Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Lighting up pop life

Singer-songwriter Lights accentuates the positive with a beat

Patrick Caldwell
Lights spent a lot of time moving around in her childhood, and she credits her father's use of music as an emotional salve for getting her interested in the business. Caitlin Cronenberg

The operative word to describe Valerie Poxleitner — known on stage and now legally under the far-easier-to-swallow name of Lights — is 'bubbly.' If she didn't exist, it would be necessary for pre-pubescent girls to invent her. She has an infectious giddiness and an easy laugh. She gesticulates excitedly with each point she makes. And she talks a mile a minute, like she's wired on 5-Hour-Energy, or perhaps an awful lot of Pixy Stix.

Which seems appropriate, because Lights, 22, crafts music roughly akin to the aural equivalent of downing a handful of gummy bears. The Canadian synthpop siren layers her FM-friendly vocals over walls of electronic keys and bouncing beats. Every song on her 2009 debut, 'The Listening' is within spitting distance of that three-minute-30-second pop music sweet spot, and she deals almost exclusively in peppy anthems. She's a far cry from that other female singer-songwriter named Lights, a pensive and occasionally funky Brooklyn-based indie rocker.

Lights' closest contemporary is basement-musician-turned-million-selling pop sensation Adam Young, better known as Owl City, whose single 'Fireflies' hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts last year. Appropriately, she opens for Young tonight for a sold-out show at Stubb's.

'Our music is very similar in a number of respects. It's homegrown electropop, really positive, easy to sing along to,' Lights said during an interview on the final day of her second visit to the South by Southwest Music Festival last month. 'I've toured with people very different from my music with very different audiences where it was a lot harder to win them over. By comparison it feels really effortless playing with Adam.'

And, like Owl City, Lights has a Christian background. Although her lyrics aren't explicitly religious, her tales of love and life skew wholesome. The only risqué things about her are moderately racy publicity photos, a time-honored tradition for pop starlets if ever there were one.

But Lights' bounciness and accessibility make for deceptive packaging. Chatting her up in the abandoned wine cellar of the Moonshine Café — seemingly the last quiet indoor place in all of downtown Austin on an unusually chilly final day of SXSW — it quickly became apparent that Lights had a worldliness under the surface. After all, she'd lived more places by the time she was 10 than most people will in a lifetime.

'I grew up as a missionary kid, so we were moving around all the time. I've moved something like 30 times in my life,' Lights says. 'I've really grown accustomed to living out of a suitcase and letting go of things you don't need, or maintaining relationships long distance, which comes in handy when I tour.'

Her father, a rock aficionado who played in a Beatles cover band as a teenager, kick-started her love of music. He took to using his voice and guitar to assuage the nerves of the young Lights as the Poxleitner family made extensive sojourns to global hot spots and developing countries. Some of her earliest memories include being serenaded in the Philippines.

'It was kind of a scary place for a kid to live in. So my dad would sit downstairs and sing and play his acoustic guitar until I fell asleep,' Lights says. 'He was able to take away my fear, and that really made me realize that I wanted to do music. I don't know of anything else that has that kind of influence on people.'

She voraciously consumed his record collection, schooling herself in the Beatles, the Electric Light Orchestra and ABBA — a noticeable influence on her own dance-ready style — and taught herself the guitar. She was penning songs by 11 and broke into the music business as a writer for Sony/ATV Music Publishing — composing music for the Canadian TV series 'Instant Star' — before moving onto a solo career with a self-titled EP and a series of tours. She won best new artist in the 2009 Juno Awards. In summer 2010 she'll play a handful of dates with the newly reformed Lilith Fair, and in America she's recently been signed to Warner.

It's an impressive career so far, but also commercial and conventional. It's tempting to put her in a 'bland prepackaged pop star' box — something already done for Owl City, who's sold millions of singles and albums but been soundly trounced by critics.

But that's before you see live concert footage of her wailing on a keytar — the nerdiest instrument this side of the theremin. Or hear her randomly drop Vanilla Ice's famous 'Ice Ice Baby' into the middle of lead single 'Ice' ('My song is meant to be quirky and high-energy and a little '90s, and it just came out when I was singing the bridge. I was doing this fast-talking part and it reminded me of a white person that can't rap very well. It's such a stupid line but so memorable.') Or discover her deep and profound love for comic books — she based the cover of her album on 'Watchmen,' wrote and drew her own comic to serve as her first press bio, and is collaborating on a webcomic with artist Tomm Coker.

Lights does come off as a giggly, effervescent pop star — probably because she is. But she also marches to the beat of her own drummer — and isn't afraid to let her geek flag fly.

'I'm a sucker for comics. I collect comics and comic paraphernalia and watch sci-fi and collect posters,' she says. 'I'm such a fan of all that. Really, my whole career is just me being indulgent with my music and artwork. It's me saying "This is what I like to see. This is what to me is attractive. This is what I'm going to inflict upon this world.'' '

___

Owl City with Lights

When: Doors at 6 tonight

Where: Stubb's, 801 Red River St.

Cost: $18-$22 (technically sold out)

Information:stubbsaustin.com