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Less is more

On her debut album, Jessy Lanza takes bare-bones approach to her atmospheric R&B

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/5/2014 (1201 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Jessy Lanza was recording Pull My Hair Back, the Hamilton, Ont.-based electro-R&B artist didn't expect to walk out of the studio with a career-sparking debut.

In fact, the 28-year-old wasn't expecting anything at all.

"This was my first time recording something, so I went into it with no expectations so I wouldn't be disappointed," she says with a laugh over the phone, just before her first headlining Canadian tour. "The response has been amazing. I'm really happy."

Co-written and co-produced with Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, Pull My Hair Back has been making major waves since its release last September via U.K. imprint Hyperdub. Lanza's sweet, but never cloying, vocals float above airy, minimalist electro soundscapes.

She doesn't deal in aggressive, relentless EDM; Lanza is from the traditional school of R&B.

"I wanted to make an album that had an energy or atmosphere that people go get absorbed in," she says. "When I put on headphones, I want music to take me somewhere else. I wanted to make something that had a vibe to it."

A lot of the record's atmosphere comes courtesy of Lanza's understated and restrained vocal performances. Absent are the vocal acrobatics one expects from R&B singers; instead, she allows her voice to become part of the tapestry of the song. It's another melodic instrument in her synth-heavy arsenal.

"I wish I was a better lyricist," she admits, though she isn't exactly what you'd call a terrible songwriter.

"No," she agrees, "but I'm not, like, Bob Dylan. I've been writing music my whole life. I've gone through phases where I've been more focused on developing themes and ideas, but it always sounded like I was trying too hard."

And there's nothing Lanza hates more than an overwrought lyric. So, she takes the opposite approach, letting the music lead the way. Like many pop/R&B artists, she pays attention to how words sound.

"Sometimes there'll be a phrase that sticks in my head, but I definitely don't have a bunch of lyrics that I'm dying to put to music."

Working with Greenspan -- a veteran of the Canadian electronic music scene -- helped focus her ideas. Songs were built up and then stripped back down.

"This record came out of a lot of editing," she says. "I learned that your instincts are usually closer to reality than you might think."

As a teenager in Hamilton, Lanza grew up on a steady diet of late-'90s, early-2000s hip hop and R&B -- think Aaliyah, Ciara, Timbaland, Missy Elliott. Those early influences make up the DNA of Pull My Hair Back; for listeners who grew up around the same time as Lanza, the record has a whiff of nostalgia.

"When you're a teenager there are these golden years," she says. "The music you liked then is the music you'll never forget."

Lanza began experimenting with bedroom recordings on her computer. "Someone gave me a copy of Logic (Pro), which is a sequencing program," she recalls. It changed her life. "I realized that you didn't have to be in a band. You could do all this stuff yourself. And I found I could execute things better when I did it myself."

That wasn't the only formative epiphany that would put her on her current path. A few years ago, Lanza, who has an undergrad degree in jazz performance, dropped out of a masters program at McGill University in Montreal. "It wasn't what I wanted to be doing," she says. "If you're doing a masters program, you should probably be passionate about it. It was all about reading and researching and I didn't have time to be creative in the way that I wanted to be."

Shuttling between Montreal and Toronto wasn't allowing her to be all that creative, either. So she returned home to Hamilton.

"It was money, really," she says. "I couldn't afford to be in Toronto. It's hard when you're trying to do something creative and support yourself at the same time. It doesn't leave much time."

Lanza currently has no plans to leave The Hammer. It's been good to her.

"The arts community here is great," she says. "It's small, but it's supportive. The people who are here are really compelled to make art."

Read more by Jen Zoratti.


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