Though relatively new to the U.S. market, Lights has enjoyed independent success in her native Canada, signed with Underground Operations/Universal. In 2006, a low-budget video for “February Air”—a song she wrote on Valentine’s Day—was shot for a Sony Publishing campaign and quickly went viral from her MySpace page, catching the attention of marketing execs at Old Navy. It and three other songs of hers were featured in the retailer’s 2008 four-seasons television ad campaign, as well as a placement on The Hills, sparking intense demand for a self-titled EP. On the strength of that disc alone, Lights took home the 2009 Juno Award for New Artist of the Year, joining the ranks of Feist and Nelly Furtado.
As a young child, Vancouver-born Valerie “Lights” Poxleitner could be found pushing buttons and turning knobs on her family’s home stereo to get it sounding just the way she wanted. At age 11, she wrote her first song on guitar and, by 13, was dabbling with multitrack recording on a Roland BR-8. Ever since, Lights has held a mutual respect and passionate interest for both the technical and artistic sides of music.
“I got so much use out of that little machine,” she fondly recalls. “Getting my feet wet with production, learning how to layer things, trying different effects, and getting into lots of synthetic stuff.” That included distorting a toy electronic piano for the kind of fat, abrasive synth sounds needed to fuel the unique brand of ‘intergalactic electro-pop’ she was developing.
On her debut full-length album, The Listening [Warner Bros.], you’ll hear a more refined version of those early DIY sensibilities. The short-list of outside help includes long-time writing and production partners Thomas “Tawgs” Salter and Dave “Dwave” Thomson, plus power-mixer Mark “Spike” Stent (Björk, Muse, Depeche Mode, Madonna). But Lights is piloting her own spaceship in the studio.
Candidly mocking herself as an “ultimate nerd” for still sleeping in a loft bed at 22 years old, Lights crafted much of the album beneath the bunk in her cramped Toronto apartment. There sits an Apple iMac running Logic Pro with Apogee’s Duet interface, an M-Audio Oxygen 61 USB MIDI controller, and M-Audio BX5a Deluxe reference monitors. “Yeah, it’s really simple,” she says with a laugh.
Much of the album’s arrangement and sonic design came as a result of simple whims in the studio, the title track being the most profound example. “I was working with my friend Dave Thomson and we were having an awful day, just sitting there with our setups getting nowhere,” Lights recalls.
“At the very end of the day, we were scrolling through Apple Loops in Logic and that beat came up. All of a sudden the ideas and lyrics started pouring in. I immediately pulled out my microKorg and found this a-melodic synth sound and started formulating the arpeggio. It’s an abrasive sort of white-noise arpeggio. We had a hard time quantizing it; it almost feels analog, it’s not even really timed, but it feels great.”
When asked for the most oddball source of sonic inspiration on the album, she didn’t hesitate to answer. “I actually used Brian Eno’s iPhone app, ‘Bloom,’ which I recorded in for a song called ‘Lions.’”
But many parts start directly in Logic rather than from her microKorg, Korg X50, Moog Little Phatty, or obscure apps. “Even with the parts that should be analog, I always find a way to do them digitally in-the-box. Take a song like ‘River,’ where you have that really raunchy synth underneath it all. That started out as a Logic sample called ‘Dominator,’ and it just sounded so badass. That actually launched the entire song.”
Lights’ vocal chain is simply a Røde NT2-A mic into the Apogee Duet, through Logic’s compression and EQ plug-ins. “Very rarely will I use anything outside of what’s onboard,” she says about capturing her sugarysweet vocal delivery. “Compression for me is key because my voice can be very soft, but it can also be very strong. I just enjoy it when you can hear the breaths and everything when it’s very quiet. EQ is also important because I like to have a lot more high end and almost drop out the low end of my vocal entirely because my voice doesn’t have much low end, so it’s very thin, and that’s often countered with a little sauce on it.”
One of the bottles Lights reaches for most is Antares Auto-Tune. Thankfully on The Listening, its use is subtle and very attractively done. “I think Auto-Tune is great and should be used as tastefully as delay,” she says. “Especially when you’re an electronic artist, it’s one of those things that can just contribute to the overall production.”
In particular, she cites the lead track, “Saviour,” where the lyrical phrasing is very tight and you’re left feeling closed in. “That was the intention of using Auto-Tune there, to convey that sort of constricted feel,” she says. “Then in the chorus it’s gone, and you can break out—you’re free. I think when people hear you’re using Auto- Tune, they immediately want to say, ‘She sucks; she can’t sing live.’ But if used tastefully, it’s a great vocal effect, and we should embrace the new concepts that are coming up.”