In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “essential” by any definition they choose. This week, Hamilton singer/producer Jessy Lanza tells us about all the influences that went into her Polaris Prize-shortlisted sophomore album Oh No.
Jessy Lanza spends most of her time in her studio in Hamilton, listening to songs and trying to figure out how to play them.
Her second album, Oh No, which came out this year, is part embodiment of her anxiety, part relief of it. Making music for a living opened up a whole new world of stress, she says, stress that she'll run out of ideas, that she'll never be able to write a good song again. And in those moments, she finds inspiration in other peoples' music, obsessing over little details in songs by Phyllis Nelson, say, or DeBarge.
"Being able to learn new songs, to figure out chords to something or to start building my sample library, that's my stress relief," she tells me. "Being in my studio is my happy place. Going there every day is my anchor, even if it's just sitting in there and listening to songs on YouTube."
Whenever I start feeling like that and get frustrated with everything that I'm doing being shitty, the thing that helps me the most is listening to other people's music or learning other people's music. That's a huge escape for me.
So we dove deep with Lanza, getting into the music that soothes her, influences her, and inspires her to keep going. Talking about Japanese pop from the '80s, Chicago footwork, and trappy radio rap, her depth of insight comes as no surprise.
Miharu Koshi, Tutu (1983)
Jessy Lanza: I think this was the most influential album when Jeremy and I were working on Oh No. That was a big influence for me.
Miharu Koshi is a Japanese pop singer. I became really obsessed with the entire Yellow Magic Orchestra discography. Once I got through that, I started exploring all of their solo projects. Haruomi Hosono, who's in YMO, produced this record for Miharu Koshi. That's how I found it.
The production is really strange. It's kind of like Yellow Magic Orchestra in that it's hard to pin down what genre it is exactly. It sounds like so many of these different things, but it's distinctly his production. It's sort of like, synth pop, disco, and a bit of techno. She has a really strange high-pitched voice. This album is amazing, I would really recommend it.
Jeremy and I listen to so many kinds of music and are into so many different genres. I think that's one thing about Yellow Magic Orchestra that I really love. There's a lot of different genres that you can hear, but it's still unmistakably them. That's something that Jeremy and I were always thinking about when we were making the new record.
New Musik, From A to B (1980)
This is one of those records that I've been listening to for, like, the last six years. Once a week or something. Tony Mansfield, who is this really amazing English producer, was in the band. It's really poppy, it reminds me of a kind of indie rock version of Prince. It's a really strange album. They used all these different vocal effects and studio tricks before it was easy to do those sorts of things. Like, tape splicing. They were incorporating studio tricks into pop songs, being experimental but still maintaining these pop song structures.
Chart Attack: Is that something try to do in your music too? Do you consider yourself a pop artist?
Yeah. I don't think other people see it that way, but I do.
Why do you think other people don't view you the same way?
I think that, unfortunately, what makes a pop hit has become very narrow and conservative recently.
I always think it's weird that the band Art of Noise, their song "Moments In Love" was a number 1 hit song, or, like, "Ghosts" by Japan. They're such weird songs, but they were Billboard number 1 hits in like 1985 or something. I can't imagine those songs ever being something that would be on the radio or go to number 1 today.
I think right now, music is in a transition. People don't know what works anymore. People are concerned with making money. Nobody's into taking risks. I think people are really conservative when it comes to pushing pop music and things that are on the radio.
So do you think most of the pop songs that are on the radio right now fit into a certain mode or sound?
Yeah, it's just shit. Throw a fucking flute sound on it like that Justin Bieber song and hope for the best. [laughs] And I like that Justin Bieber song! It's just the radio, it's fucking appallingly bad. Some of it's great, but it would be nice if there was some variation, you know?
Is there anything on the radio that you would say does inspire you?
Bryson Tiller, Trapsoul (2015)
I love this record so much. I was listening to it every day for a while. He's kind of like, a shitty version of Jeremih a little bit. He's got this really great voice, but the production is really shit. It's super lo-fi, and you can hear all this shitty recording on the album, but the sonics are so good that it doesn't matter. There's some really great, great songs. They're really simple, and the songwriting is really amazing.
So we've established you're not very influenced by the radio. When you're looking for inspiration, where are you looking?
On the internet.
Yeah, it seems like you're doing a deep dive a lot of the time. Like, a lot of this stuff is not necessarily something that you'd find at the record store, even.
No, unfortunately not. That Miharu Koshi album I was talking about earlier [Tutu], Kode9 from Hyperdub actually sent that to me and was like, "I think you would really like this." I fell in love with that record. I became obsessed with it.
Luckily, I have friends who are very obsessed with music and basically just want to put you onto what they're into. I have a couple friends in particular who'll be like, "have you heard this?" I'm really lucky to have that, to know people who are really obsessed with music and finding new music.
Who is in that circle?
I mean, Jeremy of course, but I do everything with him so that doesn't really count. David Psutka, or Egyptrixx, he mixed the entire album. If he hadn't been there to help us make decisions, I think Jeremy and I would have killed each other on like, mix 26.
Morgan Geist is another person whose opinion I really respect a lot. My friend Johnny Dark, who's in Hamilton, is another really great person to play stuff for as well. He actually was in Junior Boys when it first started. He was the original Junior Boys member with Jeremy, a long time ago.
But yeah, also my friend Christy Sealey who's in a band called Orphx. They're really great, if you've never listened. I always play stuff for her as well, she always has really interesting feedback to give.
And Dan Snaith [of Caribou] too. I remember playing him the album and asking him what we should release as the first single. I wanted to do "It Means I Love You," and we were kind of hemming and hawing about it, and Dan was like, "you've gotta do 'It Means I Love You.' That's the one." Just because it was a very strange song and very different from anything I'd released before. He was so right. I'm happy I listened to him.
DJ Rashad, Double Cup (2013)
This is a huge record to me. I didn't really know that much about footwork or about that kind of music, and this record really blew me away.
We recently did an Essential Albums with Junior Boys, and in that interview Jeremy Greenspan talked about how being from Hamilton is an interesting place to make electronic music. There's a small community but not that much of scene, so your influences aren't necessarily in front of you.
The music scene in Hamiton is pretty strange. More than anything I think the city has a lot of interesting noise bands, but other than that there's not too much going on. I've always just been into what they were playing on MuchMusic.
You're on Hyperdub, which is an English label. What's your relationship to the UK music scene?
I don't really have one, to be honest. I know I release music on Hyperdub, which is based out of London, but in terms of being influenced by UK dance music, I'm just not really.
How'd you get involved with that label?
Well, Steve, Kode9, is a really good friend of Jeremy's. When we were working on music in early 2013, before the record came out obviously, we were sending songs around to people. We had this private SoundCloud link that had five tracks on it, and Kode9 was the only one who cared at all. He was the only one willing to release it. Nobody else gave a shit. He said, yeah, if you finish an album that's like these five songs, I'll put it out. Basically, Jeremy and I went from there and finished Pull My Hair Back.
Were those Canadian labels that you were sending them to?
There were, but we were basically just sending it to everybody. Anybody we thought might be interested. We sent it to lots of people, and nobody was into it. Basically, Steve's the only one who gave a shit about it, and that's why it came out on Hyperdub. [laughs]
Haruomi Hosono, Pacific (1978)
This album really helped me get through a really dark period when Jeremy and I were working on Oh No. I couldn't sleep, and was just sort of up at night, freaking out about what I was doing and being caught up in worrying about what would happen with the album. Really, I was worrying about nothing.
It's a concept album that's basically about an island in the Pacific. It really helped me to sleep, and I just became obsessed with it because it's a really strange album. It's hard to classify, but it's got this one really amazing song called "Cosmic Surfin'" on it, which kind of sounds like a video game disco instrumental. It's strange.
Basically the whole record is a kind of electronic, like soft atmosphere. It's really hard to classify what the genre is. There's so many different connotations to all of the little melodies that you hear. It kind of sounds Japanese, but then it kind of sounds like luau music. It's just really weird, you should listen to it and see what you think.
You've said that music is your way of dealing with anxiety, but then if you were making this album and it was causing you anxiety then that must be a weird relationship to making music.
Yeah, it is really, it is weird, and it's definitely gotten weirder since I started doing it as my job.
Usually what stresses me out is the idea that, like, I'll never be able to write a song that's any good again. That's just it, I have no more ideas. Whenever I start feeling like that and get frustrated with everything that I'm doing being shitty, the thing that helps me the most is listening to other people's music or learning other people's music. That's a huge escape for me.