What are the defining characteristics of pop music? Is it a style? A sound? An attitude? Millions of public relations departments, political strategists, and teenagers across the world would love to know what makes someone, or something popular. With pop music, it’s easy to get cynical and see the KISS FM playlist for the week as focus grouped music made by a committee. Okay, so a lot of it is, but the really great pop music, the music and the artists that made them, who make a lasting impact on culture and the popular imagination, are people like Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. On “Off the Wall”, they combined dance music and cheesy soft rock balladry, with the immaculate voice and presence of Jackson’s voice and image, to create a tineless pop record.
Jessy Lanza aspires towards that indelible vein of pop music. I talked to Jessy over the phone about that idea, Hamilton, Ontario, and how terrestrial radio is actually better in the U.S. than it is in Canada. —Sam Ribakoff
How would you describe your own music?
Jessy Lanza: That is a hard question, and it’s hard because I’m really close to it. I think of it as pop music that wouldn’t be played on the radio, or mainstream radio at least.
When I think of pop music I think of Michael Jackson. The thing with huge pop stars is that they have a lot of terrible music, but when it’s good it’s really good. Like Arianna Grande is a good example, she has a bunch of bad songs, but the ones that are good are great, same thing with Rihanna. Again, the majority of Rihanna’s music is terrible, but when it’s good, it’s really, really good. I mean, no offense to Rihanna, I do love her, but she’s got some really shit songs.
What are the defining elements of pop music, other than an artist with a bad good song to shit song ratio?
Jessy Lanza: That’s a hard one. I’m listening to a lot of mainstream R&B, and hip hop music, and that’s great driving around The States too, which me and my band are doing now, because we’re on tour. The radio is so great out here for R&B and hip hop, which I know sounds weird because everybody here always complains about the radio, but in Canada the radio is so boring, it’s very classic rock and indie oriented…
There’s no OVO on the radio in Canada?
Jessy Lanza: Well, the station in Toronto will play Drake once or twice an hour, and then just play straight EDM, and now maybe some Weeknd. It’s like they fulfill their CanCon (Canadian Content, the Canadian government’s quota that mandates a certain that a certain percentage of Canadian radio and TV must be filled with music or TV shows made by Canadians) content with them. But yeah, the radio in Canada is really bad, especially compared to here. That’s no joke. If I could never hear Led Zeppelin again I’d be happy, and I like Led Zeppelin, they’re a good band, but I hear them so much on the radio that I never have to hear them again.
No, we have a classic rock radio problem too.
Jessy Lanza: Really? It’s so weird, because I grew up listening to a lot of Steely Dan, mostly because my parents listened to a lot of Steely Dan.
What’s the stuff you first started listening to on your own?
Jessy Lanza: Pop stuff, again. Like Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul. The more diva-ish side of pop. I also started studying jazz at a really young age, so there was that as well. Then I started listening to a lot of Erykah Badu and Jill Scott because they had that neo-soul thing going on and it seemed kind of accessible because their music was based in jazz and older R&B.
Did you ever hear Sybil?
Jessy Lanza: No! Who’s that?
Oh! You’d love her! She was a pop, R&B singer in the 80’s who did a kind of famous house-y pop cover of a Burt Bacharach song [“Don’t Make Me Over”]. Anyways, her voice, and style, and use of drum machines and atmosphere reminds me of your music.
Jessy Lanza: Cool! That sounds great, I’ll definitely check it out.
Yeah. Speaking of drum machines, how did you get to work with Teklife?
Jessy Lanza: That was through Hyperdub [which Jessy is signed to], I guess it was right before Double Cup came out [DJ Rashad’s classic album], DJ Spinn, and DJ Rashad and umm…you know, of course it was through Hyperdub that I found out about juke and footwork, and I just asked the guy at Hyperdub if he could ask Rashad and Spinn if they’d be into doing a collaboration or like a remix or something, so I sent over a sketch of a song just with some chords and some vocals in 160 BPM, thinking they’d want something in their tempo, and then they could fuck it up and do whatever they want with it.
That was like two years ago, since then, a lot of time has passed. They didn’t get back to me because they were busy, then Rashad passed away, then more time passed. I guess eventually Spinn and Taso got together and remixed the track I sent them. And yeah, they didn’t fuck it up at all. They split the stems I gave them and kept it at like 80 [BPM]. But yeah, that was a great surprise to hear that.
Is that a similar relationship you have to working with the Junior Boys? You send ideas back and forth?
Jessy Lanza: No, me and Jeremy [Greenspan] work together all the time. And we don’t have to work together over email because we’re from the same town in Canada. We have separate studios in Hamilton that are about a block away from each other, so we work in our separate studios, but we mix and work together in Jeremy’s studio, in person. I mean, I don’t mind sending things back and forth through emails, but things work faster if you’re together in the same space, and it’s definitely more fun.
And you worked with Jeremy on Oh No?
Jessy Lanza: Oh yeah. Jeremy and I wrote and produced the whole album. And for Oh No we really focused in the studio and tried to make a more pop oriented album than Pull My Hair Back.
Will Oh No have that same nocturnal vibe that Pull My Hair Back did? Because, this may sound kind of silly, but I thought for sure you were from L.A. the first time I heard your music, because a lot of singers and musicians from here have that nocturnal vibe to their music. Do you know what I mean?
Jessy Lanza: I know what you mean [laughs]. That kind of slithery vibe.
Do you put a lot of importance on the mood of the records?
Jessy Lanza: Well, I think that the place you record has a lot of impact on the sound of the record, and Hamilton and LA are both slithery places in their own ways [laughs]. But Hamilton is so far away and removed from anything that’s quote unquote “happening,” you know? Hamilton doesn’t have a thriving, “finger on the pulse” scene. There are people who do great things here, and there is a great art scene, and I’m not trying to discount that, but it is very much “outside” where anything is happening, and that’s why I like it.
I feel like it’s nice to be in a place where people don’t give a shit about what you’re doing and you don’t always have to talk about your work or your art or whatever, like, you can get way too caught up with stuff like that in a place like Los Angeles, and I feel like that could just be bullshit or compromising I don’t know, but that’s why I like living in Hamilton. I just like being outside. And, I mean, my family is in Hamilton and being close to them is important to me.