June 7, 2016

The number of women in music production is steadily growing, but there are even less making music software YouTube tutorials. Just ask Jessy Lanza, she’s done her research.

“If you look on YouTube, that’s a really good reflection on how male-dominated [the industry] is,” she says. “There are really no fucking girls out there doing their own tutorials!”

The Canadian producer and vocalist, whose second album Oh No was released last month on Hyperdub, has picked up a few tricks via online videos, a quick fix for when she’s stumped in the studio alone. She’d never seen a woman hosting a how-to vid—which led her to ponder a side project of her own. “Maybe I should do that!” Jessy says, a wave of laughter following.

Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario—where she still lives now—Jessy, the child of musician parents, became immersed in music from a young age. Her studies in classical jazz lead her to teach piano, until about three years ago when she met Jeremy Greenspan of electronic duo Junior Boys. The two collaborated, their influences and ideas bouncing off one another, on Jessy’s debut Pull My Hair Back, released in 2013 on Hyperdub. Pairing minimalistic beats with production reminiscent of Jamie XX, Pull My Hair Back is ambient and full, apathetic and compassionate all at once.

On Oh No, Jessy’s vocals elevate from sultry swoons to incorporate bubblegum pop influences, teetering back and forth between Grimes and Joanna Newsom or Kelela and Erykah Badu throughout the album’s duration. However, where Pull My Hair Back was jittery and euphoric, Oh No is smooth and pulsating from “I Talk BB” to mesmerising “Vivica.” It’s R&B that listeners can both dance and wind down to.

In the days before embarking on a headlining tour in support of the album, Jessy checks in with us from her home in Hamilton—10 minutes away from where she grew up—to talk about her own brand of R&B and the perks of a songwriting partnership.
Photos by Faith Silva

Is there something sentimental about Hamilton that kept you there?
I’m a pretty sentimental person. I have comfort zones. When you’re travelling, it’s nice to have a place you can come home to. I grew up here, too, so it definitely feels like home and it’s nice to come back.

Your parents were both musicians. Do you think that played into your decision to create music?
My parents totally were the reason I got into music. They put me in music lessons when I was really young and always pushed me to be creative and write songs.

How did your training in jazz piano inform your current sound?
I think a lot of what both Jeremy and I do is really rooted in R&B music, and jazz is also the foundation of R&B music. It’s [basically] the same chords done at a different tempo and a different style, but the foundations are kind of the same. A lot of R&B music, or soul, is really jazzy, so it really wasn’t a far stretch. When I was in school, I was really into Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and The Roots—these new soul bands that didn’t seem like such a far reach for me when I was studying all this jazz music. It’s all kind of rooted in the same stuff.

Did you pull anything from their vocal stylings, too?
I loved Mariah Carey when I was a kid, but I never had a voice like her—I could never belt out those crazy high notes. So hearing a singer like Aaliyah and Erykah Badu, having these more soft voices made me realize you don’t have to be a powerhouse singer to have an interesting voice. That’s what I look for in singers that I like, people who have more unconventional voices. It’s okay to have a voice like that.

Sonically, there’s so much going on in your music. What’s the first idea that gets a song going? /br> Usually, I start with the drums and that’s a good foundation. I usually have a lot of fun with the drums as well. I have a few drum machines, but a lot of times there’s samples in there, too. I’ll have heard a song that has a really good kick or a cool snare sound or something. I’ll pull that from a song and make my own drum beats out of it. If it doesn’t start with the drums, usually it will be a sample or a loop and I’ll build on it from there. “It Means I Love You” from the new record, that was originally based on a sample from this song from this South African artist. It always starts with a sample.

You must listen to so much music yourself!
Definitely. I think listening to music is what drives me creatively. I’m always looking for samples or new music that I’ve never heard before.

It must be nice to have found someone you work really well with in Jeremy.
It’s really great! I spent a long time not having that and it’s definitely a lot nicer to have someone to bounce ideas off of or finish songs that are only halfway done when you run out of ideas. Jeremy’s great because he’s really talented and he doesn’t have an ego about it. He’s not afraid to make mistakes. It’s hard when you’re in the studio with someone and you’re worried about feeling stupid or making something stupid. You have to shed all of that if you want to get into something creative, at least for me.

Do those moments of insecurity ever creep in?
Oh, for sure! I work alone a lot of the time, too. If I have something I feel might be worth sharing, I’ll bring it to Jeremy. But I’m always fighting about this little voice that’s like, “You’re shitty!” But you have to ignore it or you won’t get anything done.

Did your nervousness influence this album?
My whole life I’ve had this anxious energy, I think that’s pretty common, but I’m just trying to turn that into something productive. Music has been the thing that I could do that’s an escape from being nervous or being preoccupied or obsessing over how you’re feeling. A lot of that energy went into this record.

Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about your music?
There was a time where people were really fixated on understanding what mine and Jeremy’s roles were in the band. That got a little tiring, having to explain that we both do everything on the record. There’s never a clear role. I think people were like, “So you sing, and Jeremy does everything else, right?” Like, fuck you! I do half the work!