Bottom Lounge – Chicago, IL
October 31, 2008
- What makes your songs and album (Lights – EP) stand out from some of the rest? I’ll go back a little bit. I was raised a home-schooled kid, all right? Everything I did, artistically to educationally, was never based on what was around me. It was just based on my own ambitions and on my own perception of what success was. Even to this day, I make what I make and it happens to be in that genre and it happens to be whatever people want to put it in. I’m just doing my own thing. I’d probably be the last person who would know what makes it stand out. I suppose that’s up to the listeners.
Read the rest of my interview with Lights after the jump!
- What challenges, if any, did you face putting the Lights – EP together? It wasn’t a planned thing at all. It was more like: “let’s write a bunch of songs.” Whether it was me by myself or me working – there are two other guys I did the EP with. One guy named Dave [David] Thomson and one guy named Tawg [Thomas] Salter. If I was working with one of them, or the other, or by myself. Just writing and writing, getting some amazing songs together. In total over the past couple of years there are probably about 50 songs written, 30 recorded. At the end of that time, it was just like “these six are awesome – let’s release them.” Instead of putting out an album (this is me and my manager), we thought “there’s no point – what’s the point?” There’s no point, you know? Cuz generally on an album there’s four songs you don’t like anyway. So let’s just take these six ones that we love and put them out. That’s kinda the way it happened – just really organically. We went with the flow of it. For the longest time I had a bunch of the songs on the EP on my MySpace, but with nothing released. I just go with it and go with what feels right at that time. That just seemed the right thing to do, so I released that in Canada this spring . It’s been progressively coming out on iTunes in the States and then in stores in the States. It’s just been happening.
- What question about your music has become your pet peeve? A lot of people say: “where does the name Lights come from?” but it’s my first name. They’re just like: “where do you get the name Lights?” It’s always kind of phrased the same too. Please. It’s my name…
- How does your hometown of Toronto shape your music and the way you write your music? I think I’m more affected by the fact that I’m very unsettled as a person. I don’t so much get influenced by the area I’m in because more often than that all my inspiration happens in my bedroom, which is very unaffected by the world. My bedroom is like an entirely different world on its own. I think I’m more influenced by the fact that I’m very unsettled and that I don’t get attached to the cities I’m in. I’ve lived a lot of different places. I’ve moved more than 20 times. I think that in itself allows me to be a very untouched person, which is totally to my advantage for touring and for what I do. To be honest, with what I’m doing I don’t really have that many friends because you can’t; you’re always gone. I was kind of raised in the perfect environment where I don’t need to get attached too much. That being said, in the Philippines for example, I lived there for a couple of years. Seeing that there is so much poverty there, but that people who have nothing are so happy. They just sit around and sing songs and stuff. Happiness is such a state of mind. If you want to be happy, you just make yourself happy. Just do what you want that makes you feel happy. That, I apply a lot to music.
- Songwriters often say their compositions are like their babies. I know mothers aren’t supposed to profess to favorites, but is there a song that holds particular meaning to you? Like I said, the EP was kind of a collection of my favorite songs out of all of them. But if I had to pick a favorite on the EP (I love all of them), it would be the last one. That song’s [The Last Thing On Your Mind] very encouraging to me. I wrote that when I was really bummed and everything. It almost feels like I didn’t even write it; like it was someone else who sang that to me. It just flowed out. Even to this day when I hear it I get encouraged.
- What is the writing process like for you? Tough / easy? It’s a vent for everything. It gets easier with age. I wrote my first song ten years ago. Writing a song ten years ago was a little harder than it is for me now. It’s like a muscle that you exercise. For me, a really good song is a foundation of something that’s going to last. You cut out all the crap. You write the song from front to back first on a basic instrument whether it’s a guitar or piano. So when you strip it down at the bottom of it there’s still a really good song. I get that from front to back before I even begin to record with it. Then the fun part beings: you take it to the studio, or take it to your computer and start to layer on all the fun stuff. That’s where the sound comes in. But at the core of it there’s a song that can be any genre. A song is like an interchangeable [thing], which doesn’t apply to pop, or doesn’t apply to country. It’s just a song. The production is what makes it that genre. That’s why good songs can be covered by anyone. That’s what I strive to do when I write.
- When you do co-writes, do you have to work harder to get your point across? That’s how it originated. When I first started co-writing it was tough. It’s one of those things – you’re so used to being able to anything and then all of a sudden you’re with someone. Needless to say, I’ve written with a lot of people. Co-writing is one of those things: it’s either going to work or it’s not. I could be matched up with the most incredible songwriter in the world, and nothing would come of it. If you don’t have that connection with them, nothing’s going to come out of it. That’s why the EP was just me with these two guys because out of everyone that I’ve worked with, these two guys (Dave Thomson and Tawg Salter) – we just click so well. They understand what I want and they don’t shut ideas down. That’s one of the worst things in songwriting: “No, we shouldn’t do that.” I throw my ideas out there, and they’re like: “totally, let’s do it!” They let me flow. Two people out of a lot. It’s a very rare combination.
- Do you prefer writing songs alone, or with other writers? It comes and goes. If I’m with them [or not]… I can always write alone. It’s fun to go and write with other people. It’s also fun to bounce your ideas off people because sometimes you get lost in your own ideas and think that they’re good, but they’re not. They’ll give me their perception. They’re so talented that it even adds more to it. It’s just great to have someone else to work with.
- How does your original concept of a song evolve into the final product? It usually starts with a lyric concept. It’s not so much changing as it just builds. I don’t have how I want this song to be. With “Drive My Soul” for example. I had the line “drive my soul” in my head for the longest time. I don’t know where it came from. I sat down with Tawgs and he pulled up a pad on his keyboard, which is this washy, lush synth. He started to play a cool progression and I started singing over it. The lyric “drive my soul” came back to me and the lyrics started to form. Then the basis of the song came together and we got the main form of the song together. An entirely different set of lyrics, but I got the rhythm and the concept of the song down. We started to layer on some instruments. I went home that night and sat with the lyrics and re-wrote them all into lyrics that they are now. I came back with them and they were perfect and we just finished the song. It’s a process of evolving. That’s the best part about it: you don’t know what’s going to come out of it. Then you sit there two days later when the song’s done and you’re like: “this never existed two days ago.” It’s really cool and it’s really satisfying.
- Once you have a master recording of a song, does it continue to evolve with each performance? If so, how? It’s very much based on the recording. I’ll take actual tracks that we laid down during the recording process and use those live as well. So you still get the electronic element that you wouldn’t get from a live performance.
- How do you feel about the whole Guitar Hero and Rock Band game phenomenon? Oh my goodness, I was terrible at it! I actually have it; I have Rock Band. I am the worst, I actually gave it up. I gave it up two weeks after I got it. I was terrible. I was the worst one at it. I was like: “I can’t do this.” I even tried the singing one, but I didn’t know any of the songs. They’re like rock songs from the 70s and 80s; some of them from now. I’m not necessarily 100% influenced by all that stuff. I come from the new wave influence.
- What are your thoughts on shows like “American Idol” and “Nashville Star,” which give young artists record deals? And how do you think you would have done on a show like that? Like anything, what you put into it you’re going to get out of it. These people work hard in the competition for a few months. That’s about what they’ll get out of a career. In some cases they’ll go more. It’s great for instant success, but generally it doesn’t last that long. It’s great for the moment, great to watch, and really entertaining. It’s people trying to find ways to fix the industry. People trying to find new talent, which I think is great. I think there’s no problem with people exploring different ways to find new talent. But it’s exactly what you put in you’ll get out of it. If I were on “American Idol,” I’d have probably not done that great. Everything what I’m about and based on comes out of my bedroom. Me sitting there making music and being creative. None of that would apply to “American Idol” because my performance and my vocal weren’t amazing. That’s entirely what that [show] is based on. They don’t care if you’re a good songwriter, or if you’re creative. Maybe behind it all, sure. It took me a long time to get used to performing. To get vocals performance perfect live takes a lot of practice. I probably would’ve failed miserably on that show. It’s a lot of who can do the most vocal gymnastics and make the crowd happy? Everything that I started off of had nothing to do with that. I’m just coming up with ideas and being a mad scientist. They would’ve been like: “get off the stage.”
- Are you self-taught on the instruments you play? My dad. I mean, my dad’s no teacher, but I was home-schooled. One day out of every week he would take over and teach us music. He would literally be like: “go into the next lesson in piano and learn it” before teaching us. He led us and has great natural sensibilities for melodies. He’s a songwriter himself, so he inspired me a lot growing up and just encouraged me as I went along. He critiqued my songs as I went telling me: “that’s great, keep going” and made me feel like I could do anything.
- Some artists and bands believe that technology has taken some of the fun out of music. As an artist who makes music on synthesizers and computers, how do you feel about production-based music? That’s a good question, actually. I think we are at such an advantage in this day and age. I can understand when people say that for that kind of music, all the technical abilities that we have now are detrimental to that kind of music. All the quantizing, which is timing everything, can take away from doing music that they did in the 70s. The way I look at it is where we are now in music we can take everything that we’ve learned over the past 60 years of music and apply that to making music today. Everything from the organic elements that we had in the 60s and 70s – the amazing guitars, live drums, melodies, and beautiful song structure. Combine that with synths and quantizing. And Auto-Tune even, to give your voice an electronic feel. Electro-base and blending those two things. That’s the beauty of electronic music: it’s so melody based and you have all this soul that you can put into the music that you couldn’t 20 years ago. But you also can use everything now. Obviously in my genre, it’s a lot easier to use all of those things. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have everything that we’ve learned over the past years plus the technology now. Together those are a killer combination.
- How did you become familiar with the techniques and computers used for production-based electronic music? When I was 13 I got a little inheritance from my aunt; it was like $1,000. I immediately took it to the music store and bought this 8-track – a little analog 8-track recorder. It didn’t really have a whole lot, but it had some plug-ins. I could do more than just guitar and vocal; I had six extras. I thought: “what else could I put on here?” I started experimenting with production and quirky sounds on top of that. I had a little keyboard and started to toy with there’s a lot more to a song than just the vocals and the guitar. That’s when my love for production came in. At the time I got the publishing deal in 2005, I got a little bit of money – not very much. I was able to spend that on upgrading my recording system. I got Pro Tools, a keyboard, and a mic. That took me to the next level with production. About a year ago I upgraded again to Logic, which is what I’m using now. It’s fantastic. It’s a long process. I never when to school for it. I learned by experience and by the people I’m working with. If I have questions, I’ll call someone up and ask them. For me, that’s the easiest way to learn – just by teaching yourself. I may not know all the theory or the technology behind it, but I can still get my ideas across and do what I want. With music, I don’t know theory. I’ll do a chord that I have no idea what it is, but it sounds good. It’s totally by ear. People used to be like: “if you don’t know theory, you’re not going to be able to make it in music,” and I’m like: “i’ll prove you wrong.” And I did! Some people can’t read or write music. John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t know a thing about music. But they’re great songwriters. I think to capture the essence of what your mind and your heart want to express, you don’t need to know what you’re doing. You just need to do it.
- How has your life changed since your success? What do you consider success to be for you? All of the things I’ve gotten so far [Old Navy, The Hills, Doghouse] are just another step in the way. Success is so hard to determine. I feel successful because I feel like I’m doing what I love. Judging by some of the comments and messages on MySpace, and the response that I get from people who listen to my music, it’s affecting some people and influencing some people for the better. That is what I told myself why I’d get into it in the first place eight years ago. I want to reach as many people as I can. I formulated this focus plan that I want to reach as many people as I can and influence people for the better. As far as I see it’s working and that to me is any kind of success. Anything that happens beyond this point is just fun; it’s just crazy.
- Are there new unrecorded songs that you will be playing that you’ve already written and want to test out live at shows? Oh yeah! I’m playing two new ones tonight. The first and third songs are new ones tonight, and I’m really stoked about the new record. I’m finishing it in a couple months. It will probably be out mid-2009. It will be a full-length album. There are four songs from the EP that are going to cross over onto it, as well as the eight new ones. That’s about half done so far. I wrote on the road a little bit, but it’s more of a situation where I can sit down and I’m like: “I’m going to write a song” and I do it. I’m booking up two weeks to go work with those two guys again. Just going to be like: “let’s write some killer songs.” It’s going to happen in the Toronto area – right at home.
- What have you noticed about crowds at your recent shows? One big thing that I’ve noticed is that it changes every tour – it’s crazy. The first tour I was with a different genre of bands. It was a bit of a younger crowd. There’s a lot more response in variation to this crowd, which is a little bit older. It’s more just like people listening, watching, learning, and basically wanting to be impressed. It’s a little bit more intimidating this time around, but it’s really good for me. It’s really encouraging me to just go up and show them what you got. Every time I feel like I get a little bit better it. I obviously don’t think I’m as good as I want to be, but it comes.
- You were signed as a writer with Sony/ATV Tunes a few years ago. How did that publishing deal come about? I was signed originally to SonyBMG when I was 15. I almost released an acoustic record. Sorry, I was signed with Sony and then they merged with BMG. Things changed around there. That fell through, so I was with them for about a year. But in that timespan I met the people from Sony Publishing who really saw potential in my songwriting even at a really young age. I was writing a lot of songs back then as well. Same situation in my bedroom. In 2005, they signed me on as publishing. They provided me with the resources I needed to hone my songwriting abilities. They paired me with tons of different people. Whether or not I actually achieved any songs out of that is different, but I learned a lot. I learned how to collaborate, how to hone my songwriting skills, and how to write from the best of the best. It was just like bootcamp for songwriting. It’s not like: “we’re going to put you through training.” It’s just like: “let’s see what you can do.” Just letting me live to the maximum potential that I had. That was so necessary. They did a lot for me when I first got signed with them. It was giving me a place to go if I wanted to write, or hooking me up with different local writers.
- How much of the business side of the music industry did you understand before signing contracts with Sony/ATV and Doghouse Records? Definitely didn’t know anything. Everything that I knew about the industry, it was horror stories that I’d heard from people. My dad warning me to be careful and cautious in the industry because it’s going to eat you up and spit you out. I went in with my guards up and thinking it was going to be absolutely awful. I was just going to do my music and focus really hard and do what I love. It turns out I’ve been obviously very fortunate because I haven’t had any negative experiences in the industry yet. I’m learning as I go and the people I’m with are very knowledgeable and tell me everything that I need to know; no more, no less. I feel like I’m in the perfect position.
- How did the placements of your songs in the Old Navy ads and MTV’s The Hills come about and what went into the decision-making process of licensing your music for commercial use? The Old Navy thing happened so organically; they found me on MySpace. One of the artistic directors was listening to my page for awhile. I guess they had it bookmarked and it was kind of inspiring ideas. Then about a year later, they approached me and my manager for talks to use the music in the campaign. There was a little hesitation on my part at the beginning because I was very wary of what the world’s first perception of me would be. I wanted it to be just right. That’s a big decision to make – going from [nothing] to a big platform. We talked and talked and I made sure that it was something that I would be really proud of. The campaign idea was so cute – romance episodes. I thought it fit the sentiment of my music really well. In the end it was perfect. They gave me that platform to show the world what I had and then it just started to resonate from there. Everything has spawned from that, so I’m really happy that Old Navy gave me that opportunity. With The Hills, it was kind of the same situation. They were down with the song and were like: “we’d love to use it.” Different ways for people to hear the music, whether or not they really know at the beginning who it is. When it’s that spark of recognition that allows a person to hear different artists. People who’ve never heard of me and come to a show and they hear me play “The Last Thing On Your Mind,” say: “oh, I’ve heard that somewhere.” That’s the spark that you need that’s going to create that lifelong recognition.
- The Old Navy spots were more like music videos for your songs. That was something that we definitely fought for. We were like: “we would like this and this and this.” And they would come back with their negotiations, just so we were all happy with this. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I was doing this for six years before any of that happened. It gave me the option to make some demands – not demands, but have some say in how I want it to be. I think there’s a place to meet in the middle with everything. As an artist, it’s important to know what you want and to turn something down if you don’t think it’s going to be right. That was definitely something that I’m glad we got.
- I’m glad you were featured on The Hills. I only watch that show for the music! It’s so good! It’s true; little independent stuff. The O.C. was doing that too and Imogen Heap really got discovered through that – and The Fray. I heard about the Chyron that appeared on the bottom of the screen when my song [Drive My Soul] was playing on that episode of The Hills, but you know I never even saw it! I love hearing how people discovered it. I just write songs that I feel represent the way I feel. And everyone essentially feels the same, just at different times in their life. Everyone’s emotions at the core come from the same place. If you write something that is an honest representation of the way you feel at any type of extremity, then everyone’s going to be able to know what you feel and what you mean. Simply put, if you write a song that’s going to resonate with people, then people are going to listen to it and tell other people that it makes them feel good too.
- “Drive My Soul” was so different from what is on mainstream radio these days; it completely caught my attention and gave me something new to listen to. Songs on radio all sound the same! It’s so clichéd and has become really drag. The problem is the precedence of success. People say: “that song did really well, let’s write something like that.” That’s where the advantage comes in of my childhood where I never based anything on what was around me. I did exactly what I wanted to hear. I don’t base it on what I hear. It’s based on what makes me stoked, and then I’ll write it down. It takes time to figure out how to do that.
- How did your record deal with Doghouse (Warner Bros. Records) come about? There was a lot of interest being generated through the ad campaign obviously. Then a lot of MySpace recognition. I got featured on MySpace once. As more and more people began to know about [me], I was getting approached by a lot of labels. For me, I don’t think it’s worth working with anyone unless you feel like you’re best friends with them because there’s no point. This is all about having fun and doing what you love. The minute that anyone tries to make it not about that, then it’s not worth doing. It was basically a long process of me just meeting with all these people and seeing who I jelled with and who I loved; who really got what I wanted to do. And if they didn’t get what I wanted to do, and get my whole goal, and get my world, then I was like: “that’s ok, someone else will.” Me and my manager worked really hard for about the past year just figuring out who we think would be the best people that we’d want to basically get into a boat with for the rest of our lives. The Doghouse people were amazing and you just can’t deny a situation like that. The people at Warner were incredible. They’re the happiest people! I walked into their offices and it’s just everyone’s in it for the passion. They love it so much. I really felt like they would be the team that would, with whatever power they had, get behind me and just let me do what I wanted. And that’s what they’ve been doing. I got so lucky!