Interview: Jessy Lanza talks “Oh No”, collaborations, and overcoming anxiety

Jessy Lanza. (Photo: Hollie Pocsai)

2016 Polaris Music Prize short-lister Jessy Lanza’s new album, Oh No, is addressed to her own constant nervousness. The pressure of music making, which used to calm her nerves, has led to a whole new world of contingencies that stoke the anxiety mill. The exclamation ‘Oh No’, for Lanza marks yet another incident of randomness interrupting her tranquillity. Made in her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, the plaintive, reverb drizzled mood of the her debut album has all but given away to a more direct, self-assured and joyful experience on Oh No. As with many artists whose hometown lie off the usual network of cultural hotspots, Oh No is driven positively by the idea of making music that isn’t inspired by where she lives.

Instead, the album resonates more with the philosophy of experimental pop of Japanese 80s electro outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra and Lanza’s breathless, pitched vocals are reminiscent of YMO collaborator Miharu Koshi. Playfully laced with cascading arpeggios, crispy drum machines and breezy songs, Oh No has an infectious energy that has been brewing in her live shows since her first album.

Anxiety and botanical remedies or not, Oh No is a bold second album and a marked step forward for her sound. In our new interview, she told us about how she gets past her anxiety while making music that outlines it, what it’s been like collaborating with other artists, and more.

Oh No is a musical exclamation of your own nervousness and anxiety, but you’ve also displayed a lot of confidence in collaborating with other artists. What was it like collaborating with artists like Caribou, DJ Spin, and Morgan Geist. 

All of those situations were similar in that working together, we didn’t really work together at all. It was all done remotely and over email. So it’s weird sending things over email and out into the world, then getting your feedback, criticism, and changes back over email. I mean it was great, they were great collaborations, but it’s me working the way I always do, which is just sitting in the studio with my computer. (laughs) It’s not very exciting, it’s me doing things by myself then sending things back and forth.

So you don’t get that more intimate, working in the studio together feeling to it?

I enjoy working the way I work. I don’t really like jamming, I like knowing what I’m doing. I like the time to… it was different when Jeremy and I worked together, because we’re in the same city, but I don’t mind working remotely. I think it’s more productive in a way.

Your 2013 debut album was also co-produced by Jeremy Greenspan from Junior Boys, another Hamilton band. When I spoke with him about working on the first album with you, he said you two worked together well, that it was smooth and quick. Was Oh No a similar process to that?

For the first record, I don’t know, maybe he’s misremembering. We did a lot of songs that never made it onto the album. There was a lot of trial and error, but it is true that we have a lot of fun together, so it never feels like work. With Oh No we were focused on this idea that we wanted to make a poppier record. I knew what I wanted to call the record, I knew what I wanted it to be about, so that made it go really fast. I think we finished the whole record… we started it in January, then it was done by the summer.

The album outlines the pressure that come to when you’re in the music industry, and how it tends to become a stress rather than a stress relief after a while. Does the stress of making music ever outweigh the pleasure for you?

No, I feel like you’re either stressed out, or you’re not. (laughs) Obviously people have factors in their lives that make things more stressful, or not stressful, depending on the people you have around you.

It was definitely hard for me to address having music be my full income, because it’s a very unpredictable, volatile industry. I’ve had so many freak outs where I’m just like *gasps* “what the fuck am I doing, I have no money, things come in and it’s like we’re going to give them 20,000 dollars,” then an hour none of that is happening anymore. It is hard to deal with, but I remember working other jobs and I was just as stressed out. I think it really is that you have to get into a good state of mind about things. Work is stressful and it’s just learning how to deal with that. You might die at any given time, (laughs) so that’s stressful as well.

Makes sense, anything that becomes a job, it changes it. I don’t know if it really takes away from it, but it definitely changes it when it becomes your full time job. It makes it more of a job than an escape.

Yeah, with music… I mean I’m very lucky to be able to be focused on being creative and it hasn’t gotten to a point with me yet where it’s… I think if I didn’t like it, I would just start doing something else. It’s not like I’m saving lives. (laughs) It’s not that important that I keep making music. It’s great, I love it, but you know what I’m saying.

Jessy Lanza's new album, Oh No, is short-list nominee for the 2016 Polaris Music Prize.

Jessy Lanza’s new album, Oh No, is short-list nominee for the 2016 Polaris Music Prize.

I got a bit of a Michael Jackson vibe at some points. Is that just me, or did he have any influence on your music?

Oh my God, Jer and I both love Michael Jackson, he’s our favourite. When he comes on on the radio we’re like “Oh my God, how is he so good?!” So you’re 100 per cent right.

When you listen to the album in full, it goes from slow jams, to catchy and upbeat, to bouncy high-pitched tracks. When you were making the track listing, did you implement any specific order to spring certain emotions, or tell a story?

We changed the album order a lot and listened to it front to back and it seemed to flow and fit the best. Other than the songs working together, there wasn’t much else, but there’s no concept to the order of the songs.

Anxiety is something that can take over your entire being. When you went into the studio to portray that constant off-putting feeling anxiety gives you, what did you do to keep yourself from having constant anxiety attacks?

I find that focusing on something else is the best strategy. I might have a moment where I’m feeling really low, but if I just focus on learning a song that I really love, or figuring out the chord to something. If I get frustrated or feel down about my creative output, or feel like I’m not writing anything good, I just go to something else. Like listening to an album I’ve always meant to listen to, or learning the chords to a song that I really love, or whatever. It’s all about distraction.

You tried to stay away from giving Oh No a hometown vibe and kept away from that being the inspiration of your music. Other than the anxiety, what were some things that you drew from in the writing/recording process?

If there was one theme that I could come back to, I think it would be rejection. (laughs) If I think about the feelings I had going in and writing songs like VV Violence, or Never Enough, they came after we had finished one version of the album and sent it in to Hyperdub. I thought we were finished and basically they were like “yeah, half of this is good and half of this is not so good, I don’t think you guys are there yet.” I was so fucking pissed off about it, because I was just like “I thought we were fucking done.”

I felt shitty and I felt like this isn’t going to work and I don’t know if I can have that in me, then I remember going to my studio and just being annoyed and pissed off. Then I wrote those two songs and Jeremy and I finished them really fast and it turns out that they were right and I’m really happy that they sent us back. But I remember those songs coming from a place where I felt pissed off, but I felt that they were right. Half of the album wasn’t as strong as the other, so yeah, rejection is the feeling I remember the most.

This is a clear step forward in your sound and you’ve been making big moves in the touring department lately. What has the experience as a whole been like for you?

It’s been great. It’s weird (laughs) thinking back to three or four years ago, my life was a lot different. I don’t really know what to say other than it’s been really great.

Speaking of the touring, on your own and with Junior Boys, you’ve been on tour for months with very little breaks. What do you see yourself doing when that’s all over?

I don’t know, I kind of go a little bit nuts when I’m home for a few days. I see myself cleaning out my washing machine with vinegar. (laughs)

You don’t know what to do with yourself after all that. (laughs)

Yeah, you’re just like “ahh I need to clean my clothes, they all smell bad. This washing machine smells bad, I need to fucking clean it out.”

While you didn’t put it into this album and you seem to stray away from letting it influence you, you are a Canadian artist. What does coming from southern Ontario mean to you, even outside of any musical association?

I guess the thing I like about being in a place like Hamilton, in a city that’s suburban in a lot of ways… I think because my dad had a day job, but he was really into music as well, he acquired a lot of musical equipment because he had disposable income… I think them being able to put me in music and let me do things because they had money to spend on that sort of thing, I started working on electronic music because my dad had this stuff just laying around that he had bought as toys. He had a whole studio set up in his basement that he didn’t really get to use as much as he wanted to. I’d say more than anything, it’s from my family.

This interview can also be found on Aesthetic Magazine’s website.

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