An Interview With Jessy Lanza

Miguel Otarola speaks to the Canadian electronic songwriter about the saxophone reigniting her love for performing, seeing Janet Jackson perform, her new album Love Hallucination and more.
By    July 25, 2023

Image via Trent Tomlinson

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Jessy Lanza didn’t need to live in Los Angeles to build her career as one of the best electronic pop artists of the last decade. The singer lived in Hamilton, Ontario when she released her first two albums, Pull My Hair Back and Oh No. These records burn with desire thanks to Lanza’s teasing vocals and her preference for the bass-heavy sounds of dubstep, synth-pop, and footwork. Standout songs “5785021” and “It Means I Love You” dimmed down the lights and projected Lanza as a singular voice in electronic music.

The singer left Canada at the beginning of the pandemic to live with her husband’s family in the Bay Area. Later that year, she released her third full-length, the warmer and poppier All The Time. Though it was recorded before the pandemic, the album fits perfectly with the cool breeze and intense sunsets of the California coast. Or as the “Lick in Heaven” video depicts, an all-too-chipper TV morning show. Hiding out and with time on her hands, she began writing songs for other artists (she’s contractually obligated not to name names). That music would lay the foundation of her fourth full-length, Love Hallucination, out July 28 on Hyperdub.

Lanza, now a permanent U.S. resident, has exchanged the hills of northern California for those of Los Angeles. “It’s a pretty magical place,” she says. The glitz and glamor has rubbed off on Lanza, and she admits the city has given her the confidence and support she couldn’t get back home. The city’s music industry can be surreal and self-obsessed, sure, but also inspiring and liberating. So on the cover for Love Hallucination, Lanza rises stoically over a palm tree from the basket of a cherry picker.

The album contains some of Lanza’s strongest vocal performances and dance-pop confections. Opener “Don’t Leave Me Now” is a tech-house banger featuring her signature falsetto vocals and pillowy synths. “Midnight Ontario” has Lanza delivering a soulful performance over a jittery two-step beat (co-produced by fellow Canadian Jacques Greene). “Limbo” is synthpop at its finest, with an effervescent hook and shimmering production (also a collaboration, with German producer Tensnake). In visuals for the song directed by her husband Winston Case, a skinny, bondage-clad cowboy swings around in what is either an exercise machine or sex contraption. Lanza has presented ideas like this before, peeking out from behind the curtains; on Love Hallucination, she stands proudly next to them.

Between the rush of bounding pop songs, there are plenty of moments to exhale on Love Hallucination. Lanza strips down the arrangements for “Drive” and “I Hate Myself,” sings both songs’ titles with satisfaction. “Marathon,” the penultimate track, is also one of the album’s best, benefitting from Lanza’s suggestive lyrics and instrumental textures co-produced with Paul White, the man behind many of the cacophonous beats in Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition. “Double Time,” like Lanza’s other album closers, is slow and bittersweet, making it hard to say goodbye to Lanza’s world of ecstasy.

In our interview, Lanza tells me about the instrument that reignited her love of performing, seeing one of her idols in concert for the first time, and new tracks she’s playing at home and in the club. Read our condensed conversation – edited by the good folks at Passion of the Weiss – below.

Are you at your home studio?

Jessy Lanza: It’s in kind of shambles right now. We moved to this apartment not that long ago. It takes me a pretty long time to get settled.

I saw you live with Yaeji when you came through in Denver earlier this year, and I think the biggest moment during your set was when you brought out the EWI – Electronic Wind Instrument. I hadn’t seen one of those in a long time. How did it come into your life?

Jessy Lanza: I had not owned an EWI before this Yaeij tour. It was brought on specifically for the tour. I think I’m gonna keep it.

One of the songs on my new album is called “Marathon,” and it has a sax solo in it. That’s the song that you saw me play at the concert. That was pretty adventurous for me, doing the sax solo in the first place on the record. I thought it would be really fun to do it live. I played clarinet and saxophone in jazz band and concert band, and I hadn’t played in like a decade. So in preparation for that tour, I started practicing again.

It was super fun. I’m used to playing keyboards on stage, but actually playing a woodwind instrument was so much more fun than I remembered. I got really into practicing and doing my scales again. It really sparked a joy for playing live that I hadn’t felt in a while.

Is there a specific technique you need to have to play an EWI?

Jessy Lanza: The Roland is based on just an alto sax layout. AKAI makes one where you have to learn a whole different fingering system, and that seemed like way too much. But I think other than the AKAI one, they’re based on an alto sax. I could be wrong, but that one definitely is.

Now that you’re living in the US more permanently, do you have any thoughts on the place?

Jessy Lanza: Umm… any thoughts… I mean, it’s pretty much like Canada except it’s about 330 million more people. [Laughs.] I really like it here. I mean, I live in California and I think – of any state – the most Canadians live in California, apparently.


Jessy Lanza: They all just love it here. So, yeah. I really like it. I love Los Angeles. I liked the Bay Area, too. We were there for the whole pandemic, living with my mother-in-law for the whole thing.

And you got to see Janet Jackson live recently?

Jessy Lanza: Holy shit. Yeah.

What was that experience like for you?

Jessy Lanza: It really, like – sorry, I’m feeling like tears well up. [Laughs.] It’s because so much of it is rooted in my childhood. So when I hear her songs, especially like “Again” from the Poetic Justice soundtrack, I’m connected with it on a deeper childhood level. So that’s why I think so many feelings come up.

It was amazing. The chords of “When I Think of You” came in – she only played it for like 40 seconds. She has so many hits that it became a medley in spots, and I wish she jammed that one out a bit longer. It was the best concert I’ve ever been to. It was fantastic.

Were Jackson’s longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis there, too?

Jessy Lanza: No, no. I was thinking who she was gonna bring. It was set up kind of strangely; the band was hidden for a lot of the show. Towards the second half there was a scene change and they all came up to the front. My point is I couldn’t really see who was playing with her. It was very much about her and the dancers.

It sounded like Los Angeles made a pretty big influence on your new record, Love Hallucination. I’m curious to know if the change in setting has changed the way that you think about, write or record music?

Jessy Lanza: Um, yeah. Being here and being around the industry – the epicenter of the industry – it’s made me feel more confident, for sure. Or maybe I feel like I have the space to take myself more seriously. Where I’m from, nobody cares about what I do. Like, my family doesn’t even … I mean, they care, but it’s just … I think it’s easy to drink the Kool-Aid here. That’s not always a great thing, but I think for me, because I have such a hard time relaxing and letting go and just being – I cringe a little bit when I’m just like, “my journey as an artist” – that’s not easy language for me. But here it’s just – you take yourself a bit more seriously. It’s easy to do here because that’s what everybody is just juiced on, is themselves.

You believe in yourself more.

Jessy Lanza: Yeah. Narcissism is not necessarily considered a bad thing here. I’m not saying that that’s good, but I’m saying it’s good for me to take a little – even if I just take a little crumb of that – I think it’s good for me as an artist.

One of the songs on the new album is called “Drive.” Was that about driving down the freeways?

Jessy Lanza: I wrote that in the Bay Area, actually. But we did drive all the time because we were in the South Bay and my husband’s family lives in San Francisco proper. That song was about just coming from the suburbs. Where I grew up in Hamilton, I got my license as soon as I could. Like a lot of people, that was the only way I could have any sort of freedom at all.

What about “I Hate Myself”?

Jessy Lanza: That song started out as a song with full lyrics and much different. But the refrain I edited down. I just thought it sounded a lot better, just to repeat that over and over. It’s a nod to a Prefab Sprout song.

Oh yeah?

Jessy Lanza: The song “Wild Horses.” He has this line where he says, “I hate myself / ’cause you’re so cool.” And I just have always loved that line. I thought it would be cool to do it over and over again.

I also know that you’re a great DJ. I heard your set for Dekmantel and could tell that music inspired a lot of the sounds and the feeling that you get with the new album. Do you have any current new favorite artists or songs?

Jessy Lanza: An artist that I’ve been listening to a lot is Eddie Chacon. He’s on Stones Throw. Pleasure, Joy and Happiness is, like, just one of the best albums I’ve heard in a really long time. It’s a front-to-back kind of record.

You mentioned the DJing – I’m used to the 12-inches or the EP– just like really short albums. But this one is just… I ordered the vinyl because I just had to – it’s a long play, for sure.

Are there any particular dance styles or rhythms that you want to try out in a set or in your own music?

Jessy Lanza: I mean, there’s lots of people that I’m inspired by. I love the Hessle Audio label. David Kennedy, who runs the label, mixed most of Love Hallucination. I’m very inspired by them. It seems like in the past year or couple of years they’re just getting so much love and hype, which is so deserved. They put out a Shanti Celeste record last year that I just loved; all the Pangaea stuff; they have an artist named Joe that puts out records sporadically. Basically everything they put out is just great.

Some of these songs in your new album were written with other artists in mind, right?

Jessy Lanza: Yeah. I started writing a lot for other people during the pandemic. A few songs that had been rejected, I thought that they shouldn’t just sit on my hard drive, that I should put them on my record.

Who would reject “Limbo”? Because I love that song.

Jessy Lanza: That was not a reject. [Laughs.]

OK, good.

Jessy Lanza: I really like that one. I’m glad that you like that one, too. It’s one of my favorites from the record.

Just one more question for you. It’s officially summer. You’re in Los Angeles. What are your plans?

Jessy Lanza: I’m actually going to Canada the day after tomorrow, so. [Laughs.] But I’m excited to really take advantage of all the parks that are here. We’ve been hiking a lot in Elysian Park; it’s so cool to be able to hike to the top of the ridge and look at Dodger Stadium. We have a friend who lives in Highland Park and there’s just tons of places to hike there. Mainly just doing all the hikes that I can, but in the late afternoon when it’s cooled down. Yeah, I just get really psyched on all the birds that are here.

Birdwatching is a great hobby!

Jessy Lanza: It’s just, more than anything, taking in the [environment]. It’s nice when you can hear the birds ‘cause it’s just peaceful. It’s not like, leaf blowers constantly. But yeah, just trying to relax, and hiking relaxes me.

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