“What puts me in the perspective of the power of a song is listening to it at full volume.”
Some people have a natural instinct about their destinies when they’re young. Not only did reigning electro-pop queen Lights absolutely know as a teenager that she was going to be a successful songwriter, but she also knew exactly what her songs were going to sound like. “I remember when I would write a song as a kid, I would also write out on paper what the drums would do, what the bass would do, and what the vocals would be doing,” she recalls. “I had many pieces of paper with all these diagrams on them! I wrote the notes for the guitar and the notes for the bass underneath the lyric, and I showed where the kick hits would be with these little markings. It was my own kind of music hieroglyphics!”
When Lights got a small inheritance at age 13, everything changed. “I used it to buy an 8-track machine, and that was the first time I realized I could multitrack instruments,” she admits. “It was like this whole new world opened up. I could actually create something more than just write a song. That’s when I realized production was such an important element of songwriting. They always go hand I hand. I can’t write a song without it.”
Just cue up Little Machines, which won a 2015 Juno Award in her native Canada for Best Pop Album of the Year, to hear how Lights marries strong songwriting chops with keen sonic-architecture instincts. On Machines, she tests the boundaries of synth-pop with the single-note drone of the haunting opening track Portal, the guitar-jangly sing-along throb of Up We Go, and the Devo-meets-Kraftwerk thrust of Muscle Memory.
The 28-year-old chanteuse is currently finishing up a solo tour before heading out on a co-headlining run with The Mowgli’s in the fall. Digital Trends called Lights (born Valerie Anne Poxleitner) just a few hours before her first live performance in Las Vegas to discuss how she brings the vibe of her recordings to life onstage, why listening at top volume is critical, and how she sticks to her guns in the studio. From down this low, it’s only up we go.
Digital Trends: When you’re onstage, how important is it to recreate the sound you get on your records?
Lights: It’s really important. I always want it to have the same feel the songs are meant to have, so I always put a lot of emphasis on the vibe a song creates. If you lose that in the transition to playing live, that’s a problem.
Obviously, it’s going to sound a little different live, as it usually does. But in most cases, the songs come across even more energetic and more dynamic live than on record. Over the last few records, I’ve been trying to learn how to capture that energy. After years of touring, our sound has evolved into something really powerful, and the only way to get that on record is to do it live. When I brought the band in on the recording of Little Machines, it still didn’t have the power I wanted, so that continues to evolve.
A record is the snapshot of how a song exists at that moment in time, and to me, how it translates onstage is how it evolves and grows into what it ultimately becomes.
Honestly, the live performance of the song is the way the song really is. It’s funny — I sometimes listen back to Little Machines and think, “Wow! It should have been more like this!” But when you write the song and record it, you haven’t been touring on it, so it doesn’t take on the life that it could, the life it does a year later. (chuckles)
How do you personally listen to music these days? Do you stream, do you listen to vinyl — how do you do it?
I only recently stopped buying CDs. I buy everything on iTunes now, either on my phone or on my laptop. The best opportunity that I have to listen to music is when I’m in my car, driving, which doesn’t happen that often. There are fewer hours in my day for that!
I get it — as a fulltime working new mom, you don’t have a lot of free time to yourself. Do you feel high-resolution files are the best way to listen to music?
What puts me in the perspective of the power of a song is listening to it at full volume. I hate listening to things quietly. If I’m going to listen to something and fully enjoy it, I want the volume all the way up. That, for me, is a good immersive experience.
“If you have a lo-fi version of a great song, it still has a lot of power.”
It doesn’t matter about the recording quality, if it’s in the right setting and has all of the elements there. Of course I don’t know if [Little Machines producer] Drew Pearson will enjoy hearing that (laughs), but his sound will shine through when you hear it at the highest quality.
If the song itself isn’t powerful enough on its own, it doesn’t matter how well it’s recorded.
Exactly! You could record with the best gear of all time, but if you don’t have that song, it’s just going to be a well-recorded piece of crap. (both laugh)
There’s a lot of that out there, unfortunately…
(laughs again) But it can go the other way, too. If you have a lo-fi version of a really great song, it still has a lot of power. That’s what brings you there.
I agree. A song like Portal set such a special tone for this album. It’s quite interesting to me that you wrote it with just one repeating chord. How did that come about?
It was basically poetry that I was writing down on my computer. I just started singing it with a melody into my voice memos, and then I forgot about it for a long time. It started as a very dark moment, and, as an artist, you think you want to capture those moments of depression. It happens to everybody, but you try to turn it into something so that you come out the other end a better person for it.
When I came back to it, the voice note really stuck out to me. It felt like the antithesis of the typical kind of structured song where you have a chorus, a verse, and a bridge. But it wasn’t that kind of thing, so I felt I needed to put another branch on it and I just played one chord — a drone, this acoustic note — and sang the melody over it. It felt so different to me. I didn’t think that much of it at first, but everyone fell in love with it.
How did you modify that early demo once you got to the studio?
The demo I was talking about was just mixed with guitar, but I wanted to make it fit with the record more and use more electronic elements. I started with live electric guitar and live bass, which was holding down the drone. I wanted a lot of atmospheric sounds to add to the landscape and build to the crescendo of the track.
We actually avoided plug-ins for that song and ended up creating sounds from other interfaces. One of them was the littleBits synth kit — basically your most rudimentary circuit synth where you can connect these little magnetic pieces to create all the parameters of your synth sound. It’s like something you’d find in a cereal box if you’re a synth tech, I guess (chuckles), but we put a few of these pieces together and played in all of these sounds.
On top of that, I found myself drumming on my baby belly, because I was pregnant at the time. (laughs) I created this really cool deep, warm drum sound, and that helped out the tune.
So does Rocket [her daughter] get points on this record?
Yeah, she should, right? I need to go back and change that! (laughs)
As an audio geek, my favorite line in the song is, “Playing back visions in stereo air.” I love that imagery.
Oh, awesome! That part of the song’s about getting lost in the cacophony of a musical dream.
“It’s a classic electronic record that has this real, live feel.”
I love that. Throughout the record, sometimes you’re way out in front in the mix with limited effects, and sometimes not. How do you decide how you want your voice to come across on a song and where it should be placed in the mix?
When I go into a session with people who don’t understand that vocal element, it’s important to guide that in terms of production. I separate the takes of the one that I like and the ones that I don’t. I find this happens a lot, where — and I don’t know if this is because I’m a woman, or if there’s some role-playing when you get into a session — but there are some of these producers who think I don’t know anything about it and will say, “You go over there and write the lyrics, and I’ll deal with the rest of it.” And I’m like, “No! My vocal is gonna go like this, you’re gonna use this plug-in on it, and you’re going to use this much compression on it. And I want this reverb on it, and I want that delay on when I tell you I’m recording it.” Because I know everything that I want, some people can’t deal with that part of it. (laughs)
That has to be tough to go into a studio where they’re like, “We’re going to tell her what to do; she’s just the songwriter.”
Yeah, there is a bit of that perception when I walk in. I mean, I understand why. Everybody doesn’t have as much vision as maybe I do. But I’ll walk into a session where the producer has the MIDI controller in front of them and all the interfaces, everything — and then there’s just a couch for me to sit on. And I’m like, “No, no, no, no — give me the MIDI controller, put it in front of me!” (chuckles) It’s a funny thing. You really have to take control, going into those sessions.
Ultimately, it’s your name at the top of the marquee. It has to be your vision, and it has to be executed sonically your way. What other gear did you use while making the record?
When we were writing, I did use a lot of plug-ins. I’ve tried to record on hard synths — actual recorded audio — but it’s horrible for the songwriting process because it’s really hard to change after the fact, and move things around. If you want to click out a part or a change a chord, you have to go in and re-record it.
So we recorded everything with just simple, vintage synth plug-ins. They sound really great. There’s a Juno we used a lot, and the Jupiter was basically for all the bass and synth paddings, and all the live guitar that was transferred over to the final product. We used drum sounds that came from banks from Drew [Pearson]. We’d even use 808s or Linn drum sounds to get something simple and classic.
After the fact, when everything was written, that was when we went back in and brought out the hard synths to record everything again for the real product. We brought in Prophets, Genobazzes, and Moogs to get the sounds for what they really are, and that really made the difference.
It’s a modern ’80s kind of record.
Yeah, it’s an electronic record, but I’ve been calling it classic electronic, because it has this live, real feel. It’s a real soundwave. It’s authentic. And that’s very beautiful.
You cut a lot of your Little Machines vocals during your pregnancy, which had to affect how you used your diaphragm while singing, right?
(chuckles) Yes. Up We Go was a song where I really needed my diaphragm the most, and I didn’t have it. I had to figure out new ways to get that power. That was a song where it took me a few days to record the vocal.
That was also one where we had an original vocal way at the beginning when we wrote it, and everyone was like, “Let’s keep that!” And I was like, “No, we need to redo this vocal — the song deserves that!” And that happened to be the day I went into labor, so that brought it to the next level, with a different level of intimacy. That’s one of my favorite songs on the record to perform now.
I guess you can’t do that every time you record. (Lights laughs) Have you thought about what you’re going to do next?
Yeah! I’ve learned this the hard way, obviously. After Siberia (2011), I toured so much and didn’t stay active writing on the road, and that’s what caused the backup of creativity. That’s why there was a three-year gap between Siberia and Little Machines. I just didn’t find the balance of writing and touring.
I visited all the frustrations and the nights where I really felt I lost it, but it all came back in a really inspiring way. When I had my baby, it really freed my mind. No matter how well you do or how unsuccessful you are, there’s still somebody who thinks you’re the best in the world.
So I’m in a really freeing headspace, and I’ve been writing a lot. I’m letting myself evolve vocally, and there’s a newfound freedom in this writing I’ve been doing. It didn’t exist before! Well, it existed way back at the beginning, before I got into the music industry and I was doing it for fun — but at that time, I didn’t have a sense of who I was as a person. And now I have more of a sense of that. It’s really been fun, actually. I have that freedom again.