Channelling Diana Ross in a Spaceship
Grace Lightman is becoming the auteur in the next phase of her musical expedition.
On the day that we meet, Grace Lightman arrives with outfit options in hand, prepared for the photoshoot that follows. No more than a few steps in and she asserts herself as an artist that’s got a firm hold on the finer details: dressed casually but with a look underlined by striking eyes and Debbie Harry-esque hair, the singer-songwriter projects confidsence and self-assuredness.
“When I was in a band, I didn’t do a lot other than just singing. It was my first step into being on stage and that kind of thing,” she recalls of her time as fronting psychedelic four-piece The Hypnotic Eye.. When she and the band eventually went their separate ways, Lightman then 22, had developed a warm feeling for that kind of thing: “When the band ended - you know when you’re young and don’t really know what you’re doing - I was kind of like, ‘oh this is what I want to do now’," Lghtman tells me, so I had to work out how I was going to do this. I basically wanted to learn how to write music, because I hadn’t written any for the band before.”
It was a chance meeting with writer-producer, Patrick James Pearson that marked the beginning of a beautiful collaboration. Putting Lightman in touch with various contacts across the music industry, she wrote until she worked out what her sound would eventually be.
A laborious process it may have been, but Lightman wanted to take the time to get it right. “It was all over the place really. I was either writing pop tunes that had a really obvious song structure or I was writing weirder stuff,” she explains. "I think I was faced with a decision at one point of whether I wanted to be that kind of pop artist or whether I wanted to take a bit longer with it and do the more esoterric thing – and I chose that one.”
From being part of a band to becoming a solo artist, suddenly sitting in the driving seat shifted Lightman into high gear. “It’s literally the thing that’s made me grow up,” she confesses. “I felt like a kid when I was being just a singer. And now I’m kind of close to being an adult.” She scrunches up her face at her own remark, as if to say she hasn’t quite made up her mind.
And now going it alone, Silver Eater: the eleven-track debut from Lightman, is set for release this summer. Taking shape as a concept album, the songs are based on the narrative of an alien called The Silver Eater, who’s on the run from NASA for reasons unknown. Whilst running away, she comes to Earth and disguises herself as a human, figuring out life’s little nuances with the human being along the way. “She’s not supposed to be on Earth and falls in love with humanity as a result," Lightman tells me, "...but she’ll never quite be human.
“It was important to make sure that I enjoyed this process as well, otherwise what’s the point in doing it?”
She pauses to think before continuing: "Maybe I did exercise some demons at the same time without realising.”
Taking on the creation of a concept album, Lightman looked from the outside in with her songs. “Because I’ve done it in a playful way, I wouldn’t say it was cathartic as such, but I would say it was explorative,” she explains. “And it was just natural really. Coming from the view of the alien, it was my take on being an outsider and not really knowing how to fit into society; trying to be an artist.”
The genesis of Silver Eater derived from a one-in-a-million kind of story that Lightman came across whilst writing the album. Back in 2008, American man Paul Karason decided to self-medicate a skin condition with the risky-sounding Colloidal Silver. As a result, his skin turned blue and following a primetime TV appearance, the Oregon native was branded "Papa Smurf." Enduring a spike of international intrigue for a short, sharp burst, Karason died in 2013 of an unrelated heart attack.
“I was so confused and amazed by this guy,” explains Lightman. “You know those things that kind of stick with you and you can’t get out of your head and you just lie in bed awake all night thinking about it, like how did that even happen?”
Her eyes light up and look around as if she’s questioning the story all over again. “I don’t think of him as a human at all. I just think of him as a strange being.” It’s this sleep-depriving train of thought that guided Lightman throughout Silver Eater - a visual so strong it became the basis for her character. From then on, all the parts started to fall into place.
"I find it difficult to articulate how I feel about humans myself, so doing it through my character makes way more sense to me"
“When we were writing lots of songs, we hit on this particular sound that we were working on. I told Pat [Pearson] about this guy and we kind of ended up putting him in that world,” says Lightman. “It was then when we realised what about this world we were writing and why humans are the way they are; what they do and what it means.” In total, there were around 20 - 30 tracks whittled down to the final 11 that built the narrative and sound perfectly.
That particular sound is all-encompassing – it pulls you in, sits you back and takes you for a spin and Lightman’s dulcet tones are the driving force. “I’m really inspired by The Twilight Zone and all that dystopian stuff,” she says. “I wanted to create something that sounded like how those things make you feel, because they’re really unsettling.”
The love for the classic TV series is clear. “It’s the representation of all those different stories [in The Twilight Zone] that are kind of human, but there’s something uncanny about them. I just love it,” gushes Lightman. “I’m obsessed with it so when I worked out the sound world, I thought it was a really good representation of the ideas.”
Adding a lens, she unpacks the simple things within ourselves and other people. “I find it difficult to articulate how I feel about humans myself, so doing it through my character makes way more sense to me,” muses Lightman. “And I think it makes more sense to others because I’m literally portraying what being an outsider feels like via a character.”
Lightman has a natural ability for observing the world and the characteristics people have - hough even if working under a character, the feelings are still very real. “I feel like people listen to music and they view art and they watch films to feel connected to something,” she explains. “I think everyone can hopefully relate to that feeling to a certain extent.”
It’s easy to forget that we’re fully relating to an alien when listening along. “It’s definitely a natural thing. If I can help anyone that feels like an outsider then I take that as a massive bonus,” she says. I don’t like to be too extreme about these things because I’m not trying to push a really strong message in some way and any interpretation of what I’m doing from a listener is totally valid if they can use it in a positive way.”
And even when the songs are out, Lightman is still examining: “I really like it when people mishear my lyrics. I think there’s something special in that because it shows someone’s putting their own spin on it and even if it’s wrong, their take is valid. It’s the Freudian slip of it which I really like. I like to hear what people’s interpretations of my songs are and how different they are.”
Her knack for hitting the emotional nail on the head runs throughout the record. “Ordinary Life” details the alien’s inability to experience a normal relationship – being literally alien to the notion. She descibes it as “a weird love song,” and manages to capture a perspective most of us have felt: the lost or found. The unrequited or longing for something runs across the songs and life itself. Seeming like the alien is always missing something or there’s something out there that they want to find.
The line, “Everybody’s chasing everybody else’s dreams / They say it’s just a culture thing,” was something that came later in the song writing process and encapsulates the feeling of wanting something that you possibly may never have. “I think it’s that want and need to feel like you fit in,” she ponders.
“I’d love to be able to say something along the lines of, ‘oh I lost my love when I was 16’ but I guess it’s just the feelings I’ve always had about life. Maybe because I’ve got dual nationality.”
Lightman’s mum is English and her dad is from Canada, but his whole family are American. Or in other words, she’s “got a bit of a transatlantic thing going on.”
Title track “Silver Eater” incorporates that self-awareness when she sings, “NASA’s gonna find me / Then they’re gonna take me / And they’re probably gonna leave me.” Looking at the world that’s looking back, Lightman delves below the surface a little more. “I’ve not been brought up that conventionally,” she says. “There’s not been anything crazy, but with [both] my parents not working traditional roles and me not going to a normal school, I think I see the world in an ever so slightly different perspective.”
And that perspective is unwavering; she knows what she wants to stage with her sound abd if both parts aren’t there, then it’s not good enough: “Once an idea pans out and becomes more of a song, I always have to be able to visualise a music video, for example, or else it’s not a good enough song. It’s definitely a visual process for me.”
Working with her co-writer Pearson means the cold or the warmness of her songs are ever-present for a reason. “He’s got synaesthesia, so he hears in colour. He’s got this colourful experience going on,” she says. “I think we’re different but we understand what the other’s thinking, from that point of view.”
It’s proving to be a dream combination of senses; Silver Eater is otherworldly. Its opening track, “Repair Repair” is cynical, but you’re too busy swaying your body from side to side to the beat to even notice. It’s an electronic pop banger that sets you up for the story that lies ahead.
With producer Ben Baptie (who’s previously mixed and engineered for the likes of Young Fathers, Puma Blue and Lady Gaga to name a few) and friends on board, Lightman’s found herseld with a new band of brothers. A fond memory that she recalls consists of four days, making four songs in Devon. Being the first session of the project, the group recorded “Exoskeleton” with Lightman singing directly to Pearson and drummer Tim as they played live. “It was just so insanely fun, not only because it was a really challenging process but I was freaking out on how good they are on playing their instruments,” she remembers. “I was just like ‘what the hell, this is amazing.’”
"I don’t really like being throwback - I want to create a sound that isn’t contemporary nor old school... something that is its own dystopian sound, from a time that doesn’t really exist because it’s science fiction”
The record as a whole touches on those '80s vibes, but interlaced with soulful elements of the '60s. “It definitely has that sci-fi thing from the '60s, '70s and '80s. I think I go through phases of loving one decade more than the other,” says Lightman. “When we wrote a lot of the songs, we used a Wurlitzer [keyboard], which has a very warm 70s sound and I love that kind of music, I was brought up on that kind of music.
'The thing is, I don’t really like being throwback - I want to create a sound that isn’t contemporary nor old school...something that is its own dystopian sound, from a time that doesn’t really exist because it’s science fiction.”
But of course, it’s hard not to be influenced by people, with Lightman citing everything that she’s “ever listened to as a kid” as things she’s probably absorbed sonically. Growing up, she would go to sleep listening to Abba and The Carpenters. “I never tried to reference [The Carpenters] but there are certain things that I pick up on now in reflection that I think is very much influenced by them or other things,” she says.
It’s understandable to wonder what’s catching her eyes and ears nowadays: “I’m obsessed with Perfume Genius. His artistry, songs and the way he performs live is for me, the whole package. It’s the full idea that I find has to extend to everything, which is why I’m doing the album as an alias within a concept rather than it being my artist name, kind of like Ziggy Stardust.”
The idea to pursue said concept was a slow burn for Lightman. “I started to put songs together thinking it could be an album. But I just didn’t feel like there was enough of a connection between the songs,” she says. “I felt maybe four or five could go together well.”
Cue discovery of the real silver eater and like a eureka moment you see in one of Lightman’s beloved sci-fi films, she figured out the winning formula. “Suddenly writing within this environment, it naturally became a part of the process. The [silver eater] story and the sound world really meshed together and made me feel like there was a wealth of songs that could be created. It’s almost like the soundtrack to a film about that character,” she describes.
If the album is soundtrack, then the listener taken on an experience: breeze through the ups and downs of the opening songs, pass the ready-for-an-action-film-sequence “Aztec Level” (also the next single) and sit tight for the latter tracks. As you’re in deep and comfortable, “Deep Space Getaway” is ready and waiting, strutting confidently between the melodies of the tracks before and after. Following a conversation in which Lightman described wanting to “sound like Diana Ross in a spaceship” a full-out disco tune was born, from the “bonding moment” between Baptie and Pearson.
“['Deep Space Getaway'] is this moment on the record where it’s almost there to remind you of the chase that’s happening. You’re lulled into a sense of security where you think it’s all dreamy and you’re feeling relaxed, comfortable and supported by this sound,” explains Lightman. “And then much like in everyday life, you have a moment of anxiety and it shoots you.”
Even with the track listing, Lightman is thinking about interpretation. Her songs take on the equilibrium – disequilibrium – equilibrium format, fitting of a feature film. And for something so cinematic, it begs the questions as to how it would translate to a live setting. “Before, Pat [Pearson] and I basically played the songs together and we did this kind of jazz lounge version of everything,” says Lightman. “We’ve toured and exhausted it, but now we’re working out how to represent the songs exactly how they sound on the album.”
“I’d love for it to be me and my band. I say band but I think there will be other performers and artists. What I’d really like it to be is me as The Silver Eater with her confidantes.”
Referring back to the narrative: “the people on the stage with her that have helped her. Keeping her on the run.” She falls deep into the dream as she talks further about her ideas: “I feel like with the session musicians, I want to dress them up properly. Where it’s super self-aware and with an almost David Lynch, Blue Velvet style.”
“I’d quite like to have some kind of theatrical elements to it and find a way of bringing silver into it wherever I go, which I’m sure I’ll be able to. Translating what the artwork and the videos are all about, onto that stage set is definitely going to happen.”
With the full experience mapped out, Lightman has hit her artistic stride. And if albums are her soundtracks to these hypothetical films, then Silver Eater is her writing, acting and directorial debut. A triple threat, there’s future features waiting to go ahead. “Once I’d written the album and was recording it, I was already away making ideas for new songs,” she reveals. “I think I’ve just realised that’s how I work. I’ve come up with another sound world, with another set of lyrics and another place where the next few things are coming from.”
Future planning aside, the time is right to introduce Silver Eater to the wider world. “My main port of call is to get this album heard. I’ve worked so hard and I can’t wait for people to hear what I’ve been doing,” says Lightman. She’s got hopes and goals for the release and beyond, but is keeping them close to her chest.
The record may have been three years in the making, but right now she’s trying not to keep track of it too much. “It’s like when people make it to a hundred years old. Others ask what their secret is and they go ‘I just don’t celebrate my birthdays.’ That’s how I’m feeling about my album.”