Alt-pop icon powers past her pandemic-induced existential dread to produce her most fully realized album to date
By: Amy Lloyd
Photo by Linsey Blane
Photo by Linsey Blane
Photo by Linsey Blane
Photo by Linsey Blane
Photo by Linsey Blane
Photo by Linsey Blane
Sound: Shimmering, layered synths with dreamy, often lofty, vocals. If you like: Allie X, tiLLie, BROODS Why you should listen: A perfect blend of joy and cynicism, the JUNO Award-winning pop artist returns with a high-concept album that showcases her new-found confidence. As visual as she is musical, Lights creates multiple song personas in primary colours and pairs the release with a digital comic. With guest features from Josh Dun, ELOHIM and Keisza, PEP will take you on a journey of introspection and self-discovery. Best track:In My Head (ft. Josh Dun)
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Lights is the most positive doomsdayer I have ever met. The Canadian alt-pop icon has a personality as bright as her wardrobe (think Sesame Street on steroids), yet we find ourselves talking about the end of the world.
“I have this fascination with doomsday shit and people wonder why. When I think about the possibility that none of this really matters, the social pressures that we face everyday to be successful or look amazing just melt away.”
Lights Poxleitner-Bokan calls me on Zoom from her car in a parking lot in British Columbia. She’s graciously taking time to meet between games at her daughter’s first hockey tournament (“They didn’t win, but they’re having fun!”). The talented multi-hyphenate (singer, songwriter, producer and visual artist are just a few titles) has a couple days at home before she prepares for the release of her new album PEP and its accompanying North American tour.
The electronic pop luminary became a mononymous name 16 years ago with a simple upload to Myspace at just 19 years old. Her dreamy synth pop and DIY-esque videos captured the hearts of teens across the country (I openly coveted her long, teased locks and perfectly smudged eyeliner seminal of the early 2000s). As she grew in the public eye, so did her accolades. Her last two albums — 2015’s Little Machines and 2018’s Skin & Earth — each earned her Pop Album of the Year at the JUNO Awards.
On her latest record, Lights declares, “I always say I’m the happiest sad girl you’ll ever meet.” The artist is all smiles and a friendly disposition as we talk, but she’s quick to get honest about her personal struggles with mental health. At a low point only made worse by the pandemic, Lights worked through her feelings in song. What starts as a lighthearted chat about composing turns into a profound pondering of our individual existence. I’m left with a new outlook on life, and that’s exactly what PEP strives to do.
“This whole record is the idea that I’m gonna pep talk myself through these songs,” Lights explains. “I’m gonna write these songs like I’m a fucking bad bitch because I don’t feel like one and there are moments when you hate yourself. If I look at myself in the mirror one more time and say, ‘I don’t like myself,’ I’m gonna start to believe it. So alternatively, you start to believe the things you tell yourself that are good.
“I started to put on this belligerent, confident face every time I sat down to write music. I’m gonna put this riff here and talk here and Frankenstein these two songs together because I don’t give a fuck and the world is gonna die, so whatever! There was this new passion for music that I discovered from this ‘We’re all gonna die mentality,’ which is a new phase of my understanding of my place in the universe.”
To some, this intense cynicism may sound paralyzing. Rather than succumb to existential dread, Lights embraces the freedom of being a “pale blue dot” on planet Earth. If it’s all fucked anyway, why not just enjoy the time we have?
This dichotomy of light and dark weaves its way throughout her work. PEP boldly opens with Beside Myself, a layering of melancholy synthesizers and airy vocals that build to a staggering electronic crescendo. Lyrically, Lights is begging for company during hard times, but musically, she makes you want to dance solo around your living room. The power of juxtaposition continues on tracks like Prodigal Daughter, in which she dismantles her restrictive religious upbringing in a sparkly red bikini, and Salt and Vinegar, a tale of two clashing personalities.
Between her colourful tattoos, elven features and an impressive collection of swords, knives and homemade outfits, Lights feels like a fictional fantasy character come to life. Each of her projects are as much a treat for the eyes as they are for the ears, and PEP comes with the most fully-formed concept of her career. Paired with the album is a one-off digital comic drawn by Lights herself. The story introduces The Clinic, a fictional world that one plugs into to seek reprieve from their own mental chaos. Each song on the album acts as a scenario that listeners can explore at this clinic.
In a splash of primary colours, the songs also adopt their own personas in video form. There’s the soft and inquisitive woman of Real Thing in an oversized cobalt hoodie and the cocky character of In My Head with her middle finger in the air.
“There’s a lot more to Lights than just music — there’s a world, a culture, a community,” she illustrates the enormity of her vision with wide hand gestures and her phone briefly slips from the car’s dashboard. “I’m putting my effort into that world, and I want to have some fun along the way. I’ll make an Easter egg hunt for people to find a presale code or a comic page that reveals the song titles. I do lots of stuff to keep people invested because if someone can invest a few minutes of their day into what you’ve created, then you’ve done your job.
“My career has been pretty steady over the last decade — I’m lucky enough to still be doing it. I ask myself, ‘How can I make the Lights experience as immersive as possible for the people who have been here this whole time?’ And if new people find it along the way, that’s awesome. The fact that I haven’t faded into oblivion means there’s something there that people are interested in, so I’ll keep giving it to them.”
Female empowerment is also infused into everything she does — now more than ever.
“I remember sitting down with my record label before the pandemic and I said I want 50 per cent of this record to be worked on by women,” she says with the same confidence that I imagine commanded that label meeting. “And it’s a harder task than just asking whoever’s available because the talent pool is something like 97 per cent male, something pretty brutal. That doesn’t mean the talent’s not out there, but there’s no interface to look for these women. So I did some research and I actually had a list going with Tegan and Sara because they wanted to do the same thing. I brought in a female engineer, a few female collaborators and I produced a lot of the songs myself. Be the change you want to see in the world!”
Not one to sit still for long (you can scroll through her knife-throwing antics or mountain hikes on Instagram), Lights miraculously found time to start LUN, a musical side project, during the pandemic. Befitting of a dim, smoke-filled underground club, LUN is bass music so heavy it vibrates your very core. Donning skull masks and titling songs bitches and myyyy medssss, the project feels wholly separate from Lights the brand yet still makes sense coming from Lights the person.
“The darker side of my musical instincts have always existed. Growing up I was a huge metal fan, I love heavy breakdowns — I wanted Gabrielle by Cradle of Filth to play at my wedding! I think bass music is just metal breakdowns in electric forms and that’s something I can make at home. I figured why not do the things I’ve always wanted to do but didn’t feel like I had a right of passage? Fuck a right of passage!”
It shouldn’t come a surprise that Lights chooses high-intensity activities to take a break from work. She loves video gaming (she’s currently working her way through Elden Ring, which she describes as “absolutely punishing”). She picked up tattooing a few years ago and has been practicing on friends with the hopes of taking bookings this summer. But perhaps the most intriguing is her newest hobby — motorcycling.
“The cool thing about riding is that you can’t do anything else. It’s not like your phone is there with messages coming in — you have to be fully tuned into the moment. You can feel the air and see the ground passing under your feet, and it forces you to be present.”
I somehow end the call with a promise to learn how to ride so I can join her motorcycle gang.
“There’s more and more women riding now, and I only ever go out with my girlfriends. I don’t ever really ride with dudes, and I love the flip of the narrative.”
Just as I’m convinced there’s nothing Lights could say to shock me, she does just that. She confesses that at the start of her music career, she hated performing. Once incredibly introverted, her early tours were clouded by nerves and she had to teach herself to enjoy being on stage. Now, it’s her favourite place to be.
“I joined Deadmau5 on stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver at the end of last year. It had been 15 months since I’d set foot on stage, the longest time in the course of my career,” she gets emotional, picturing the infamous desert venue instead of the interior of her car. “I thought, ‘Did I forget how to do this? Have I lost my love for it?’ But I did it, got off stage and immediately started crying. It was an overwhelming feeling.”
It’s difficult to describe a Lights live experience because it’s come in many iterations. From her early dream-pop shows to entirely acoustic sets, Lights has a lot of experience to draw on. She’s taking time to completely overhaul her setlist and reinvent old tracks. With the addition of new drummer Jess Bowen (Alice Glass, The Summer Set, Tessa Violet), her touring party will now have more women than men and all with identical pairs of Doc Martens that will need name tags like it’s a Kindergarten coat room.
Having spent months releasing music from a well-loved indent in her couch, Lights is itching to get out and show the world the new, self-assured version of herself. She’s ready to do what’s best for her.
“That’s the thing with evolution as an artist. There will be people that want me to make a synth-pop record again, but that’s not the reason I’m still here. I’ve got to evolve with myself.”