The Canadian musician’s graceful pop R&B debut—produced by a Junior Boy, released by Hyperdub—is startlingly good. We get the inside scoop plus her list of inspirational tracks. Photo by Tim Saccenti.
Hamilton, Canada sits nestled between Great Lakes close to the US border. Despite its distinction as the hometown of pop electronicists Junior Boys, and a population which includes a minority of Somali immigrants, it does not have the reputation as a particularly funky place. Jessy Lanza—white girl with the funk, born and raised in Hamilton—upends expectations with the graceful pop R&B of her debut album Pull My Hair Back, intriguingly released on Kode9‘s Hyperdub label. Produced and written in collaboration with Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan, the one expectation fulfilled stems from this relationship: clean electronics artfully arranged with the pulse of dance music. But while it’s inevitable that some of the sonic hallmarks would be recognizable, the combination of vocal pop immediacy and sophisticated songwriting touched with swing has made for a beguiling and timeless record that transcends the histories of the people who made it and the place it was born. In a transatlantic call, we spoke with Lanza to find out what keeps her moving.
Did you watch a lot of BET [Black Entertainment Television] as a kid?
Yeah, I did for sure. I would watch it with my friends or my sisters or by myself. I remember waiting for the video for this Amerie song to come on called “Why Don’t We Fall in Love” that the Canadian music channel (Much Music) would never play. There was also “Oh Boy” or “Hey Ma” by Cam’ron. I remember Clipse being really huge, as well. When I was in high school The Neptunes became really massive, so I’d wait for videos like “When the Last Time” or “Drop It Like It’s Hot” to come on. BET also had this slow jam show that would run at midnight called Midnight Love and that’s when they’d play a lot of old and new R&B. You could listen to some Jodeci B-side or tracks like “Again” by Janet Jackson, which is a song that I was really obsessed with as a kid. The Canadian music channel would never play that stuff.
Obviously, you’re very involved with R&B and have been for a long time. What do you think drew you into it in the first place? Do all of your friends love it as much as you?
I’ve loved R&B since I was a little kid. Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey were the first singers that I remember really obsessing over. Albums like Music Box and Janet were really important to me when I was a kid, because they’re the first albums I remember listening to over and over and had songs that I would try to learn how to sing. Those albums were huge when I was a kid, and I’ve just never stopped listening to R&B since then. [Aaliyah’s] One in a Million and [Missy Elliott’s] Supa Dupa Fly were really big for me, as well.
I have friends who are definitely into R&B, although there are only a couple of go-to people that will love certain songs as much as I do. For instance the new LoveRance/Omarion song was divisive.
Did you/do you go clubbing much?
No, not clubbing proper; not because I don’t like it, it’s just that Hamilton doesn’t have a clubbing scene that’s very inclusive. My friend has a a DJ night at a small bar where we can go and dance but that’s about it.
Okay, I’m guessing that this is the influence of Jeremy on the record?
Jer comes from a dance music background for sure. I love dance music but I’m no expert so most of the dance influences that come across on the record are Jer’s input.
As a musician trained in both classical and jazz piano, what draws you to R&B as your primary template?
A big part of studying jazz music is memorizing these really simple progressions and adding different chord tones to make simple chords and chord changes sound much more complex than they really are. A lot of the chord changes and progressions in jazz are the basis for ’80s boogie and R&B, so when I’d listen to R&B tracks and try to learn them on the piano, I already had this collection of go-to chords in my head. It made learning R&B songs really easy and a very natural progression.
How would you describe the breakdown in who did what for the record? Or describe the process of putting a track together?
The record is most definitely a 50/50 collaboration. We wrote these songs completely together as any songwriting team would. There is no natural separation of band-like duties (I didn’t do ALL the drums, Jeremy didn’t do ALL the basslines, etc); some songs are more mine, some are more his and overall the album is ours together. Jeremy, in fact, was more insistent on putting the album under my name because I think he is a fairly hesitant performer and seems to have little interest in being in another band, and definitely vetoed going on tour with me. I, on the other hand, want to have a full career working on and performing music. Naming this ‘some band’, that never toured, never performed and that was essentially going to be viewed as a Junior Boys side project by a largely mysoginist public, who would assume I did nothing, was not an option either of us wanted.
How would you describe the theme of the list you sent me?
I’d listen to these songs a lot when I’d come home at night from working at the studio. I think the songwriting and production of these tracks is a central theme. When I’d hit a wall on how to finish a track on the record, these songs were always a go-to for inspiration.
In her own words, Jessy Lanza on some of the key tracks that inspired her debut album Pull My Hair Back:
Womack & Womack – “Teardrops”
Her voice and the production really get me on this track—I love how it skirts the line of smooth jazz but is still such an amazing pop/R&B song. I also really admire the songwriting itself, I think it’s an incredibly written song. The way that the verse goes to the chorus and then to the bridge section only once is really genius. When I was writing the album and I’d get stuck on where to go with a track, like how to finish a musical idea or where to go with something, I would throw this on and get inspired by the melody and lyrics. It’s such a simple classic R&B style of vocal I just never seem to get tired of it.
The Other People Place – “You Said You Want Me”
I think of this track as being more a part of Detroit electro, but like I said I’m not an expert. I love a lot of things about this track. The snare and hi-hats are amazing. Those sounds definitely influenced the drums on songs like “Strange Emotion” or “Giddy”. I also love how simple everything is in this track. It’s just this repeated synth line with this pitched up/pitched down version of the same voice that just goes back and forth. It’s really emotional without saying very much. When I was writing the album, I’d get caught up in writing vocal parts and end up complicating a track with too much vocal and then trashing everything the next day because it sounded like shit. Listening to a track like this was a reminder of how effective space and simplicity can be.
Da Bassment – “Love You Down”
I love the Timbaland style drums in this track, but it’s Devante’s voice that really gets me—and why I’d choose this over the Ready For the World original. I love how it’s really understated and sounds like he dialed it in from a closet or something. There’s a really shitty quality to the recording that I love—like it sounds almost slightly out of tune with itself.
Jeremih – “Birthday Sex” (live)
I love how this version is like a classical pop ballad. I think this version showcases what an incredibly written song this is and also how amazing his voice is. His voice is so distinctive and I was really inspired by the vocal delivery and all the subtle and then not so subtle (high falsetto) things he does in his vocal performance. The catchiest part of this song for me is the way he says the word “I” in the chorus—like he draws out the syllables in this idiosyncratic way. When I was writing vocal lines I’d come back to this idea of just using one little unusual melodic turn or use of a word that would turn a boring phrase into something memorable.
Kashif – “I Just Gotta Have You (Lover Turn Me On)”
Kashif is one of my favorite R&B producers of the ’80s. He was part of the team who wrote and produced some of my favorite songs of all time like Evelyn King’s “Love Come Down” and Melba Moore’s “Love’s Comin’ at Ya”. What I find most inspiring about Kashif is that if you listen to this track and “Love Come Down” and “Love Comin at Cha” they all have this Kashif ‘sound’, like the bassline and the chord progressions and melodies are all just so unmistakably him.~
Jessy Lanza’s Pull My Hair Back is out on September 9th via Hyperdub Records.