Looking at things strictly from a geographical perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. As funky as the city of Hamilton seems in the street-shot video for Jessy Lanza’s “Kathy Lee”, Canada’s Steeltown isn’t exactly known as a major exporter of urbane electronica or downtempo R&B.
Still, you’ll find both well-represented on Pull My Hair Back, the debut disc from a soft-spoken sometime piano teacher who is well on her way to becoming Hamilton’s new favourite daughter.
Coproduced by Lanza and Jeremy Greenspan of the Junior Boys, Pull My Hair Back has become a left-field success story, the record earning gushing praise everywhere from Pitchfork to the New York Times. Despite all that, one very much gets the feeling that all the kind words and attention have caught Lanza by surprise. When she’s reached in a Chicago-bound tour van, she confesses to being relieved that the first week of her North American swing has been a success.
“I was really nervous before leaving,” Lanza says bluntly. “This is my first headline tour, and I’m playing bigger venues than I’ve ever played before. And I have to say that everything has been going really well. Our van got broken into in Montreal—all my clothes got stolen, which really sucks. But other than that, it’s been pretty great.”
The nerves, she explains, come from being a realist.
“I think I was anxious for the reason that anyone would be anxious,” Lanza elaborates. “It’s everyday, normal life stuff. You don’t want your shows to be a total flop. And money is a major concern—it’s really expensive to go out on tour. A lot of the venues that I play at, it depends on how many people come out before I get paid.”
That people are indeed coming out justifies some big decisions that the Ontarian has made in recent years, including leaving university and stepping back from teaching to launch a music career. In some ways, Lanza figures she was born to do what she’s now doing.
“I’ve always done music—ever since I was a kid,” she notes. “I did classical piano when I was in elementary school and high school. And then I went to university for jazz music. But I’ve always done sort of singer-songwriter–style writing. When I was a teenager, that was kind of what was most accessible to me, sitting at the piano and writing songs. I wanted to be creative, and I really tried, but things never really came together until I started working with Jeremy. I finally had somebody that clicked with me.”
Best known for his work with Hamilton’s critically respected Junior Boys, Greenspan didn’t come into Lanza’s life overnight; Lanza has been a friend of his sister’s since childhood.
Similarly, Pull My Hair Back didn’t come out of nowhere. The genesis of the album can arguably be traced to Lanza’s guest vocals on the Junior Boys’ 2011 record, It’s All True. As thanks, and payment, for her efforts, Greenspan offered to help Lanza transition into a world beyond that of the singer-songwriter.
After dropping out of university, getting by teaching piano, she became increasingly fascinated by old synthesizers that happened to be lying around her mother’s house. Lanza’s father—who has passed on—designed club sound systems back in the day. He also collected instruments that, after his death, no one had any use for.
“It seems really silly, but they were basically laying around for so long that my mother was like, ‘I’m going to sell these,’ ” Lanza recalls. “The Polymoog that I try to use on everything, although sometimes it gets cut, was sitting in the crawlspace in my mom’s attic collecting dust. It was like a doorstop or something until four or five years ago when I started using it. The good thing, though, was that, having all this stuff around, I got to skip a step of acquiring all these instruments that were really expensive. They were all just laying around and at my disposal, which was really lucky.”
Considering her affection for the tools that she was working with—Lanza calls her Polymoog her go-to instrument—it should come as no surprise that Pull My Hair Back is a decidedly retro-sounding record. Kick back to the Bristol chill-out number “Kathy Lee” or the softcore dance jam “Fuck Diamond”.
Lanza has a much-written-about love of ’80s-vintage R&B acts such as Janet Jackson as well as hip-hop artists like Missy Elliott, which surfaces on numbers like the minimalist-minded title track. At the same time, there’s a throwback EDM vibe that suggests someone is more than a little familiar with the gold rush of electronica acts (think Four Tet) that made guitar rock almost irrelevant in the late ’90s.
Acknowledging that Pull My Hair Back was indeed a collaborative effort, Lanza says, “The dance-music vibe very much comes from him [Greenspan], with the R&B side coming from me.”
The collaboration has worked well enough, though, that she has no plans to leave Hamilton anytime soon. That’s partly because Greenspan is there as a sounding board, but mostly because Lanza has learned to love the place, even though it doesn’t make a lot of hippest-cities lists.
“There are things that I really like about it, like the fact that I can work there,” she reports. “I’ve lived in other places and never been comfortable enough financially to get by. Like, living in Toronto, I didn’t have any money, so couldn’t afford to have a studio. Here, I don’t have to be working constantly to support myself. I have time to be creative. Also, the artist community is really great. It’s not like Hamilton is some cultural mecca that people come to, like Toronto or New York. People who create things here do it because they are compelled to.”
Jessy Lanza plays the Media Club on Saturday (May 17).