As fans of music, we might not always consider the amount of work artists put into their craft when it comes to writing, recording, and releasing a new album. With LIGHTS‘ fourth studio LP, Skin & Earth, the effort, passion, and pure determination is unmistakable.
By pushing herself to not only write the best pop album she can, but also writing, drawing, lettering, and coloring a corresponding comic book series, LIGHTS has succeeded in constructing one of the most ambitious music-related projects we’ve had the honor of experiencing in some time—one that lends itself to an immersive universe that her fans can be a part of, too.
We spoke with LIGHTS shortly after the release of Skin & Earth‘s lead single, “Giants,” about conquering her uncertainty and further proving that if you really give it your all, you can truly accomplish anything.
Apart from the intro and interlude, of course, every song on this album could be a huge radio hit. Was that your intention going into writing this album in terms of the sensation you wanted to create?
LIGHTS: My goal was to make something that was unapologetically pop, and that skews my passions into it from other angles. The vibe of every song was pretty much predetermined, going into the session, by that point in the story I was going to be writing about. That was one of my favorite parts about having a storyline at the beginning of the whole process: We didn’t fuck around for the first three hours of a session trying to figure out what to write about. It was like, ‘This is the part of the story I’m going to talk about today.’ And from that point you pull from personal experience and that will establish the mood you’re trying to create. That isn’t to say that there was a guaranteed good track that would come out of it. I probably wrote two or three tracks for every part of the story and then had to narrow it down to the best one. If you look at a track like “New Fears,” for example—that one I knew had to be this intimate, moody, dark track that had emotional intensity in that area of the story.
You had a lot of people you worked with on this who you hadn’t collaborated with on previous albums. What was the vibe like in the studio this time?
In the past it was challenging for me to go into the studio with a perfect stranger and pour it all out. You know, to dissect your emotions and create a piece of music with someone you don’t know anything about. That was part of the reason I wanted to create a story beforehand, so that I could almost shunt the things that I wanted to talk about onto a character as opposed to going in and being like, ‘I wanna talk about sex.’ [Laughs.] I could be like, ‘This character wants to talk about sex.’ So I didn’t feel like I had to own up to the things I wanted to say necessarily. It was like an immediate outlet of freedom for me getting to voice through this character in the story. Meanwhile I’m still writing about my experiences, but getting to channel [them] through her. That allowed me to go into these sessions with new people and connect on a crazy level and just have the best time because there’s no awkwardness or personal boundaries.
I knew I needed to bring in some new ears because I’ve been working with the same people for a long time, and at a certain point you just have to try something new. That was the goal with this: I wanted to go next level with this because I knew I’d be putting a lot of time in on the art—it took me a year to draw the comic so far—and goddamn I want as many people to hear this as possible so that this isn’t for nothing. [Laughs.] I got to work with some amazing people: Corin Roddick of Purity Ring, and I’m a huge Purity Ring fan; Alan Wilkis, Big Data—we did “Moonshine” together; my buddy Josh Dun from Twenty One Pilots played drums on a couple of tracks—“Savage” and “Almost Had Me.” It’s just been unreal.
It’s probably no surprise to fans that you’re into comics, but how did the idea originate to create this multimedia universe with a tied-in comic?
It’s something I’ve always wanted—not only for myself but to see it happen, the crossover with music and comics. I’m shocked that it hasn’t existed in this form yet. Coheed And Cambria have put out comics with their music and Gerard Way is involved in comics, but not to the degree of an artist creating a comic from scratch that’s perfectly tied to a record lyrically and track-wise with everything in order. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen it. I thought, ‘Well, if no one is going to do this for me, I have to do it.’ So I had to learn how to do it all. There’s no money or resources to hire someone to make a comic that’s in my brain.
I actually approached someone who I’m a huge fan of about maybe writing it and really shot for the stars: Brian K. Vaughan. He’s an amazing writer. He did Saga, Y: The Last Man, he worked on LOST. I already had this main story set up but he generally writes his own, so he said, ‘You know what? You’re a writer. You could do this yourself,’ and he made me really believe that I could write it myself. So I just said, ‘Fuck it, I’ve got to do this myself.’ So I just read books. I read books on comic writing. I read books on [how to] panel out art. I went to fucking “YouTube University” and spent hours watching tutorials online. I put the time in [and] I came out of this with a new sense of pride.
I can only imagine that feeling of accomplishment upon completing something this ambitious.
Yeah! I’d been dreaming about it for so long and working so hard on it, and to see it become a reality… Literally most of the time I’ve been working on this, none of it felt like it was going to actually happen. It was just too far ahead. I just thought that there was no way this was a reality. To actually see it in the flesh, it’s amazing. I’m living the dream.
To go back to your mention of Brian K. Vaughan, when I started reading the first issue of Skin & Earth I immediately started thinking of Saga and Paper Girls, so to find out he had sort of mentored you in a way made a lot of sense.
Oh, sick! It’s amazing that you noticed that because he not only gave me the encouragement to feel like I could do it but he gave me a sense of how he paces things out. I had never done anything like that before, so he said, ‘I only do like five or six panels a page and I only like to have this many speech bubbles with so much text in each bubble.’ So I took those sort of ground rules in his comics that you see in Paper Girls, that you see in Y: The Last Man. That’s why they’re so readable. I applied those rules to mine because that’s why I’m a fan of his comics.
It’s a little more adult-oriented than I expected going into it.
[Laughs.] They actually moved the rating from Teen to Mature. There will be some boobies at some point in the comic as well. I think there are two common misconceptions about comics: that they’re about superheroes and that they’re for kids. You’ve got Marvel and DC for your superhero franchises but now they’re about real people with flaws and real issues in the real world. That’s why we love them. They’re on the forefront of talking about social issues and things that are important without throwing it in someone’s face. I had dabbled with the idea of making the comic something that kids could read but then I thought, ‘Why? This is the way I talk. This is just the way that I’m gonna have to write my comic; just cussing like a sailor.’ [Laughs.]
Did you have any reservations about thrusting so much content onto your fans with this project and how it might be perceived?
I think it was more a question of how to roll out a project that’s never been done before—how to roll it out in a way to where people will understand it. There can be a bit of confusion, so it’s just been a careful planning process with how to roll it out with an understanding that both are connected but also stand alone as well. I think it will take time but it will come, and maybe it’ll set a standard for mixed-media projects in the future.
Now that you’ve conquered this thing, what are some of your takeaways?
If you had talked to me two years ago and showed me this comic, I’d have been like, ‘No, I didn’t do that. There’s no way I could do that.’ I’ve shocked myself every step along the way with what I’m capable of, and now I feel like I can do anything. My mind is constantly alive now. I have all these ideas in my head of where I want to go with it—whether it’s another arc, or an app, or a game, or a show, or even something totally unrelated that I never thought I’d be able to do because I hadn’t tried. Now I would try because I know I can surprise myself. I have so much faith in myself after this project and it’s set a standard for me. I don’t think I ever want to put out another album with just music; it just feels so bare-bones now. [Laughs.]
You’ve really set a bar for yourself. And more so than just the music, you’re such a part of this thing. You are the character. You dyed your hair, you’ve got the tattoo.
Yeah! It’s fun because this is my fourth record. I’ve been doing this a fair amount of time and it can get monotonous. So how do you challenge yourself and make yourself excited? How do you re-inject this passion for art in the grandest form? This has done that for me. I could talk about this all day long. I’m just so excited.
You’re heading out on tour with PVRIS soon, and the first date of the tour just so happens to be the release date for Skin & Earth. I was curious if there was any specific reason why you chose to go out as support rather than headlining your own run.
So in the past, every time I put out a record, I’d then go out on a tour for it right away and the record wouldn’t have enough time to settle, or sink in, or be learned. So you end up playing six or seven songs that people aren’t super familiar with, [songs] that you’re really excited about playing but that the crowd doesn’t necessarily know. I think I’m just kind of tired of that. Especially with the scope of the project—the last issue of the comic comes out in December, so I want to give the project time to sink in; the music, the story, the characters. Then next year we’re going to take it next level, and I wanna see people coming out cosplaying at our next headliner! [But] for now we get to tour easy with a great band, play a couple new songs, get people excited, and save the Skin & Earth vibe for when everything’s out.
It’s incredible that you’ve created this thing that gives fans so many more opportunities to engage, rather than just attending a show.
One hundred percent! Going to [conventions] is the most inclusive environment I’ve ever experienced. There are people from all walks of life—ages, ethnicity, shapes and sizes, abilities—who come and feel welcome in this place where people are united in their interests. Music is like that to a certain degree, but at a con it’s unparalleled, and if I can capture even the slightest essence of that at my shows, that’s next level for me. I think it’s the greatest environment you could ever cultivate and I want that for my shows as well. Come dressed up. Come with the tattoo. Come with the red hair. I’ve seen art—there are fans that are sending me art that’s unreal. It’s an opportunity to show off their abilities because there’s so much talent, and anything you can do to support that and your fans is just the best. S
See LIGHTS on tour this fall with PVRIS and Flint Eastwood:
09/22 – The Novo – Los Angeles, CA
09/25 – SOMA – San Diego, CA
09/26 – The Van Buren – Phoenix, AZ
09/29 – The Bomb Factory – Dallas, TX
09/30 – Emos – Austin, TX
10/01 – Warehouse Live – Houston, TX
10/03 – The Ritz Ybor – Tampa, FL
10/04 – Hard Rock Live – Orlando, FL
10/06 – Marathon Music Works – Nashville, TN
10/07 – FILLMORE – Charlotte, NC
10/08 – The Electric Factory – Philadelphia, PA
10/10 – Terminal 5 – New York, NY
10/12 – House Of Blues – Boston, MA
10/16 – 9:30 Club – Washington, DC
10/21 – Skyway Theater – Minneapolis, MN
10/22 – Riviera Theater – Chicago, IL
*A version of this interview first ran in the current print issue of Substream Magazine, on stands now and available through our online store!