Interview: Jessy Lanza from Inherited Synths to the Moogfest Mainstage

The past four years have been a whirlwind for synth–savvy musician, producer, and vocalist Jessy Lanza. Virtually unknown when her first album, Pull My Hair Back, was released on Hyperdub in 2013, the Hamilton, Ontario–based artist has since topped global critics’ lists, toured much of the world, and been shortlisted — twice — for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize.

She grew up in a musical family; both parents played in bands that covered everything from ‘70s rock classics to Eurythmics. Her dad filled a basement studio with synthesizers, drum machines, mixing consoles, and other vintage gear, all of which Lanza later inherited.

She’d study jazz piano at Montreal’s Concordia University before moving back to her hometown of Hamilton, where she taught piano and learned to produce. That’s when she got to know all of her dad’s old equipment.

Jeremy Greenspan, one half of acclaimed duo Junior Boys, was an early mentor. He taught Lanza a lot about using that vintage gear and digital production, initiating a production partnership that would span from Lanza’s breakout single “Kathy Lee” right up through her most recent album, last year’s Oh No.

Beautifully arranged and far more bold and playful, Oh No bounces between tempos, topics, and sounds. Lanza’s ethereal, high–register vocals are also more pronounced. It’s little wonder the album brought Lanza further acclaim, as have her collaborations with the likes of Caribou, DJ Spinn and Morgan Geist.

Currently on tour in North America — which includes a headlining performance at Moogfest, the future-minded festival of music, art and technology, on Friday May 19 — Lanza took time out to speak with us about gear, learning curves, and the importance of listening.

Jessy Lanza - "Kathy Lee"

You grew up in a musical family. When did you know that you wanted to play piano for yourself?

The first thing that comes to mind is learning to play “(Everything I Do) I Do it For You,” by Bryan Adams. That was the theme song to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and I remember that movie really well.

We didn’t have a real piano, but my dad had given me this dinky little Yamaha keyboard to learn on. It had a lot of really funny drum patterns and presets. I got the sheet music for that song, and remember being wowed that I could learn it, record it, and play it back. I could even sing it! It’s not the coolest memory, but it’s a really potent one for me.

As a teen, you inherited your father’s collection of vintage gear. When did you start learning how to use it all?

There were two stages to using my dad’s gear. Early on, in the mid–2000s, I still hadn’t learned how to use the DAW on my computer. I really wanted to learn how to record myself and had my dad’s old Soundcraft console. I bought an ADAT machine to hook up to it because it was really cheap, and there was a sale on the DAT tapes.

I started recording things acoustically, in a more traditional way, but then I went away to school. By the time I came back, the Soundcraft board was really broken, and I couldn’t afford to get it fixed. So that’s when I started learning how to use Logic on my computer.

My dad had a bunch of really nice synthesizers. He had a Yamaha DX7, which was extra special and really cool to have around. I think the nicest one was the Polymoog, which isn’t in great shape. I’ve tried to get it fixed, but I just do what I can with it and try to record as much as I can with it before it dies out completely.

My dad had a [Roland TR] 909 drum machine as well, which was amazing. He passed away when I was 16, so there was a really long period when everything just kind of sat around the house. Basically, when I moved back from Montreal, my mom said, “If you don’t use this stuff, I’m just going to sell it.” So that was the real motivation to learn.

This also led to your working with Jeremy Greenspan?

Totally. He’s a fetishist when it comes to any vintage gear, and when I said I had a Polymoog lying around, he really wanted to mess around with it. He also gave me his other user copy of Logic and really helped me to get started with it. Between him and YouTube tutorials, I learned how to get going.

It’s an astonishing learning curve, from what you’ve described to releasing your first album.

I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Jeremy’s help. He was definitely a mentor in those early days of us working together. Once you get over that hill, you realize, “Yes, I can do this.” It all starts to make sense, but it’s hard to get your head around it in the beginning.

When Pull My Hair Back came out in 2013, you were essentially unknown as an artist. Could you have predicted the response that album received?

I had no expectations at all, I think as a way to protect myself. I knew that Hyperdub has an audience and that if something comes out on it, there are people who will pay attention. So I was sure that people would have something to say about the album, but the touring that followed, the momentum from the record, I didn’t anticipate at all.

How did you regain balance before beginning to work on what became Oh No?

I got really into other people’s music. I felt a bit lost for a few months and was really in my own head, putting unnecessary pressure on myself with silly, unproductive thoughts like, “Maybe I don’t have any more songs in me to write.” Then I realized, “I’m not doing open–heart surgery. Nobody is going to die if I don’t release another album.”

I think that’s the hardest thing about doing creative stuff. You know the whole time that whether you do it or not, it doesn’t really matter. Unless you really want to do it or have something to say, the world keeps going, and it’s all quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Really, I just had to get over myself!

That’s when things took a turn. I got really obsessed with Haruomi Hosono’s music and delved into that. I was having a really hard time sleeping and would just listen to his albums, and got into his whole world. That motivated me to start working on Oh No.

Jessy Lanza - "It Means I Love You"

It’s been widely noted that your vocals are more pronounced on Oh No. Was that deliberate?

I wanted it to be different from the first record. I did effect the vocals a lot on Pull My Hair Back, in a way that obscured things a bit more because I felt I had to do something more to my voice — that it was boring or needed character in some way.

You know, it’s weird the things that you carry around with you as an adult from when you were a kid. I had this idea that I had to sing in a perfect way and just had this moment with the second album where I thought, “Who are you trying to impress by singing in that way? You should sing how you sing.”

All the singers that I really admire have weird voices. Like the reason I love Sylvester’s voice is that it’s totally weird and you immediately know it’s him. Why wouldn’t I want to approach things in the same way? On Oh No, the vocals are very effected as well, but in a way that gives them more clarity on a lot of the tracks. I felt more confident the second time around for sure.

You’ve been touring in support of Oh No for almost a year. It’s taken you to a lot of new places, both physically and critically. Do you have a sense of what may come next?

This year has been so amazing but also a bit weird. Touring really is like a dream come true, but I’m really looking forward to being able to work on new music after this summer. I wish I could be one of those people who can write while in hotel rooms or driving or whatever, but I really can’t.

I think I need to not play shows for a while so I can get a grip on what I want to do next. Jeremy and I have worked on a couple of new songs, but I don’t know if we’ll release any of those. I know we’re going to work together, that much I can say.

In the meantime, with live shows in mind, what’s some of your most essential gear currently?

I used to travel around with my Juno–106 and then it got lost a few times. The last time, it was gone for two weeks and I had no idea where it was. After that, I decided not to bring it anymore, so I bought a Prophet–6 Module. If it got lost, I would be really upset, but it’s not as sentimental to me as the Juno.

The Prophet has been a switch for me, but it’s really nice that I can just pack it in with my clothes and just bring a MIDI controller and play parts live, but then also send it to MIDI as well for other parts of the song. It’s really flexible. It has that really warm analogue sound, but it’s also totally digital.

In the last year, the Prophet–6 and the Novation Bass Station are the two main synthesizers I bring with me. I also use a TAL plugin that has a Juno–60 emulator that’s running in Ableton as well. It’s amazing that it sounds as good as it does because it’s freeware you can download.

You’re one of the headline performers at this year’s Moogfest. What are you planning?

Moogfest is an amazing festival. I’m pretty flattered that I’m included! At shows like this, where I know the sound is going to be really good and big and crisp, I try to incorporate more of the slower songs. I can do the slow burners, and know there will be people who appreciate them. This one will be for the heads a little bit!

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