Canadian singer and songwriter Lights is no stranger to change. As a child she moved around a lot, living in the Philippines, Jamaica, Ontario, and British Columbia, before moving to Toronto at age 18 and changing her name officially from Valerie Anne Poxleitner to ‘Lights’ so that she could make music under that name. In the late noughties she played with metal band Shovel Face and wrote for Sony Music Publishing and the television series Instant Star. She started her solo career shortly after that, touring extensively with bands like Owl City and Bring Me The Horizon, with whom she collaborated on songs ‘Crucify Me’ and ‘Don’t Go’.
This year, she’s been working on her fourth studio album, Skin & Earth, a soaring electro-pop offering that is accompanied by a comic book series of the same name that Lights wrote and illustrated herself. Ever-adaptable, ever-changing – we couldn’t wait to catch up with Lights to talk her career so far, and her advice for people just starting out.
Hey Lights! First of all, how would you describe your music to someone who’d never heard it before?
Ooh! These questions are always so hard, they’re so introspective! I’d say… You know, what I always tell people at the border, when I’m going through and they say ‘What kind of music do you do?’ I say ‘Electro boss pop!’ That’s what I say and then they laugh. [Laughs]
I think that’s a good description! Your new album [Skin&Earth] – it isn’t just an album, right? It’s also a comic series. Tell us a little bit about the comic book – what’s the story behind it?
Yeah! Well, [it’s] the story of a young woman who is entranced by a spirit and has to go within herself to overcome it. And at its very most minimalistic, it’s a story of mental health and depression, and I wanted to sing about something I’d experienced before in a big way and the story became a metaphor for that. And then as the story became fleshed out, I had to incorporate dystopian ideas because I’m such a fan of dystopian fiction.
Has the songwriting process for this album been really different [to your past albums] because of the comic book element?
Yeah – well, it’s been a lot more work! Like, twice as much work, because you know, not only am I doing all the regular stuff but I’m going to cons and then finishing the comic and doing the art and providing all the art assets in terms of marketing and posters… So it’s a lot more work but it’s also been really rewarding to see people cosplaying the characters, trying to come up with their theories of what happened in the story… It’s just a whole side of entertainment I’d never experienced before.
And it makes the music last so much longer when people have something to look forward to, in terms of what it could mean for the rest of the comics, because the album’s out now but the rest of the comic isn’t, there’s still two issues [to go]. So it does help draw out the meaning of the music and help people read into every lyric more and encourages people to listen to the album in its entirety instead of just singles and what gets on playlists. So it’s been cool to see a visual component really aid the audio component in that way.
So yeah, a lot of work, but it’s been nice balancing out two art forms as well. When I’m constantly just working on music, it can become very exhausting but being able to balance that out with some visual art as well feels really healthy.
Yeah, definitely – it’s a really unique project, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anything quite like it before, which is really cool.
Yeah! It’s totally been funny coming up with a way of rolling out this album because, you’re right, this hasn’t really been done, so it’s been just like pioneering new ideas through the whole project.
Yeah, that must be really fun! Were you nervous before you put it out into the world? Were you worried that people weren’t going to get it?
Well, yeah sort of – so, it was just a matter of, like, what can we put out there that can constantly help people to understand the breadth of the project? And that included creating the Instagram world – it’s called ‘skinandearthworld’ on Instagram – and it’s basically an immersive, explorative experience where you can explore a map in the world and song clips, and, you know, tour information and just stuff for the world to encourage fans to go and explore the world and be a part of it.
What would you say was the hardest part about creating it?
The hardest part… I think the hardest part was keeping up with all of the work associated [with it], and that includes managing the 21 accounts that go into this exploratory Instagram world and just finalising everything, working with comic deadlines as well as touring as well as being a mom! [Laughs] I blow myself away with what I’m actually capable of, I can’t believe it’s all happening! But you know, even now – I’m finishing the last fifteen pages of the comic, and it’s pretty crazy to see it all happening, it’s just constantly blowing my mind!
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re illustrating, or do you like to just focus with no music on?
Especially when I’m drawing I like listening to instrumental music because, as a lyricist, I put a lot of emphasis on lyrics, so when I hear a song, all I hear is the lyrics – I can’t have a conversation when I’m listening to a song because I’m trying to listen to the lyrics! So I listen to a lot of instrumental stuff… It’s been a lot of Com Truise, actually […] I listen to Bon Iver… And I’m a huge Drake fan, so I listen to pretty much all of Drake’s records. And I’ve been listening to a lot of M83 lately as well.
So you’ve had such a diverse career already – and especially now, doing all of this new stuff, you’re still trying new things and really experimenting with everything. What would you say is the biggest challenge that you’ve given yourself over the course of your career?
I think the constant challenge is making a record that’s better than the last record. And I feel like I’ve successfully done that, at least to myself and that’s what matters. I feel like as an artist you’re constantly improving on what you’ve done – now it’s going to be really challenging because this project is so extensive and massive with the comic and album that I don’t know how I’m going to one-up it! I’ll just cross that bridge when I get there. But I think that’s been the main challenge: constantly creating something that you’re more proud of than the last, and putting more work into than the last, allowing it to be its own thing more than the last.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in music who wants to do similar kind of things to you and wants to have that same feeling of satisfaction throughout their career that you’ve had?
There’s a couple of things: one is – and it’s hard to put it ‘cause it’s the truth and I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t wanna hear but it’s that nothing is owed to you. And you don’t deserve anything unless you put the work in. And I’m constantly reminding myself of that even now – you have to earn fans and you have to earn respect and you have to earn listeners. You have to put the work in, you can’t just be like ‘Well, I’m a singer… Who’s going to make me famous?’ You have to put your time in and you have to have a vision, and that’s like 20% of it, is having the vision, and the rest of it is doing the work. And doing the work every day. You have to make that dream a reality for yourself.
And you always have to make sure that you’re giving the best, you can’t cut corners, because none of it is going to be handed to you on a silver platter. And I think that’s the realest advice that maybe nobody ever gave me. So I think I spent a lot of years doing the work purely out of fun, but there’s gonna be no chance of success unless you actually do the work and put the time in – you’ll be amazed what you can accomplish when you really sit down and apply hard labour to your vision.
Thanks so much, Lights!
Watch the video for Lights’s single ‘New Fears’, from Skin & Earth, below.
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