Concert preview: Canadian singer Jessy Lanza forgets everything she’s learned with Pull My Hair Back

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From the May 1, 2014 edition

Jessy Lanza might sound sweet on her debut full-length, Pull My Hair Back, singing in a warm, sultry coo atop a minimalist bed of electro-spiked R&B, but her words can still cut like Valyrian steel. “I don’t give a fuck what you do,” the Canadian-born singer repeats on the title track.

Even while holding a paramour at arm’s length, however, the singer adopts an inviting tone that suggests quite the opposite, and this idea of pulling against one’s instincts bubbles to the surface repeatedly on Hair. It’s not surprising then that the same urges inspired much of the album’s musical direction, with Lanza favoring restraint over an ingrained desire to pile on more and bigger sounds.

In a mid-April phone interview, Lanza, a classically trained singer and pianist, said one of the most important steps of the recording process was forgetting nearly everything she’d learned from the time her parents first signed her up for piano lessons at six years old through the years she studied Jazz Performance and Piano at Concordia University in Montreal.

“I can’t use what I learned in school. I think it’s a recipe for really shitty music,” she said. “I always start to think, like, ‘Maybe this cheesy, jazz chord progression will work,’ and it never does. Some people can do that kind of thing well. I just can’t.”

So rather than adorning tracks with flowery arpeggios and orchestral interludes — touches she often felt compelled to add, saying, “My instinct is to always be busier with stuff … and I always have to force myself to keep things simple” — she and producer Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys worked in tandem to strip the music down to its most basic elements.

As a result, Lanza’s vocals tend to double as a rhythmic element on many tracks, anchoring minimalist cuts like “Kathy Lee,” a desert-barren tune built around little more than percussive snaps and rattlesnake-like electronic vibrations, and “Fuck Diamond,” a woozy ditty where her vocal hiccups create a breathless, drum-machine-esque patter.

This approach suits Lanza, who described herself as a more reticent frontwoman (“I don’t have that super-out-in-front performance style,” she said), because it places a premium on these flowing musical tapestries rather than her actual words.

“Writing lyrics gives me a lot of anxiety, and I’m not very good at it,” said Lanza, who was born and raised in the industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, by parents who moonlighted in a rock ’n’ roll cover band. “I don’t think of myself as a singer. I like vocals in music, and I like to sing, but I like using my voice as more of a texture in the songs.”

Though Pull My Hair Back was crafted in tandem with Greenspan, there’s a solitary feel to much of the music that Lanza said was inspired, in part, by life in Hamilton, which she described as “isolated.”

“You do feel disconnected from a big city feel because Hamilton is not that, and nobody I went to high school with lives here anymore,” she said. “In a sense I feel isolated because Hamilton isn’t a big cultural mecca. It’s the kind of place everybody leaves.”

Even so, Lanza was drawn back to her hometown following stints in Montreal and Toronto due in large part to its affordability — “It’s tough to be creative if you’re always thinking about how you have no money, or if you’re constantly working just to pay bills,” she said — and connecting with Greenspan was simply a side benefit of the move.

Initially, the two bonded over a love of “cheesy, mainstream R&B” (Lanza said Mario’s 2004 single “Let Me Love You” featured prominently in the pair’s earliest musical discussions) and a fondness for producer Timbaland’s work with singer Aaliyah.

“He was making stuff that didn’t sound like anything else,” Lanza said. “Aaliyah had these sweet, soft vocals with harder, weirder production. Nothing sounded like it before, and nothing really sounds like that now.”

Moments on Lanza’s album come close, with the singer cooing amid a syncopated electronic backdrop that steps both delicately and in an unpredictable manner, like a soldier soft-shoeing through a minefield. It’s a fairly stunning, surprisingly realized debut from a young artist who didn’t start taking music seriously until she was already well into her teenage years.

“Unless you’re some little protégé, freak of nature, I don’t think anyone is into practicing piano an hour a day when they’re 9 years old,” she said. “I did start to get really into it when I was in high school, and I tried to take it seriously [because] I started to see a path. I knew if I wanted to do this I’d have to get good at it.”

Hollie Pocsai photo