Photo: Milos Jacimovic

Interview: Jessy Lanza

With her third album All The Time released today, Michael Cyrs caught up with the Canadian artist to discuss its creation, her videos and her relationship with pop music.

Jessy Lanza’s take on pop music has always been easy to approach, but difficult to understand. She marries it with experimental so well, you can barely see the difference between the two. Good art often does this. Take a look at the pointillism of a Seurat painting or the simplicity of Super Mario Brothers, and you think “I could do that.” Sit down to try it out, and you realize it’s much harder than it seems.

This instills Lanza’s records with an incredibly high level of relistenability. How did she get those synth tones? How did she get those vocal effects to work so well? (I’m looking at you, “Lick In Heaven”.) Who programmed the drums? Getting to ask her about these things is a rare treat, but I ended up finding out that what Lanza does is mostly borne out of honest, hard work.

Diving a little more into her history, it’s clear that it was always like this. There was a tension in the air while she was sitting on Pull My Hair Back in 2014, unsure that her music career would move forward at all. Even after being picked up by Hyperdub and seeing massive critical acclaim in the following years, making a new LP, her third, is still far from easy. The title All The Time hints at this: These songs are her most vulnerable, fleshed-out, and bustling yet. But, despite her incredible talents, she’s easy to get along with on a very simple, human level. Just like the rest of us, she’s a music fan that loves talking about it.

So, what are you tired of talking about in interviews?

Nothing! I never get tired of talking about the music. It’s been a while since Oh No and I’m like, rejuvenated. Also I’m not playing shows, so it’s nice to be able to connect with people and talk about the record.

You’re probably missing being on the road then?

It was a bit of a let down to not be going… I was supposed to do a tour with Yaeji. I think the hardest thing is that I really want to make plans, but the best thing is to like, do nothing right now. But, I’ve been working on new music, which is nice to have time for. Between Oh No and All The Time I think I burnt out a little bit on touring, but I’m not gonna have that problem this time around.

In the “Face” music video, you seem to be in a lot of everyday situations: by the grill, in the living room, on the basketball court, in the car… Do you try to turn those mundane settings into more of a club or a party?

We did do that video just around the time things were getting bad with the virus, so those are some of the only places we could be. We were certainly running out of spots, which gives it that domestic atmosphere. I’m not sure if it was so much intention as it is just what we were working with. We were trying to make something that’s visually interesting with what we have.

The impression I got was that it’s late at night and you’re listening to music way too loud, and you wish you could suddenly be transported to a club where you had a few people with you and some flashing lights.  Even your videos for Oh No were kinda like that, too.

Yeah I’ve noticed that all three albums definitely have these themes of feeling isolated and disconnected. They’re really about loneliness. I also noticed in so many videos, I’m just by myself trying to have a party. I think it’s become more amplified given that isolation is mandated now.

On this new album, I’m thinking about these feelings and I think using the pop format and pop tropes is a really easy way for me to get into the song. It’s almost like impressions of pop music, and using that as a vehicle to be able to get into more difficult subjects than romance. I was using the record as a way to deal with how shitty I was feeling; and trying to not be such a bummer… To listen to fun music and make music that was the opposite of what I was feeling; but reflecting on it at the same time.

Well, “Lick In Heaven” is a ton of fun. It has a depth of quality I didn’t pick up on until I turned it up very loud in the car. I’d really love to hear you talk about how you approach electronic tones.

That’s such a huge compliment. I love layering sounds and experimenting with my synthesizer collection. More than anything, it’s working with Jeremy Greenspan. On this album, he built this studio in Hamilton [Ontario] from the ground up – getting his control room just the way he wanted it. He’s a total audiophile and went above and beyond mixing this record. I think that’s where all of the sonic intricacies from the record come from. It’s nice to hear you were listening to it really loudly in the car. I like to imagine people listening in the car because I listen to a lot of music in the car.

What’s the process like between you and Jeremy when writing?

There’ll be one element I think is really good, like just one minute of a drum pattern or chord progression. Jeremy’s a real bridge master, and he’s good at adding that third part and fleshing out ideas I bring to him. There’ve been songs he’s started though, too. He’s not too precious about ideas working or not working, and is really committed to having fun with his equipment. With all the back and forth I was doing between Hamilton and New York City while recording, there’s a lot of layers. Think of a song like “Face”, we both just went to town adding layers and editing and adding. It got a little bit nuts, but I’m happy with how it turned out.

It’s probably your fussiest song.

It’s busy! There’s a bunch of different voices in there. There’s a City Girls sample and I think the “want ya” lyric is me pitched up and layered with a Drake sample, also pitched up. It’s hard to remember! There’s a lot of samples that just got thrown in there. My library is kind of a mess.

You bridge the gap between pop and experimental so well. Can you elaborate on those genres that you connect at all?

The reason I make music is really because I’m just a huge music fan. I don’t want to say that I’m like a musician’s musician, but I’m just really enthusiastic about music. People who are drawn to my music seem to be not just into “pop music,” but pop music over the course of time and why things sound the way they do and who influenced it. I think people are picking up on that enthusiasm.

You’re like an admirer or someone who’s trying to honor the pop music tradition.

That and just learning a lot. Going to school for jazz music was all built on learning this tradition. It was all about the approach of the people who did it before you. I spent so much time learning and transcribing piano solos in school – just copying people as closely as possible. I think that kind of listening and learning has filtered into the way I approach learning pop music too – studying arrangements, bass lines, and drum patterns and incorporating them. The most valuable lesson I took from jazz studies was the ability to listen; to really hear what people are doing and apply that to my love of pop music.

What do you have to say about the differences between All The Time and your other albums? “Baby Love” and “Face” seem particularly different.

The vocals are affected and manipulated just as much, but I put the lyrics in the album liner notes, which was something I would’ve never done before. I was working through a lot of feelings and big life changes while writing; I think this record is a lot more honest and emotive.

In terms of my own growth as a producer, I stopped being so hard on myself and took a long time recording everything. I would go through these periods on the other albums where I would spend all day in the studio, and be really self-destructive at the end, and just delete everything! I stopped doing that on this record and just let things sit for a few days, then took time to edit things together and just have more fun.

Do you have any songs that are about writing songs?

Not really. I think I use the idea of those pop tropes of romance and rejection to talk about my feelings of being rejected. Not necessarily romantically, but just in life – just being afraid of not knowing the way forward; not knowing if moving to a new city was the right thing to do, not knowing if a new relationship was the best way forward, not knowing why I’m like, angry all the time.

Well people are getting a lot of time today to ask themselves “What am I so upset about?”

Yeah, it never ends! That’s why I called the record All The Time; it’s like coming face to face with reality is never over. That sounds a bit corny and cliché, and those questions might not have an answer for a while, but it’s eventually going to change. I think accepting that there is never gonna be a permanent answer is a bit of a headfuck, for sure. This is definitely a headfuck of a time.

What are you up to during quarantine? Are you playing Animal Crossing?

No, I’m kind of afraid that if I open up my Zelda: Breath of the Wild game I won’t be able to stop. I’m not trying to be high and mighty, because I think about it a lot! I just want to stay focused on these videos and the album release. I’m nervous about these next videos coming out, and it’s hard to stay focused.

Post-album, I think getting back into that game will be a treat for myself. It’s pretty high-grade escapism.

Anything else you want the world to know about All The Time?

Other than “please buy it,” just listen to it at least once on headphones. That’s my only request. Not to be bossy, but I think you’ll get a lot out of it. But, yeah, buy it.

Jessy Lanza’s new album All The Time is out now on Hyperdub Records. You can find her on Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.