In keeping with Hyperdub's increasingly international roster, Lanza hails not from London or Berlin but from Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton, where she remains after stints in Toronto and Montreal, is one of the province's biggest cities, though it's usually in the shadow of its larger cousins Ottawa and Toronto. Like much of the region, it was once home to a bustling manufacturing sector, but now struggles with the industry's shift out of the North American Midwest. It's not a town most people would associate with a good arts scene, and it's certainly not seen as a fun place. But for Lanza, Hamilton is home. "Toronto is not a cheap city to live in," she says, "Hamilton just seemed more appealing because I could have a studio and not be worried about money. In Toronto I could barely afford living in my apartment."
"It's small," Lanza says of her city's music scene, "but the few people that do nights at the few bars, they put on good [shows]. There's a couple of good places you can go dancing, but it's not thriving... it's not Toronto or Montreal. But you can't really compare them to each other, and there is stuff going on despite what people outside might think."
Lanza is currently working as a music teacher in her hometown. She studied jazz performance and piano for her bachelor's at Concordia University in Montreal. But her attempt to bring her love of music to graduate studies was less successful: "I started doing a masters in musicology, which is like music history, at McGill. It was about women and gender, and the gendering of musical performance spaces in the 1920s. I was writing all the time, and I didn't have a chance to actually make music. You can't half-ass a masters... well, I'm sure some people can. I knew I wasn't totally enveloped in it, and I wanted to make music, not write about it. I just had to make that change."
Despite her degree in jazz, Lanza's main loves are R&B, hip-hop and electronic music, which she discovered through her father. "I've always had an interest in electronic music, mainly because my dad ran an audio company in Hamilton. He would install all the soundsystems in the clubs here in the '90s—there were a lot more dance clubs then. Both my parents were musicians, so they had a lot of gear around the house. And when my dad passed away when I was a teenager, he left me a bunch of his synths and a couple of drum machines."
Lanza experimented with her equipment for a while, but it wasn't until she met Junior Boys member Jeremy Greenspan, also a Hamilton resident, that her efforts began to take shape. "I've known Jessy for years," says Greenspan, "she's Matt Didemus' [the other half of Junior Boys] sister's best friend." They first collaborated out of sheer convenience, when Greenspan needed a female vocal for a track. "To be honest I had never even heard her sing. I knew that she was super into R&B, and I knew people that told me she could sing. That was good enough for me."
The partnership turned out to be more than just a producer and his backup vocalist. Greenspan was immediately impressed by Lanza's seemingly effortless musical dexterity. "It was how musically gifted and how into musical experimentation she was that made me want to work with her. Jessy is the only person I've met who knows the chords to every great R&B song of the last 15 years, and if she doesn't know them she sits down for five minutes and figures them all out... She's much more musically talented as a performer and in terms of a theoretical understanding of music than me or Matt are, but she doesn't really care about it. She usually thinks her best ideas are bad."
"The best way to write music is to learn other people's songs and then that filters into your songs," says Lanza. "You kind of have this repertoire of progressions just in your subconscious."
While the two worked on sessions for the Junior Boys' 2010 album It's All True, Lanza's own songs began to materialize as a result of their being in the studio together. "A lot of the tracks were born out of me turning quite experimental song fragments and production ideas into something that sort of resembles pop songs," says Greenspan. "I wanted to make sure that Jessy's bizarre ideas and complicated harmonic structures weren't tampered with too much."
Lanza describes the studio sessions as loose, easy affairs with each of them starting, finishing and adding to new songs as they see fit. "It was never stressful, it was always just fun. We never got in any fights or had any problems, no tension... fuck, we're so boring, man," she says with a laugh.
Lanza's payment for her session work came in the form of synth lessons from Greenspan. "She inherited some incredible synthesizers from her late father," he says. "She was trying to figure out a somewhat broken PolyMoog that she owned. It's a fairly complicated synth from the late '70s, not easy to use. A lot the material from the album was Jessy figuring it out and getting some completely crazy bizarre sounds and song ideas out of it."
"Soft synths drive me crazy," she says, "mostly because my computer is a piece of shit. I'll have like one plugin going and it'll just crash for an hour. It drives Jer crazy, too. We would have some plugin going and sounding good, but Logic would keep crashing and stress both of us out and create tension. My Juno 106 is on there a lot, and a 707, and Jer used his modular synths a lot. His ARP Odyssey—that thing is awesome—and the PolyMoog."
Lanza's stunning vocals are the album's most obvious attraction. Her inspirations run deep, encompassing everything from Sade to SWV. "I like dance music, though Jer definitely comes from that background more than I do," she says. "I'm not that well-versed in it, and those elements come from him. I do love it, though... I got really into The Other People Place, that Drexciya offshoot, plus another Gerald Donald project, Japanese Telecom. They're amazing."
Lanza's partnership with Hyperdub came almost as easily as her relationship with Greenspan, fostered by the latter's longtime friendship with label boss Steve Goodman, AKA Kode9. "He just asked Jer to play him a couple of tracks and he really liked it," Lanza says. "Jer told him we were looking for a label to put it out on and Steve just said, 'I'll put it out!' We thought he was joking. Turns out he wasn't. I think Hyperdub is awesome, and it seems like a dream that this would happen. We had to shave a couple tracks off... but there was no fighting about it."
Lanza has started to gig recently with a live setup that includes a few synths, Ableton and a delay pedal. But she already has one big milestone under her belt: a performance at MUTEK in 2012 as part of a trio reinterpreting Bach with Greenspan and Christina Sealey. "I was playing 'Two Part Inventions' and we had two [Roland SH-]101s—one was my left hand and one was my right—because all those Bach pieces were only two lines going against each other, one on treble and one on the bass. Christy was controlling the left hand with her modular setup and Jer was controlling the right hand with his. They just had these crazy, trippy MUTEK-y visuals going on the whole time. It was really fun."
The MUTEK performance sounds almost academic compared to the relatively straightforward pop of Pull My Hair Back. And it's an equilibrium Lanza struggles with. "I don't want to say that I don't like it," she says about the more serious side of her music. "But I did music history and didn't like it. It's more about having fun when I'm making music. When I think about school and intellectualizing music... it just immediately makes me think of the thesis I was working on, and that wasn't fun for me at that point in my life."
At this particular point in her life it feels like she's doing pretty well. Resettled in her hometown with a solid job, she's happy where she is. As she prepares to drop an album on a globally respected dance label, Lanza's more exposed than she's ever been but appears to be handling it well. "People seem to like [the album] so far," she says, somewhat nervously, "I feel good about being on Hyperdub. There's a little bit of pressure. You know? 'This isn't the new Burial!' That passes through my mind, but that's stupid. It's a great label and they care about music—interesting music—and that's what's important to me."