The Music Issue: Lights


One of five children born to missionary parents, Lights grew up in the Philippines and Jamaica before eventually settling in Toronto. She released her first record in 2008 (a few years after securing her first publishing deal — at 16 — in 2003). The album, a self-titled effort, is dance music driven, as well as pure pop, and the singer was well on her way to becoming a female Bieber.

In 2009, she snagged the Juno for New Artist of the Year, a feat that might have cemented her place in pop as a top prospect, except the singer had different ideas. For instance, she plays guitar and piano but isn’t much for choreographed dance steps, and, despite the accolades, her latest album, the gritty Siberia, released in 2010, has rough, experimental edges surrounding every bright chorus. She even worked with a pair of beat makers called Holy F–k. Suddenly, you weren’t so sure you wanted Lights left alone with your kids.

“I didn’t change genres but evolved it, twisted things. You can’t always aim for the same people. You have to bring in new ears, and those that don’t walk along with you, probably wouldn’t have anyway,” says Lights, who was born Valerie Anne Poxleitner but has already legally adopted her stage name. The kid’s nothing if not all-in.

When Lights finished Siberia, she loved it. Her record label, however, was less than enthusiastic, and she was dropped from her deal stateside. This was after she’d already spent years in the business, but the singer remained undeterred. Rather than switching her vision, she changed labels, and the album was released without a single drumbeat being tweaked.

“You can’t get too overwhelmed with the politics, that’s the dark side of music, the least creative side,” she says. “If you get too overwhelmed with the business and numbers, you forget why you make music in the first place.” 

Although the dance music she makes has suddenly become Top 40, Lights is again switching directions. Her new version of Siberia — released last month — is entirely acoustic, featuring a string section, guest vocalists and arrangements that best represent how she originally wrote the songs. While pop stars are competing to write the next “Call Me Maybe,” Lights is channeling Fleetwood Mac. She says the new record sounds like the music her father used to play for her when she was young.

“I can remember the specific moment I fell in love with music when I was a kid. In the Philippines, I used to get scared at night and it was hard for me to fall asleep. But every time I had a problem sleeping, my dad would play his acoustic guitar and everything would go away,” she says. “I realized then, and I must’ve been like seven years old, but I realized there’s power in someone playing, how it’s affecting me and makes me feel safe, much more than someone just saying, ‘You’re fine.’ It touches you in places that words can’t, and that’s when I decided to play music. It’s really a dark art.”

A resident of Midtown, Lights says she likes living north of Bloor Street where she’s a few stops on the Yonge line from the bars of Queen Street and the clubs of Richmond but still can escape whenever she wants to.

“My area is nice because it’s close to downtown, but it has an old, residential feel, which is much more relaxing than being in the thick of it.”

So far, Lights has staked out an unusual path, but she’s been rewarded for each difficult step that she’s taken. Although Siberia was greeted with problems from her label, it was highly regarded by critics and even nominated for the Pop Album of the Year Juno.

The acoustic record is just one more curious step along her uncharted journey, and she still isn’t sure where she’ll wind up. Asked about her next record of new material, the singer admits that she’s clueless.

“I feel like I’m 17 again and trying to figure out what I want to make. I’ve written a lot of songs, but nothing’s right and it’s frustrating but makes you realize you’re not going to settle for making the same thing over and over again,” she says. “There’s so many things that I feel like I’ve already done. It’s frustrating, but I just have to rediscover myself once again, and then triumph.”

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO