“I came up pop, but I’m not blowing bubbles” —  Lights (from the song “Jaws”)

One could spend quite a lot of time trying to define what exactly pop music is in the year 2022. Vancouver singer-songwriter Lights would know more than most. Her last two albums, 2014’s Little Machines and 2017’s Skin & Earth, both won JUNO Awards for Pop Album of the Year. She prefers the term “alt.pop” to describe her left-of-centre musical style. But on her new record, PEP, Lights makes it clear that she has no interest in staying in any one lane.

PEP began pre-pandemic, when Lights was writing “just for the fun of it.” At about 24 demos, she shot the new music off to her label, Fueled by Ramen. (Lights signed to the American imprint best known for alternative acts like Fall Out Boy and Twenty One Pilots back in 2019.) Their response encouraged her to think outside the pop (or alt.pop) box.

“They were like, ‘You don’t have to make a pop record. You can make whatever record you want. Why don’t you make a rock record?’” recalls the singer. “All I need is my label to tell me I don’t have to make hits. When you’re not trying to write something for pop radio you get something really authentic and cool, and still with pop sensibilities. That’s kind of what this record is. Like Lights choruses, but with a different kind of energy.”

This isn’t to suggest that Lights is a rock act now. The sticky choruses, bright synths, and – dare it be said — peppy attitude that have defined Lights’ music are still prominently displayed. The 13 songs on PEP are fast-paced, and clock in at under 45 minutes total. But on tracks like “Prodigal Daughter” and “Jaws,” she also lets loose a kind of roar that shows off her heavy rock influences. Let’s not forget that Lights’ 2008 debut EP was released by Canadian punk label Underground Operations, and that she’s collaborated with metalcore heavyweights Bring Me the Horizon.

“I grew up listening to metalcore, and screamo, and emo, and post-hardcore,” she explains. “And what I took from that was the emotional sensibilities. There’s a lot of vulnerability in those lyrics; like, extreme vulnerabilities. Like, I’m gonna let my emotions hang out on my sleeve and be really poetic about it, then I’m gonna let ‘er rip in this part. Yet it’s all very melodic. I think that is probably the genre that inspired my music the most, even though sonically, it doesn’t seem that way.”

Behind the scenes, PEP boasts an impressive list of female creators and crew. Lights handled much of the album’s production on her own, but committed to finding and enlisting female talent, such as engineer Elisa Pangsaeng; mastering engineer Emily Lazar; co-writers Michelle Buzz (Katy Perry, Bebe Rexha) and Jenna Andrews (BTS, BANKS, BROODS); and drummer Jess Bowen (The Summer Set, HAIM).

“I had a goal going in to work with 50 percent women,” says Lights. “And I achieved that goal. It’s challenging when the talent pool is 97 percent male. But the more people see it, the more we’ll have it.”

As with her last album Skin & Bones, PEP is accompanied by a comic series, conceived and drawn by Lights, called The Clinic. The storyline and colour palettes are all tied into PEP’s artwork and videos, and are as much part of the album as the songs themselves.

“Music is the heart of it, but there’s so much more,” says Lights. “I think that’s why people have stuck with me for this long. There’s gonna be a whole world around it.”

Publishing: Sony set up success

When asked about her longtime music publisher, Sony Music Publishing, the first thing Lights says is “they’re like family.” The songwriter’s relationship with Sony goes back to her teenage years, when she co-wrote the song “Perfect” with Luke McMaster (of McMaster & James) for the Canadian music-themed TV series Instant Star, and has remained solid throughout her 17-year-career. In those early days, Lights says mentorship from Sony’s David Quilico and Gary Furniss truly helped set her up for success. “They taught me so much about music,” she recalls. “I was 18. I’d just moved to Toronto and didn’t know anyone, really, except my manager at the time. And they would sit me down, play me songs that stood the test of time, and show me why. They put me in all kinds of [song] camps, where I learned how to exercise my ability to create with another person in the room. They were more than just a publisher, and I was very grateful for having them when I was young and getting started.”