In 2015, Lights beat out Avril Lavigne, Magic!, Down With Webster and Nikki Yanofsky for the Juno Award for pop album of the year. This year, she became a last-minute nominee in the category of dance recording of the year for her collaboration with producer Borgeous, "Zero Gravity." While the once Toronto-based artist didn't take home the prize this year (Toronto trio Keys N Krates won with their Katy B collaboration, "Save Me"), Lights proved her proficiency in a genre outside of pop.
In fact, Lights has really opened up her craft in recent years, dabbling in the aforementioned dance/EDM while also honing in on her pop prowess with some of her biggest songs ever from the Juno-winning Little Machines, such as the bombastic "Up We Go" or "Same Sea."
Now, Lights takes things to another end of the spectrum with her latest release, Midnight Machines (out today). Here, she strips down those hits on Little Machines and transforms them into gorgeous renderings complete with string arrangements.
CBC Music sat down with Lights last weekend at the Junos to talk about her expanding portfolio of sounds, growing up with her fans and a special book project she put out earlier this year for her niece.
How did the collaboration with Borgeous happen?
I end up getting asked to do a lot of collaborations and there are so many that you have to pick and choose what you like. When this track came through, I loved it. It’s amazing and right up my alley. I didn’t sit with the track that long, actually; sometimes I sit on tracks for a lot longer. I was just at my Airbnb in Toronto and I was trying to watch my daughter and I was drawn to this song. It came so fast, I wrote the song all in one evening, well I wrote the topline while multitasking, being a mother, and it was the coolest feeling. It really just poured out of me. I ended up recording all the vocals at home and sending it to him and he mixed it into the track so it was really organic and easy.
Do you feel like your daughter has been a strong source of inspiration, directly or indirectly, when it comes to writing now?
I haven’t written anything specific about being a mother or about her, but I think in the bigger picture I’m just less afraid now because of her. I’m more excited about what I do and it feels like there’s less pressure. I mean, there’s still pressure but I just don’t care as much, which is the best place to be creatively because you can just do crazy things and have no fear about it. Ever since I’ve had her, I’ve been writing a lot, actually. It’s been a glorious experience.
The Borgeous track ended up being nominated for a Juno Award for best dance recording. Dance music has really permeated pop music in recent years so I wonder what your relationship is like with that style of music.
That’s exactly it. My music is infused with dance elements. There’s obvious stuff that happens within EDM that is so crucial to pop, like the predictable build and drop — I think people live for that and you can hear that in some of the songs on Little Machines like “Same Sea” is really EDM-influenced. I have a solid love for the EDM community and I’ve done stuff with Kaskade before.
To the opposite effect, your latest release, Midnight Machines, is very stripped down. Why did you decide to go to the other end of the spectrum with these songs?
It became really important for me, on this project, to pick the songs you would least expect to be an intimate song and turn them into that. So songs from Little Machines like “Up We Go,” “Same Sea” and “Running With the Boys,” really high-energy songs when they’re in their full versions became so much fun to interpret in another way. It was almost about creating the antithesis of Little Machines, becoming something late-night and emotive for those moments when you want to be quiet and alone or if you want to make out. Every moment! Music should be there for all those moments and whatever Little Machines didn’t cover, Midnight Machines will.
How is it to perform these acoustic-style songs live?
It’s been fun. On the last tour we did, we did an acoustic segment in the middle and it went over really well. I’ve done acoustic stuff for a really long time but this is different in the sense that it’s all of us playing, it’s a full band. It’s just really ambient, stripped-down stuff and on record, it goes a little further. There’s a string section and hopefully we also have that for the tour. It creates this otherworldly soundscape that’s just awesome.
How does this set you up for the future? What will your music sound like on the next album?
I do find that I got all of my intimate, lush desires out in the acoustic stuff so that I can put my energy into the upbeat songs because upbeat songs are the toughest songs to write. There’s a huge challenge to write something that is surface level enough for everybody to understand but has enough depth for people to cling to and has a production that will appeal to people who like all kinds of different music. Pop music doesn’t get the credit that it deserves in the songwriting aspect. It’s some of the most powerful music out there and it takes a lot of work to write an upbeat song so I save all my energies for the LPs and all of my indulgences.
Do you have any material ready for a new album?
We’re starting to work on it. It’s getting to the time where I need to start getting stuff together. It’s amazing because it’s a no-pressure situation. Like, obviously I need to put something out but it’s just been so fluid with writing, it feels good and doesn’t feel like work.
Speaking of acoustic songs, you recently covered Drake’s “Hotline Bling” — what is it that you like about that song?
It’s so good! It’s got a great vibe, I love that tropical feeling and the melodies are really solid. You listen to it and think, wow this song’s easy, but it’s not. It’s like what we were talking about with upbeat songs. It’s only three or four chords with this weird major that comes in every now and then, which is really smart. It’s pretty amazing when you can take what is ultimately a hip-hop song and make it happen acoustically because you think that there’s nothing there but there’s so much there. There’s also a lot of lyrics in that song and it took me a long time to learn it. A lot of it is repetitive but it switches up and tricks you! I had everything printed out and it was stuck to the mic when I was doing the video and everyone was like, "Man, that looks really bad." So I took it off and we did a pass and I remembered all of the lyrics. It was a miracle, but it was down to the last minute.
Drake is known to have some pretty internet-savvy fans in the sense that many things he does gets turned into memes immediately, but you also have some dedicated fans. I scrolled through your social media and your fans like to make memes of you, too!
There’s some hilarious stuff! My fans are the best. We’ve grown up together, like some were going to shows six years ago when my first record came out and we were all kids back then. I’m watching them grow up and find themselves and go to college. It’s pretty amazing because I’ve done the same so it feels really symbiotic.
Are there any artists you feel that same connection with?
I can’t say I’ve travelled to shows or anything but definitely Bjork has been a longtime inspiration and role model, especially as a mother, too, because she’s able to do both. Same with Adele now, like I’m seeing her rule the world and she doesn’t let anything stop here. Also there’s Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith, I’ve been watching them since I was a kid and even though they’re older than me I think it’s just a powerful thing to see because you can visualize it when you see a woman doing it. They’ve had such long careers, such longevity and that’s what I’d love to have.
Well you’ve been doing this for a decade!
It’s true! I’m at this point where I feel like I’m a veteran in the business already and it’s weird because I still feel young. I want to feel young forever!
I noticed on your Facebook that you had written and released a children’s book recently. Can you tell me more about this project?
Yeah! I wrote and illustrated it. My niece has this really rare syndrome called Apert syndrome, one in every 60,000 kids have it. The ultimate thing she’ll be facing is aesthetic differences, everything else is average. So that raised a lot of points for me. We all look different and what defines beauty is totally dependent on what we see on a daily basis and I want for her to not have to face the feeling of being different from people.
The Apert community is small and close-knit, small because of the internet, because people are able to communicate about it now. Previously, like 10 years ago, parents of Apert children weren’t able to talk to other people about it but now it’s really powerful.
I’m actually learning how to use Photoshop for colouring and drawing comics because I’ve just wanted to improve my skills. So I practised on this book for her. I just wanted to show her that she’s not the only one going through this. A lot of Apert children have to go through multiple surgeries, like getting their fingers separated, their toes separated, head cranial surgery…. There’s a lot of stuff in common, a lot of them will be experiencing things that most people won’t experience and I made a book about another girl going through the same stuff so she has somebody to look at.
That’s incredible, especially because it’s a children’s book and they’re all usually so similar.
I remember looking around online and I wanted to get her a book showing a kid who was dealing with the same stuff that she was and there was nothing. There was one book, I think, and it’s in French. That's it, in the entire world, in the entire internet, of all the years people have been doing this. So I made it free to download for anyone who wants to look and even if your kid doesn’t have Apert it’s a good thing to show your kid just to celebrate differences.