When Lights was 18, she moved to Toronto and legally changed her name to reflect her onstage moniker, intent on establishing a career in music. “There was no Plan B”, she recalls with a laugh.
It was a gamble that clearly didn’t require one: in the last decade, the alt-pop artist formerly known as Valerie Anne Poxleitner has released three albums; had her songs streamed more than 100 million times online; won a slew of awards including two JUNOs (for New Artist of the Year in 2009 and Pop Album of the Year in 2015, for Little Machines); and released dozens of videos, each garnering millions of views. In the process she’s also amassed lots and lots of devoted fans, including more than 700,000 who follow her on Twitter, along with over a million more on Facebook.
But when she started plotting her fourth studio album, Skin&Earth, due out later this month, Lights, now 30, decided she was ready to tackle another personal goal. A longtime fan of comic books, she’d always imagined creating one of her own, and wondered about connecting it to her music.
“I think there are a lot of music fans that are comic fans, and a lot of comic fans that are into music,” says Lights, who saw the potential for a mixed-media crossover project that would give audiences the incentive to listen to an entire body of work, rather than simply streaming singles.
She imagined crafting a comic that would connect thematically with the songs on the album, while drawing a listener or reader into a story. And although she’d never created a comic before, Lights was undaunted. “I’ve always been someone who goes all the way into something,” she says. “It’s not that complicated for me.”
Born to missionary parents, Lights grew up travelling the world, and was home-schooled. She began writing songs as a child and credits her father, Eric Poxleitner, for encouraging her early efforts. “He really made me believe in myself,” she says. “I would write a song and show my dad, and he would act like it was the greatest thing he ever heard.”
It was a foundation that served her well as she sought advice on where to start with her new project. Reaching out to a number of comic book writers for advice, she connected with industry heavyweight Brian K Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways) who encouraged her to try penning the story herself, rather than hiring an outside writer and artist.
“What I’ve learned is that if you really want to do the work, you can accomplish anything.”
Before long, Lights had roughed out a story about a woman named Enaia, navigating life in a desperate, post-apocalyptic world where everything – from the schools to the grocery stores – is run by a single super-corporation. In Enaia, Lights found something of an alter ego, and soon found that the character was allowing her to exploring darker themes in her writing.
With the storyline in place, Lights began the process of working on the album, opting to embrace co-writing, and push herself to work with new people. Channeling Enaia, Lights would arrive at writing sessions with a clear sense of what they needed to work on that day, an approach that she says enabled her to overcome the insecurities that sometimes come when working with strangers.
“I’d go in with the storyline and say, ‘This is what we’ll write about today.’ It became a conduit for immediate creativity, instead of starting the session by bantering about what we wanted to write about,” she says.
Both the writing process and darker subject matter also allowed her to experiment with her voice, discovering a new depth. “It was really awesome,” she exclaims. “It really let me open up a part of my voice, and let me sing with more soulfulness.”
While Lights and her co-writers generated 60 songs out of the year-long process, she chose 12 for the album, with each one describing a different part of Enaia’s story.
For the entirety of the songwriting process, Lights was also hard at work refining her skills as a comic artist. Turning to YouTube tutorials and drawing mentors when she needed them, she began the laborious process of sketching out her story, frame by frame, pushing herself to continue even when she felt completely daunted by her own ambition.
“I was chanting to myself through the hard work, ‘I’m actually doing this!’,” she says of the exhaustive process of creating her 160-page comic book. “That’s really the only way you can achieve your dreams.”
Lights acknowledges that even she is a little astonished by how much she’s been able to accomplish since turning her attention to creating Skin&Earth, especially given that she’s been doing it while parenting her three-year-old daughter, Rocket Wild (who herself boasts an impressive share of Instagram followers).
“I’ve surprised myself a lot,” says Lights. “Four records in, after 10 years in the industry, to be able to still surprise myself is awesome. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed I could do this comic. But what I’ve learned is that if you really want to do the work, you can accomplish anything.”
Lights, always cognizant of wanting to bring Enaia to life in some capacity, now sports the bright red hair of her comic character – just another manifestation of the fearless boundary-pushing she’s embraced in life and music.
“Now I have all these other things that I want to do,” she laughs. “Too often we shut ourselves down before we try new things because we doubt ourselves. I’ll never do that again.”