INTERVIEW: Hamilton electronic R&B artist Jessy Lanza refuses to be called a songstress

Hamilton's breakout electronic star would like you to know she's a producer first.

- Nov 14, 2013

Jessy Lanza has managed to keep her second life as a Hyperdub-signed electronic musician separate from her day job as a Hamilton music teacher. But inevitably, one student's family discovered the existence of her just-released debut Pull My Hair Back. “Its pretty adorable. I feel weird about them thinking that the album is overtly sexual," says Lanza. "I try to shut the conversation down, but they’re cool.”

More of those conversations are bound to be in the post. Lanza's nominated for four Hamilton Music Awards: Female Artist of the Year, New Artist of the Year, Electronic Recording of the Year, and the big one, Record of the Year. But her album promises to take her much further than southern Ontario, with a tour of Europe kicking off in late November.

We spoke to Jessy Lanza about the influence of the Hamilton music scene, her earnest love affair with R&B, her co-production relationship with Junior Boys' Jeremy Greenspan, and why she hates to be called a "songstress."

You're nominated for four awards at this Sunday's Hamilton Music Awards. Would you call your record a Hamilton album?

No. I made it here and I made it with someone who’s also from here, so I think Hamilton definitely has a role in the album, but a lot of my influences definitely come from outside here, outside of Hamilton and Canada in general.

The music scene [in Hamilton] is really supportive. When I first started playing live, everybody was so nice, it gave me that push to keep going. Everybody’s always been that way and I think it’s a huge thing when you’re trying to figure out, like, is my stuff worth showing to other people? Am I doing something that’s interesting?

Everybody here has always been super supportive. That’s what I like about living in Hamilton. Doing music is great because all of your friends actually come out to see you. You’re not just another act going on. You’re like the one thing that’s happening that night, because there’s not that much going on. So that can be shitty sometimes because it’s not a finger-on-the-pulse kind of place.

So there’s isn’t some crazy R&B scene that no one’s heard of in Hamilton, right?

Yeah, definitely not. But the other part of making music in Hamilton is that all the stuff that I make music with I inherited from my dad, because he used to do sound system stuff. There actually used to be a pretty good electronic scene in Hamilton in the '90s and my dad did sound system stuff for that. So it's not like electronic music has not ever existed in Hamilton. I think it's just rock music comes to the forefront of people’s minds when they think of what kind of music, and what people are proud of coming out of Hamilton as well.

Take me on a timeline of your appreciation for R&B, and how you cultivated it in Hamilton.

I remember taking dance classes when I was a little kid, and hearing that song “Don’t Take It Personal” by Monica. My teacher used it as our warm-up song. Maybe that was my earliest memory…or Paula Abdul or some shit. I liked all the stuff that was insanely popular when I was 10, so like Mariah Carey or Janet Jackson. Even though it was R&B it was the pop music that everyone was listening to. But I remember hearing Missy Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly was really popular when I was growing up, and Aaliyah was obviously really big for me.

I’ve noticed these days some R&B fans regard the music with a certain degree of irony. There’s an automatic and false acceptance that the genre has a degree of corniness that’s attendant with any enjoyment of it.

Yeah, I know what you’re saying. It’s almost like, a novelty to some people. And that's offensive in the same way that people don’t get how dressing up in certain Halloween costumes can be really offensive to people.

Have you met any of that reaction to your music yet?

No. I’ve had people ask me to define, like “Are you alt-R&B? What are you trying to do with R&B?” My answer is always I just love R&B music. I love mainstream R&B like I always have. It’s not novel to me. I’ve always liked it since I was a kid. In terms of production and singers, I’ve always found that music just affected me the most.

In that line too, I’ve noticed that in the different write-ups surrounding you and your album, there have been varying degrees of weight given to Jeremy Greenspan (of Junior Boys)’ influence on the album in his co-production role. How do feel about how that’s been handled?

There have been certain articles that have left me out in terms of production, like completely. And obviously that’s pretty annoying to me, when it’s been pretty explicitly stated in press releases that I’m not just a singer. I produced the album as well. But I think that’s just a reflection of the general popular scene being really sexist. It’s not something I spend all day fuming about because I understand that the record’s under my name and Jeremy’s an already established producer. It sucks that people always fall to the natural assumption that the guy does this and I do that, but I think that as time goes on and I put out more music I don’t think it’ll matter anymore. But yeah, it sucks when you read something and it says “songstress,” I hate that word. I don’t consider myself a vocalist.

What role do you consider your voice has in your music?

I find singing is useful because it’s catchy. I like hooks. I like things that stick in people’s heads. That’s why I want to use my voice and that’s why I like singing. It’s something that’s catchy that’ll stick with people. And I don’t think I have a particularly interesting voice, so I like manipulation. I like doing weird shit to the vocal in the song to make it interesting or make it resonate in some way.

How would you feel about someone lumping in your music with Drake’s “OVO sound,” as part of a cross-section of Ontario-based R&B artists?

I really like Drake, but I don’t think that’d ever happen because I don’t think that the music that I make… it doesn’t have enough mass appeal to it. It’s not warm enough for enough people to like it.

Is that conscious?

No. I mean, I love pop music. Like, if I wrote “Hold On (We’re Going Home),” I’d be pretty fucking proud of myself. I would want to put that on my album. So… yeah, there’s no purposeful distancing myself from the mainstream. Just the music that I make kind of happens that way. Deliberate thoughts just get in the way of being creative. It’s just too purposeful, it becomes contrived. I don’t think it’s good for making music.

What are some recipes you have for making good music? Have you figured them out yet?

I think the secret to making good music is making a lot of it and being able to select what’s good and what’s not. It’s just editing. It’s all about paring down, shedding material. I make so much shitty stuff everyday. That’s what I love about working with Jeremy, that he’s just somebody to bounce ideas off. Just to be like “That’s shit, this is good, that’s shitty, I think this is worth working on and this isn’t.” I don’t know how people function in big bands. I feel like that’s too many opinions. I like being paired with somebody. I like songwriting teams. Two people, I think, is ideal. It’s great to have somebody to bounce ideas off of.

Jessy Lanza: Kathy Lee (Hyperdub 2013)

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