An Interview with Lights: Shining Bright

Canadian electropop artist Lights (formerly known as Valerie Poxleitner) is an oxymoron personified: Her physique is petite but she packs a major, spirited punch with her style and artistry. She is soft spoken and low key—the easy breezy type of person you want to have coffee and swap stories with, but she brings immense energy to her performances and any time she spends with fans.

The 28-year-old synthpop singer is a rare gem in the sea of pretty girls singing pop. Her voice is soft and childlike, yet assertive and courageous. Lights’ lyrics are a break from the mundane pseudo-love-lines that have Top 40 in a chokehold. She does draw inspiration from love and living, but she writes about life’s little kicks with greater intention. For instance, on 2014’s “Up We Go” off her most recent album, Little Machines, she sings, “Everyone here is ready to go/It’s been a hard year, and I only know/From down this low/It’s only up we go, up we go.”

In an era of girl power-infused dialogue exploring whether or not women can “have it all,” Lights is a refreshing representation of the modern female artist—one you could be happy to learn your own daughter loves.

She can relate since she has a 21-month-old daughter, Rocket Wild, her first child with husband Beau Bokan, lead singer of blessthefall. Rocket is a reinvigorating super charge of inspiration, according to Lights. “It’s not about the money you’re making or the hits you’re getting,” she says. “[The concept of] ‘legacy’ suddenly becomes a thing.”

Little Rocket has become a significant part of Lights’ repertoire, both at home and part of her brand as a singer. The tot appears frequently on the singer’s Instagram feed, out and about on tour. Fans can even enjoy Rocket’s own handle @rocketbokan. Her feed showcases her tiny tot wardrobe, outings with mom and dad, and the occasional milestone video. Each post is cuter than the last. But Lights will be the first to correct the impression of a picture-perfect life in saying what other people won’t about the social media cycle of perfectly designed aesthetic lives.

“We only post the good stuff [to Instagram],” she quips. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh man, Rocket’s always happy,’ and I’m like ‘No!’”

Let’s add another notch on the why-we-love-Lights belt, and put her in a heart-shaped frame.

Lights took a brief pause from her busy-but-balanced schedule to talk shop during her tour with The Mowgli’s, which kicked off November 4 in Austin, TX. In the interview transcript below she shares her perception of being a role model, divulges the artists from whom she draws inspiration, as well as her own creative process for writing songs.

It seems like you are touring 52 weeks out of the year! Does traveling still feel exciting grueling?

This year has actually been the busiest of my life. I’ll look at the schedule and see there are few days off, but there is lots of flying and different kinds of activities. I get a little overwhelmed in the moment but it’s so exciting. It’s a good balance of touring, promotion, creative writing, and recording, and that’s what makes it exciting, that it’s not all one thing. It’s that balance that keeps me looking forward to the next thing.

Being a mom is a full-time job in itself, let alone having another full-time job [as an artist]. I found that ever since I’ve become a mother I’ve prioritized my time so I’m making better use of it than I ever was. I’m not wasting it on anything that’s not valuable. I don’t worry about the little things that used to bring me down. It’s a lot more work but it’s a lot more peaceful than it ever has been.

Your daughter seems to be your ultimate muse, understandably so! How does she inspire you?

Oh definitely. You want to believe in the right things for your kid. You want to really love what you do—not just be proud of it but really love it. It’s the best example you can set for someone. In the process of overcoming writer’s block I had the realization of having a baby and all the things that come with that, recognizing that you could either go one of two ways: Stop your career and focus on motherhood or do both, and if you’re going to both, you better be sure you enjoy that because otherwise you’re going to go crazy.

In all of that, I had to reroute my focus to what I love about music. I was at the point where I thought, “Do I really enjoy this anymore?” Because what you really love doing before [becoming a parent] has in fact become a job. When it’s a job it’s not as enjoyable, so sometimes you have to get back to what made you first start and have stars in your eyes.

So I’ve spent the entire time trying to get back to what I love about music, going back to the first phase of when I first started writing music in my room and it took a while to get there but I think I’m back there. I’m thankful for the eye-opening experience of having a baby, and for it bringing me to that place. I’m in a great position. I’m recording. I’m more inspired than ever, which is amazing.

Surely you’re thinking more about yourself as a role model. Many female musicians are often sexually fueled, and you’re not, but still find a way to be beautiful and appealing in your own right. Do you take on the role model stance or feel that it’s not your responsibility?

When I was younger I tried to copy the women I looked up to. I wanted to dress like they did, walk like they did, and talk like they did. Whether or not they wanted me to, I was doing that. I’m not naive to the fact that that happens. People are watching you, learning from you, and taking from you, and applying it to their lives. Whether or not you like it, it’s happening, and it’s your choice whether you want to make sure you’re inspiring them in the best way possible. I think I always take that into consideration.

Finding your balance as a role model for people is finding a balance in yourself. Pretending you’re a perfect person is not really a great way to be a role model either. People can’t live up to that. I’ve found that I don’t try to glamorize things I don’t believe in. The things I love and am proud of I’ll show off. What I find beautiful is creating a piece of music you’re proud of and that’s where you find your sexiness. That’s where your natural beauty lies. I always feel most beautiful after I write something I’m really excited about. That’s the element of role model that I want to show. If there are things about your body you love, show them off. If you’re really excited about a painting, art or comic, show it off!

You’ve cited Patti Smith and Cyndi Lauper as some of your influences, but are there any particular artists or bands today that inspire you?

There are some artists I watch and admire very much—one of them is Lorde. She’s so young and talented and has very much a cohesive sound. You see beauty in her that you don’t see in other people. I’ve always liked that. She rocks this natural beauty that is more shocking and gorgeous than most of the other women out there who cake on the makeup. I’ve always been inspired by her.

What I love about Lana Del Rey is that she’s created this whole persona that is the artist that she’s playing. It’s not really her, I don’t think, but it’s brilliant because everything is cohesive. The name, the act, and the style, she even carries it on to social media so she’s still able to live her private life. It’s amazing to watch because you know everything is created and it’s not in a fake way—it’s brilliant.

How do you apply that inspiration to your own artistry and recording process?

When I’m writing on my own I just start on a piano or guitar. When I’m working with incredible collaborators I go in with a vision of what I want to talk about that day and the vibe I want to draw from. That’s the most important thing when you’re kicking off a session—where your head is—because you can anywhere trying to figure that out. So I go in with a feeling or vibe, like happy or sad, or emotional, and the track starts from there. I start with a beat and some sound and get myself into that zone and flip into that world I’m trying to explain [through song]. The melodies pour out and then I put the lyrics over the melodies until it starts to frame up a chorus and then the structure of the song is there for me to work on more lyrics, then I’ll finish it. It’s hard to write a song that’s fast, upbeat, and electronic with just guitars. Production is part of the writing process—finding interesting sounds and the right energy.

I learned you can’t take a break from writing. Just fill the gaps with writing and keep the muscles flexed. Once you let that go stagnant it’s really hard to get it back into shape and I learned that the hard way. As a result I’m writing a ton and I have enough material for three albums over at this point, but I’m not really thinking [specifically] about what’s next. We still have lifespan on Little Machines and it’s still amazing to play those songs every day. But I’m always writing. I will milk Little Machines as much as I can because each body of work is so precious and I’m so proud of it.
Lights will play Nov. 18 at Irving Plaza in New York City and Nov. 20 at the Theatre Of The Living Arts in Philadelphia. Her latest album, Little Machines, is available now through Warner Bros.