Originally written for Clash in March 2017. Read the original article here.
Since Jessy Lanza dropped ‘Oh No’, her brilliant sophomore LP, last year she hasn’t exactly been taking things slowly. With a hectic touring schedule and numerous musical engagements, including her appointment to Radio 1’s Residency earlier this year, the Hamilton native hasn’t had much time to sit back and take stock.
With various European and US dates already in the pipeline for 2017, it’s already shaping up to be another busy year for Lanza. As she prepares to head back in to the studio with regular collaborator (and one half of Junior Boys) Jeremy Greenspan, I caught up with her to talk about touring, drawing inspiration from her Hyperdub label-mates and the fickle nature of curating the perfect playlist.
I take it it’s probably fair to say it’s been a pretty manic year for you, right?
Yeah, it’s definitely been busier than other years.
Have you had much time to make plans in terms of recording anything new over the past few months?
Not really. I mean, actually just this past couple of weeks I’ve been going in to the studio every day and getting back in to the groove of being there and just getting all my equipment set back up again. But yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually sat down and even tried to write any new music. Some people are quite good at having a system where they can write in transit or do something in transit. That’s great, but I haven’t really figured it out.
You’re still working with Jeremy Greenspan, aren’t you?
Yeah, Jeremy and I are working on stuff again in the early stages of just figuring out what we want to do next. I’m really hoping that we’ll have something short and new this year, but definitely by next year. You’ve also taken on the Radio 1 residency recently.
Do you make it over to the UK for those much?
Actually I’ve been sending those in remotely. [Laughs].
You’ve shattered the illusion now.
Yeah. I think in May I’m going to be on tour and I’ll actually be able to go in and do them, but yeah, that first one I had to send in because I couldn’t go in. It’s all smoke and mirrors.
Is that a bit of a luxury for you?
It’s obviously quite different to DJing live. Yeah, I mean the problem with recording those mixes ahead of time is I have too much time to think about it being not good enough. I think there’s something nice about doing it live and then that’s it. I pre-recorded that first mix and then left it a couple of days to listen to it and then, inevitably, I ended up doing it a couple more times over because I wasn’t happy with the first one. I’m looking forward to going there and doing it in person. I wish I had the money and time to fly over from Hamilton.
There were some nods towards your Hyperdub peers in that first set – Taso and the Teklife guys got a look in. Babyfather too. Is the tip of the hat towards those guys a conscious thing?
I mean, I wish I could say that it was more nepotistic but, honestly, I’ve been obsessed with Hype Williams since way before I signed on to Hyperdub and I’ve always just been a really big fan of both Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland. And Taso – he had just put out that album [New Start] and it was really good. I had to put something on there. But yeah, I guess putting on the stuff I listen to the most is what is important to me and it just so happens that a lot of the people that I listen to are people that I’ve worked with or people who are a few degrees away.
I guess, for me at least, it’s still a bit of a novelty hearing artists like that on a station like Radio 1.
Oh, yeah. I mean we don’t really have… In Canada there’s the CBC, but they’re really shit. They extend the offer for people to do playlists but then they’re like, “Oh, by the way – it has to be 85% Canadian and on our playlist.” So there’s not a lot of freedom. It’s so cool that the BBC has that and lets people do that.
And what about DJing live versus playing live? Do you have a kind of preference for one or the other?
I mean DJing is pretty… it freaks me out in the sense that I haven’t done it that much. It’s a bit of a new thing for me.
Your set at Primavera last year was great.
Oh, yeah. That was fun. That was a funny day. I was so terrified before that, because who was fucking playing before me?
You played right after Todd Terje.
Yeah! They’d described that gig to me as, “Yeah, it’s like a casual beach-side bar thing. It’s really casual.” And I get there and Todd Terje’s up there and everybody’s freaking out. It was fun, but I remember being quite freaked out because it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But it was great. Yeah, playing live is pretty scary, but I’ve come to embrace the unknown. Regardless of what goes wrong, it really doesn’t matter in the end… As long as you bounce back.
I think audiences kind of like fuck ups – as long as you come back from it. If something fucks up and there’s five minutes of uncertainty, as long as you come back from the fuck up, I think people are really willing to support you.
No one really wants to see somebody fail, I guess.
Definitely not. Especially if they paid money to watch you fail. [Laughs].
Let’s go back to Hyperdub. How did you come to sign with them?
What was it that initially appealed to you about the label? Well, basically, kode9 was the only one who seemed to have any interest whatsoever in the music that Jeremy Greenspan and I were making. And we had this private Soundcloud that we were sending around to people to see if anybody had any interest in putting it out and basically Jeremy and Steve [Goodman] know each other because I think Steve used to live with Jeremy’s sister 20 years ago, or something. So they’re old friends and I think they saw each other at a gig and he played Steve what we were working on.
Basically, the reason we signed to Hyperdub was because he was the only person willing to take a risk on it. Nobody else could care at all.
I guess you were already aware of their output. When did you sign? Had they put out DJ Rashad’s Double Cup at that point?
Yeah, I’m trying to remember. That was in 2013 – I think early in 2013 that that came out. And then ‘Pull My Hair Back’ came out in September. Yeah, so I think by late 2012 we knew we were going to release an album the following year. So that was a really exciting time. This sounds super clichéd, but I really didn’t think that that was going to happen. It’s great.
I know you’ve said previously that one of the best things about the label is they’re very hands-off. Do you value their input when they come to you and say, “Actually, this isn’t working”? You mentioned once before that they had asked you to completely revisit the second side of ‘Pull My Hair Back’.
Yeah, I think it was the same with ‘Oh No’. We sent maybe eleven songs and basically they said, “Half of this we don’t like very much and you’re gonna have to do more.” And at first I was like, “Fuck”. I was really… not pissed off, but I felt a bit drained, but they were right… ‘Pull My Hair Back’ was the same. We sent them a bunch of stuff and it’s hard to know what they’re going to like or not, but at the time when we’re working nobody is coaching you or whispering in your ear any paths you should take. It’s very much, “You should do what you want and then, if we like it, we’ll put it out.”
And do you ever find, post-album, there’s a song they don’t go for and then you find yourself touring it and re-working it?
Not really. I mean, to be honest, the songs that they thought were shitty actually turned out to be pretty shitty and I don’t play them. [Laughs]. Yeah, if there was a song that Jeremy and I really felt strongly for, we would fight for it, but it’s never worked out like that. The ones we’re unsure of are usually the ones that get the axe.
One thing I’m curious about is your work with the Teklife guys. How did you come to do the collaboration with Rashad, Spinn and Taso?
I was just really a huge fan. I loved the first Rashad release – the Rollin’ EP, I was really obsessed with. Then ‘Double Cup’ came out and I basically just asked Kode9, “Can you please ask them?” I just kind of fanned out and I just kind of inserted myself in to the situation and, yeah, they were up for it.
The ‘You Never Show Your Love’ EP is weird, because I sent them that vocal and the little keyboard parts in 2013, like, way before Rashad died – the year before. I think him and Spinn were just busy and I didn’t think the song was ever going to get finished and then right around – I can’t remember, I think it was around Christmas of 2014 or something, like all of a sudden the song was back and they had done something with it. And then Rashad passed away and more time passed and then it finally came out in 2015. But yeah, that song is really fucking old.
It’s very different to the stuff they’re typically known for.
[Laughs] Yeah. I think the thing I’d always loved from the start was how kind of jazzy everything… not everything, but all of the soulful jazz stuff – because I went to school for jazz, so there’s this kind of cheesy element. I always gravitate to the kind of neo-soul, jazzy stuff I was listening to when I was at school, which is bad, you know? But it was really important to me when I was eighteen years old and I feel that they do it well. They incorporate jazz and soulfulness.
It could just be so bad, but they strike that line without it being cheesy. It’s just great. I’ve always admired that about the way they incorporate that in to what they do.
There’s also this weirdly self-referential aspect to what they do. They do a lot of sampling, which I know you’re a big fan of. There’s something beautiful about taking a YouTube clip and turning it in to a tune. Has that style of production informed what you do?
Yeah, I was absolutely inspired by them taking that Juice sample that they use in ‘I Don’t Give A Fuck’. Absolutely. It was just something… it’s not like it had never occurred to me before to do it. They just do it and they do it really well and seamlessly. And I love how they draw on, not just pop music, but pop cultural things as well, like memes. You know that little clip from the Intervention episode with the autotuned guy crying? All of that. It’s so silly, but the songs are just so amazing. That has definitely been a huge inspiration for me.
Would you ever be inclined to put something out with a more ironic bent like that?
I don’t know. I don’t think I’m quite clever enough to pull that off, but right now I’m just trying to write anything that isn’t total shit. So I’m on a path, but this could take a little while, I think. [Laughs].
Do you ever find yourself in a position where you’re second-guessing yourself over what to put out?
Oh yeah. I’m always second-guessing myself. It’s hard when you’re in the moment and working on something, I definitely think it’s so important to take time and I’m always really kind of in awe of people who can turn over so much music in a year, because it’s really gutsy and there’s so much confidence in that – recording it and it’s just out and there’s not a lot of time to think about it. So I think that’s a good aspect.
But that’s why I like working with Jeremy Greenspan so much. He’s a great sounding board and I trust him and I trust the guys at Hyperdub too. I trust their opinions on what works and what doesn’t… I know what I like and don’t like, but it definitely helps to have people weigh in on things, especially when you’re in the middle of it.
Genre has become a pretty meaningless term nowadays, but would you say you’re keen to move in a particular direction after ‘Oh No’?
I think that, just based on the music that I’m always listening to and I’m inspired by, it’s always going to be based in pop music and in R&B. I was thinking about if there was one genre I could listen to for the rest of my life, what would that be? And I think it would just come back to R&B and funk music from, like, 1980 – 1984. Maybe ’86? I don’t know.
What about ’87? Prince put out ‘Sign O’ The Times’ around then.
I’m on my computer. Let me check. 1987. So yeah, we can stretch to ‘87. Yeah. ’87 is like a whole other DX7 universe. I mean, I love memorable things in music. I love hooks. I’m always a sucker for that, so I think that it’ll always be somewhat about pop music for me.