Valerie Poxleitner may have sung at many different venues over her past seven years in pop, but performing at her local ice hockey stadium was something of a first for the Canadian singer-songwriter otherwise known as Lights.
“You know it’s funny, I’ve never done that before,” says the 27-year-old of her singing debut at the Air Canada Centre, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Being born and raised in and around Toronto it came as a shock to a lot of people that asked me about it, but I don’t follow ice hockey that much. I only started after I married my husband [Beau Bokan, lead singer with US metalcore band Blessthefall] – he’s a the biggest [Los Angeles] Kings fan, he was raised in LA.”
Nonetheless with the Leafs being “one of the most important teams in terms of fame” in North America – worth a reported $1.1bn – Lights regarded it as a “special honour” to sing before one of their games. She admits though that she had some trepidation performing without a band.
“You never really know how you are doing in the moment. You don’t have anything behind you, you’re singing a song that’s not yours – it’s 150 years old, you can’t hear yourself, when you sing a note there’s a latency, and you’re in front of thousands of people. But I watched it afterwards and I was happy overall.”
With a new album to promote, Lights is heading for the UK this month. Little Machines – the singer’s third studio record – was almost three years in the making.
One of the issues behind its delay, she says, was the weariness she felt after touring its successful predecessor, Siberia, which came out in 2011.
“I really did not write for the first year afterwards pretty much,” she says.
“I’m still learning as I go. I had this idealistic perspective that music just came, it was this magical thing that comes when it wants, you don’t have to force it, don’t worry about it.”
Having been a prolific songwriter in her teenage years, it was something of a surprise to find that by her mid-twenties she had writer’s block.
“When I got back it felt like a muscle that was out of practice. It did not come easily for me. It was about rediscovering what I do best, remembering how much I love doing it, if you want to write something great that’s the real you.”
Having sold more than 100,000 copies of Siberia – a disc that was nominated for Canada’s equivalent of the Mercury Music Prize – Lights admits she felt “a lot of pressure” to make a follow-up album that was “musically better than I’ve ever done”.
“Before I started writing the album I said to a lot of people in my team who’ve been with me for years, ‘This is going to be the best album, I know it’. But it feels funny going into the writing process with people expecting it to be good. These arbitrary pressures I’d put on myself. You have an idea, ‘Do I have to write hits?’ I had to buckle that off and write something I thought was good. That came with rediscovering what I love about what I do, something pure and honest, feeling good and being in the moment – that became what was important, not everything else.”
She enlisted the talents of two A-list studio boffins, Drew Pearson (Katy Perry, OneRepublic) and Mark ‘Spike’ Stent (U2, Madonna) to help her. “Spike is amazing,” she says of an expert mixer who she’d worked with briefly in 2009 on her debut album The Listening. Their “long distance collaboration” – she’d send tracks to Stent in London – worked. His “fresh ears” brought sometimes “shocking and weird” new angles to songs she’d been working on for months. “By the fourth time [you play it back] you can’t hear it any other way.”
As a “benefactor for a lot of synth iPad apps”, Pearson sprinkled a lot of electronica on the album. “You’d name a sound and he created it,” says Lights. “He has a battery of synths. I’d say I’d like something pointy that has some decay and a surrounding eerie feel and he would whip something up. There’s a certain science to that creativity.”
When she hits Britain Lights is looking forward to hitting her favourite food stores and pubs. “I love Marks & Spencer and Wetherspoons,” she says. “It keeps me coming back. Before I toured [the UK] people said, ‘The food is not good, there’s nothing healthy’, but I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been on tour there. And the fans are used to going to shows for the most part. Touring across Canada you’re limited to maybe 14 cities, any where else people are like statues, they don’t see a lot of shows or know how to react. Going over there every show is good.”
Lights plays at the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on January 26. http://www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk/whats-on/lights/
The daughter of missionaries, Valerie Poxleitner spent her childhood in many parts of the world, including the Philippines, Jamaica and British Columbia.
“Every now and again there’s a Filippino reggae influence in my stuff,” she sayd. But her main influence was “workship music” and pop, from which she deduced that music should be “this poetic, heartfelt anthem or memorable song”.
“It’s all about something that you can learn quickly.”