Photo by Alex Welsh
With 2014’s Pull My Hair Back, an undulating masterpiece of cool sensuality—the perfect soundtrack to a night in a smoke-filled room surrounded by Egyptian Cotton and someone else’s skin—Jessy Lanza took the blogosphere by storm. Tracks like “Kathy Lee” and “5785021,” while surmounting more than two million listens combined, kept the R&B songstress at arms-length from listeners via manipulated vocals beneath a sonic haze. In the past, the Hamilton, Ontario native has valued ambiguity over being obvious; on her forthcoming follow-up, Oh No, however, she explored being more direct with her pop influences and vocals, and in the process, her own fears (which include mold, going down escalators, and having a career in music). Read on for a glimpse into her process and listen to an exclusive stream of Oh No, out May 13 on Hyperdub.
NOISEY: You made a list of 6 Japanese electronic pop albums that inspired you while writing Oh No. How did you get into that kind of music?
Jessy Lanza: I actually have an uncle that introduced me to Yellow Magic Orchestra when I was a teenager. So, Technodelic I’ve always really liked, and Naughty Boys as well. I was also a really big fan of Neuromantic, which was one of [Yukihiro] Takahashi’s solo albums. Jeremy Greenspan introduced that record to me like six or seven years ago. And also all of [Ryuichi] Sakamoto’s music he did with David Sylvian in Japan, like they did Bamboo Music, and Sakamoto did the soundtrack for that movie with David Bowie in it, Goodbye Mr. Lawrence. I’ve always been a fan of them and their side projects and mostly the Sylvian/Sakamoto stuff. It was only the last couple years since I’ve really gotten into Haruomi Hosono’s side project. The album he did with Mmharu Koshi called Tutu—actually Kode9, who runs Hyperdub, sent me that record in the summer and was like “I think You’ll like this” and I just became obsessed with it. And that record especially was a huge inspiration for making Oh No.
I was reading that all the plants in the video for “It Means I Love You” and on the album cover are tied into how you were concerned about the quality of air in your house and how it’s probably killing you. When did that start?
I moved into Jeremy’s [Greenspan] house, and it’s really old, and the basement is unsealed, and one time there was a mushroom growing in the shower. Like a fucking mushroom! And I was just like, ‘What the fuck are we breathing in.’ So that was a turning point for sure. It’s because we stay up really late—that’s why we feel like shit, you know—but, I just started to think like, ‘Oh, we’re both always so tired and lethargic, and maybe the air in the house…” Have you ever heard about radon before?
Radon… maybe in a high school science class or something. What is it?
These ads went up around Hamilton where there was this really scary looking picture of a crack in the floor and this really ominous green stuff leaking out, and it was like, “Do you have radon in your house? Radon causes like 40 percent of all cancers”… some crazy statistic… I think what it really was was that I was really anxious and not dealing with a lot of issues and it was manifesting in the idea that the air in the house was the problem, and not me.
So, was there any radon in your house?
No radon [Laughs].
Well if it wasn’t the radon, where do you think some of those anxieties were coming from?
If I just look back, I’ve always been nervous. Just like crying over shit and getting anxious over stuff, it didn't matter, like I used to be scared of getting on escalators going down. That really freaked me out. And that’s normal, for kids to have weird little anxieties… But for me, music has always been an escape from that and something to do and something I've taken solace in. And I think when I put out Pull My Hair Back and it actually went well and people liked it and suddenly music became my job, it was weird thing for me. Because I think of all the careers you could pick, if you’re prone to anxiety, a career in music is kind of the worst one you could choose.
There are a lot of musical differences between Pull My Hair Back and Oh No—faster tempos, and your vocals are much more direct on the new album. Do you feel like your anxiety contributed to these sonic shifts in any way?
I think for the first record neither Jeremy nor I quite knew what we were doing. We both knew we were really into R&B and we had those influences to go off of. But, I think while we were making Oh No, we were both more focused on the idea that it was going to be a poppier record. I think I was just more confident with my voice. I just had this idea like, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna go for this.”
So, was there a little shyness behind deciding to have your voice blend with the music on the last record?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it was a way for me to get into producing as well. I’ve always been self-conscious about my voice… manipulating the vocals was a way for me to start experimenting with different delays and reverbs and pitch.
But now you’re experimenting in different ways with Oh No.
I think I was also really inspired by this project I did with Morgan Geist last June called The Galleria.
How do you think that project informed what you were doing in your solo work?
One track I that did write after working with Morgan was “Never Enough,” and I totally ripped him off, but to be honest a lot of the record was already written. It was funny, we sent a whole bunch of songs to Hyperdub and basically they were like, "Yeah, we like some of this, but it doesn't sound like you guys are quite there." I wasn’t stoked on that, but I think ultimately they were right, because it is a better album after us going back.
Did you go back and rework those songs or did you just abandon them?
Yeah, there were a whole bunch. There were about four or five songs that just got left behind.
Are there any plans to use those tracks later on?
I don’t know, maybe. I think maybe if I really loved them I would have fought for them more. I’m not really sure.
What were some of the songs that survived that crossover?
“It Means I Love You,” for sure.
Thankfully! That’s a great song.
Thankfully, yes, and thank you! I like that one too. I’m glad it didn't get challenged. “Could Be U” is a really old song, that was one of the first ones we started working on. “Going Somewhere,” “New Ogi.” Oh, and “Oh No,” that one was before, too.
So the other tracks came after Hyperdub laid the smackdown on you.
[Laughs.] Yeah. With “VV Violence” and “Never Enough,” I remember writing those really fast. I remember re-working ”VV Violence” in the summer because it was really hot in the vocal booth and I was really sweaty.
What’s the “VV” for?
“Very very,” that’s just what was in my head.
So I was reading up that you’re a huge fan of Rihanna’s “Work.”
We played Sonar Festival in Stockholm and Le1f was playing there as well, and I had this little back-and-forth with him on the internet, it was one of those little internet friendship where you never meet the person, and then we finally got to meet. He came in doing the moves that Rihanna does to “Work” into our dressing room from out in the hallway. And me and Jeremy were just like, “Dude, we also love this song.” He had it in his set as well. That was a nice moment.
Are you a big fan of Drake as well?
I love Drake. I mean, it’s not like everything he does is a golden egg, but I’m definitely fan.
Do you feel a little Canadian pride when you listen to him?
Not really. I mean I feel more pride listening to him than a lot of other people. It’s weird because there is a lot of good stuff coming out of Canada, but Canada’s got this real indie bullshit obsession. I don’t know, the radio in Canada sucks so bad.
What do you think is missing?
I know that this sounds surprising because Drake is from Canada, and PARTYNEXTDOOR, and The Weeknd, but there is no good hip-hop or R&B station. The one in Toronto fucking blows.
It sounds like you need to lobby for better radio up there, you have a really passionate argument against it. I’m guessing you don’t spend a lot of time listening to it.
That’s actually not true, I listen to Jewel 92, it’s an easy listening station. They play like soft rock. They play like, Ambrosia.
I would have never pegged you for a soft rock fan.
Yeah, 10cc. It’s great. [Laughs.]
Jessy Lanza's album Oh No is out on 5.13 via Hyperdub.
Artemis Thomas-Hansard never grew out of her emo phase. Follow her on Twitter.