When Jessy Lanza’s debut album, Pull My Hair Back, was short-listed for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize alongside artists like Drake and Arcade Fire, she did a double take. After spending years studying classical and jazz, then teaching piano to children in Hamilton, Ontario, she'd been managing her expectations for her Hyperdub-released album of slow-burning R&B. “I mean, I had been doing music for such a long time and it had all been pretty shitty before then," Lanza says, laughing over the phone as she calls me from touring in the Netherlands. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Nobody had heard of me!"
When that changed with Pull My Hair Back, Lanza says, "It kind of fucked with me ... Music is very cathartic for me, it brings me happiness. But if you’re prone to anxiety, it can be the worst career." You wouldn't know it listening to Oh No, Lanza's strikingly self-assured second album. Made with her partner Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, it's full of groovy, minimalist electronica — a hyper-energized version of the music she made on her debut. “For my first album, there was just a lot of uncertainty," Lanza says. "Jeremy and I were stumbling around, not really sure what we were doing. But [after] Pull My Hair Back did so well, I felt a lot more confident and wanted to make something much poppier."
While Lanza frequently cites her love of R&B artists like Timbaland and The-Dream and current Top 40 pop, Oh No is an album that exists more in the same universe as Madonna’s early club hit "Everybody," a bare-bones pop song that echoes funk music. Songs like "VV Violence" and “Never Enough," with their sassy, in-your-face flirtation and shuffling synth arrangements, suggest a sparser take on 1980s freestyle groups like Nu Shooz and Exposé. The kaleidoscope of boogie synths, hand-clap beats, and pitched vocals on Oh No celebrates a sort of vintage, lo-fi pop that has long been absent from contemporary charts.
One crucial inspiration for Oh No was Tutu, a 1983 LP by the Japanese pop star Miharu Koshi. Produced by Haruomi Hosono of the influential synthpop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, the album's eclectic mix of R&B, boogie, and “sounds that just don’t go together" appealed to Lanza. “I especially loved the way her vocals are on that album, so strange and high," Lanza says. It’s easy to hear how Koshi’s eerie falsetto influenced Lanza’s own on Oh No, especially on songs like “I Talk BB," where Lanza's high, whispery vocals seem to luxuriate in their own reverb.
Critics have frequently urged Lanza to give her voice more of a starring role in her music. “If That Voice were to assume a place in the forefront of the engaging, boundary-pushing beats she picks for herself, she could sound larger than life," read one review of last year's You Never Show Your Love EP. On Oh No, she complies — where her voice once floated above heavily percussive tracks like a breathy vapor, now it often dances in the spotlight. Even so, Lanza says she still prefers using her voice as one instrument among many. “I’ve always been self-conscious of my voice," she tells me. “I’m into making it less boring by manipulating it, giving it more texture." Some of Oh No's most thrilling moments come when she makes a virtual soundboard of her own voice, taking snippets of her already simple lyrics and warping them, repeating them, weaving them into the beat. On the record’s lead single and star track, “It Means I Love You," she first layers and reverbs her voice, then throws it into a squeakily high pitch.
Lyrically, too, Lanza delights in the quick construction and deconstruction of pop tropes. Oh No stays on the hazy edges of sex and love: She'll sing “I say it to your face, but it doesn’t mean a thing" or “Look into my eyes, boy, know it means I love you" in looped choral hooks that sound like a skipping record. “If I overthink my lyrics, they just sound shitty," Lanza says. "I think all the time about how The Beatles wrote ‘Helter Skelter’ about a ball going down a slide. It reminds me not to overcomplicate things. It doesn’t have to be fucking Blake poetry."
While Lanza plays a lead role in producing her own music, she says she has little interest in following fellow musicians like Grimes and Rostam Batmanglij into an expanded role behind the boards for other artists. “Not too many things are more unappealing to me than meeting someone who is ultimately a stranger and then working on music with them," she says. Her collaborations till now have been with people she already knew well — Greenspan, Caribou’s Dan Snaith, DJ Spinn and Taso — or her Hyperdub labelmate Ikonika. "We had never met," she says, "but we instantly connected because we both liked the same sort of ‘80s funk music."
Her outspoken desire to land a Top 40 song, however, means that Lanza has certainly tried to get her warped electronic pop into the hands of bigger names. She recalls hearing through Hyperdub about a request for fresh beats coming from Roc Nation. “It was like they wanted a ‘Truffle Butter' beat, and me and Jeremy were like, ‘OK, let’s do this!'" she says, laughing. “Whoever heard what we sent in must have been like, ‘What the hell is this?'"
Lanza loves pop music for its simplicity, for how its messages cut to the chase, but complicating those qualities will always be her signature. "I try to resist making music that sounds exactly like something I’ve already heard,” she says. "I pull from music, whether it’s a sample or an idea. [But] I never quite get it right — and that’s what ends up being my album."