Earlier this week, we got the chance to talk with Canadian musician Lights. The electro-pop artist just released her third album, Little Machines, on September 23rd in the US on Warner Bros. Records. A lot has changed in the last three years since she released her synthpop meets dubstep sophomore effort Siberia, which includes struggling with writer’s block, getting married, and having a daughter. We talked with Lights about some of these changes, the themes and inspiration behind the new album, her new life as a mother, and rediscovering her passion for music and life.
The new album is called Little Machines, and this album title is obviously a reference to the line in your song “Running With The Boys,” where you refer to you and your friends in your childhood as “wicked little machines.” Some of the songs on your album are about your youth, so was the title of the album meant to be nostalgic and looking back at your childhood?
Yeah, it totally was, and it’s cool that you picked up on that. I think one of the things that really inspired the creation of the album was looking back to that era of life when things were easy and things were fun and you had so much imagination and energy and we were like endless sources of fun, endless sources of energy. “Running With The Boys” is kind of a perfect example of that. It’s one of the songs that I wrote specifically about that kind of inspiration for the record. A couple of other songs were “Child,” which is one of the bonus tracks on the record, and “Slow Down.” There’s a few that are just kind of about that feeling. I think I was very frustrated with how much I knew about the industry, and you know you get bogged down by numbers and expectations and pressures that you kind of apply to yourself, and I just had to go back to the days when I was just starting to do music and I really enjoyed it and I was wasting nights with friends. Sometimes you just forget about that as time goes on, and it just happened to be a really nice place to be when I was writing, and “Running With The Boys” is about that. And Little Machines is my reference to being a little kid again, and also a reference to all the little synths we used on the record. We used so many cool little synths and it created this really cool vibe. So yeah, there’s a couple of layers to the name.
So talking about inspiration, and looking back to your childhood and before where you’re at now, with Little Machines I think you had a little bit of trouble writing the album. I read there was some writer’s block and some frustration. What was going on, and what did you do to combat it?
Well I knew that I needed to free myself up creatively because I was just at the point where I didn’t know what to write about and I didn’t know how to “one up” myself. You want to “one up” yourself on every record, but the question is how? Where do you start? And I think that as I thought about that more and more, and as the fans were asking more and more for new music, this and that started to pile and it just “WOAH”- I couldn’t do it anymore. I had no idea where to start and everything sounded bad. I listened to the radio and everything sounded bad. I listened to songs I had on my iPod and I just wasn’t inspired by anything, so I just took a step back from listening to music, and just focused on creativity in different ways. Creativity is such a human outlet. It’s so important for everybody. Everybody’s got something creative that they do, and it’s healthy because if you don’t creatively vent and you just build up and that is how I believe writer’s block happens.
So I was doing poetry and I was painting, and listening to music in interesting ways- going for a walk and listening to an entire Neil Young record front to back. Then I started really zeroing in on not just the discography, but the lives of some of the revered songwriters that I really respect- especially women. Patti Smith’s life and Kate Bush and Bjork and how their trajectories went with their lives and where they ended up, what made them tick and what moved them through the tough spots. I started reading Just Kids and Woolgathering, the Patti Smith poetry, and then diving into their bodies of work and seeing it from a new angle. I think that’s just what it really took- understanding music in a new way, because what I had known about it up until that point was old. It just got old. It proved to be really fun and exciting and it was a bit of an adventure. I ended up discovering a new passion for music and now that the record is said and done, I feel like I’m a new artist again, but with the experience of having three records out. It’s pretty nice.
And it comes back full circle. It goes back to the idea of being a child and rediscovering things and everything’s new.
Totally! It’s all new. I remember when I was a kid I had this little studio set up in our attic. I lived in the attic of our house, and I had a Van Gogh painting hanging up over it. It was called Starry Night Studios, obviously named after the painting, and I would just spend countless hours in there. I had this little 8-track, a little piano, and a guitar, and a drum machine, and I had so much fun. From age 13, every night was an experience and I was like a wizard and I was making magical music and I had to go back to that feeling, because that’s when you know you’re making something good.
Again going back to inspiration, when you were writing for Siberia, I saw that you travelled to an isolated, frozen location in Ontario for a few days. Then, when you were writing for Little Machines, you travelled to an Earthship, which was also isolated, except for the small community that was there. What is it about being in these isolated, extreme locations that helps you with your writing?
I think it’s the fact that you are somewhere and time is ticking and you have to focus. It’s the same reason you go to the gym. You can do your work out at home, but you’re more focused if you’re in a place, doing it specifically for that reason. So that’s one of the reasons I like to take a getaway like that. In the same breadth, it’s so important to get a change of scenery. Creatively, to be inspired by what’s around you is so important. With this record I went out to the Earthship community in New Mexico, and it was awesome. I was experiencing things I had never experienced before. You kind of sit in a new place and you’re inspired by new things. It was such a nice contrast from sitting in my little dark studio room in the back of my apartment, trying to be creative and write something you think is going to change the world, but you’re sitting in your room at home. Whereas if you’re taking a big adventure, everything seems so much more grandiose. So that’s a part of it for sure- just getting the change of vibe.
It sounds like it’s all about the adventures with you.
For sure! It’s all about adventure. Even when I’m gaming, I’m into the questing games and role playing games. That’s what it’s all about.
The vibe I get from Siberia is that it’s a colder album. Not unfriendly, but it feels colder. The album title is Siberia, the album cover is gray and black, a lot of the songs are really gritty. Then, with Little Machines, the songs are a little bit poppier, some of the songs are about happier childhood memories, the album cover is bright colors. Do you think writing in these remote locations- a frozen place for Siberia and the desert for Little Machines- had an impact on that? Was this intentional?
That’s a good question. I hadn’t really looked back on it as a whole like that but I think you’re right. I think what you’re feeling emotionally when you’re writing something, and your intentions creatively when you’re putting energy into an album, maybe is the reason that you choose the locations that you choose. I think for me with Siberia it was…the important aspect of that record for me was pushing the boundaries sonicly and making something that was gritty and dangerous, that felt risky. That’s what it’s all about. So of course you’re going to put that in a little bit when you find that special location to record. I remember driving five hours out of Toronto in a blizzard. Maybe that’s sort of just an echo of what you’re putting into the record.
With this one, the three years leading up to the creation of this record were basically just me rediscovering my passion for life and my purpose and rediscovering a mantra for life, which ultimately ended up being that you’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve gotta love the moment you’re in. You have to take time every few hours and just level because life is going by so fast and it was scaring me. A song like “Slow Down” is about that. It was like “Woah, where is this all going? How can I just sit down and just enjoy this?”
So I wanted to create this really “feel good” record, and in the same breadth I was discovering how to preserve the environment and really cool green solutions, and one of them was the Earthship. My dad is an architect and my mom is sort-of a hippie. You put both of those together and you get an Earthship, which is an off the grid, carbon zero home, but apparently with all the comforts of any other home, so I wanted to go experience that. And it was very comfortable. It was super comfortable! But you know at the same time that you’re not leaving any kind of carbon footprint, and it’s this really cool feeling, and it’s all about that. So I feel like as a whole, where you are in your life, if you’re doing the right things it’s all going to line up and make sense. It’s less intentional and it’s more like the stars are aligning, and you’re doing the right thing. So it’s pretty cool that when you look back it all makes sense.
When I listen to this album, I hear elements of The Listening a little bit, and of Siberia a little bit. But, you’re also building on that and pushing the boundaries, and it’s not boring- it’s still exciting, and you keep going further with it. Do you think that you’ve kind of found your sound and you want to keep building off of that, or do you have no idea what the future is going to hold?
I think I have no idea what the future’s going to hold, but it’s really cool that you did notice that there’s bits and pieces of both albums in this, because that’s ultimately what each record is. I think it’s a culmination of what you know from the past experiences that you know. I took what I knew from The Listening and what I think was best about The Listening and took the best of Siberia and made it Little Machines, and the next record will probably be the best of all these three. I think that’s how you know you’re garnering the best things out of your work- it’s that you made an even better project based on the last two. [I took] the focus on songwriting and the lyrics, and the energy and live dynamic, and the synth heavy bass and drums, and applied both of those things to Little Machines and then some. I don’t think it was super intentional, but it just happened naturally. You know what you know and you try to make it better and build on it.
What’s your favorite lyric from the album and why?
Hmmmmmm…I think my favorite lyric is from the song “How We Do It” at the end of the record, second to last song. “I want to be happy, I want to die in love,” and it’s the truth. That kind of culminates what I was saying- it’s all about who you’re with and enjoying the moment and being happy and dying knowing that you lived the way that you wanted to, y’know? That’s what that lines about. It’s a little sad.
No it’s positive! It’s very positive.
You did a collaboration with Hard Rock for Pinktober, their breast cancer awareness campaign. How did that come about?
They pretty much approached me to be the 2014 ambassador for breast cancer awareness for Pinktober, and of course it was a no brainer. Hard Rock is a super recognizable brand. It’s very well known. And when I think that a brand like that has a powerful platform and uses it for good, I think it’s like a superhero that’s using their powers for good, and I’m a strong believer in that. When you have any kind of platform, use it for good. So it was kind of a no brainer. They’re such fans of music, and such fans of working for good causes, so I really wanted to do this with them. So we got together and there’s a couple shirts that you can buy and the proceeds go to breast cancer.
We shot this campaign and I couldn’t believe the reach of the campaign. They started putting it up around the end of September all over the world and I’m getting tweets from people in Japan and Turkey and Dubai seeing this campaign and it’s so powerful and it makes me happy because I’ve seen so many, so many fans come to my shows that I’ve met with backstage before my shows or after the shows that are dealing with breast cancer in their family or in their personal lives. It’s devastating. And to see them go through that is the worst. It’s the worst thing ever. Anything any of us can do to end anyone ever having to go through that is important. It’s very important.
So being able to be on this campaign and spreading awareness to women who should really educate themselves, I mean…625 women a day are diagnosed in the US. 28,000 per year, just in the US alone, are under 25, and I think that’s something that’s overlooked a little when you’re young. You’re 20. You feel a bit immortal. I feel that sometimes. It’s very much a real danger and I think that it’s important that people know. It’s a great cause and a great thing to be a part of and I’m very fortunate.
You and your husband Beau had your daughter Rocket earlier this year. How has being a mother changed your outlook on life and do you think it has had or will have an impact on your music?
Well definitely it’s made me more chill. I think looking at what I have infront of me and every few hours just having to level and feed her or watch her- even if my day’s crazy I HAVE to level every few hours, and it reminds you that that’s so important in terms of living and enjoying life. You have to slow down. You have to chill out a little bit. I don’t know what I worried about before. There’s so many little things that I worried about that I don’t need to worry about. Now I’m realizing that because I’m only concentrating on the things that really matter. You kind of cut the crap. You don’t have time for that and the stupid stuff you used to get worried about. It’s a great feeling and it’s really chilled me out a lot. I feel less stressed, which is kind of ironic. You know, bringing a baby on tour, and it feels like it’s going to be crazy, but it’s actually been the opposite. It’s a little bit extra work but emotionally it’s the best. I’m just in a really good place, and I think that that outlook itself has influenced the music. I mean even with this new mantra I have and what this record’s about, and how I’m preaching about living in the moment and just enjoying life- I think that in part stems from that new understanding and that new passion for the people around you and dying in love, that whole idea. That’s the point of life. That has leaked its way into the music too.
I’m glad it’s all worked out for you. It sounds like an adventure and it sounds like that’s what you’re looking for.
Totally. Adventure is the best.
Thank you very much to Lights and Warner Bros. for the interview. Check out Lights on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Buy her new album Little Machines here!
Lights is currently on tour, and will be playing the following dates in our area:
10/29/2014: Irving Plaza- New York, NY
10/31/2014: The Stone Pony- Asbury Park, NJ
11/02/2014: Theatre of the Living Arts- Philadelphia, PA
For more tour dates click here.