5 Minutes With... Dance Music Doyenne Jessy Lanza

Jessy Lanza’s headline tour hits Montreal (May 1), Winnipeg (May 11), Saskatoon (May 12), Edmonton (May 14), Calgary (May 15), Vancouver (May 17) and Toronto (May 23).

Photo credit: Tim Saccenti

Photo credit: Tim Saccenti


A sultry new female electro act from Hamilton, Ontario may sound like a paradox, but that’s exactly what Jessy Lanza is. The singer’s soulful, breathy vocals and experimental electro tracks earned her debut album Pull My Hair Back a spot on The Guardian’s 2013 best-of list, and raves from The New York Times, who compared the up-and-comer’s croon to the late Aaliyah. On the eve of her first Canadian headliner tour, Lanza talked to FLARE about her musical influences, which range from ’90s hip-hop favourites Missy Elliott and Timbaland to late-’70s disco and early-’80s funk tracks.

Jessy Lanza’s headline tour hits Montreal (May 1), Winnipeg (May 11), Saskatoon (May 12), Edmonton (May 14), Calgary (May 15), Vancouver (May 17) and Toronto (May 23).

How does living in Hamilton shape you creatively?
The awesome thing about Hamilton’s music community is that the people who make music or art aren’t here because they want to be part of some thriving scene. It’s not a mecca for cultural activity. People don’t think of Hamilton that way. They’re here because they’re compelled to be, not because they want to be part of a bigger scene. That’s inspirational in itself—it’s not about impressing people and it’s certainly not about money. It’s just about people who make art.

You have a degree in jazz performance and studied as a classical pianist. How has this informed your approach to writing music?
The jazz stuff has really helped me get a handle on the chords. R&B music and jazz music are obviously connected in a really strong way. As far as the classical training, I try to forget that I ever learned it! It doesn’t make for writing the best pop music.

What’s your song-writing process?
Usually I start with the drums for a song because that part is the most fun for me. I’ll use drum samples that I’ve collected, and if I get a good drum loop going, then I’ll try some chords over top of it and see if I can get a melody happening.

Who are some of your musical influences?
I felt like there was a golden age when I was a teenager when R&B super-stars came out—Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Aaliyah. That was the kind of music I grew up with. Everybody listened to it and everybody loved it. I feel like that time carried on even 10 years later into my life and ended up being a touchstone.

Your sound has been described as electronic R&B. How did you combine these two worlds?
“Electronic” can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. I think of this record as dance music, which I love. [Producer] Jeremy [Greenspan of Junior Boys] has a background and a knowledge that goes much further than I do. He brought the dance element to the record.

Do you have a particular routine for getting ready for a show?
I get really nervous and freak myself out, so I like to put on music that gets me into a happy place. I always have fun once I start; it’s just the 10 minutes before that’s nerve-wracking. I have to get myself into a zone.

How do you like to dress when you perform?
I’m really bad at dressing myself! I usually shop at junk stores, and The Bible Mission in Hamilton is great. Parts of Hamilton are pretty down-and-out, so there are lots of charity stores and donation centres for good thrift stuff. That makes up the majority of my clothing.

What can’t you live without while on tour?
I’m a sucker for Clinique’s face cream. I always have waterproof mascara and foundation on my face and it makes me feel scaly at the end of the day, so I slather that all over my face every night before bed. That and Vaseline.