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Jessy Lanza interview: “Sampling is just too easy”

We check with “our new favourite synth sister”

Jessy Lanza, our new favourite synth sister, is sitting comfortably at home. It’s 9:30AM, and she’s framed symmetrically by a verdant back garden, under the roof that has housed her, her mother and partner in Silicon Valley for over a year now. After the tumult of the past few years (she’s had a tour with Yaeji cancelled, a home overhauled, and a pandemic to contend with while recording her last album ‘All The Time’) it’s a vision of peaceful relief.

But the topic of conversation isn’t. Soon after saying hello, we’re deep into a chat about her longstanding, restless love for DJing. Her first mix to be released on a label – her upcoming DJ-Kicks on !K7 – is out on November 19. 

As our conversation unfolds, it becomes clear that this mix is the ultimate expression of what makes her music tick. It’s an artsy foray through odd deconstructions of synth-pop, sample-heavy footwork and clippy electro – with choice cuts from DJ Spinn, Lolina, DJ Nephets, and even some of her own unreleased songs with Taraval and Loraine James included. Like ‘All The Time’, it has a slick sparseness to it, welded together by flighty, impossibly-processed vocals; which Jessy asserts is an attempt to inspire familiarity and empathy with the listener. “It’s unrealistic to think that when you go to a club, you’ll always hear things you want to know,” she explains. “Personally, though, I like hooks and I like familiarity, and maybe the vocals are my way of getting close to that in some way.” 

Born in 1985, Lanza’s sense of familiarity rests with early synthpop acts like the Art Of Noise and The Raining Heart. The latter’s eponymous single ‘Raining Heart’ appears as this mix’s curveball closing track, and for her, the song is the ultimate honouring of her own personal nostalgia. At the age of 12, she’d play it on repeat, all while soaking up an outside-in view of the DJing world. Lanza’s cousin was a regular party-starter in her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, and her father owned a PA rental company on the side. This early experience of disconnectedness fostered a defiant, fidgeting curiosity, spurred by the pangs of “not knowing what weed smelled like”, nor being able to hang around after her cousin’s shows.

“This is going to sound really douchey… but to me (the Raining Heart song) sounds like an example of proto-vaporwave,” Lanza says bashfully. “That song uses the Fairlight sampler, and to me, it really sums up the importance of sampling. They used it to sample a gunshot richocheting off something; it’s a little silly, it doesn’t take itself that seriously. And to buy a Fairlight back in 1985 would have cost something like $200,000, so they must have been taking it fairly seriously. But regardless, I don’t think you could make a track like that today, it just wouldn’t work. Sampling is just too easy. It exists in the year in which it was made.”

Lanza’s sense of curiosity as a selector transcends the average Ontarian. She describes the Canadian electronic music landscape in her youth as rather sparse – “electronic music never came out of Hamilton” – and riddled with the pains of overcoming a tired bubble: the hype around an aptly named band, The Tragically Hip. Tragically hip indeed, this chart-topping folk rock outfit was, in her own words, “the biggest bubble ever”, and that if you were from Canada, there was no avoiding being indoctrinated into their puffery. 

Eventually, she looked to fellow Ontario producer Dan Snaith, aka. Caribou, for respite. Seeing his live shows as a teenager led to a friendship with the folktronica pioneer, and also helped inspire her own musical passions. “(Dan’s) from Dundas, which is the town next to Hamilton, so I’ve known him for a very long time. When he was called Manitoba, he was one of the only people I knew who played electronic music and toured who wasn’t in a punk band, or wasn’t part of the Tragically Hip. I’ve always looked up to him… I used to marvel at him and think, ‘wow, you actually got to leave’.” Well, so did she: It’s no surprise she’s sharing a tour bus with Caribou on her upcoming US tour, which kicks off this month. 

As her live career unfolded, fellow Hyperdub affiliates Kode9 and Ikonika had a major hand in her DJing start:

“I think when Kode9 came to Hamilton, he was playing a show in Toronto, and he came to visit. I started talking to him about it, and he was very encouraging about trying and just playing songs that I like, and that was my first foray experimenting with it. Kode9 was very encouraging, and Sara (Ikonika) too. One of the first things I put out was that collaboration with her; she was the first kind of peek I had at what was possible.”

That sense of excitement and uplift in mind, her DJ-Kicks – with its piping sonic edges and acute vocals – begins to feel like a deliberate break away from malaise and inertia. We agree on the term ‘proto-vaporwave’, vaporwave itself being a comment on a future that was meant to have happened by now, but is lost, undelivered and stagnant. Perhaps one of the most ‘vaporwavey’ aspects of today’s online music landscape is the ease of tracking down, licensing and sampling music – which can make constructing a mix feel too facile, too slick. But Lanza’s not afraid of thatl, incstead using the internet to her advantage, genuinely eking out the future that was meant to be. She goes on to describe the miraculous process of securing permission to include the Raining Heart track, which only required a bit of social media scouring. “I can’t believe I got to license it, it’s a miracle that that one came through. For a lot of them I was like finding people on Facebook, because sometimes the publishing people were just nonexistent, you couldn’t track them down. I resorted to finding Peter Heckmann (mastermind of the Raining Heart track) on Facebook, and it worked in that instance.”

Las Vegas, a city with which Lanza has a complex relationship, is often understood as a kind of hyper-capitalist purgatory, and is one of the best real-world locations to relate to vaporwave. Appearing as the filming location for her latest music video out last week – ‘Seven 55’, featuring Loraine James – Lanza’s latest visit to Nevada’s sin city captures a mood of abandon and denial, inspired by a recent turbulent friendship with a commitment-phobic man.

“Visually, I wanted to articulate denial. How does denial feel, what does it look like? I hadn’t gone to Las Vegas until I went to a bachelorette party a couple of years ago, which was an experience that really fucked me up. From the second I got into the Uber there, I remember I felt very self-aware… the driver was like, “how old are you, are you married, why don’t you have any kids? I felt like my sexuality was very on display. It’s a place of extremes, and it’s also not really… it shouldn’t be there in the middle of nowhere. It’s this kind of wasteland of casinos and hotels, and the only places in which we were allowed to shoot were these in-between passageways from one place to the next. That’s where all the interesting bits were, all those in-between spots. Now that I’ve visited quite a few times, I know it’s definitely not going away. So I associate it with denial because I think people are there to get wasted and have a good time, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there also is something wrong with that.”

Like Lanza’s friend’s misplaced emotions, Las Vegas is a city that both should and shouldn’t be there. We briefly remind ourselves of Fallout: New Vegas, an open world videogame set in a post-apocalyptic Mojave desert, with a ruined, lost vestige of a future Vegas at its centre. With that in mind (a cup of coffee on the Las Vegas strip costs roughly $7) it’s easy to feel like Vegas is a hollow, money-sapping new build, and a vapid vision of the future. 

It’s no wonder Lanza is constantly stripping back her tracks during the mixing process – “I’m always thinking it’s too busy and too much going on” – as a respite from the sensory overloads such a city might bring. Besides ‘Seven 55’, her two new songs with Taraval, ‘Wet 3x’ and ‘Heaving’, as well as her unreleased solo bit ‘Guess What’, demonstrate exactly the kind of euphoric sparseness she shoots for. Those tracks scour murkier, dubbier, jukier instrumental depths of sound – anything to ease the mood – and are in most cases peppered only briefly by her own vocals. Every element of the mix is pinpointable and separatable in the listener’s mind, not lost in noise. 

Speaking of sparse music, we touch on the joys of footwork, one of her closest influences. She waxes lyrical on her affiliation with footwork pioneers DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad: “I played a show at USC (with them), and everyone was just freaking out. Seeing them play was just… it’s the same thing as wanting to come back to vocals. Just that their ability to take a sample from a song that’s familiar, and to make it totally unique and theirs.”

We’re equally excited to see Lanza’s support for UK artists in the mix too. Dubstep catalyst Loefah and lo-fi miniaturist Michael J. Blood make standout appearances. Perhaps most excitingly, she includes a track by fellow experimental songstress Lolina (of Inga Copeland and Hype Williams fame). Lanza regails an interesting story of the mysterious artist coming to stay:

“Lolina is my hero, she’s just incredible. Her voice, I can just pick it out anywhere. Seeing her perform live, she does everything on CDJs and a mixer, which made a big impression on me too. She also came and played a show in Hamilton, and she stayed with me and my friend for like a week.”

Lanza might be drawing direct inspiration from Lolina, as she’s soon divulging her hopes to amp up her future DJ sets with her own singing. She hints at her next DJ show in May next year. “I really want to DJ and sing at the same time, and recently I’ve been wondering about how I make that sound good. That’s what I want to figure out – do I go directly into the mixer? Maybe.” 

Touching on the disillusionment many creatives today feel about the bog-standard two-CDJs-and-a-mixer setup, Lanza reaffirms the thought that some sets might need spicing up, either with some vocals, or some extra effects and glitchings. “There are very few people who are really good at DJing, and who can make it exciting on its own. You want to do something a bit different. That’s what I thought about while making the mix. I don’t want it just be another Instagram loop.” At this point, Lanza waves her hands in the air playfully, perhaps imitating the movements of a hyped-up social media DJ. “That’s not to say it’s bad to DJ ‘normally’, but you want to make it special.”

Even though she’s now only reembarking on a tour – an ‘officially’ energetic musician’s life – it must be noted that Lanza’s sense of transience has not slowed down. Perhaps that’s why most of her recent live and DJ streams have seen her reclining in the sun or sitting in the back of her van – often with a glass of wine in hand – rather than her dancing or standing. We agree it destigmatises relaxation while playing, and she wonders if it’s high time for quasi-horizontal DJing to become a trend: “I would love to be able to take that energy with me (on tour) and try. If I could drive the van, if there was a bay door that was big enough to drive around and just set up on top of it, that would be sweet to set up. DJing makes me incredibly nervous, so I think just trying to chill out is so important.”

Jude Iago James

Jessy Lanza’s DJ-Kicks is scheduled for release via !K7 on November 19. Pre-order it here