It is fair to say that I have an unhealthy obsession with the song “It Means I Love You” by Jessy Lanza. I first heard it towards the tail end of last year, scouring the internet for anything I may have missed as I compiled my lists of the best music of 2016. Not only did I completely miss it when it first appeared on Lanza’s supremely confident sophomore album Oh No released in May, but it become one of the most important finds I made all year. Now I cannot imagine living without it; I listen to it about every other day, I secretly smuggle it into playlists at house parties, my friend and I have created a full dance routine for it. It’s just that good.
So it came as little surprise that as I rode the elevator down to meet her in the lobby of our hotel in Dubai, where we both took part in Red Bull Music Academy’s first-ever festival on the Asian continent, I was excited. Perhaps too excited. After introducing myself I immediately mentioned the fact that I had an elaborate choreography to her most-acclaimed single to date, which is an interesting way to establish relations with a stranger. Fortunately she seemed able to relate, in the sense that she too had gone on a life-altering journey with that song in the few months since it was recognized in numerous year-end lists.
“It’s been really busy,” she says as we head to the pool deck, eager to find a spot to chat where we can gaze upon the Burj Khalifa, a glittering monstrosity that is now the world’s tallest building. “It’s great and unexpected, but I didn’t really know what to expect. I never thought that I would be playing a show here, ever. I mean I have to really remember being a teenager when the idea of touring was so crazy to me. It gets demystified pretty fast, but then you come to a place like Dubai where I never thought I would even visit, let alone be playing music. It’s… crazy.”
These teenage years in question were spent in the quaint hamlet of Hamilton, Ontario in Canada, mostly listening to Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul (influences that are clearly felt throughout every track of Oh No). Music runs in Lanza’s blood; both her parents are musicians and spent their time playing in a band whose specialty was covers of Crosby, Stills & Nash. “My dad really pushed me into music when I was a kid, I didn’t really have much of a choice as to whether I was going to play piano, but I mean lucky for me I really liked it.” She would go on to begin a degree in jazz piano, before dropping out to fall down the rabbit hole of electronic music.
One thing that proved less natural was her forced entry into dance lessons, a combination of ballet and jazz classes that she eagerly works to repress. “I had to put on a bodysuit,” she recalled with sudden passion, “and when you’re eight and you’re prepubescent, it just sucks. Dance is where a lot of really horrible body shaming starts. I have a lot to say about putting little girls in dance lessons. If you go to more a progressive dance studio it can be fine, but the sexualization of girls starts really early and it starts in dance. I fucking hate dance. I look back at that time and I resent my dad for putting me in in it.”
Something in my face must have betrayed surprise in the sudden shift in tone for Lanza suddenly breaks into a giggle. “My inner dialogue is pretty mean sometimes, but I don’t want to be that person who’s in my head. Music is definitely an outlet in that way. I realize that I need to spend time by myself, that way I don’t take out my own aggression or stress on the people that I love. To go to my studio and be alone for three hours and emerge a nicer person… that’s important.”
Funnily enough, it emerges in our conversation that this exact kind of rage—particularly rage that emerges from the unwanted sexualization of women—ended up providing the inspiration for “It Means I Love You.” From a musical standpoint, one could never possibly guess that anger pervades the track. It is built from a sample of a South African tabla beat (from Lanza’s Hyperdub label mate Nozinja no less), pitch-shifted, Mariah Carey-esque vocals and a frantic footwork breakdown that ruptures the track’s middle section, so it would seem the only feeling the song instills is one of manic-dance-mania.
Nor is this feeling evoked in the visually stunning music video. It is a deceptively simple concept, capturing little more than Lanza enshrouded in a sequinned gold cape running through misty fields and a moodily-lit greenhouse with some kaleidoscopic cinematography thrown in for good measure. “We didn’t have any money to shoot a video” she tells me, “and the only idea we had was ‘plants.’ So we went to my friend Gary’s farm outside of Hamilton and made it hazy. My friend found the gold cloak at a Goodwill I think. I just said ‘Bring the cloak, maybe we can do something with it.’” It proved to be so striking that a still from the video became Oh No’s album cover.
As fate would have it, the angry inspiration behind the track was only revealed after I asked a question that is normally an unforgivable sin when interviewing an artist. The song’s chorus hinges on a repetition of the phrase ‘When you look into my eyes boy, then it means I love you.’ Upon close examination, this phrasing makes little to no sense. How exactly does that work? If a man looks into your eyes, then it equates to you loving him? Surely that means you have a lot of lovers? Clearly troubled by these thoughts (and unable to come up with better phrasing), I asked quite bluntly: “What do these lyrics mean?”
Much to my relief, Lanza agreed that this was a bit of a puzzling caveat, but her reasoning behind it was crystal clear. “It came from walking down the street in Hamilton, and there’s a lot of weird men who do the whole ‘Oh, if you smile’ or ‘Well why don’t you smile? You’d be prettier if you smile!’ But if you actually look at them in the eyes and say ‘Why are you talking to me?’ they just completely blank. They don’t have anything to say, because they don’t expect you to say anything or talk back to them, they think you’ll look scared and walk away.”
“It kind of started that way, because the song begins with ‘When you look, walk away,'” she continues, “I was really angry about it that day because it had happened a few times when I was walking on my way to the studio. So I started writing the song from this anger, and then throughout the course of the day it got a bit sweeter. And I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I should make this into more of a love song,’ and it changed so much. That’s usually how it goes, my anger will blossom into something else. But to answer your question properly, I don’t really know what the hell the lyrics mean either.”
Even for those not privy to the song’s genesis or not aware of its labyrinthine lyrics, it remains first and foremost a dance anthem that is utterly universal in its ability to make you move. It is why, just a few hours after our interview commenced, a crowd of hundreds in Dubai’s Design District were chanting along with each beat of the footwork breakdown that characterizes the song during her live set. She smiled knowingly; perhaps amused by the knowledge that—just like she said—the words don’t mean much. The crowd did not sing along to her lyrics, instead directly responding to the power of her juggernaut beats.
Lanza’s music is both immediately catchy and incredibly pertinent for it goes beyond the message. It plugs directly into our rhythmic sensibilities, drawing a through-line from her lifelong work in in jazz piano and, yes, even her dreaded dance lessons. Though as I learned in our chat, a little suppressed rage doesn’t hurt either.
Catch Jessy on tour at one of the following shows:
May 9th – Edmonton – The Needle Vinyl Tavern
May 10th – Calgary – The Hi Fi Club
May 12th – Vancouver – Fortune Sound Club
May 13th – Seattle – Barbosa
May 14th – Portland – Mississippi Studios
May 16th – San Francisco – The Independent
May 17th – Los Angeles – Teragram Ballroom
May 19th – Durham, NC – Moogfest
May 20th – Philadelphia – Making time @ 714
May 21st – New York – House of Yes
For more of our interviews, take a look at our recent chat with Migos right here.
Check out our full recap of Red Bull Music Academy’s Dubai Weekender right here.