Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Jenia Filatova 1

Jessy Lanza's take on pop music has found its own idiosyncratic niche

20 July 2020, 08:00

“When I listen to the main pop radio, it seems impossible to picture my music sitting in that place," Jessy Lanza says.

On her third album, All The Time, Lanza and long-time collaborative partner Jeremy Greenspan (of Junior Boys) have created her most spare and alien-sounding set of songs yet, further moving her music away from the maximalism of mainstream pop. It’s resoundingly clear that Lanza is much more interested in unique self-expression than any kind of crossover success – although it’s not impossible to imagine a song like the swirling “Lick in Heaven” or the sprightly “Over and Over” attaining listeners through an unusual TikTok dance craze. “That would be amazing,” she laughs. “But I would be very pleasantly surprised.

This unassuming, almost shy character is what has been the undercurrent of all of Lanza’s music to date, but comes through more clearly than ever on All The Time. This is obvious just from looking at the cover art, a low-key shot of Lanza chilling out in her mini-van in an attempt to capture her natural appearance. “Whenever I have my photo taken I just get really uncomfortable and I suddenly change my face,” she admits. Her partner and long-time art director Winston Case suggested that they do a shoot in her van, a place where she feels at home. “I’ve toured a lot in that van, driven back and forth from New York to Canada in that van, I feel comfortable in that van for whatever reason,” she says. “I don’t know what it says that my happy place is a Toyota minivan.”

To-ing and fro-ing across the continent was also a big factor in the creation of All The Time. Where previously Lanza had lived a short distance away from Greenspan in their hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, this time they were collaborating remotely following her move to NYC a few years ago. They weren’t sure they would make another record together, but they were working on the track “All The Time” just before Lanza departed. “That song came together so quickly and we were both so happy with it, it set everything in motion,” she explains. “At that point we decided ‘yeah, let’s make another record.’”

Over the next couple of years, Lanza continued working on new songs in New York, sending them to Greenspan for his contributions, and getting new versions in return. Sometimes she would visit Hamilton and they would continue working in his studio, and she would take away the files to keep developing on her own. They traded the tracks back and forth more times than Lanza can count, and the songs came out in ways that they might not have done had they been working side by side. “A song like “Face” and how chopped-up and edited it is, I think it’s a good reflection of us working separately,” she explains. “I think that song got a little too fucked up – I think it turned out well and I really like it, but I don’t know that it would have turned out that way if we’d been in the same room.”

Sometimes the work that Greenspan had done on her music wouldn’t necessarily be to Lanza’s liking, but at this point their relationship is strong enough that she was unafraid to say so. “The great thing about working with Jeremy is he’s not precious about his ideas, he’s pretty open to hearing if something is bad,” she explains. This closeness is something she cherishes, as she feels she can be more expressive and vulnerable with Greenspan, and this is maybe why she has yet to work with any other producers on her own music. “It’s like starting a new relationship,” she ventures. “I get a bit weird about it because I make music so privately. It’s like my little private, emotional, cathartic world when I’m working in my studio, and I think it’s a lot to put that on somebody else – I don’t know if I’m ready for it.”

This “private, emotional, cathartic world” was even more pronounced in the writing and recording of All The Time, as Lanza found that adapting to life in NYC was more of a struggle than anticipated. “Leaving Hamilton, where I grew up and where I’ve lived my whole life, I really underestimated the homesickness and the isolation of being in a new city,” she admits. “I didn’t deal with it very well.” This all came to the surface when she would hole up in her studio: “I didn’t really have much else to do with those feelings other than work on music. It felt like the album was all I had to get a hold of myself at that time.”

Purely listening to the songs on a surface level, you would be forgiven for thinking that All The Time is confident and alluring album, as soft-textured synths and precision-engineered drum patterns produce a future-facing R&B atmosphere, within which Lanza’s breathy and warped vocals confidently flourish. It’s only when you start to interrogate the words themselves that the tumult and conflict becomes clear. “A lot of the songs started after my partner and I would get in some massive banger of a fight,” Lanza confesses. “And I would just be like ‘I don’t want to talk to you, I’m just gonna go in my room.’”

Album highlight “Lick in Heaven” sums this unusual phenomenon perfectly; at first listen the “can’t stop spinning” hook sounds like a loved-up sugar high, but in fact refers to the head-rush of anger that comes after a verbal back-and-forth. “You reach a point in an argument where you have the choice: you can either swallow your pride and say sorry or you can go full nuclear,” Lanza comments. “I noticed in the past that I usually chose to go full-hog with it, and I think a lot of the time you don’t even notice that you made the choice, you just lose control.”

This self-examination was also a big part of the process for Lanza. “I was thinking to myself that this situation is pretty similar to all the other relationships I’ve had,” she reflects. “I was noticing that these problems keep coming up and maybe it’s not the person that I’m with, maybe it’s just me – and that kind of fucks me up to think about, but I think it was just really developing a self-awareness.”

The album’s opening track “Anyone Around” is a reflection of this realisation. The opening lines “I couldn’t think straight / I never behave when I’m around so close to you,” suggest a coquettish personality, but it’s “about being a serial monogamist” according to Lanza. “You spend all this time with people and then you realise you don’t really know them,” she says. “You break up for the same reason you broke up with the last person, and there’s this feeling of not being able to connect with people.”

Lanza returns to this deep and dark well throughout All The Time. You can hear her almost goading herself about this inability to connect on break-up track “Alexander”, where her robotically-modulated voice repeatedly teases “would you rather be lonely?” with a little giggle. On “Like Fire” she’s in the position of having been left, singing a chorus of “You burn me like fire / You really fucked me up now,” while “Over and Over” finds her heartbroken again, admitting “wipe my tears away ‘cause I can’t forget you now.”

"I’m a convoluted person; people are complex, and I just don’t feel like you can get everything that’s possible with one song – there’s just so much more.”

The album goes into even darker places with the unsettling “Ice Creamy”. It’s yet another fake-out, as when she sings about “the sweet taste left in my mouth” and “there’s something that turns me on about it,” the immediate thought is that this is a sexual song. However, it turns out to be something sinister: “Basically, I did this tour alone and it totally fucked with me. I was taking a lot of painkillers, using them to sleep, taking them to fly, and I developed this dependence,” she admits, though is quick to add: “Not hardcore painkillers, these were like you can buy over-the-counter in Mexico kind of painkillers. I feel really embarrassed about it, but that’s what the song is about.”

All The Time is not all hopeless though, and there are a couple of subtle-yet-arresting moments where she gets to express feelings of comfort. “Baby Love” is a full-on devotional where she professes “I’m giving up all of my love / I’m giving it all to you,” her voice strong and centre, as if she’s looking her partner right in the eye as she makes the admission. One of the simplest but most affecting lines on the record come from “Badly” where she simply states “being in sad is not a crime to you” – “I’ve been in relationships before where I really felt like I couldn’t be myself and couldn’t really admit how rotten I was feeling,” Lanza explains. “It was nice to feel that it didn’t have to be that way.”

What makes all of this emotional plundering even more astounding is how it’s laid bare on the record. While the production is sophisticated, it’s always understated, and Lanza’s voice is very sparingly double tracked, meaning that all of her words and feelings are clear and decipherable throughout. It’s obvious that she’s unafraid to let people know who she really is, and in fact All The Time is the first of her albums that will feature a lyric sheet. “I thought it would be nice for people to see what I was talking about,” she comments. This bravery should be applauded – but it’s hardly going to land her in the charts any time soon, as her quietly artful expression would surely be drowned out if placed between the latest hits from the most popular acts of the day.

This doesn’t bother Lanza though – all she really wants is for her fans to listen to All The Time in full. “I’m a convoluted person; people are complex, and I just don’t feel like you can get everything that’s possible with one song – there’s just so much more,” she states. “If you really like an artist then you should listen from front to back – that’s how I enjoy them.”

Given all the back-and-forth with Greenspan, the arguments with her partner, the emotional outpouring, and the meticulous crafting to get to the final product, you might think that Lanza would want people to listen to All The Time in a special setting. But, characteristically, she only has the humblest hopes: “I imagine people listening to it laying down on the floor, maybe with headphones, or in the car – but I’m just projecting, that’s where I listen to music, I’m a total narcissist,” she laughs. “I just hope they’ll want to listen to it again, I hope they’ll have the urge to revisit and discover different things they hadn’t heard the first time. There’s a lot of weird sounds in there.”

All The Time is released on 24 July via Hyperdub
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