When electro-rock sensation Lights first hit the music scene in 2008, she was just a songwriter with a synth and a dream. Her name may have been pluralized but Lights Poxleitner was a one-woman show who played and programmed her own instruments and sang her own lyrics.
This admirable self-reliance is rare in pop—in fact, Lights, signed a publishing deal at 16 and began writing songs for other artists—but after her 2008 self-titled debut EP (precocious enough to earn her a best new artist Juno) and gold-selling full-length follow-up The Listening, Lights was ready to open herself up to collaborations on her unexpectedly experimental album Siberia. And by choosing such leftfield collaborators as live electronic outfit Holy Fuck and rising rapper Shad, she also opened up her sound.
“It’s a huge step,” she readily admits. “For a year after my first record, I was confused and searching. I was writing all over the place and not finding anything that was essentially different. But after tour last year I was turned onto dubstep.”
The genre’s grimy beats and sonic minimalism influenced the creation of Siberia, if not necessarily shaping the music itself (though she does pay homage with a dubstep drop on “Fourth Dimension.”)
Rather, dubstep led Lights away from the “perfection” of her past work. “Everything was tuned and timed just right. The new stuff is raw and gritty but still pop with a focus on the melodies. It’s the marriage of those two that make it really different and unlike anything I’ve ever done before.”
This dirtier direction came from collaborating with Holy Fuck, a fellow Juno-winning, electronic-influenced Canadian act who she met when both played the dance stage at last year’s Reading and Leeds festivals in the UK. Impressed by their “grime and grit,” she decided to see what might happen when she infused her pop sensibilities with their experimental tendencies.
“I went over to Brian [Borcherdt’s] house with Graham [Walsh] and we just started jamming until something started to form, as opposed to the last record which was more structured and less live feeling. We wired old synths and toy synths through all these pedals and machines from their junk table,” she laughs. “They’re straight-up mad scientists.”
Her other main collaborator was Shad, who she knew through a mutual friend. “He’s so humble and so intelligent,” she says, “and I knew he’d kill it.” Indeed, Shad drops his typically articulate knowledge on the crunchy, soiled “Everybody Breaks a Glass” and “Flux and Flow,” which Lights describes as “the perfect marriage of this sweet melody and the hardest beat ever. It’s about how that applies to life because you have to be soft and you have to be strong.”
Lyrically, the album is light years from her last, which was written when the singer, who spent much of her childhood travelling to places like the Philippines and Jamaica with her missionary parents, had left the nest and landed in Toronto. “A lot of those songs came from a sad but hopeful place. I was alone and pondering a lot. I’m a lot more aware of the person I am now and each of these songs is about an experience I’ve gone through,” she says. “This record came from a very happy place.”
Then why is it called Siberia? “It’s based on something that was said to me, that we could be happy even in a place like Siberia. It was such an inspiring thing to say, because Siberia is cold and a little daunting and represents unfamiliar territory.” That last bit is particularly sticky for Lights, who left her safe pop haven for these unexplored sonics, though the metaphor carries even further because despite being an infamous land of ice and exile, Siberia is epically beautiful and so is Siberia.
The dividend from her early award-winning success—not to mention her sprawling online footprint which includes over a half-million Facebook fans and over a quarter-million Twitter followers, not to mention a cult fanbase amongst the Comic-Con set—is her current artistic freedom.
Her up-for-anything experimentations with Holy Fuck produced an astoundingly eclectic album that belies its snow white title. Siberia’s diversity leapfrogs from the hip-shaking dance-pop of “Toes” and the arms-up anthem “Banner” to the singer-songwriter-y romantic ballad “Cactus in the Valley,” written on an acoustic guitar, and the nine- minute instrumental album closer “Day One” which sounds crafted by a rusty, lovesick robot—but that didn’t make recording her sophomore album any easier.
“For the first one, nobody had any expectations for what I was supposed to sound like. You write your first record only for yourself. You don’t have fans yet and there are no preconceptions. So I had to reinvent myself all over again, rediscover myself as an artist and remember I can do whatever I want.”
Siberia‘s beats skitter and thwack, the retro electronics fire like decomposing lasers and the analog synths dirty up her trademark pretty melodies, propelling Lights’ emotion-soaked but still-cute croon into her sprawling, imperfect new sound.
Call it anti-electro, dream-step or perhaps even grit-pop. Whatevs. Just rest assured that it’s the same bright Lights; she’s just built herself a bigger city.