LIGHTS embraced confidence and self-love for fifth album ‘PEP’—interview
When Canadian polymath LIGHTS found herself in a spiral of negative mental health, she didn’t want to dwell on her misery. Instead, she found the antidote in the form of a good old-fashioned pep talk with herself, using positivity as her motivation to get out of bed and try to feel OK again. She gave herself that pep talk through music, and the result arrived in the form of her playful, witty fifth album, PEP, arguably her most guitar-driven effort to date that boasts collaborations with Elohim, Kiesza and twenty one pilots’ Josh Dun.
The last time we heard from LIGHTS, on 2017’s Skin & Earth, her art had become more transmedial than ever, with the album release accompanied by a comic book. Though the Skin & Earth narrative is still continuing, she has repeated that feat for PEP, with the accompanying comic loosely tying into the world she first introduced fans to on her previous album cycle. This time around, however, it’s even more colorful.
Read more: LIGHTS on the meaning behind ‘PEP’ single “Prodigal Daughter”
How and when did you start laying the groundwork for PEP?
I started writing a lot of the songs three years ago, and half the album was actually written when the pandemic hit. But even before the pandemic, I was going through mental health stuff, and of course, it got a lot worse during [quarantine]. But during that, I was like, “You know what? I’m gonna write these songs that make me feel like a boss. Because if I can’t tell myself I’m a boss and I can’t feel like I can pep-talk myself, then no one will. I don’t care if I’m not fucking feeling good, and I don’t care if I hate myself right now. I’m going to write a song that makes me love myself.”
PEP is this belligerent, overconfident pep talk on the back of this chaotic wreck of a time. It’s about feeling that we can fake our way to this happiness. I think if you present confidence at every corner, then you’ll eventually start to believe it, just like you start to believe it when you say negative things about yourself. It’s a bit obnoxious and overly self-aware in the way that it’s presented, and I love that.
You seem to embrace the idea of us all being products that we market to the world. Where does that come from?
It’s just facts, right? We’re all branding ourselves on social media. Every day, we’re branding ourselves every time we go to a new school, whether we start a new job or when we ask ourselves, “How do I want the world to see me?” That’s called marketing. So I think if we can be self-aware enough to know that we are branding ourselves every day with the clothes we wear, with the music we listen to, with our interests, the way we present ourselves to people, we can spin that in a way that helps us identify ourselves. It’s not necessarily a negative thing.
When I first started making music, I started a few different Myspace pages, different projects, all different kinds of music, and you slowly start to figure out the ones that you feel represent you the best. I think when we look at branding and marketing, we see it as this corporate, capitalist thing. But I think there’s an element of it that is actually self-identification. It helps us put in front of the world the parts of us we want people to see because that’s who we feel we are.
If it’s inevitable, you might as well embrace it. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I mean, if you’ve seen any of the videos, or the branding for this whole album, it’s all over-branded bright colors, almost like you’re buying a product at a home improvement store. It looks like a product. I think I’ve had a lot of fun [with it]. Because as artists, I feel there’s this expectation to be really grassroots, but everything’s organic to a point where that’s fake. For a lot of people, a lot of careers over time have been faked as authentic, but that’s just marketing as well. So I’ve had fun flipping the narrative.
You’ve got another comic book coming out in support of PEP, too. Why did you want to do another accompanying comic book after Skin & Earth?
With Skin & Earth, the story never ended. There’re two more arcs that I’ve written. It’s just taking a long time to draw them because I do all of it. The story continues without music necessarily having to be involved. But with this album, I connected it based on just one small stream that connects it to the Skin & Earth world, and it’s through the clinic. The clinic is a metaphor for music as an escape; we plug in to escape. For me, when I put music on, it’s like being elevated out of reality, and so the clinic is a metaphor for that.
It’s existed in the comic world since the first series, so I just decided to really bring it to life on this one. So there’s a whole side comic that I did that came out that has Easter eggs for all the songs that really came out and stuff and hinted at all the song titles before anyone knew them. Each of these songs are there. You get to go and plug in and experience these different scenarios, and each song is a scenario. The most recent video in my head is the combination of all those, me going to the clinic, plugging in, trying out some different scenarios, getting to be somebody else. I wrote this script for it and directed all the talent, and it was really fun.
How did you try to evolve your sound on this record?
It’s a little bit more rock in some ways. This is my first full album release on Fueled By Ramen, and they’re so cool. They just get it. They aren’t here to try to make you go to No. 1 on pop radio. It’s just not their MO. They will make good records that represent who their artists are and build a culture around the artist. So, Mike Easterlin [Fueled By Ramen president] sits me down and says, “Hey, you like rock music, right? Just make a rock record, if you want.” The pop world is one of the hardest worlds to break out in. There’re just millions of dollars flowing through each of these artists to make them have the power that they do, whether that’s in the songwriting, the producers, in the placement to get on radio. It takes a lot of money and a lot of power.
All I wanted my label to say is, “We don’t really give a fuck about pop radio right now. Make a rock record. Make an alt record. Make the record you want to make.” So I was like, “You said it, not me.” My goal on the record was to have 50% of it worked on by women. So while I produce a lot of the record, I’m bringing a lot of female collaborators. “Beside Myself,” the first song on the record, is all made by women. I had a female engineer, female master, Jess Bowen played drums, who’s coming out on tour with me. I produced and wrote the thing. It’s nice to be able to see things through to the end. It’s very fulfilling.
LIGHTS appeared in issue 405, available here.