Andrew Darley talks to Jessy Lanza about her love of music, and what it’s like for a woman to be a producer in a man’s world.
Photograph by Tim Saccenti (Click images to enlarge)
Coming from a musical family, classically trained in piano and a graduate of jazz school, there was never a question that Jessy Lanza would do anything other than music. When the electronic duo Junior Boys invited her to work with them on one of their records, the pairing was met with a creative chemistry and connection. Afterwards, Jessy and Jeremy Greenspan from the band decided to start sharing and experimenting with song ideas together. The two share a mutual love of collecting old hardware synthesizers and drum machines that grace the album. Co-writing and co-producing songs, they found themselves with enough material they were proud of to bring together a full record. Pull My Hair Back cohesively combines Jessy’s love of R’n’B and dance music with Jeremy’s knowledge and skills in electronic music. As a new artist, Lanza has a very clear vision of what she wants to become and what she wants to be known for. Her true passion lies with production and she wants to reach a stage when she can write and produce her own music, as well as for other artists. However, she understands that her dream may marked with some difficulty as she notes that there are very few women in the producer’s chair or at least it’s a role women are rarely publically recognised for. She hopes this album will challenge this misperception and give her listener’s a world to immerse themselves in.
You’re classically trained in piano but when did you discover that you had a voice and wanted it to be heard?
Probably around the same time I started learning piano. My parents would encourage me to sing to in front of the camera for home movies and enter into talent shows. I also really loved Mariah Carey growing up. So you could say that I started taking an interest in singing around the same I took to the piano.
How did you come to make this record? Was it a definitive decision or a matter of things falling into place?
I’ve always written music and, again, my parents constantly encouraged me to write my own songs. This project with Jeremy came together very naturally. He asked me to come work on a Junior Boys record and after that we just started hanging out and making tracks together. Eventually we had enough material that we could use for an entire record. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just kind of happened.
Can you talk me through how the album was written and recorded?
Usually I would write a drum beat with an idea of the chords and melody that I wanted to go over it. I’d hand the skeleton of the song over to Jeremy so he would work on it and then give it back. We’d pass it back and forth until we knew it was ready to be mixed and finished. My studio is really small and it’s not very comfortable having two people in there and it gets pretty annoying, pretty fast. Jeremy has a much nicer studio so we mixed the album there.
You mentioned in a previous interview that you do not consider yourself a singer, rather you see yourself as a songwriter and producer. Do you think people will see this as an album with you being the singer and Jeremy being the producer?
Yeah definitely! I’ve seen that written already so many times. But I get it. Jeremy is an already well-established producer and musician with Junior Boys and this album is under my name, with me singing, so I understand the confusion. However, I also think there’s a bigger picture in that it shows how the public can be sexist about what they consider women can do in music. It isn’t a huge surprise to me though, people see me and think “Oh you’re a musician, you must be a singer”. I’m always pretty quick to correct them.
I originally wanted to put this album out under a band name but Jeremy thought it was a bad idea. He hates touring and he has enough trouble mustering up the will to tour with Junior Boys and couldn’t commit to a tour for this project. He said that if we put this under a band name, people would question where he was on stage. We basically think of it as we’re in a band, that just has my name on it.
Following on from that, why do you think women are not recognized as producers in music?
It’s just one of those easy stereotypes people can fall into and use. The girl should be a pretty face who stands in front of some mastermind who pulls all the strings, which is totally detached from the reality. It’s a musical trope that people just keep coming back to. I don’t know why it persists but I do see how it may be changing. There are more women doing production work in music but it’s still very male-dominated. I was just looking on the XLR8R website for their remix compilations and it’s just all dudes! One big sausage party! And I don’t mean that they should just throw a girl in there just into the balance for the sake of it because that is not right either.
Does it annoy it you that your input into the album’s production may not be acknowledged?
It pisses me off, for sure. Although there have been enough reviews that correctly say I co-produced the record, it can still be irksome. When people just assume I’m a singer, that’s the one that drives me nuts! I actually don’t think I have a good voice. I sing because I like songs with vocals and instrumentation. I know I can carry a tune but I don’t think I have one of those soulful, Evelyn King-type voices. A big part of making my music is me trying to fit my voice into it as a texture rather than a standout feature. A lot of the production work goes into making my voice fit into the song. Plus, it’s an injustice to people who consider themselves real vocalists!
We mentioned earlier that you were classically trained from a young age and you have previously said that you had to unlearn it all to make your own music. Was this a hard process?
Yes. I’m always having to stop myself from making stuff that’s a little too cheesy. It’s always straddling a fine line. Prince’s music, for instance, is pretty cheesy but he’s one of my most loved artists. Patrice Rushen is a really great example too. She’s very jazz influenced but you can almost hear the musak interpretations when you hear her. It’s just a hair away from being elevator music but it’s still really incredible. I feel similar about my own work in that I’m always trying to avoid being too obvious or resolving a chord with progressions I learned in jazz school. I’m holding back from doing those really obvious things that can take the music to a very bad place!
Do you think it may have been easier to have not had an education in music so that it may have made writing music more instinctual?
Not having an education means you don’t necessarily have people telling you what to do regarding being creative. Although having mentors and teachers is great in some ways, I also think you can get misguided in the school context. Especially in a jazz school because you have these people telling you to abide by certain principles in song-writing which may not be the right ones to follow.
And might be limiting in terms of creativity.
That’s it. I loved going to school and I had great teachers but I’m definitely happy that I didn’t pursue a career as a singer-songwriter in the jazz world!
I read that you teach piano to kids, which I thought was pretty cool. That must have felt like another world when you were making this album. Did having this job give you perspective whilst making it?
Totally! I worked as a waitress too, so the teaching kids was the easy and awesome part. Serving and waitressing gives you a real perspective on humanity. I liked having another job because if all I had to do was go to my studio and be creative, I just don’t think I would get anything done. It’s too much; there’s too much day and too much time to waste. It’s nice to have those outside things that take you away from sitting in a studio and trying to make songs work. Plus, I get in a really bad mood when something isn’t going right with the music so it’s nice to get away from it.
What were some of the inspirations behind the songs?
The main influence for the songs was the music Jeremy and I had been listening to obsessively over the past couple of years. My biggest inspiration is other people’s music and also being able to sample. Hearing the drums or a certain sound in a song you really like and then sampling it to make your own song around it. I was listening to a lot of ‘80s Boogie and R’n’B stuff like Melba More. I listened to a lot of Patrice Rushen and Morrie Brown who produced Evelyn King’s ‘Love Come Down’ which is amazing. I listened to a lot of mainstream R’n’B. I was very into SWV’s Release Some Tension album Jeremih’s Late Nights mixtape. The producer Mike Will Made It was a big inspiration.
R’n’B seems to have a big place in your heart. Given that the album focuses on electronica, did you pull any references from the electronic world?
When it comes to talking about dance music, I always get anxious because as I feel I don’t know enough about it. Jeremy is the electronic expert and the dance elements of the record are definitely his contribution. I wanted this album to be R’n’B but it would be naïve of me to say that it’s a straight-ahead R’n’B album because it’s not. It meets somewhere between electronic music and R’n’B.
Why did you choose song title Pull My Hair Back to represent the entire collection? What’s its significance?
It was one of those things when we didn’t know what to call the record so we were turned to the tracklisting. Everything we came up seemed really lame so we just picked that song. In retrospect, it was pretty naïve of me not to anticipate how it might be interpreted. I didn’t mean for it to be something overtly sexual but it has been seen in that way. As an album title, it doesn’t have any deep implications.
It’s funny because when I saw the title I didn’t read it as the S&M innuendo it has been taken for. I thought it was a very ambiguous title.
Oh good! You’re the first person to tell me that. I didn’t mean it as someone else pulling my hair. I meant it as an innocent gesture when you pull your own hair back to do a number of things like getting ready for example. I didn’t particularly intend for it to be as sexual as it has been read.
About the album cover, it appears quite modern but could also be from another time like a classic film still. Did you have any specific ideas of how you wanted to visually present the album and also yourself?
Initially I didn’t want to be on the cover and I didn’t want my picture on it. We then thought that if it’s under my name I should be represented in some way. The cover was inspired by Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner and how she has this film noir look to her but she’s an android underneath. I thought it was perfect because it combines two things that are pretty far removed from each other. That’s the vibe I wanted.
You made the album with vintage synthesizers given to you by your late-father. Do you feel he has a presence on the album and the music you make?
My dad was a ‘made his presence known’ kind of guy when he was alive. He’s the reason I’m doing music because he pushed me at such a young age and always encouraged me as a teenager to write music. When I was growing up, there was never a question that I would do anything outside of music. I guess now that I’m using all his gear he does have a role and some presence in my music.
You perform alone live with a computer and two synths. Is it a daunting experience?
Yes because there’s no-one else to blame except my computer if it goes wrong. Ideally, I’d have someone else doing the drums live with me. It makes it more nerve-wrecking since it’s just you with a computer and you want the show to be exciting for people. You don’t want an audience to feel you could be checking your email or something on stage. It’s more a challenge to create an atmosphere when you’re alone.
Have you considered performing these songs acoustically or feel the character of the songs are embodied in the music?
As this was such a studio album and experiment, I don’t think it would do justice to the songs to take them out of that context. I thought about doing paired-down versions but it would always be electronic. I could play them on piano but I would prefer to use my gear.
As a new artist have you read reviews of the album or are they irrelevant to you?
I’ll read the first page of Google because I feel that the deeper you go the more likely you are to find some diatribe against your work. I don’t think it’s mentally good for you either. I think if some people hate the album, I think it’s good. If everyone was like “Oh it’s great” then that would mean it’s just boring and I’d hate that. People can write bad things about it and that’s fine.
Now that the album is done and released, how does it match up compared to how you initially envisioned your debut album to be?
When we signed to be Hyperdub and it would be released internationally, my only hope and expectation was that some people would like it. I wasn’t sure if people would think “What’s this shit out on Hyperdub?”. So far it’s been really positive. I can’t ask for anymore other than being able to talk about it and tour with it.
Are you happy with the album?
Super happy! We worked very hard to make sure that the album sounded really cohesive and that people could listen to it and slip into some other world. We got rid of four or five songs that didn’t fit with how we wanted to curate it. Steve Goodman – aka kode9 who runs Hyperdub – also had some input and that helped by having some outside perspective on it to make it what it is.
If you were to make another record, is there anything you would like to try next or sound you would like to explore more?
Well I just bought an MPC 2000XL. It’s an old piece of gear that people making hip hop music use so I’m just starting to learn how to use that. It’s a sampler essentially and you can sequence everything on there too. I’m working on the stuff.
We’ve reached the final question. I’d like to end by asking what kind of artist do you ultimately want to become?
That’s a hard one. It would be great to move out of the dialogue of being a singer and people recognizing me as a producer. If you work with a guy, like the way I did with Jeremy, I can’t share in that activity with him. Whereas, if it were two guys doing it, it would never be a question of which one’s the producer and which one is the singer. Guys kind of have a free pass in that regard. They might not be recognized as a good producer but at least they get the P-word in front of their name. I’d love to be known for my production. I’d love to write pop songs for people but also do my own stuff as well. In essence, I want to be like The-Dream; I want to write hits like ‘Umbrella’ for Rihanna and make my own records too.
Pull My Hair Back is out now on Hyperdub. Check out her Facebook page for news and upcoming tour dates.