Jessy Lanza on Socializing, Self-Obsession, R&B, and Feeling Outside the Club

Jessy Lanza on Socializing, Self-Obsession, R&B, and Feeling Outside the Club
Photo by Landon Yost

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And hey—it's my birthday tomorrow (July 28, to be exact)! So, I'm running a birthday sale, 36% off (because I am turning, uh, 25 years old) annual subscriptions, so that's $19.20 instead of the usual $30. It's a good deal, will only be around for a week, you can get the sale here.

Let's get down to business: Jessy Lanza's music has always been super engaging to me, in terms of 2010s electronic pop auteurs she's exemplary at catching a vibe. Her new record Love Hallucination finds her collaborating with more like-minded electronic/dance people than ever before, and yet she keeps sounding more and more like herself...we hopped on the phone last month and had a great conversation about a whole bunch of things, here it is.

You moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles recently. Is there any noticeable difference for you in terms of lifestyle or environment?
There's definitely more people that work in music here. [Laughs] I like it here a lot. I never pictured myself moving to the States even, so being here is a trip. The winters are nice, it's not hell for eight months of the year.

I'm always curious to hear from people who work in the music industry about how they feel when it comes to interacting with others in the industry. There's a social element that's almost its own job.
That is very real. I've noticed that successful musicians are very social, know lots of people, and go out a lot. I've always been kind of shy. Going out to bars has never been—I'm not like that, and I've always been envious of the ability to do it. It feels kind of strange, to be honest. But you find people you have stuff in common with eventually. [Laughs] I don't know. It's a heavy question, I think about it all the time, but you're definitely right. I guess that's where managers come in? [Laughs]

It's something I've been thinking about a lot with regards to working in media as well. During the pandemic, I was like, "When things open up again, I never want to do any schmoozing for the rest of my life." I've been spending the last few years asking myself what part that actually has to play with what I do for a living, and if I'm able to do without it entirely.
I think there's a lot of work to be done when it comes to the social aspect. You work with people you like and connect with. It's a pretty crucial part of being a successful musician, whether or not people want to acknowledge it. Did you ever watch Supermensch, about Alice Cooper's manager?

No, but I've been meaning to. Mike Myers directed it, right?
He did, they were neighbors. He was also Teddy Pendergrass' manager. It's a crazy movie, and it's very sweet too—and it's exactly about what we're talking about.

I'm definitely going to check it out. This new record has more collaborations than ever before, alongside your usual work with Jeremy Greenspan. As an electronic musician, what is it like to work with other people in a genre that often emphasizes solo work as well?
It's always really exciting to share a sketch of a song with somebody. The way I work is that I'll have a song I've written that's not overly produced, with a lot of room for someone's musical voice to be in there. It can go in so many directions, but the sign of a really good song is if it can stand on its own no matter who's having a go at it. It was really fun working with different producers. Pearson Sound has a nice spot in London, and I hadn't met him in person, so we worked together every day for a week, which was almost like a blind date because it was so intimate. You meet their partner, you meet their cat, you're in their house. [Laughs] But when it goes well, it goes super well, and so it did with David Kennedy.

Photo by Trent Tomlinson

This record also very much sounds like you, and it's fairly rare these days for an artist to have a sound that's identifiably theirs. What do you perceive your own sound to be at this point?
When I started putting the tracks together for the record, it was after spending a lot of time during the pandemic writing songs for other people. Everyone was at home getting everything in a row for when the pandemic was over, so I got all these offers to write for other artists. Inevitably, a lot of the stuff got rejected, but there were a couple of songs that I loved so much that weren't things I wouldn't have initially written for myself. It really helped expand myself outwards a bit, because some of them ended up on Love Hallucination. I wrote "Marathon" for another artist initially because I couldn't see myself doing a song like that. I feel a lot more confident now.

Had you previously written songs for others before the pandemic?
It was definitely new for me. I always wanted to, but the opportunities didn't present themselves for whatever reason. I love songwriting, and I love getting these offers from out of nowhere. Sometimes it's people I've heard of, sometimes it's not—but it's really fun to go through their catalog and think, "What can I add to this? What would be a cool direction for this artist to go in?" It's much more different than me honing in on my own thing, and it helps me get better as a songwriter and an artist overall.

Were there any challenges?
Advocating for yourself, and being firm about what you want when it comes to financial details, or credit. People will just do what they want, especially when you've never met them and everything's over email. They feel emboldened to do whatever they want unless you say so. Luckily, there's laws to protect you or whatever [Laughs], but you have to say what you want and not be afraid to advocate for yourself. Protecting yourself is another job entirely.

"Don't Leave Me Now" is about the fear of being hit by a car. It's a really specific thing to evoke.
You live in New York, right?

I read a stat how during the pandemic, pedestrian deaths spiked—I think because everyone was just freaking out and angry. Road rage was going through the roof. It stuck with me, because I've always been afraid, and now it's like, "Oh shit, it's happening." [Laughs]

It is super weird. I became a car owner during the pandemic for reasons of necessity, so knowing people could be going nuts on the road has made me a safer driver as well. In general, there's been all these unexpected domino effects from the pandemic that people are either working really hard to ignore or finding it impossible not to look at directly in the eye. Have you observed anything like that?
I've noticed that, understandably, a lot of people seem to be going through an existential crisis, which makes a lot of sense and leads to questions about legacy and ego. You're in the arts, of course you think about that kind of stuff—but it gets in the way, and I've noticed a lot of people thinking about what their Behind the Music is gonna be before they've actually made the music. Which isn't great, because music at its best is about teamwork—whether it's making the album or putting it out. I would be sad to see that slip into the rearview, or have people forget that good art is ultimately about the team.

I wonder if everyone was just alone for long enough that everyone is just having constant Main Character Syndrome now.
Totally, and it's very understandable how that would happen—and I'm sure it was happening before, but now it's accelerated.

Photo by Trent Tomlinson

Your music has often drawn from R&B a lot. What's some R&B you've enjoyed recently?
The Eddie Chacon record on Stones Throw. I've been listening to that a ton. I've also been listening to the music he made in the '80s as part of Charles & Eddie—they had this song called "Would I Lie to You" that's a bit cheesy, but really awesome. I find his story really touching. He had a one hit wonder, and he didn't have an audience after that. I've been really into him, he's just great. John Carroll Kirby produced him, and he's amazing too. What I love about Eddie Chacon's stuff is that the songs could've gone a different way, but the production really takes it into an incredible realm for me.

When it comes to the actual act of working in the studio, what's the environment that you try to cultivate for yourself?
Sometimes I'll spend six months organizing my studio—basically just procrastinating for a long amount of time—and then for a few days I get some work done. It seems like I'm just putting stuff off, but I can look back a couple of years later and think, "I was going through this, and it went into the songs." It's really about being as relaxed as possible, which is a hard mindset to get into. I always feel inspired after I listen to a great record and feel like I can forget about all the ego-driven stuff and tap into why I do this in the first place—because listening to good music makes me happy. But it's hard to shed away all of that. There's so much around creativity where you're like, "Why am I not being productive?" Questions about creativity turn into questions about productivity really quickly, and it sort of poisons the well for me.

I was reading a lot of writing about your music before this interview, and something that was popping up to me a lot was your music conjuring the feeling of the afterglow after a night out. Tell me about your own relationship with clubbing and nightlife.
I have always felt very much outside of that world. I didn't grow up going to raves, and the clubs I went to when I was a teenager were very top-40 Jell-o Shooters stuff. [Laughs] It was all the music that was on the radio, which was really fun, but it wasn't underground. I've always felt, because of where I grew up, outside of all of it. That feeling of longing, I do hear in my music, and I feel it for sure, so feeling outside of where something is happening has always been part of the music. Having Hyperdub put out my music, which is a label that's positioned in the zeitgeist, has added to my fear of "What am I doing here?" But I think it fits, I've just always felt right outside of club music. There's so much dance music, it moves so fast. It's a funny place to be, but it works.

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Jamie Larson