Lights: Industry people want you to sound mindless

Lights: Industry people want you to sound mindless
Photo by Matt Barnes

Canadian artist Lights, born Valerie Anne Poxleitner, is not someone who has shot straight to stardom. The young singer has been slowly building her audience around her talent and ability to write catchy pop songs, most often in electronic landscapes riveted with dubstep breakdowns. Lights has reimagined her certified gold album Siberia into an acoustic version set to release around the time of her short-run acoustic tour. The reproduction of the record is surprisingly well done, allowing her to showcase her stunning voice and depth; the album reinvents the driving, delicate melodies, awash with bittersweet glee, yet allow her lyrics to shine through.

Known for a big production, she will be touring with a stripped down crew -- merely Lights on guitar and a cellist -- for an intimate tour that will last only two weeks, with Minneapolis being one of the select cities. Ahead of her show at the Varsity, Gimme Noise caught up with Lights as she was taking a day off to write from her home in Toronto.

Gimme Noise: Why did you decide to make an acoustic version of Siberia?

Lights: It's so different. It's a totally different animal, and that's what draws me to that kind of relief. I put a lot of emphasis on songwriting, sitting down, and being able to play on a guitar and piano. I think the acoustic album showcases that side of it. Some things can get lost in production, but production can also bring out other things, making it more energetic. When you sit and listen to this version with the vocals and guitar, you notice lyrics, you notice melodies. You'll be touched by it in a different way. There's an opportunity to show people a new side of it.

Did you rewrite some parts when you came up with the idea for this album?

I did. Mainly in parts where I had an electronic dubstep breakdown. You can't really do that acoustically, so I had to rework chord structures and sometimes even throwing in new vocal parts to replace the breakdowns, and sometimes that complements it even better. That's why I'm excited. If you're used to the album, there's gonna be different things on this one. You play some guitar on this album. Do you prefer the keyboards or guitar?

It really depends on the situation. I have always played guitar as far as I can remember -- long before the keyboards, but when you're playing a show and want to be energized and jumping around, messing on the keys is perfect for that scenario or being inventive and coming up with new sounds. But when it comes to sitting down and writing alone, my acoustic guitar is what I prefer.

You have a Minnesota boy [Adam Young] on this album. I saw you when you toured with him a few years ago. Why did you decide to work with Owl City again?

He's awesome. We've been mutual fans of each other since the MySpace days. It's been a series of going back and forth, doing things for each other. I went on tour with him and sang on one of his tracks, then he did a remix for me, and I asked him to be on this album -- little things here and there. It's always exciting when they ask you to participate in something they're doing. He loved the song, and he did such a great job with it. Did you pick the song for Adam, or did he pick it?

I did. I was going through the album, and I had a couple of options, but if you know enough about an artist and know their voice, you can think of something you can picture them in. When I thought of Adam, "Cactus in the Valley" was the only song that came to my mind. That had to be it, because I thought he could nail it, and he did.

What I noticed about these songs are that they are more subtle than anything you've done -- obviously because they're acoustic.

I remember the process of creating vocals, and I really wanted it to be intimate and personal. There's no processing on any of the vocals, so you're forced to just relax. I recorded the entire record on vocals sitting down, so you get that intimacy. I'm sitting in this room singing to you.

It was also the first time I brought strings into the picture. Kevin Fox played cello, and I just let him go at it. He layered things and was like, "Give me another track!" We had five different tracks and string layers. That was the first time I experienced something like that.   You're a pretty independent artist; when writing, do you give up some of the reins when you're working with someone else?

It's definitely important in any collaborative process to give up a little bit. You have to. That's the point of working with somebody else. When I'm working by myself, I don't give up any of the reins obviously, but you have to be wary it doesn't become an indulgent thing -- that you do whatever you want and nobody keeps you in check. So sometimes it's really nice to have someone else in the room and throwing in ideas. It becomes a better product in the end.

I want to go off topic a little bit and talk a bit about your role in the industry. I did see you a few years ago with Owl City, but didn't really get it [your music] until I saw you again at the Varsity last year. I'm guilty of dismissing your music based on your looks, thinking you were just a pretty girl. How do you handle when people judge your talents by your looks?

It's a totally valid point and something artists deal with everyday. You have to walk a line between how much you really are gonna show above yourself through your looks or through your music, because there's no denying that people's first view of you is on the way you look. Sometimes that will bring people to your music, but you have to be careful on how that is presented. You have to be paranoid actually, because if people think you don't look enough like an artist or not ugly enough, then they don't think your music is not worth listening to. It's an interesting thing.

I never paid attention to that. I've been writing since I was a kid. I wasn't a cool kid. I was this very awkward child; I hadn't grown into myself, and I always knew if I was doing what I loved, that all of that would come later -- so I just did it. I played like I wasn't a guy or a girl. My ambition was writing and creating, and things started to happen. As confidence grows, your success grows. You grow into yourself.

It's definitely a challenge, especially when you're a young girl. People want you to sound different -- mainly industry people. They don't always want you to write something meaningful, sometimes it's something that's mindless, and that's what I've been facing for a long time. There's so many examples out there, and it's frustrating. You just have to focus on what you're writing. There's an unbelievable amount of people behind the music and production with whom I've written that don't put any value in lyrics. It really is telling of what's out there right now. A lot of these artists are saying, "As long as you have a good melody and sound, the lyrics don't matter," and to me, that's offensive. That's crippling to an artist to say something like that, especially when there's artists like Patti Smith, who's a poet and speaks through her lyrics.

I think if you can sustain and write something meaningful, that you can touch people, then that's the key to longevity. That's the connection; it's not just a song of the moment.

Lights will perform at the Varsity Theater on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. All ages, $20, 6 p.m., tickets.

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