Jessy Lanza warns me that she’s walking outside, just in case the wind interrupts the phone call. When the wind does, she says, “Oh, I knew that would happen.” She’s so easygoing, so down to earth, so charming, that it’s easy to see what makes her a charismatic performer — low key but bubbling with excitement. She started out as a conservatory-trained classical pianist, but her music evolved in a new direction, especially when she began to work with Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys.
“Jer’s a great person to work with,” Lanza says of Greenspan. “If I had ideas or half a song that I was really frustrated with and I knew it was a good idea but I couldn’t finish it myself, if I had nowhere to go, he’s a great finisher.”
I ask if any songs in particular were developed using this process. “Strange Emotion,” she says. “I messed around with it for a good year. I had verses and a chorus and stuff, but there was no bridge. I wasn’t happy with it. Jer had all these ideas for different sections of it. He’s basically the reason that song got finished. I wouldn’t have been able to finish it on my own.”
“That’s the ideal thing in any collaboration,” she says. “He’d breathe life back into things. He’s a great person to bounce ideas off of. He’s good at finishing stuff.”
The enthusiasm Lanza has for collaboration also comes through in songwriting itself. She has a knack for finding things that excite her — a drum track or a vocal sample. When it comes to writing songs, she says that “usually it’s the drums that comes first. I’ll write a chord progression and the rest of the song fills in from there.”
The vocals usually are added last in the process, almost by accident. “I hate the sound of labored lyrics,” she says. “People can always tell if you’ve thought about something too much and it never comes off to well. They’re the last thing I do just because it doesn’t come easy. They often happen for me by accident. I’ll do vocal takes and take bits from this and that and hopefully something comes together.”
Lanza finds inspiration listening to others. “I’m often just inspired by the way people put something together,” she says. “I’ll hear a track and think I want a track with drums that sound like that.”
Her most recent album, Pull My Hair Back, has Prince at its heart. “I was listening a lot to one of Prince’s first records. It has I Want to be Your Lover and all those big songs on it.” What inspired her though was not just the songs, but that Prince did it by himself. “He composed that whole thing using one synthesizer and a Linn drum. He did it all himself. I listened to that record the whole way through and there’s no stinkers on it. At the time, I was starting to move away from working with people in a band setting and experimenting with doing stuff myself. I’m not saying that I’m like Prince, but I was inspired by the fact he did it alone. Just thinking about it that way is inspiring.”
Pull My Hair Back has been received with much love for its R&B sensibilities, its cool disco sound, and its overall elegance. Lanza studied jazz at Concordia University and she’d always been a fan of R&B music, even when she was studying piano at the Royal Conservatory. “I’ve always liked R&B and disco and boogie music,” she says. “When I started hanging out with Jeremy, it became possible to make this music with somebody else. He’s so encyclopedic when it comes to dance music. Working by myself, I’d always done my own R&B stuff, but it was simpler. I didn’t have the capacity to make things that were complex.”
Things are on the up and up for Jessy Lanza. After playing in Canada, she toured Europe. But, at the moment, she’s excited about her upcoming tour to the US. “I just got my visa FedEx-ed to me today,” she says, “I’m really excited because I’ve never toured there before. Especially New York — I’ve been to see other people play, but not to play. And I’m excited for Chicago too.”
Jessy Lanza plays Divan Orange (4234 St. Laurent) on January 15. 9:30 p.m.