Pop singer LIGHTS doesn't talk like the average person; she speaks at light speed.
"I've been fast my whole life. My dad says that when I came out of my mom, he had to catch me with a baseball glove," she says, pausing just long enough to inhale. "I don't think that's true."
True or not, speed certainly seems to define the singer's current trajectory.
Twenty-one-year-old Valerie Poxleitner, who legally changed her name to LIGHTS (all caps for "style and flair"), is up for New Artist of the Year at the Junos on Sunday.
She just wrapped her first North American tour, including a stop in Austin, Tex., for the SXSW festival last week. Four of her songs, including her first major single, February Air , were picked up for Old Navy commercials last year. Next month, she will be making an appearance on Rockville, CA , a web drama created by Josh Schwartz ( The O.C. , Gossip Girl ).
So it may come as a surprise that LIGHTS won't release her first full-length album until the fall. For now, her six-song EP is available in stores and online, but the real swelling of her fan base is largely thanks to MySpace, where she has generated more than six million unique views and counting.
"I'm just making my music the way I want it and putting it out there and letting the audience discover it," she said from a Toronto café last month. "I think people feel that if they've invested a certain amount of time in trying to find you or watching you grow, then they feel that much more invested in your career instead of just, like, hearing you on the radio."
The daughter of former missionaries, LIGHTS was born in Timmins, Ont., but has lived in Jamaica and the Philippines and was home-schooled with her older sister - which included music lessons from her guitar-playing dad.
"We would sing and recite poems," she recalls. "There was always music in my world."
The family moved back to Canada when LIGHTS was 11, and that same year she got a guitar. She used the fifth psalm in the Bible as lyrics for her first composed piece of music. "It's prewritten and no one can claim copyrights on you," she quips.
When she received a $1,000 inheritance from her grandmother in 2001, LIGHTS purchased an eight-track recorder and produced her first song, Saturn's Rings . "It was all these keyboard sounds and glockenspiel-y things and I figured out how to use the reverb on my voice," she says.
As for February Air , written in a Toronto hotel room on Valentine's Day, 2006, it's a feel-good crowd pleaser that represents the moment LIGHTS knew she had what it took to break through. "I gauged finding my sound on the question: Was I proud to show my friends my music? And I wasn't until that point."
Although her music calls to mind Cyndi Lauper and early Madonna, she has the potential to be much more than a retro pop princess. On her MySpace page, she writes: "If my music could be drawn, I would picture it like a comic, with simple border lines and bright colours. On first glance there is a nice composition, but upon closer inspection there is a deeper story."
LIGHTS currently has two band mates, Adam Weaver (keyboards) and Maurie Kaufmann (drums). Her manager is none other than CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi, who was introduced to her through makeup artist Paul Venoit (he was working on a photo shoot for a Wal-Mart catalogue; LIGHTS, whose mother worked for the chain, had been asked to model).
"The trick with LIGHTS has always been to not fall into the trap of underestimating her because she's cute, young and makes accessible electronic pop. When I found her at 15, I thought she was one of the most talented people I had ever met," Ghomeshi says.
Still, her look is part of the package. Covering her right torso is a massive tattoo of Wonder Woman fighting Giganta. Her signature headbands - first worn to keep her thick mane of hair away from her face - have now been co-opted by fans who appeared similarly Jazzercise-ready at a recent Toronto concert.
LIGHTS's two music videos, meanwhile, for Drive My Soul and February Air , look like lunar worlds created from cardboard and play dough. Her costume: silver moon boots, a thick layer of blue eye shadow, and skintight mini-dresses that accentuate her pint-sized yet sculpted physique.
A love of schlock sci-fi and all things interplanetary is at the heart of LIGHTS's sweet synthesized melodies. Her immediate plan following this interview is to get a tattoo of a laser gun, positioned as if it's tucked into her waistband. "It will be life-sized," she explained, then added: "If laser guns existed in real life."
However fantastical her sensibility can be, LIGHTS's lyrics are grounded firmly in reality, touching on everything from heartbreak to moments from everyday life. "I usually make a point of singing almost exactly the way I talk. … I don't like romanticizing any ideas or using crazy metaphors."
LIGHTS, who now lives in north Toronto, also says she composes and plays everything by ear. "Even to this day, I don't know any theory. I used to work at a music store and people would always be, like, 'You're not going to make it in music if you don't know theory,'" she says. "And I was, like, 'I'll prove you wrong.' "
So far, so good. And in record time.