Jessy Lanza is an unlikely pop star. The 30-year-old native of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, tends to disappear into her work. Her voice is expressive, but ethereal, its sweetly harmonious tones fusing with her R&B-inspired electronic production so that it becomes almost like a part of the scenery, rather than a counterpoint to it. There's no mistaking her voice when you hear it, it's just that it works best as part of a greater whole, gently melting into a swirl of intoxicating sounds.
Onstage, she's just as likely to retreat from the spotlight, often performing behind a table of samplers and synthesizers as a thin layer of fog engulfs her. She's almost like a ghost onstage, albeit one with a pedigree in New Jack Swing and '90s R&B—a barely-there apparition that just happens to be responsible for some gorgeously danceable songs. In the context of her music, her unassuming stage presence makes sense, but it also has a little to do with her own history as a reluctant performer.
As Lanza explains in a phone interview before a live performance in the United Kingdom, she grew up learning to sing and dance, though the latter didn't really take.
"My parents were both musicians and my dad was always very pushy about like, 'you're going to take dance lessons, and you're going to write songs,'" she says. "He always encouraged me to do that. And I grew up doing music, but I suck at dancing. I hated dance class. I'm not a triple-threat kind of person or performer, even though my dad always wanted that for me. I've always struggled with coming out of my shell, when it comes to performing in front of people. But more and more I'm finding where I'm comfortable with it. It doesn't come naturally to me in a conventional sense."
Lanza isn't a conventional performer, so it only makes sense that her style of pop music isn't really conventional pop music either. On May 13, Lanza will release her second album, Oh No, via Hyperdub Records, and it's an eclectic, atypical exploration of pop that continues the arty electronic sounds of her first album, Pull My Hair Back. The first single from the album, "It Means I Love You," is built on icy, "When Doves Cry"-style synthesizers and a persistent beat, with Lanza pitch-shifting her voice to take on a more disorienting quality. Meanwhile, "I Talk BB," which is named for a Canadian cell phone provider, is an ambient slow jam that does a lot with a little, and "Going Somewhere" pushes a deeper, heavier bassline forward while twinkles of synth make a misty bed for Lanza's coos of "Say you love me, say you love me."
Jessy Lanza plays March 18th at The Casbah
Oh No was recorded with her partner—both musical and romantic—Jeremy Greenspan of fellow Hamilton synth-pop act, Junior Boys, with whom Lanza is touring this spring. Lanza says that Greenspan makes for an easy musical partner to work with, though they do their best to compartmentalize their roles both inside and outside of the music they make.
"Our working relationship and our private relationship, we try to keep that separate," she says. "It's great working with him, because we like the same music, and he's a great person to work with because he doesn't take things too seriously, doesn't take himself too seriously. He's not pretentious—I mean, he doesn't really have an ego when we're working."
If the title Oh No suggests a sense of despair or unease, it's by design. As Lanza was working on the album, and following the critical success of her debut, she began to more closely tune into long-term feelings of anxiety that she had been dealing with for a long time. Though the album itself isn't necessarily about that, the process of making it drew her attention to those anxieties, and how her career can sometimes make things more complicated.
"The title came from me kind of coming to terms with a lot of anxiety and depression issues that I've felt my whole life, which were kind of amplified by the fact that I didn't have any expectations for the first record," she says. "When it actually did alright and people responded to it and I ended up traveling and getting this response from people, it brought up this new set of anxieties.
"In music, everything kind of seems like one big accident," she adds. "Nothing is for sure, and everything is kind of unpredictable. Here I am doing the thing I've always wanted to do, and my life is going to get better if I can achieve that thing. And of course it never works out that way. There's always a whole new set of things to worry about."
With Oh No finished and ready to be released, and a new year of touring ahead of her, Lanza acknowledges those elements of being a performer that are less glamorous or enjoyable than they might seem. But she also finds strength in making music. In a way, she's made her peace with knowing that her relationship with music is a complicated one.
"Music has always been cathartic for me. It's always been the thing that helped me," she says. "But it's also a source of great anxiety—it's both things at the same time."