Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Jessy Lanza’s music videos embrace the genericness of her Rust Belt hometown.
Hamilton, Ontario, is an industrial port city of 540,000 known mostly for being halfway between Niagara Falls and Toronto. There isn’t much around town that would leave a big imprint inside a visitor’s mind, despite the nearby natural beauty of the Niagara Escarpment and the man-made grandeur of its steel mills. But that hasn’t stopped one the city’s most enthusiastic cultural ambassadors, the synth-loving R&B singer Jessy Lanza, from celebrating her hometown in a series of music videos that use the city’s mundaneness as a setting for her energetic tunes.
In her new video for the song “I Talk BB,” fast-paced shots capture everyday Hamiltonians gardening, walking, fishing, or just loitering the city’s modest downtown. Combined with the video for “I Talk BB”’s remix, director Winston Case provides a day-in-the-life of sorts, with Lanza riding her bike around town from sunrise to sunset.
Case tells CityLab that he managed to get shots of local landmarks like the first-ever Tim Horton’s location—now a ubiquitous chain across Canada—in the video, as well as the steel mill where Lanza’s grandfather once worked. (Another landmark, the giant methane-filled tank painted like a globe that prominently advertises Hamilton to motorists on the Q.E.W., didn’t make the cut.) Case’s video for “Oh No,” another single on her latest album, shows Lanza riding out of a parking lot and into the city in the middle of the night with no one else around as the lights on her bike flash colorfully.
Lanza came up with the idea, with fellow local musician Jeremy Greenspan, to shoot her videos in Hamilton. She likes how unspecific it feels—at least to the kind of person who doesn’t think about North American urbanism all day.
“It looks like a Rust Belt city,” says Lanza, “but it’d be hard to guess which one.”
Lanza’s 2013 video (directed by Lee Skinner) for her song “Kathy Lee” features local celebrity Jed Lifeson, aka “The Dancing Guy.” Like Lanza on her bike, the Dancing Guy cruises through the city to Lanza’s vocals with Hamilton as the unpretentious backdrop.
Lanza has lived in Hamilton her whole life; she likes visiting the conservation areas as well as the Royal Botanical Gardens. Although the city isn’t as cheap as it used to be, she says she’s glad she can at least still walk to the forest from her mom's house. Hamilton is only 45 miles from much-larger Toronto, the capital of Canada’s music industry, but Lanza insists she won’t be making the short move any time soon. “Doesn’t feel right,” she says.