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Jessy LanzaPhoto by Hollie Pocsai

Jessy Lanza talks insomnia, anxiety and Prince’s legacy

The Canadian R&B artist on the unpredictable days and sleepless nights that went into making her stunning new album Oh No

“Happy Ed Balls Day!” Jessy Lanza trills over Skype from her home in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s the fifth anniversary of the deathless moment when Ed Balls announced his arrival on Twitter by mistakenly tweeting his own name, and Lanza is feeling the ousted Labour MP’s pain.

Five minutes ago, the Canadian singer-producer had no idea what Ed Balls Day was. But for the last ten minutes we’ve been talking about the internet’s power to inspire and instil anxiety, and when the subject of Twitter stage fright comes up, it inevitably raises the spectre of Britain’s favourite social media bungler.

“With the internet it sometimes it feels like you’re just sending things out into the ether,” says Lanza. “One day you could get the greatest news, like, ‘Someone wants to play you X amount of money to play a show!’ Then an hour later you’ll get another email that’s like, ‘Actually, you’re not gonna get any money, and people think your record is shit… even though it’s not out yet.’”

It’s exactly this kind of anxiety that wound up giving Lanza’s second album Oh No its name. Her first, 2013’s Pull My Hair Back, was a striking set of artfully understated, analogue dance-pop (imagine a less skittish Grimes with one foot planted in vintage R&B and electro) that quietly established Lanza as a distinctive voice in an increasingly crowded alt-R&B marketplace.

Fast forward a couple of years and Lanza, plagued by a bout of insomnia, was spending sleepless nights online scouring YouTube for obscure songs to sample on her new record. These bleary-eyed sessions helped sow the seeds of Oh No, a poppier, more heart-on-sleeve affair than its predecessor that is sure to cement her cult appeal. They were also a great way of turning lemons into lemonade.

“I just knew I wasn’t sleeping so I might as well do something other than lay in bed fretting about things that don’t matter,” says Lanza, a long-time sufferer of anxiety who jokes that music, with its constant deadlines, tour schedules and pressure to perform, may not have been the smartest career move in keeping stress at bay. But in times of economic uncertainty where we’re all, in Nathan Barley’s memorable turn of phrase, self-facilitating media nodes, you don’t need to be a musician to relate. We’re all Ed Balls now.

You were dealing with insomnia when you came to start writing the new record. What was keeping you awake at night? 

Jessy Lanza: Haha, this is like a therapy session! I find the things I worry about at night are always kind of abstract. I would get more existential crises at night, whereas daytime is for worrying about things that actually exist. It’s all very self-obsessed.

What were you looking for when you went online? 

Jessy Lanza: I was combing the internet for things to listen to. Lots of ideas would happen at random times: I would sample something in the middle of the night and forget about it, then come back to it in a couple of weeks and end up using it.

It seems from interviews you’ve been thinking a lot about the internet lately. Why is that?

Jessy Lanza: I think probably it’s because the internet has become such a big part of my life doing music, checking my email every day to talk to the guys at (Lanza’s label) Hyperdub. It’s just how things get done. Same as everyone, right? Maybe I’ll get a pager, and we’ll see how quickly my career ends.

Why did you decide to call your record Oh No?

Jessy Lanza: It’s a reflection on dealing with unpredictability. I’m an anxious person, and (music) is possibly one of the worst careers you can choose if you’re prone to anxiety or depression just because it’s so unpredictable. You just never know what’s gonna resonate with people, what’s gonna hit. Then I started thinking about how everybody deals with that to an extent, (and) how life is unpredictable. I could get into a whole bunch of clichés about it… To deal with it I think you just need to be at peace with the fact that things will come and go, and that you don’t have that much control over a lot of it. But, you know, it’s easier said than done.

“I’m an anxious person, and (music) is possibly one of the worst careers you can choose if you’re prone to anxiety or depression just because it’s so unpredictable” — Jessy Lanza

What do you find most stressful about your job? 

Jessy Lanza: Being at the airport. It’s like I get there and I turn into a bad person. I think it’s just this abstract anxiety where you don’t wanna own up to how unreasonable you’re being, and so it just turns into this blind rage when you get there. But if flying is the worst part of my job, I’m pretty lucky.

You’ve said before that you’d like to write chart pop with Jeremy (Greenspan, Lanza’s songwriting partner and Junior Boys member), but you aren’t so great at it, so you ended up making Oh No instead! What relationship does your music bear to pop?

Jessy Lanza: Both Jeremy and I are really into the radio and listening to the Top 40. So much of it is total garbage, but then a Michael Jackson song will come on the radio and it’s so simple and it sounds so amazing and it makes you remember that maybe writing a song isn’t that complex, you just need to find the right balance of sounds and simplicity.

Were you a big fan of Prince?

Jessy Lanza: Definitely. I liked thinking about Prince’s second record, the self-titled one, when I was making my first album. Just the fact that he wrote it on, like, a Prophet 5 (synthesizer) and a LinnDrum and did it all himself.

What else inspired the sound of your new record? I read that you’d been listening to a lot of Yellow Magic Orchestra?

Jessy Lanza: I’ve been into them for a while actually, but recently I’ve been exploring all their different side projects. Kode9 (Hyperdub boss) sent me some music by this singer called Miharu Koshi, who had this album, Tutu, produced by (Yellow Magic Orchestra member) Haruomi Hosono. That was a big inspiration for this record. It’s a synth-pop album but it has these weird samples, and it’s kind of techno-y – it’s hard to blend all these things and make it not sound like a joke, and they (YMO) were really masterful at doing that.

You worked with some of the footwork producers from the Teklife crew on your EP, You Never Show Your Love, last year. Did that shape the direction you were heading in with the new record?

Jessy Lanza: Not particularly, but the Teklife people, DJ Rashad and Spinn, are a big influence on my work (generally). I remember being at a festival in Germany with Caribou and the Teklife crew, who had all these dancers with them. Even though Caribou was headlining he was like, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m going on after them!’ So the Teklife people ended up going on last, and there was this sense of euphoria in the crowd. It was just amazing to watch.

The lyrics to your new single, ‘VV Violence’, seem kind of angry (‘You say I do it all wrong / but you don’t even talk to me / and every time I have to prove it / I’m working all day long / for the love I never see’). Are they directed at anyone in particular?

Jessy Lanza: It’s funny you should say that, actually. It was in the middle of the summer and I was just in a fucking terrible mood that day. I went to my studio which is, like, a closet attached to smaller closet – it’s really small and it was really hot. I’d just heard back from Hyperdub after we’d sent them a first draft of the album, and they were like, ‘Yeahhhhh… I think we need to do some more work, you know?’ So I wrote this song which turned out kinda ragey.

“People like thinking of women as not being able (to do things), like I need a mentor” — Jessy Lanza

I read an interview with Jeremy where he seemed bemused at how many people seemed to think you were his ‘protege’. Is that something you’ve come across? Is there a kind of sexism implicit there?

Jessy Lanza: I think so – people like thinking of women as not being able (to do things), like I need a mentor. Jeremy doesn’t have an ego when we’re in the studio, he’s not afraid to try things and he’s not worried about his ideas being shitty. For me as well, it’s not like I’m impressing somebody while I’m there, we’re just working together.

Do you have ideas about what will and won’t work in the studio? Like, would you ever reject songs for sounding too much like the Junior Boys, for example? 

Jessy Lanza: Absolutely. I’ve written a variation on (Evelyn King’s 1982 hit) ‘Love Come Down’ about six or seven times now. Like this shitty, trying-to-be-a-boogie song from the 1980s type-thing. We just keep cycling round. Jeremy will start out totally on board, so I’ll start and we’re like, ‘Yeah! This is cool!’ And then before we know it we're back at that song again.