Lights, Drawing Outside the Lines: Cover Story
“Oh my goodness, I don’t get it! The curse is upon us. This is it.”
Lights is referring to the fact that our call has been dropped four times now while conducting this interview. The Canadian singer, songwriter and performer is waiting at an airport in Houston, Texas, staring out at the “tiny, tiny airplane” she’s about to board to fly to Pensacola in Florida. She jokes that the interrupted phone calls will result in an incredible interview, similar to how tough touring logistics have resulted in one of her favorite cross-country runs yet. She’s already on tour for her latest album, Skin & Earth, a project that pushed Lights (née Valerie Anne Poxleitner) beyond her traditional sonic medium into the world of comic books, with one edition coming out each month along with a new music video.
“I loved comics for a long time, loved the medium, and I love where comics are going,” she says about her history with illustrated stories. “It’s on the forefront of social issues, and there’s no production value limit, so you can create an entire world. As long as you can visualize it, you can make it a reality.” It seems as if turning visions and creative worlds into realities has been a theme for Lights, who moved from Timmins, Ontario—a town with a population of 42,000—to Toronto at the age of 18, hungry to become a singer. At that time, she rewrote her own reality by legally changing her name to “Lights,” a move she made because another band had the same name and she wanted to sidestep the copyright. Originally, it was a nickname derived from Poxleitner.
Slowly but surely, Lights began living the life of a rock star, before having quite earned the notoriety. She had a stint as a member of a metal band called Shovel Face, where she cut her teeth in a way for live performances. She also toured (and continues to tour) prolifically, joining bands like Keane and Owl City both within her own country of Canada and outside of it. Since then, she’s had two albums certified gold: her debut, The Listening (2009), and Siberia (2011). In a lot of ways, her fourth LP differs from those, even so far down as the creative process.
“Even though it’s a lot more work [with the comic], the work is more balanced out between different sides of my brain and body,” she says when asked about the extra effort this project has taken. “So it’s actually more enjoyable, and more rewarding maybe… In reality, I’ve never realized how connected visual and audio is until I started working on this project. I’ve obviously known visuals are a big part of it, but I’ve never really connected with how much visually I see in my head when I’m writing music.”
In this case, Lights saw the two separate mediums supporting one another, working in tandem to create one cohesive piece of art that touches on different senses. “The songs created visual ideas for the comics and the comics would bring mirrored ideas into the songs, it was just an amazing symbiotic creative process.” She’s actually been planning on joining the two worlds for some time now. “I’ve always wanted to see them paired more, music and comics. I’ve seen them in a few instances before but never with a girl. It’s never been a female artist [to] do it.”
On that note, Lights does see more and more women entering the comic book space. “You know, there’s actually a lot of women getting into comic play and going to Comic-Con, and it’s one of the most inclusive experiences you’ll get to be a part of. People from all walks of life are in the comic world now—it’s not just like 12-year-old boys… I've seen [that] a few comics shops are saying a lot of first time comic buyers coming into the store, a lot more girls are coming in the store to pick up the comic, and that is an awesome byproduct of a project like this. It wasn't even fully the intention going in, but seeing that as a result of it is so special.”
While Lights herself is certainly helping balance out the gender gap, she’s also following in the footsteps of other women. “Most of the comics I read and love have female creators, some of them are all female creators, so I tapped into an aspect of art that isn't necessarily those macho superhero comics that people...sort of expect out of the comic world. They like intricacy and detail and grace, where some of the female creators that you don't necessarily see, you haven't necessarily seen it until the last 30 years, 20 years in comics. It's very cool to see that growing and expanding, and being part of that is just unbelievable.”
But Lights is making sure that, if she’s going to be creating female characters, she’s going to be creating realistic ones. “I definitely identify with female leads more; I identify with real female leads, people who are flawed and have issues and make mistakes, so that the characters represent what I'm about,” she explains. With a rabid fan base (which, especially online, is well above the million mark, partially thanks to her early days as a MySpace star), Lights wants to make sure that she’s helping to create healthier representations of women.
“You know, you can't give this unattainable superhero and expect people to identify with them. It's a cool story to read, but I never identified with Wonder Woman, until I read the story like, where she goes blind for a year and ends up in the underworld. I love to see in comics and movies...the vulnerabilities, and that's what makes you stronger.” Surely, having her own daughter has helped Lights put the whole role model thing into perspective.
It doesn’t take long to see how close this project is to Lights’ heart, both in terms of the music and graphics. It’s also struck a chord with her fans, who are over the moon about the new material. “I went online and saw that people were reacting so positively to it and loving the record, and it was just a really overwhelming feeling, because it took me by surprise kind of,” she explains. “I've just been so busy and so active, for the month leading up, that I just didn't really prepare myself leading up to the actual release date of the record. So it was really cool. It actually brought me to tears at one point.”
This, by the way, is also how she gauges success: the intimate responses her fans give her in person or via social media mean heaps and bounds more than selling albums. “In this case is a lot of different stats pouring in whether it's this many comic books moved here, you know, or this many albums moved here, or this many streams. For me, the biggest gauge for success in a project is people's reaction to it and what they're saying about it and if they're sharing it on social media.”
While this project is exciting in itself, it’s truly more of a harbinger of what’s to come. Lights’ foray into the comic book world shows that she’s looking to experiment and expand as an artist beyond just music. Maybe she’ll dive into the film world, taking her music videos to the next level. Perhaps painting will be her new calling, opening up an entire new world of album art. Or maybe she’ll continue to just draw, surely outside the lines.
More Photos From Lights' Cover Shoot: