Lights on Her New Music: ‘It’s the Craziest and Most Work I’ve Ever Put Into Something’
If ever there were a pop star who embodied the spirit and strength of Wonder Woman, it would be Lights.
The Canadian electro pop producer, singer and songwriter has battled her fair share of hardships over the years, from the gritty struggle of crawling her way out of indie obscurity to the tumultuous minefield that is being a rising artist on a big label. Unwavering in her ability to craft a killer melody and unwilling to bend to the expectations placed on her (and other self-made women in music), Lights—née Valerie Poxleitner—has maintained a strong sense of self and authenticity since breaking out with her debut self-titled EP ten years ago... And her music has been all the better for it.
From the outer rims of the galaxy to the brutal Siberian tundra, Lights has (theoretically and thematically) scaled the universe for musical inspiration, churning out three diverse, emotive and artful studio albums: 2009's glistening The Listening, 2011's gritty Siberia and 2014's joyful Little Machines. And like tiny moons circling a planet, the singer's devoted fan base orbits around her every move as if pulled by some otherworldly gravitational force, but it's no wonder why: Lights is one of the most down-to-earth players in the game, constantly interacting with her followers on social media and famously making ample time for meet and greets at her shows. For all her musical superpowers, she is human after all.
Weeks following the release of "Warrior" with Justin Bieber producer Steve James, and ahead of her upcoming fourth studio album (the artist has already begun to tease it with cryptic social media posts), I caught up with electro pop's fiercest fighter to talk about dropping F-bombs, the importance of patience, why it's critical for artists to play with new sounds, fellow Canadian music-makers Justin Bieber and Grimes, and what's right around the bend.
“Warrior” really seems to hit home for you.
The content is everything I channel from a daily basis. I mean, I have a massive weapon collection at home, from broad swords to light sabers to laser guns. I try to dress like Lara Croft and Wonder Woman every day so why haven't I written about being a warrior? I should have written this song ten years ago but hey, it's never too late, right?
The sonics are very different than what fans are used to from you, but the lyrics are quintessential Lights and really empowering. I just want to kick ass when I listen to it.
That's the whole point. I wanted to write an anthem that could inspire me in the moments that I needed it and you know, amping me up is a lot more in depth than saying, "Go get 'em, tiger!" I think that's one of the common misconceptions about these types of songs. It's an internal thing. To encourage yourself to do something challenging, there's a lot of layers to it and this song crescendos in that way. It starts out low key and you're very present and in the moment and you're aware of the world around you and you're aware of the issue at hand and you have to internalize all of the possible outcomes until you can create the strength within yourself to become the warrior that you know you can be.
That makes sense. Was there a specific moment or something that you were going through at the time that kind of lit the fire for you to write it?
The one thing I was writing about is actually the thing that I'll be able to tell you guys when I announce more of the new record because it's part of that experience and it was originally intended for that, but ended up being recut by Steve in a fresh way because the way we originally had it, it wasn't quite right. We ended up trading songs for that, but I think mostly in the past year or two I've really been trying to enable myself to be comfortable in a lot of situations because that's the way you can best tackle life. When you're in a situation where you feel awkward or uncomfortable or you're faced with adversity or you're faced with somebody challenging you, to know what side you're on and to stand up to it and defend the things that you believe in, that's being a warrior and that's what I wanted to convey with this song. To fight for your position. It doesn't always come down to violence. It's strength and it's power and it's wisdom. These are things I learned from Wonder Woman. [Laughs]
The song is so time-relevant. Everything we're going through, at least here in the U.S., has been just awful the past few months. I feel like it was so good for this to drop when it did because, especially with the Women's March and Trump’s immigration ban, it just really captures the solidarity and strength we need right now.
I think now more than ever people can't keep the peace by keeping their mouths shut. I think they need to speak and they need to know what they're talking about. Come up with what your opinion is, don't identify with a political party. Identify with what your actual beliefs are. Learn how to stand up for those beliefs. That's being a real warrior. There's a lot more wisdom in that than just being aggressive.
I have to say, it's absolutely delightful hearing you dropping the F-bomb with such conviction. [Laughs]
That’s another thing! In the last little while, I've really had to reconcile the differences between Valerie and Lights because as much as I try to make it the same person, there's always a little bit of a dissonance between a public character and who you really are. For me, it's not a huge gap but swearing is one of them. I cuss like a sailor when I am home. That's something that I didn't feel like I was allowed to do, but then people saw me as this very sweet, innocent person because for some reason we don't swear here like that. I was just like, f--- that! I want to be who I am and this is a perfectly-timed strike.
Ironically, way back in the day there was this song I did, a collab with The Tremulants. It was called "You Got The Girl" and it's probably gone by the wayside now somewhere into the depths of the Internet. But every now and then someone stirs it up because I say "I'm drunk as f---" in it. [Laughs] I was like eh, I think it's time to whip out the F-bomb again. Especially in this tumultuous time with the tumultuous song about not giving a f--- of what people think of what you have to say.
How did you and Steve first get to talking about collaborating?
Well, we were actually working on a song for my record together. It was really fun. It was the first time I had met him. He was just fresh, he's a young guy. He's a teenager still and he's so impressive. When I was 18, I was just bouncing around and this kid has got Grammy noms! It's amazing. I'm proud of him. He has a pureness to his creativity that is untainted by having spent years in the music industry, which can really make or break your creative spirit. And he doesn't feel any of that yet and hopefully he never does because he's very much a positive spirit. It was a good experience, writing with him. It made me aware of what he was capable of. It's funny, the song that we have that’s going to be on my record is totally different from the way this sounds.
Oh, that's exciting! I was going to ask about this harder EDM-pop sound that you two created and if that’s something you're dabbling more with, but it sounds like there is something else sonically that you're exploring right now.
There's a lot of angles that I’m exploring, sonically. I honestly can't wait to announce more. I'll say this: Now is the time to give people more than just one thing. There's a lot more that artists have to offer and there is a lot more that is kind of expected of artists now. Like, someone like him who's a producer and a DJ, he needs to be able to know what music and what production is relevant right now because in two months, it might not be relevant anymore. It's such a fast moving landscape, and you have to stay in front of it. Artists need to be able to do a lot of different things, not just one.
I agree. From your perspective as a creator, does that create pressure for you?
At least from what I’ve experienced this time around, it actually creates more inspiration. You don't feel trapped anymore. You expect it to sound a certain way, but I don’t think anyone expects me to come out with a record that sounds like The Listening. I think there's this understanding of an evolution for an artist more so than ever and in fact, what's even cooler than that is the patience that people have—the fans I have, I've seen them willing to wait for something that's good and not just wanting something because they want something right now. They give me the time to actually make something valuable and developed, not just trash.
I think your fan base has always been very supportive and patient. They're not constantly attacking you or screaming “Give us more! Give us something right now!” on Twitter.
I love that. I think the majority of the people that I can consider my core fan base are smart and patient and they're all seeking their own ambitions in the biggest way possible. When I put something out, they celebrate it and decide if that's something they love or not and that's fine. It's an awesome relationship because it's not just this rapid absorption of music. It's actually smart and intellectual. I want to have people like that on my side. I feel free and especially more than ever in the last couple of years. And this project I’m working on, it's the craziest and the most work I've ever put into something.
Going back to Steve for a second: I'm sure you were familiar with his work with Bieber. What were your thoughts on that record? No matter what you think about Justin as a person or whatever, that was a really dope album.
It’s so good. That record was exceptional, and honestly, it's almost scary because if he wants to make that record and that sound all over again, it's something that's not really going to exist in a year because nobody is going to do it better than the way it was done on that record. That's just the reality of it. It's amazing and inspiring because all these songs were written by different people and different people were involved. There's still a really cohesive sound and that was actually really inspiring to me because you can write any song you want. As long as you have a cohesive thread through it, you can have a record that is awesome and have enough variety to still be exciting every time you turn the track on. I think that's a note to be taken from Justin’s album.
I think that the musicality of a really great album can (and should!) be diverse as long as there's a firm core that kind of keeps it all together. I think that Grimes’ Art Angels is similar to that idea where the songs all sound quite different and inspired by different things, but the energy is so cohesive. That's a favorite album for me.
Speaking of warriors, that new video that she released, “Venus Fly” with Janelle Monae, it’s awesome. It’s wicked.
I love her so much. Going back to the theme of “Warrior,” could describe a moment in your life where you felt discouraged or were lacking confidence? What did you do to overcome that?
I feel this moment every time before I go on stage. Any time that I go into a performance that makes me nervous, any time I go into a meeting that makes me nervous… I still get nervous all the time. I've found over the years that I've gone through cycles of ways to confront that and handle it because if you let it, nerves can be very crippling. And in the beginning when I started touring, it just made me sick. I'd be sick all the time. I was just nervous. I started as a pretty quiet kid and have had to evolve into a performer. As most people do, you have to learn your talent. It doesn't really just come. And the way I actually found the most efficient in challenging nerves and anxiety was to be calm. Not to panic and not to let it overwhelm me, and not to think of the big picture or too far ahead. Think now, in the moment, this present moment and sit there and revel in it. Prepare yourself emotionally and build yourself up slowly until you walk out and you can own it. That's exactly what this song is about, the moment. I think everyone has these moments whether it's going to job interview or maybe playing a game. Maybe you're a hockey player just about to get on the ice. I think there's a lot of these moments in people's live. They need to just stop and center themselves to control this outpouring of emotion. If that's unbridled it can take you over.
I think it's really cute that you mentioned hockey because I immediately remembered you're Canadian. [Laughs]
Yeah! [Laughs] You know, I was talking to someone else about this song and she was a girl who played hockey professionally or something for a while and she was tackled with that feeling before she went out to play. And I was like, that is so true! The feeling of this song can be applied anywhere.
That's so cool! We need to see more of that. Major respect to women athletes in culturally male-dominated fields.
I know, dude, because there's only been, like, one ever in the NHL! Also, that's what the song is about: Learning to center and control an outpouring of emotions and channeling it into what the task at hand is, whether it's a performance or even talking to someone about an issue that's important to you. I think that's something that needs to be discussed because there's so much hate always being passed back and forth, especially now online. People lose it. They get so aggressive and violent and then their immediate reaction is to ridicule each other, whether that's physically or emotionally. Learning how to center and control anger, fear, sadness, weakness and learning how to channel that into something smart, cerebralizing it, meditating on it and then moving into it with wisdom—that’s important.
I think that's a really measured, thoughtful way to address these things, especially these days.
I think so too. I think people act on their emotions without thinking on them and one of our biggest faults as humans is our instinct to do that. I know I've done it. I'm trying to learn how to control that.
Is there anything else you want to say about what you’re working on right now?
I probably said too much already, but all I can say is that we're close to talking about something I've been working on for a long time now. I can't wait to share it all with you but for now, I think this is going to be the year where you hear a lot of new stuff from me, starting with “Warrior.”
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