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You Should Know: Valerie Lighthart

Nothing is simple in Valerie Lighthart’s world. The Milwaukee electro-pop singer’s florid songs revel in femininity and glamour, but are haunted by gender expectations and reminders of the male gaze. For her upcoming EP “PT. I: THE GODDESS,” due June 18, Lighthart produced much of the music herself, while unpacking the “scary and intimidating thoughts that a lot of young women feel about their femininity and their sexuality.” She’s excited about the work, but she’s anxious, too -- these are the most vulnerable songs she’s ever written.

Ahead of the EP, Lighthart sat down with Radio Milwaukee to discuss her approach to pop music, how the pandemic shaped her songwriting, and how music can create a safe space to dissect sensitive issues. You can read our conversation below.

Valerie Lighthart | Photo credit: Emry Briskey

When did you first seriously start pursuing music?

I think that I first had the feeling of, “Oh my God, maybe I can do this” after I got my first guitar and I started writing songs. And I just kind of focused on networking and collaboration and finding people who were trying to make similar things. It was when I acted in Immortal Girlfriend's music video for “ Daybreak,” our musical visions kind of just coalesced and we hit the ground running with that first track, “ I’ll Be Damned,” and that was that huge moment of, “Oh my God, not only can I do this, but I'm actually doing this. There's people who are actually interested in this who are like investing in this and making it happen.” And it was kind of like this really transformative moment for me.

A lot of musicians who are first starting record everything alone in their bedroom or on their guitar. But it sounds like from the beginning you were seeking out collaborators. What drew you to that path?

I feel like I had a reverence for the knowledge and the skill set that other people had. I had that appreciation and the understanding that they have the ability to do things that I can't, or that I couldn't at the time. I have been recording a decent amount of music on my own now, but that's a very new thing, because production and mixing is still something that I'm in the very early stages of learning. 

I feel like pop can be a very difficult style of music for an artist to make on their own. We're so used to hearing everything on the radio, where it's produced perfectly and mastered perfectly and it sounds expensive. And then sometimes you hear people try to do that on like a smaller level and it doesn’t live up to those expectations. Did you ever have apprehensions about trying this style of music?

I think I had a lot of trust in my collaborators. My personal background is in folk, which is so much easier to do by yourself because it's just focused on the organic instruments, on these acoustic elements, and more on the ambiance and the emotion, not necessarily trying to make it perfect. But I was really blessed to be able to work with phenomenal pop writers and just absolutely amazing electronic producers who showed me what my songs could look like and what form they could take on. They expanded upon my message even. And I was just so excited by that process. So I think I always just had a lot of trust in my collaborators.

It must be so satisfying to like work on a song and then have it amplified so much, to have it become such a big production, such a big final product.

Yeah, absolutely. It's definitely an exciting and intimidating process, especially doing co-writing sessions. A lot of those more pop and electronic songs are from co-writing sessions. And I think that when I try to go into the room with another producer or another writer I try to make sure that my presence is felt in the song, but at the same time, I'm not getting in front of it or I'm not getting in his way, you know?

What do you have planned for this EP?

This EP is very intimidating to me, because I've done so many collaborations and this one has quite a few tracks that are not collaborations but that are more intimate, that are just more personal. They’re not about a character or about a place or about an experience, but about my relationship with myself, which is a little bit harder to unpack. So they're very vulnerable, but I think that it's going to show people a new side of what I'm doing, and I think it's going to contextualize a lot of my other work, which I'm very excited about.

When you write songs, are you usually writing them from the perspective of a character or yourself?

So I'd say it's a blend of both. I think that for a long time, I had a hard time writing about myself. Because I feel like it's such an immense undertaking. I feel like the self is so varied and it's so easy to get lost in your own thoughts and ideas about yourself and then create songs that are almost in a way like diary entries, and that was always really intimidating to me. It was much, much easier to conceptualize something that was grander or more interesting or more exciting than I felt like my feelings were. I think that's where a lot of my songs stemmed from. It was more of a literary idea and more of like a book writer’s perspective. That's actually my background, it’s in longform fiction and film. So, I kind of approach music with that same lens for a really long time where I was like, “these are the characters, this is the setting. This is the emotional landscape.” You know, 2020 has been a year. It's been a year for everybody. And I think that the biggest blessing to come out of it is the bravery and the vulnerability and the openness to actually write about myself for once.

It took a pandemic to get you to do that?

It did, honestly. I’m not sure if I would have if not for the pandemic.

What do you think was stopping you before? Was it just the vulnerability of putting yourself out there?

I think it was the vulnerability. I think that's the part that was the most difficult to grapple with, because I think that when we're having difficult experiences, it's easier to process them as experiences and it's harder to understand them as manifestations of ourselves. But I think that when you turn that lense inward, you have to think of it as something you are doing, something you are creating, something that you are doing to yourself, even if that's a negative thing. And I think being forced to grapple with those really difficult truths in quarantine, it definitely brought me low, but it brought me to a position where I felt humbled and where I felt, like just very cracked open and like I needed to kind of express what was there, not in my mind, but in my heart.

There's this idea in existentialism of the Sunday morning vacuum, where we spend six days a week running around, busy surrounding ourselves with people and work, and then Sunday comes around and you've got nothing planned. And you feel sort of this emptiness when you're alone with yourself. The pandemic has been almost like a year of Sundays. For people who are more wired to be social or to stay busy, including a lot of musicians, that’s a hard adjustment.

Absolutely. It's been immensely difficult, but I feel like it's also been very enlightening. I think that, as cheesy and corny as it sounds, life is what we make of it. And I think that grappling with that darkness and grappling with that emptiness can create a more intimate relationship with yourself and can expose to you fundamental truths about your character and about the core of your being that you may have been overlooked.

Do you enjoy the entrepreneurial side of being a musician? Sometimes I talk to an artist and you can tell some of their favorite part of it is branding themselves, presenting themselves, marketing themselves, filming the videos. And then of course there are artists who hate that part.

I think that there is a joy and an excitement to the entrepreneurial side of it. I think that the artistry is definitely where my heart is and probably where my heart will always be. But I think that, if you have an encompassing and expansive idea of how to approach your artistry, that can actually lend itself into the entrepreneurship so that it's kind of feeding itself in this circle. Like, I think that one of my biggest interests is not just music, but also being a visual storyteller and tying in like the visual medium with the auditory medium so that it tells a cohesive story that's accessible to people.

So then that introduces questions into the entrepreneurial side of like, how am I going to make this resonate? How am I going to make this accessible to somebody who might want to dig deeper into the meat of the idea? And then it creates kind of like a loop where you can kind of create an interweaving spider web between the two ideas so they're constantly feeding each other.

I feel like there are artists who love approach, and who love providing lots of that context for their music. And then there are artists who are like, “No way; my music's got to like speak for itself.”

Yeah, I'm definitely a member of the former group. I love providing context. I feel like a lot of my art, I want to have different layers and I want to have different meanings and I want it to be on the surface this fun glossy thing you can consume. But then I want it to be almost like an onion, where there's so much that you can peel back and then unpack. This trilogy of EPs that I'm putting out, the “By The Moonlight” series, is three EPs, the goddess, the witch, and the banshee, that are all caricatures of femininity and unpacking what that means. So the first one, the goddess, which is like glitzy and over the top, is unpacking performative femininity and ornamentation in like a sex-based culture. And then the further evolutions of the witch and the banshee just continue to expand upon the context of how that fits into my own ideas on third-wave feminism.

You mentioned performative femininity. What are your thoughts on that?

I would say it's a pretty complicated relationship. I think that performative femininity can be incredibly enjoyable and it can be incredibly empowering, but I think that there is kind of an undercurrent to it that is a little bit more difficult to unpack and that one's a little bit deeper. And that's that kind of unique feeling that I'm trying to elicit in my content so that everybody can kind of feel the way that I feel. For instance, the “Savior” video, it's very feminine. It's very over the top. It's very flirtatious and it's really fun. But at the same time, it's balanced with images of the character of the goddess playing to the mirror, looking at the mirror alone in this very dark room with a single strobe light and like a handheld camera. I wanted those images to kind of create that larger context of us understanding that this is a character, this is a performance. This is kind of like a tongue in cheek self-awareness of someone performing what they think a starlet should look like.

Photo credit: Alisha Hall

Is femininity something you enjoy wrestling with, or as a female artist is it a bummer even having to think about it?

It's hard to put it into one camp. It really is, because it's such a multifaceted issue. I think that, depending on the day, I either love it and I'm like, this is amazing, or I'm like, “Oh, I feel so uncomfortable and I hate this,” you know? So I feel like it's very contextual, which is one of the reasons I think so many people fixate on how to unpack it. It’s like when you get dressed up somewhere and you feel really good about yourself and you look really good and that's so much fun, you're like, this is great. And then like you go out and somebody makes some kind of comment that makes you feel unsafe and then suddenly you want to disappear. You know, it's a difficult thing because it's all the same. It's that same performance of femininity. It's that same performance of sexuality, whether that's for you or for the audience, whoever that audience might be. So I think like the goal of the “Savior” video is to make us aware of ourselves as audience members.

Is part of the draw of music for you, that it gives you a way to unpack these ideas on your own terms, where you have total control of everything?

Yes, absolutely! Absolutely. I think that creating a realm wherein I can experience these complicated feelings that I have and unpack them and kind of like probe for the root of them and explore their manifestations in a way that is like totally safe, and with trusted collaborators is immensely transformative.

I always think about Instagram culture. Scrolling through your feed can be so dispiriting, because everybody's presenting this best version of themselves. And you think about kids seeing that and you wonder what toll it might have on their psyches. Do you think music can remedy that a little bit? When you see a video like “Savior,” where somebody is playing on the idea of dressing up and presenting themselves in a glamorous way, but also sort of winking and unpacking it a little more, it seems like that could be a corrective.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate that perspective. That means quite a lot to me. I genuinely hope that that is the effect that it has on the world. That was a big part of my intention moving into it, was to have this resource that kind can unpack or conceptualize part of that very scary and intimidating place that a lot of young people, especially young women, feel about their femininity and feel about their sexuality. So the idea that it might go forth on that mission and actually create change for some people is like deeply gratifying -- and also very humbling.