Jessy Lanza suffers from anxiety. You wouldn’t know it, watching her perform. “I get irrational when I’m feeling shitty,” she tells me a few days after her show at the Triple Rock, an intimate venue in the West Bank of Minneapolis, “so I find the best place for me is alone in my studio where I can listen to music or work on my sample library.”
Here’s the thing about anxiety: at parties or shows or wherever, you feel like some creature wearing a human suit—an ill-fitting human suit. You try your best to fit in, act the way you think a human should act, but your mind is rapt with questions: Am I standing weird? Am I bobbing my head to the beat? Why is my beer bottle sweating so much? Is my hand too warm? Why am I staring at my hand? And so on, while everyone around you looks painfully comfortable, excruciatingly carefree. I think about this as Jessy Lanza—pretty and slight, Canadian, dressed in what looks like a bedazzled boxer’s robe—takes the stage after opener DJ Taye’s incandescent dust has settled. I’m standing at the Triple Rock’s bar, surrounded by the young and artfully grimy, the subversive, the woke, in the custody, say, of my own anxiety’s bête noire, its red tide rising, my prelapsarian spark snuffed like candle flame. I am not a people person.
“My happy place is in my studio,” she says. “I like to be alone when I’m angry or upset mostly as a favor to other people.”
My own happy place is in music—not in its creation, but in the baptismal experience of it, and if anything can transport a person from mood to mood, a sort of physiological peristalsis, it’s music. We grow up on it, we’re reared on it, and music shapes our identity.
Jessy launches into “Kathy Lee”, the breakout single off 2014’s Pull My Hair Back, and it’s clear she’s having a good time, that her anxiety has been shelved somewhere backstage, or back home in Canada. The crowd, in turn, responds like some kind of electrostatic induction, charged matter moving in unison to the familiar sounds. I, too, nod along, transfigured, transmigrated. Two kids up front move like Pentecostal preachers, heads lolling. The show is officially in full swing.
“Kathy Lee” segues into “It Means I Love You”, the incendiary single from Lanza’s highly anticipated (and Jeremy Greenspan-produced) sophomore album Oh No. The boxer’s robe draped over her shoulders (the same she wears on the album’s cover) glimmers in flashbulb succession against the backdrop-mounted (and Bryce Kushnier-designed) light show. Lanza’s music-making process feels as arduous as it does cathartic, clearly meditative, an escape through the welcome trapdoor. The fruits of her labor, slinky and danceable jams like “New Ogi”, “I Talk BB”, “5785021” and “As If” swim through your veins like an analgesic shot, inviting you, too, through the trapdoor.
Lanza’s music is at times tinny, sexy, shimmering, sweeping, the stuff of Miami Beach pool parties, high school proms in a parallel universe, lovesick pining in bedrooms lit by the aquarium glow of a stereo. It’s interchangeable, open, unlocked for listeners (of all ages) everywhere. But, let’s face it, dancing is key here: the beats are infectious, movement unavoidable, pulling listeners to physically participate, have fun, shed some kind of weight, some kind of pillory.
And that’s exactly what everybody at the Triple Rock is doing—moving, wearing the music like sifted glitter.
This is Jessy Lanza the performer. Jessy the person hails from Hamilton, Ontario (a.k.a. Steeltown, The Hammer, and, perhaps most apropos, Ambitious City), an industrialized port town located in what’s known as the Golden Horseshoe, a region of Canada wedged between Michigan and New York (or, more specifically, Detroit and Buffalo, the proverbial loops of the Rust Belt—that strip of homegrown urban decay (metals, automotive) straddling the Midwest from Syracuse to St. Louis).
“Hamilton has a lot to do with who I am as a person,” she says, “because my family has been there a long time and I’m very close to them. My grandpa worked at the steel mills his whole life and was able to provide for my dad, who in turn was able to provide for me with music lessons and instruments and all the things that set me on a creative path in music.”
“I always come back to Hamilton,” Lanza tells me, “because my family is there. I used to think about living other places, but the reality is that I’m a homebody and I’m sentimental.”
I’m looking out at the backs of all those bobbing heads, all that free movement (“Could Be U” whips through the crowd), and I feel good, light, happy, my anxiety drained like fever, here among the young and artfully grimy, the subversive, the woke, dancing in my human suit.