Valerie Anne Poxleitner, aka Lights, is Canada’s queen of electropop. The 27-year-old has just released her third album and kicked off her European tour with a date in Brighton. Three year’s after they first met at the same venue, BN1’s Gary Marlowe caught up with her at The Haunt. Their chat spanned everything from conquering the anguish of writer’s block and recording “killer pop songs” with Katy Perry’s engineer, to playing her biggest gig ever and touring with her year-old daughter, Rocket.
You were last here in Brighton in March 2012, almost three years ago, what’s kept you? Lights: Well you know what? After ‘Siberia’ we toured a lot. We toured all over the place, twice here in the UK, and we went to Australia for the first time. But I didn’t write at all on the road. We put out an acoustic version of ‘Siberia’ because that’s what the fans wanted. And then when I started trying to write the next album, all sorts of things were happening in my life. I’d just got married (to Beau Bokan of metalcore band Blessthefall) and had moved from the east of Canada to the west coast and then Rocket came along. I then realised I was in a huge artistic depression and had writer’s block.
Is writer’s block something you’ve experienced before? Lights: I had it before ‘Siberia’. Maybe it just happens before every record as you try to discover what it is you’re trying to do on the next one.
So how did you overcome it? Lights: It was really frustrating. I think a lot of it was down to personal pressures that I let get to my head, whether that be expectations of myself as an artist, the expectations of the fans and the expectations of the record label.
Last time we spoke I remember you saying that as an artist you’re constantly changing, constantly exploring and that it’s natural for your albums to be different from each other… Lights: As far as I want to take my career, I don’t want to do the same thing over again. I want each record to have its own aesthetic and its own sound. The artist in you wants to do something different. You have to change and discover what your intention is. Is it accessibility? Is it making something that only elite music lovers are going to like? With this one I wanted to write a killer pop album. You can write a song just to be commercial, but that’s not what I’m into. I want to make music that moves people.
The album title ‘Little Machines’ comes from a lyric in one of the songs… Lights: Yeah, it’s from ‘Running With The Boys’ and I always loved that line. The song is all about being a kid again, of having that sense of creative naiviety. As an adult, you know a lot more, and in the music industry that’s sometimes a little crippling when it comes to creativity. The sort of innocence and imagination that made life so exciting was what I had to get to to get out of my writer’s block.
Did being pregnant help or hinder the process? Lights: One of the major turning points for me was finding out I was having a baby. That got me thinking back to the time when I was a kid, when imagination was limitless. In fact a lot of the album is about getting back to that feeling. Little machines is what I call kids who have this endless energy.
There seems to be a recurrent theme of always being on the move. Lights: That’s a really cool observation! Obviously, we tour a lot a lot so I’m always travelling, but it’s something I also did growing up. I grew up in the Philippines and Jamaica, before we finally settled in Northern Ontario.
And now you’ve moved home once again… Lights: That’s right, we now live in Mission, British Columbia, It’s a small town, about an hour away from Vancouver. These days its biggest claim to fame is being the birthplace of Carly Rae Jepsen. In fact there’s even a mural of her downtown.
Why Mission? Lights: We like it because there’s a lot of space. For us, it’s the closest place to Vancouver that still has space. Vancouver’s a big city. Now we live in the foothills of the mountains with tons of space. Across the road from our house is a beautiful national park. Yet, we’re just fifteen minutes from the US border. Beau is from LA.
So a lot of changes going on in your life and it’s resulted in changes to your music, and in particular the way you sing… Lights: My first record was a little bit glistening and positive sounding, whereas ‘Siberia’ with its dubstep influences was a much grittier, darker affair. This one is definitely poppier and more commercial.
Was that down to the influence of Drew Pearson (songwriter and engineer of Katy Perry and OneRepublic)? Lights: To a degree. As I said, I set out to make a killer pop record, but first I had to write some killer songs. I was writing with a number of new people. A lot of times we were writing songs, but they just weren’t that good. It’s all about finding someone who brings out the best in you. And that’s just what Drew did. ‘Speeding’ was the first song we wrote together. I quickly realised Drew was really good at synths. I’d have a sound in my head and he could make it come to life. Apart from creating great synth soundscapes, he’s a great writer and we ended up writing a few songs together including ‘Running With The Boys’ It didn’t take long to realise that he should also produce the record. We worked on most tracks together, I co-produced a couple and Thomas Salter, who worked on Siberia, did ‘Up We Go’
You’ve said it’s your best record yet. Lights: Yep, I really think it is. It’s been really well-received and it’s now up for a Juno, which is the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. So yes, I’m really proud of it, It still feels special.
How difficult is it to translate the sound of the studio onto the live stage? Lights: Well the band who played on the record are my touring band. The start point is to try and get as close to recreating the sound of the record and then it evolves. It’s all about creating something dynamic.
And what’s it like being back on the road? Lights: Apart from some college shows last week, tonight is the first time we’ve played since New Year’s when we did a massive outdoor show at Niagara Falls. It was the biggest show we’ve ever done – 60,000 people were there with another 4.5 million watching on TV! It was Keith Urban, Nick Jonas and us.
Beau and Rocket are with you on this tour, what’s it like having them with you? Lights: This is Rocket’s second tour! She seems to love it and it’s great having Beau around at least for a week or two. We only flew in yesterday, so jetlag has yet to hit us.
On the subject of touring, a lot has happened in the music industry since we last spoke. How difficult is it to finance touring with a band? Lights: Well, it’s always expensive going on the road. There are four of us, plus our crew and tour manager. And we have a lot of equipment. When we come to Europe, we bring everything with us apart from the drums as it’s cheaper to have a second kit over here and we all travel in the same tour bus.
These days where is the main thrust of income for you? Lights: Like a lot of artists, it’s increasingly merch. It’s something I’ve always been closely involved with, creating cool stuff that I would want to wear myself. We have what’s called the Lights Army and fortunately our fans love our merch.
What about synching? Lights: Going forward, I think the biggest revenue stream will be from getting music on soundtracks, movies, commercials and such like. It’s already such a big thing now that labels now have synching departments. But it’s really competitive. We’ve had a few little things. My music’s been on some TV shows. In fact, I’ve just written a song for a movie.
On the subject of songs, when it comes to deciding what to play how do you balance the new songs with the old ones? Lights: Well, it’s just got a lot harder! Before there was just two albums worth to choose from, now there’s a lot more. Obviously the emphasis is on the new material, but we have to include all the old favourites. We can’t fit them all in, so we tend to rotate a couple from one show to the next.
Do you still get excited coming over here? Lights: We love it. Sadly, we’re only in the UK for a week this time, then we go to Germany. We’ve only played there twice, but my extended family lives there. My family are originally from Austria, although that’s somewhere I’ve never played. Than we go to Amsterdam and Paris and six days later we start our US tour.
Is that when you and Beau have to separate? Lights: Yes, both of us are touring at the same time. In fact, our tour ends in Paris and Beau’s tour starts in Paris. His band is supporting Architects across Europe. In fact, Architects are going to be here tonight. I was a fan of theirs when I was in my teen years, and a long time ago covered one of their songs and I’ve since befriended them.
You mentioned your huge gig at Niagara Falls, but you’re also going to be playing Coachella this year… Lights: Oh my goodness, I can’t wait! It’s the big one for us this year and it’s our first time there. It’s going to be super fun. After Coachella, we then tour Canada opening for OneRepublic in arenas, so that’s going to be awesome too! But that’s all to come, first we have a gig to play here in Brighton and I need to soundcheck!