I want to make myself feel good", she adds in the press notes. Far from a love letter to R&B, this might be the finest R&B record you’ll hear this year full stop.

What’s changed while she’s been on the road?

“The fact that R&B and hip hop is the top 40 music, is undeniable”, says Lanza. “They really can’t deny it anymore. And maybe people will stop trying to describe it in this ‘genre’ way. That’s the music I grew up with, as pop music.”

Still, creating pop music this good is not without it’s further challenges. As we speak, Lanza and her label have the unenviable task of chopping down lead single ‘It Means I Love You’ into a radio friendly edit. The addictively bouncy track contrasts Lanza’s intimate proclamations with a driving ascent into the upper BPMs of Chicago footwork, and then straight back out the other side. Last summer, Lanza collaborated with Hyperdub regulars and key footwork figures Spin and Taso, on club single ‘You Never Show Your Love’. She was both surprised and complimented that they had resisted the urge to chop up her vocals beyond recognition (“They took it to 80BPM… I wasn’t sure that it would ever come back!”) Still, did Lanza ever imagine herself inadvertently veering into juke culture?

“I have one friend from home who was super into juke even before DJ Rashad signed to Hyperdub” recalls Lanza. “I love how jazzy it is, that’s part of it that really appeals to me. Because I went to jazz school, it’s close to me, and hearing it transformed is really interesting.”

The knotty, academic side of Lanza’s brain has often proved challenging when composing the sort of heart-on-sleeve tracks littered throughout Oh No. In the more conservative atmosphere of jazz school embraced through her late teens and early twenties, Lanza’s deeply held love of great chart music went largely underutilised.

“For a long time, through formal training, I only thought one way and it took me a long time to get out of that way of thinking”, admits Lanza. Although it was clear from a young age, and with the particular encouragement of her father that Lanza would follow a path in music, it has reassuringly taken some years to find the sweet spot she currently, seemingly effortlessly occupies.

“When I was growing up, I never had a strong, powerhouse vocal”, recalls Lanza, whose distinct and charming tones nonetheless undergo wilful manipulation throughout her records. “I had teachers tell me, “Well, you’re not Aretha Franklin, but you should try”, and of course obviously, I’m not. But I never understood the importance of your voice maybe not being powerful, but unique. Accepting that my voice is kinda shitty, but it can be good. I love diva vocalists and I admire lots of them, but the thing that I find endearing is a weird voice, which is just as good. When I’ve been teaching, I have had young girls come in who want to sing like Mariah Carey, and I have no fucking idea, because I have the opposite voice!”

Portrait by Hollie Pocsai

Teaching, along with restaurant serving, was a regular gig for Lanza prior to her current life as a full-time musician. She has also run DIY electronic workshops for young girls, presumably partially in response to the frustration of having to identify the specifics of her role alongside Jeremy Greenspan, one half of Junior Boys and her production and writing partner. Both reside in Hamilton, a small Canadian suburb near Ontario, and, as usual, share production duties on Oh No.

Beyond its bombastic lead single, Oh No is a fluid trip through Lanza’s musical impulses and influences. While the term ‘sensual’ has been arguably been lazily utilised to describe Lanza’s heavy vocals, they’ve yet to sound as vulnerable and alluring as throughout stand out cut ‘Vivica’, while ‘Never Enough’ crackles with the energy, optimism and above all pleasant surprise of new love. Lanza has long wanted to work as a writer for other, more linear pop artists. Presuming Oh No, a fine calling card, reaches the right ears, is realising this ambition on the horizon?

“Oh, we’ve tried”, Lanza reveals. “Tenashi’s people put out a call for beats. They wanted like a truffle butter beat. Jeremy and I tried to come up with something, and wherever it got sent, people either didn’t listen to it or thought it was piece of shit. We admire people like The Dream, who can write his own music, but then he can write 'Umbrella'. We admire the craft of writing pop music, but neither of us quite know how to do it.”

Still, it’s that uncertainty that makes Lanza and Greenspan’s partnership so compelling, and Lanza wonders how the songwriting process would pan out in a group setting (“To relinquish control would be harder”, she admits). Control is something Lanza retains much of through Hyperdub, where her music sits as a refreshingly buoyant companion piece to the grittier, occasionally more abrasive work of labelmates such as Fatima Al Qadiri and Dean Blunt.

“My studio is the escape, for sure, that’s kind of what keeps me motivated”, adds Lanza. “And it’s weird with music, because it’s always been such a big part of my life, and the one thing that makes me happy. But choosing music as a career path, if you’re prone to depression or anxiety, it’s kind of one of the worst paths you could choose. So I think routine for me is important, and that’s what the studio is, that keeps me sane and feels alright.”

Given the intensity of Lanza’s schedule this coming year, largely touring alone, keeping sane is undoubtedly a premium concern. Still, for a music geek, there are surely worse situations to be in than out on the road with your creative partners?

“All nerds want to do is talk about what they're listening to”, admits Lanza. “Everybody just has this 'Have you listened to this?' attitude. 'I’ve got all the torrents for this, you can have them on my thumb drive.' You can access that anywhere but it’s very nice to have personal recommendations for all that stuff. On the flip side of that, sometimes when I’m on tour, I prepare all this stuff, series to watch, albums to listen to, and then I remember on the Caribou tour, I did fuck all. I just had this game on my phone, this awful game, where you just strategise a virus to take over the world. And all I wanted to do was play this fucking game.”

Jessy Lanza, then; truly infectious.

Oh No is out now on Hyperdub