Before we talk about Jessy Lanza, we should talk about what we talk about when we talk about Jessy Lanza. The name describes at least three discrete, albeit connected, entities. There is Jessy Lanza the human, who was born in the mid-’80s and spent much of her life in Canada’s Hamilton, Ontario. Then there is Jessy Lanza the project. Lanza releases music under her own name, but what’s on her three albums is all the product of such an enmeshed collaboration between her and producer Jeremy Greenspan (known as one half of Junior Boys) that she says she can barely tell who did what sonically when the music is done and set to press.
“Jessy Lanza is my project, but it’s tricky because Jeremy Greenspan is such a huge part of it, too,” she said in a FaceTime chat in June from her partner’s parents’ place in California, where she was quarantining. “If we could go back, we’d probably call it something different. But it’s too late now.”
Finally (at least for our purposes—God knows we all contain multitudes), there is Jessy Lanza the persona, the sort of negotiation between the human and the project. The chirpy soprano Lanza presents to the world can come across as spunky, willful, and coquettish on her albums (her Galleria project with electronic producer Morgan Geist is a study in ’80s dance-pop giddiness that’s controlled and precise enough to function as a dissertation). Her lyrics are often vague splashes of emotions, and while her tracks’ BPMs run the gamut from frenetic footwork to pulsating disco to straight-up slow jams, you’d generally have to strain your ear to make out even a tinge of pathos.
And so, it may come as a surprise, even after listening to it several times (as I had by the time we talked) that her excellent third album, All the Time, is the product of tumult. Lanza told me that she experienced “growing pains” after moving to New York in the wake of her 2016 sophomore release Oh No. Greenspan’s hanging back in Hamilton cast doubt on the future of their collaboration. And then there were the anger management issues.
“I just found that I was walking around and I felt angry all the time—and it’s exhausting to feel that way,” she said. “The whole album was really me just working through being a bit of an asshole to people. Not everybody, but partners, my family. All the people who are close.”
All the Time is, in many ways, Lanza’s poppiest release, albeit prone to unconventional song structures and “weird blips and burpy, squirty sounds,” as Lanza calls them. Much of those gurgled out of new modular/semi-modular gear that Lanza experimented with, and so intricate (yet delicate) is the sound design that some of the songs’ painstaking assembly is reminiscent of that of the groovily minimal “microhouse” movement of the early aughts. All the Time is frequently bizarre and sometimes slapstick, with Lanza’s candy-coated voice floating atop her gurgling avant-pop creations. Though for all of its meticulous bumps and delirious interjections, it doesn’t really sound angry. Ever.
“I was feeling pretty shitty when I was writing a lot of the record. I think when I’m feeling bad, I try to go hard in the opposite direction,” explained Lanza. “Maybe that’s where the sound is coming from: I gotta get myself out of this dank little hole that I’m in. I gotta just do something that’s the opposite of how bad I’m feeling.”
All the Time, then, is an exercise in musical interference, how art can transubstantiate pain into joy right before your ears. Two of the most straightforward bangers, the first single “Lick in Heaven” and the penultimate party-in-a-track “Over and Over” are both musings on conflicts. The goofy accompanying video for “Lick in Heaven” finds Lanza playing to a talk-show audience full of enthusiastic dancers of varying rhythmic aptitude. It’s meant to satirize societal expectations on women. “It’s a constant pressure,” said Lanza. “I’m always dealing with this thought that, like, I’m not a rotten piece of fruit. I’m not a piece of fruit that’s going bad.”
Negative thinking also guided her treatment of her vocals, which sometimes spit out in daffy waves or are pitched so far down that they appear to have designs to burrow into their song’s sub-bass.
“I think the vocal treatment comes from me being kind of insecure about my voice,” she said. “I feel like it’s just an extension of my personality. I talk a little too much about things in a convoluted way. I just have to pick at things. It’s hard for me to tell what’s me having fun and what’s me being a little insecure, or not being able to leave something alone.”
The influences are wide-ranging and often blatant: “Alexander” started as a cover of Alexander O’Neal’s 1985 single “A Broken Heart Can Mend”; “Face” has a Miami bass-inflected breakdown (which Lanza owes to hanging out with producers like DJ Swisha, AceMo, and AceMoMa in New York); the melody of the chorus of “Lick in Heaven” is virtually identical to that of Gwen Guthrie’s 1985 Paradise Garage staple “Seventh Heaven”; and “Badly” finds her channeling Mariah Carey. Regarding her identity as a white artist who takes so much influence from Black forms, Lanza said, “What it comes down to is that I was inspired by Black music before I understood my role in it, or who I am. Since I was very young. I’m just trying to be honest with myself and the music that I love the most. Black music is pop music.”
Ultimately All the Time proved therapeutic—she said she’s doing much better than she was when she was writing it a few years ago. I wondered whether Lanza is happy with her place in the musical landscape. Though her music is peerless (and truly, I think All the Time is the best album of 2020 so far and by far), she is situated in a liminal realm alongside artists like Jessie Ware, Robyn, or Róisín Murphy, who make music that is unquestionably pop musically though not strictly functionally. None of them are “popular” in terms of charts and massive sales. About that, Lanza seems zen.
“I think there’s so much baggage that comes with being a mainstream pop star, and I’m very happy living on the fringes of that world,” she told me. “I’d rather be lurking around the edges than right in the middle. I don’t know if I’m emotionally equipped for the middle.” She added, “It really is a cathartic thing for me, it’s the thing that makes me happy. So I want to keep it that way.”
Below, Lanza takes us through her wonderful new album with commentary on each track.
“I wrote it when I was feeling really disconnected and lonely and trying to adjust to being away from my family and thinking about myself as a serial monogamist. I’ve had a lot of relationships, but they all seem to end in the same way. I was thinking to myself, Yeah, maybe they weren’t the problem. That song is about realizing maybe I should do some work on myself.”
“I saw somebody write a YouTube comment like, ‘It’s “Seventh Heaven” by Gwen Guthrie, isn’t it?’ I was like, damn man. Listening back to it, the melody is [that]. It was subconscious. It took me months to realize I had absorbed that song. ‘Seventh Heaven’ is incredible. The Larry Levan mix of that song is like oof.
I wrote ‘Lick in Heaven’ after having a really big fight with my partner and just feeling like I had hit a point in the argument where it was like, ‘I could apologize and this fight could end, or I could go really nuclear.’ I chose the latter. I wrote the lyrics about when you hit that point of no return. When you kind of let your pride get the better of you and you just go whole hog and lose it. That’s a reflection on my anger management. I didn’t have much self control in the moment. I thought it would be fun to write a pop song about that.”
“‘Face’ was a real edit-fest for me. I was trying to learn how to use a lot of new modular/semi-modular stuff and just doing really long passes. Doing whole songs, tweaking things, changing patterns midway through, and then editing it. That’s why ‘Face’ has this frantic, disjointed [feel]. There’s a lot of weird blips and burpy, squirty sounds. I was doing a lot of editing, and then I’d send it to Jeremy and he’d have his go with it.”
“There’s that weird sub kick drum in the beginning. The bass frequencies of that song were very weird and I just came upon them by accident. That’s a real Mariah Carey song. The bridge goes full pop. Whenever I hear it, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I really like Mariah Carey.’ Sonically, everything in her records fit so well together.”
“That song started as a cover of an Alexander O’Neal song, ‘A Broken Heart Can Mend.’ It’s a really nice song. It’s a Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis-produced record. [Regarding the percussion]: Jeremy had a Roland rhythm box, and I think he really wanted to get it going on something.”
“I wrote the song about taking pills, actually. I was taking a lot of sleeping pills because I was on tour [in 2017] and by myself, and I was really miserable. I was thinking, What’s wrong with me? I’m doing what I always wanted to do. Playing shows and on tour and… But I felt like shit. I’ve moved out of that time, but the song is about how much I love pills. I’m embarrassed to say it now, like, Oh, what if my mom reads it. It’s silly. I think that’s part of the reason why the song is so affected, too. It’s like, I can feel myself trying to hide in the song.”
“It’s a battle of the Yamaha DX7s. This song was inspired by Drake’s ‘In My Feelings.’ It was just everywhere in 2018. Every day, someone would drive by my apartment with it blasting out of their windows. I was thinking, The drum pattern in this song is so good, I really want to learn it. I tried to figure it out.”
“Jeremy used a lot of his modular production, kind of the underwater bass sound that goes through the whole song. It’s dedicated to my niece. My sister had a baby and I was thinking I really wanted to write a sweet love song to her. It’s got a wholesome message”
“[Like] on ‘Lick in Heaven,’ I was reflecting on how I was having relationship problems. I was like, ‘I was having these same problems two years ago, I really need to figure out what’s going on here.’ As cliché as it sounds, it really prompted me to do some reflecting on myself.
“That was the first song we wrote for the record. I had just finished a tour with Katie NV. She was a big inspiration for me, just hearing her music every night. It’s just a really sweet song. It’s the first song where Jeremy and I were like, ‘Okay we can do this. Let’s write a whole record.’ It was a bit uncertain for a bit whether that would happen or not. I had moved to New York. We weren’t sure that we were going to make another record, but then he did this drum pattern and these really nice chords and I wrote the melody for ‘All the Time’ over it and added a bunch of stuff. We both felt really good about it.”