Jessy Lanza and Kara-Lis Coverdale Talk Mariah, Monica, and Music Theory

The two Canadian composers wanna know: What is a diva, really?

Jessy Lanza is an electronic artist formerly based in Hamilton, Ontario and now in San Francisco; Kara-Lis Coverdale is composer based in Montreal. To celebrate Jessy’s new album All The Time (out now via Hyperdub), the two hopped the phone to talk touring with their moms, music school, and what it really means to be a diva.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Jessy Lanza: How’s it going?

Kara-Lis Coverdale: I’m good. I’m, like, fully Canadian right now, living this Canadian life that I haven’t lived in so long. Like in a really good way though — I’ve been enjoying healthcare.

Jessy: Oh, I’ve been missing that. It’s very comforting.

Kara-Lis: It’s very comforting. I didn’t realize how much I needed it actually. I think that comes with youth — like, I’m invincible, I can just travel the world indefinitely and I don’t need anything or anyone except for, like, my music and a show.

Jessy: Totally. I relate to that in a big way. For a long time it felt that as long as I had those shows, that next tour, [I’d be] feeling good. And then, you know, it definitely wears off.

Kara-Lis: How many years have you been doing big tours like that now?

Jessy: I’d say 2014 was my introduction to the big tours. Like opening for Caribou — that was my first big in-the-van, show-every-day [tour]. It was just getting up really early, going to sleep really late. But yeah, it’s been awhile, like a good five years. 

Kara-Lis: That’s a good place to be, I feel like. I think you’re probably very mature about it now. 

Jessy: Yeah. I feel like I should’ve learned how to do it better by now, but I don’t feel that way. It still feels like every time I’m packing, before I go I buy, like, eight of the same USB — I just have this paranoia that it’s going to break, I’m not going to be able to find another one. I haven’t learned how to pack. I still get very nervous. 

Kara-Lis: I remember seeing you at Metropolis opening with Caribou and that was a big moment. That was 2014, before I was touring at that level, on that kind of stage where people are watching you.

Jessy: Yeah, like they’re there, they bought a ticket and they’re excited.

Kara-Lis: Yeah, like you’re part of a — I don’t want to say industry, because I still don’t feel very industrial, but there is monetary exchange. When I saw you do that show, which I loved so much, that was, I’d say, a year and a half before I was doing my own thing. Maybe it was even, like, late 2015 that I did my first full big one. I was thinking about that the other day, how much has changed since then. I feel like I don’t really know how to do it still, but at the same time I know so much more about dealing with the culture around music, I think. That was always my biggest struggle with it.

Jessy: Yeah, like all steps to get to the show.

Kara-Lis: Yeah, and the sleeping — when you’re on tour, your brain is so committed to just getting through the day. Going to where you’re sleeping, your flight, your sound check, meeting with X, 10 different people on your phone that you don’t know. It’s like this world that’s totally removed from any semblance of a normal life.

Jessy: Totally. It’s so far away from the Canada world. [Laughs.]

Kara-Lis: I do feel good being back in a normal world. Or at least, like, recognizing that this world exists again. I think I kind of forgot how to have a life.

Jessy: Like you mean being close to your family?

Kara-Lis: Yeah. I felt like I almost in ways abandoned my family. Even though my mom came on a tour with me and like stuff like that — I had ways to be close.

Jessy: My mom came with me too one time.

Kara-Lis: Really?

Jessy: Yeah. It was so important. It meant so much to me. It was such an amazing thing to share with her. Where did you go with your mom?

Kara-Lis: Our first stop was Barcelona. It was a two week tour; we did Estonia, Italy, Malmö, some other places in Sweden. There was a bunch of stops, and she ended up staying in Estonia for a bit longer because she was just like, “Oh, I can’t keep up with you. You’re insane.”

Jessy: Yeah, I was going to ask, how did she find the whole experience?

Kara-Lis: I think she really just thought it was insane the way I was doing it. But my sense of time and hers is very different, I feel. She just has a much more relaxed sense of planning and looks forward more than I do. I’m more immediate and on the fly. I had all my itineraries I’d made myself in spreadsheets and was going through 70 links, and she’s just like, “Where are we going now? I need to look that up.” So bless her. 

It was so amazing to have her with me and it meant a lot to me to. I think I probably would’ve gone crazy or like a panic attack if she wasn’t there, kind of bringing me down sometimes. What did your mom think?

Jessy: It was a weird tour because it wasn’t live shows, it was DJ shows. The first stop was in Marrakesh in Morocco.

Kara-Lis: Whoa!

Jessy: Yeah, we’d hang out, we’d have dinner, and then I’d be like, “OK, Someone’s going to come pick me up at 3AM, and I’ll be back at, like, 6.” So she, similar to your mom, was like, “This is crazy.” And they were all like that. We stopped in Barcelona too. My set was 4 to 6AM, so my mom was just a bit mystified by the whole thing. Like, this is just a bizarre lifestyle. But my mom is a very open, curious person, and she was down.

Kara-Lis: I love that. They’d probably get along so well. We should go on tour together with our moms.

Jessy: Oh, it would be amazing. It is such a special [thing]. Like what you said, just the grounding factor. I had been missing my family too, and touring is like, you’re away all the time and you end up missing things, missing events. 

I was curious about your mom. I was reading that she’s an artist too. She’s a visual artist?

Kara-Lis: She’s like an everything artist. She’s such a renaissance woman. She has an amazing garden, she’s a visual artist, she’s a draftswoman. She was a sign painter for many years. She can do anything, and she’s kind of like a world builder in that sense. She’s working in ecology and dealing with mass infestations of gypsy moth caterpillars, and stuff like that — that occupies her time, because they live on conservation land so they have a lot of forested area they need to take care of. She’s very much working with land all the time.

Jessy: That’s amazing.

Kara-Lis: But she’s always been my number one supporter of my music. I don’t know who your number one supporter was but—

Jessy: My mom. Totally my mom. She’s always been so, so supportive. When I told her I wanted to go to university for jazz piano performance she was on board. She was always driving me to everything. Just always, always supportive. I feel very lucky for that.

Kara-Lis: Was she always going to your recitals and everything?

Jessy: She’d always accompany me.

Kara-Lis: Like you would sing and she would accompany you on piano?

Jessy: I only did one [Royal Conservatory of Music] vocal exam, which she didn’t do the accompanying. But for the high school talent show, I remember she went to the library and got the sheet music for “Hero” by Mariah Carey and learned it so she could play it for me when I was in grade nine. It’s just so sweet. 

Kara-Lis: That’s amazing. I feel like I really saw the Mariah Carey in you come out, especially on your first album. I was like, this is so glamorous

Jessy: I could never do the diva thing but I admired it from afar. I felt kind of like a diva voyeur. I wished and tried, but I don’t have a voice quite like that. But I really practiced at it for awhile. She definitely had a big influence on me.

Kara-Lis: I think that’s super interesting, because what is a diva, really? I mean to me, a diva is just like a powerful woman. And there is kind of like a Top 40 — I wouldn’t say embodiment, but almost like a caricature of what it is. Like Christina Aguilera, the super melismatic phrases and really ornate multiple register.

Jessy: Yeah, like the virtuosic element. But really, it’s like, there is a narrow definition, but then in reality it’s so much wider than that. Like what you said, what is a diva really?

Kara-Lis: I think it’s a really interesting question, and as everything is more complicated now in a good way… Even what someone like Mariah Carey had to go through — I was reading about her career the other day actually, and how she married the owner of Sony.

Jessy: Tommy Motolla, yeah.

Kara-Lis: What a fucking time that must’ve been, for her to come up in that era. I can’t even imagine how much pressure there must’ve been on her to be in that relationship.

Jessy: Totally. And then after she left him he tried to ruin her — like, to go out of his way to screw her career up. I mean, she has been through some stuff.

Kara-Lis: It’s a complicated industry.

Jessy: It really is. I wanted to ask before we got too far away from the early childhood influence stuff if there was a similar artist that when you were a kid that made a big impression?

Kara-Lis: Because I grew up in the country, I was, like, only listening to music. I was alone all the time and I just lived secondary lives through whatever I heard. I was obsessed with Mariah Carey, I had all her albums. I was obsessed with Celine Dion and I can play all her songs. I read several David Foster books, her producer. I loved the whole Canadian element of that too. I grew up on CBC a lot — that was always playing in the house, and I was just kind of trained to think about what was happening here, through that radio. And then I was obsessed with Glenn Gould. 

I always rocked out and had fun to Celine Dion or whatever, but I always saw myself as like a David Foster rather than a Celine Dion. I feel like I didn’t really have any female role models that I saw myself in. There just weren’t any at the time.

Jessy: Yeah, I know what you mean — that play that David Foster role, like the guy in the chair.

Kara-Lis: Playing the tunes, or writing the bridge.

Jessy: Exactly. Have you seen the documentary that just came out, the David Foster documentary? You will enjoy it very much. It just goes through all the people he’s worked with in his career. If you want a song with, like, the crescendo where all the fireworks go off, like Celine Dion, Michael Bublé style, David Foster is your guy. 

Kara-Lis: Those songs are so dramatic. It’s like musical theater and it’s impossible not to go through some sort of exorcism, like if you really lived the song. I always loved that about that music, just how cathartic it was. Pop just isn’t really like that these days. I was thinking about Lady Gaga — her new record, which I really like — I was driving to it to Montreal a few weeks ago. I loved it, but I was thinking, this is quite full-bore, I would say.

Jessy: Are you in Montreal right now?

Kara-Lis: No, I’m in Ontario. I moved from Montreal in November.

Jessy: Oh, OK. And are you in the place where you grew up?

Kara-Lis: Yes, I am. I’m at my mom and dad’s, and it’s so nice except the gypsy moths are flying around right now.

Jessy: So there is a lot of them? They’re proliferating?

Kara-Lis: Mass infestation, and they ate so many trees. I spent, like, two weeks up in a big bucket truck spraying BTK on trees to protect them from this worm that was brought from Europe by someone who wanted to, like, spin silk —  it didn’t work out and one escaped, and now they’re eating the entire forestry system here.

Jessy: Do you think you’ll go back to Montreal after?

Kara-Lis: No, I won’t. I don’t know what will happen, but I love Montreal. As you know — you’ve spent time there, I’m sure.

Jessy: Yep, I did. I went to Concordia there for a couple years, then I transferred to McMaster to finish my degree there.

Kara-Lis: Why did you transfer?

Jessy: My mom became ill and I have two younger sisters that were still, I think 15 and 11 or something. My mom was quite sick, so it just made a lot of sense that I should go back and go to McMaster, which was a totally different experience. Concordia had that whole Loyola campus, and it was a really beautiful place to be, and they had the electroacoustic program there. McMaster is a wonderful school, but they’re not known for their music program, really.

Kara-Lis: So you initially went to Concordia for jazz piano?

Jessy: I did, yep.

Kara-Lis: You finished? Does McMaster have a Jazz Piano program?

Jessy: Ah, no but they did have a private piano instructor who I could continue my lessons with. 

As a classical pianist, you were in the Conservatory — did you go all the way? Like ARCT?

Kara-Lis: I was a drop out.

Jessy: I was a grade eight drop out.

Kara-Lis: Wow. What do you think about the RCM?

Jessy: The Royal Conservatory of Music… I think of being anxious. I think of being a kid who really — I don’t know if you relate to this, but I really wanted to do music but I had this pressure to be certified in some way. I can’t just be free, I have to prove my skills. So I think that’s what set me on that path, that I need, like, a grade to go along with this. I’m really thankful I learned how to read music and about tonality, but the exams — I never functioned very well in those exam environments and they were always a bit hard on you. I think of myself being 10, and the way that they would speak to you. It was just a very hard environment, very rigid. Which, it is what it is. I just don’t think that I function well under pressure, so that was the main problem.

Kara-Lis: Do you remember going to your examinations?

Jessy: Totally. Driving up to the church on the Hamilton Mountain and waiting and just being so anxious. The examiner is at the table and you’re set so far away from them — other than talent shows, that was like a weird introduction to performance.

Kara-Lis: It’s sort of like America’s Got Talent.

Jessy: Totally.

Kara-Lis: I can see why you went to jazz piano if you never felt like you could be free or express yourself there. There was never any like discussion of the soul, or any encouragement of the individual, or to ask you who you are as a maker. It was more about being a replicator. I found that really almost abusive at times. I bet you could like choose what piece you liked best, but there wasn’t very much room. 

Looking back, there were no female composers. It was all white males. I think growing up, it was another form of reinforcing this learning men’s vocabulary over and over and over, and over again that didn’t necessarily resonate with mine at all.

Jessy: Absolutely. You don’t have the vocabulary to understand and to know.

Kara-Lis: To critique it.

Jessy: Yeah. You get stuck in that canon. And maybe there will be a little jazzy number written by a lady in the ’60s in the most adventurous section of the Royal Conservatory book. That’s about it. It’s a very specific canon of music that they’re drawing from. And it makes sense, because that is kind of what the RCM is. 

Do you feel like your experience doing classical piano was a jumping off point for your own explorations, or a push back from that? Or was that anything that you ever thought conscious of?

Kara-Lis: It was definitely a lot of things happening all at once. I do think that I was very aware of what I had to do in order to be validated, but then I was always like pushing that line. Looking back at a lot of my competition adjudications, I would refuse to wear what you’re supposed to wear. I would get a nice adjudication, but then it would be like, “Wear softer heeled boots,” or something, because I would like wear my riding boots to play Haydn or something.

Jessy: “She was great but those boots just ruined the whole thing!” [Laughs.] So stupid. That just brought back a memory: I had this anxiety [that] I was going to mess up if I was wearing my shoes, and I asked the adjudicator, “Can I play in my socks?” And she was really appalled. She was like, “Well, they wouldn’t allow you to do that at the Royal Albert Hall!” She was really disgusted, and I didn’t take my shoes off. But it’s funny, this footwear fixation. 

Kara-Lis: It’s interesting because it’s like, footwear is the thing that separates you from the earth, and it’s this connectivity, I feel. It’s very important to me, footwear. It can be quite communicative to wear a certain form of footwear in a certain environment. It can change everything.

Jessy: Absolutely. Yeah, she was not sympathetic to that idea. [Laughs.]

Kara-Lis: Do you have a really big vocal range? I mean, you can go way up there.

Jessy: Yeah, it does get very high.

Kara-Lis: It’s almost like bird-like.

Jessy: Totally. [Laughs.] Yeah, I think it’s more of a character or something. I think actually maybe it’s subconsciously a pushback against always wanting to be a belter — like a Whitney Houston, Mariah-style belter but never—

Kara-Lis: [Singing] AND IIII

Jessy: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. The David Foster moment. That was just never me. I think that maybe the chirping and being able to deliver in this high, weird voice was what I could do, and so I just did that.

Kara-Lis: But I mean, that’s what everyone should do — like, do what they can do.

Jessy: It took me a long time to be comfortable with that. It’s just like, this is what I have. This is what I can do and this is good enough.

Kara-Lis: Yeah. It’s actually the money maker. It’s what makes you, you. When you hear a Jessy Lanza record, you just know it’s a Jessy Lanza record because of your commitment to yourself. That’s such a smart investment that you made, seeing yourself through that. Vocal manipulation is cool and everything, and it’s fun, but it’s still… I had a discussion with Lyra Pramuk a couple weeks ago, and she said that there is no such thing as the voice you’ve inherited. I understand that to a degree, but believing in that too much makes me rely on, I guess, technologies other than myself sometimes to such a degree that I just don’t even like recognize myself anymore. And I still prefer to keep a realistic core of who I am.

Jessy: Yeah. It’s not a nice thought to think that without that filter, you’re not there.

Kara-Lis: Do you remember when auto tune came out?

Jessy: In pop music, yes. Like all of a sudden it was the sound of pop music.

Kara-Lis: That was such a pivotal moment. Now it seems like a necessity in certain spheres of music to kind of encourage this multiplicity of self, which I think is really liberating because we can become anything we like, or try anything on, almost like a costume. But I don’t know. I think there is something to be said about creating or doing craft that is really… I keep coming back to guitar over COVID — like I have this classical guitar and I’m just playing it so simply. And people like my producer friends are like, “Oh, what are you working on musically?” I’m just like, “Uh.” I feel guilty sometimes saying it, like it’s a regression or something. But actually I’m, like, repairing neurological and physical connectivity that I feel like I don’t exercise when I do purely electronic music.

Jessy: Totally. I relate to that in a big way. I think it’s really important to have that tactile connection. It sparks a moment of, I don’t know, joy? Just that joyful moment that you’re spending with your acoustic guitar. That will filter into so much in the future, and you need those moments. 

I need to go back to just learning the chord progressions for songs and playing them. Like I was thinking about “Angel of Mine” by Monica. I loved that song when it came out, and I was probably in, like, grade seven or grade eight. I remember I had the sheet music for it. Obviously, I have no idea where that is now but I thought like, I’m going to learn this song and just play it on the iRig. But it had been awhile since I’d learned the arrangement and played it, and it just made me really happy to do it.

Kara-Lis: I think the word arrangement is pretty key there, because with electronic music there’s such a focus on timbre that you hear a sound and you’re just like, oh, this sound!.And then the sound becomes everything, then there isn’t much arrangement. It’s so stimulating. 

Post Malone’s music is so good with sound. It’s so simple. I don’t know who produced that “Sunflower” song, but every time it comes on, it’s like, I don’t need anything but these eight sounds for, like, all day. It’s amazing.

Jessy: The way that they sit against one another is pretty incredible. Like I remember watching  DJ Mustard talking about what you were just saying — there’s, like, eight sounds and they all sound really good the way they are all sitting together against the vocal. There is definitely a magic to that arrangement.

Kara-Lis: I’ve been going back in to some of the original arrangement structures of choir, soprano, alto, tenor, base when I’m writing things, and just kind of thinking in terms of basic, what do you need for functionality? You know. I find that those fundamentals are so useful. Sometimes I over-complicate, and they just don’t necessarily need to be. Or I’ll find really deep into something that it can be summarized with something far simpler, so it’s like, what’s the point of ever really going that deep? It just more for my own mental entertainment, maybe, than anything.

Jessy: Yeah, it’s just like you got that foundation back to take another journey, go on another little ride wherever you want to go.

The early days of writing All the Time, Jessy Lanza‘s first album since 2016’s Oh No, marked a sea change for Jessy and her creative partner Jeremy Greenspan. After Oh No, Jessy left her hometown of Hamilton to go and live in New York. Written long distance for the first time, across Jessy’s new set up in New York to Jeremy’s home studio in Hamilton, and finishing in the recording studio Jeremy had been working on during this period.

Even though the move to New York and the change in remote working was tough, All the Time has turned out to be the most pure set of pop songs the duo has recorded; reflective and finessed over the time and distance they allowed it. Innovative juxtapositions sound natural, such as rigid 808’s rubbing against delicate chords in “Anyone Around,” unusual underwater rushes underpin “Baby Love.” Jessy’s voice is treated, re-pitched and edited on songs like Ice creamy and gestural sounds seem to respond to her lyrics in songs such as “Like Fire.”

As the final elements of the album were being put in place, everything changed overnight. Her European tour was cut short and she flew back to New York quickly, plans for the foreseeable future dissolved. Whatsmore her lease was up on her apartment and she couldn’t find another in New York due to quarantine restrictions, so she packed what she could into her van and drove to San Francisco to be near her family, stopping on the way in increasingly empty motels as she journeyed from coast to coast.