Why Jessy Lanza should with the Polaris Prize

Jessy Lanza, Photo: Tim Saccenti.
Jessy Lanza, Photo: Tim Saccenti.

by Elena Gritzan

In its eight years of existence, the Polaris Music Prize has only gone to one electronic artist. Caribou took it home with his 2007 album Andorra, but even that was back in 2008. While there have consistently been one or two electronic short list nominees –  like Purity Ring, Austra, or Miracle Fortress – the genre has been wholly underrepresented when it comes to the grand prize. I think that it’s about time that changed.

Canada has a thriving electronic scene, producing creative and highly acclaimed music for years now. (Notice how one of our most loved musical exports of the past couple of years was Grimes?) It’s an accessible form of music for anyone to dabble in, requiring little more than a laptop and some free software, but in its best form it can both inspire wonder and create fun and social cohesion in a way that no other genre can – I’m talking about dancing, my friends!

I’d venture to say that the Caribou album isn’t even fully entrenched in the electronic genre. Why is the Polaris Prize so afraid of rewarding the hip-grabbing, sleek synth branch of electronic music? The Junior Boys record nominated in 2007, So This Is Goodbye, arpeggiated its way right into listeners hearts but failed to be rewarded for its brand of highly effective and carefully edited song construction.

Hamilton’s Jessy Lanza has released the natural predecessor to that album, and not just because it was co-written and co-produced by Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan. Every sound on the album is perfectly essential, a combination of space-filled melodies overlaying into one highly controlled whole. It’s not minimalistic – there’s pulsating basslines, moving arpeggios and Lanza’s mood-enhancing voice – but it never goes over the top.

Lanza writes and performs her music on a range of analog instruments, moulding the instruments of the garish early days of the genre to fit an understated and decidedly cool sound inspired by her love of R&B. She starts by writing the drum part, literally basing her songs around the foot-tapping beat that defines them. Her voice is a stand-out element, despite her quiet delivery; its airiness comes off as dreamy and focussed, setting the mood for the entire album.

Subject matter-wise, Pull My Hair Back deals with love and longing. Classic and well-explored subjects due to their universal relatabilty, and Lanza does them well. In “5785021” (is that her actual phone number?), she is possessed with a desperation that can only come with having unrequited feelings, “Keep Moving” details an unwillingness to stop and examine your feelings about a relationship, and “Kathy Lee” brings out the l-word proper.

I don’t think that Lanza’s album reinvents the wheel, though it is a fresh combination of electronic melodies and an R&B sensibility. Instead, I think that it is an excellent representation of a valuable genre that deserves more recognition in the Polaris Prize process.

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