She’s penned songs behind-the-scenes for Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, been nominated for Grammy Awards and dominated stages as Bright Lights – Heather Bright has already had an amazingly eclectic career. We find out how she manages to stay at the top of her game in a range of roles…
Heather Bright’s kinetic, powerful performances have been enrapturing audiences across the US for most of the decade, but for the woman behind Bright Lights’ colourful guise, the road to acceptance in the music industry was a long and at times difficult process that started many years ago: “Well, my father was a pastor, so I’ve been doing music and singing in church my whole life,” Heather tells us.
“I started touring when I was 14, in the church choir. Every summer, I was busy touring and developing my voice. I also toured with a marching band as well and learned a few different instruments. I left school and ended up going to Berklee College Of Music. It was there that I learned my music theory and I also learned how to play with a band… I figured out how to work with a band and improvise and go with the flow without having to play anything specific.”
While at Berklee, Heather also learned a great deal about the music business and how the industry works. “A lot of people don’t know this about me right now, but I actually manage myself,” Heather reveals. “I left Berklee and went to New York, which is one of those make-you-or-break-you cities. I stuck around for long enough and knocked on lots of doors and made so many phone calls.”
Heather explains how a simple MySpace (remember that?) message kick-started her career. “A message came from an A&R man from Island Def Jam inviting me to a meeting. At that point, every single day, I would just write music. I’d always been songwriting since I was younger in the church. I didn’t start doing it everyday, all-day until I moved to New York. It took four years of that before I ever made a dime from it. I had my first meeting at Island Def Jam, so the meeting was supposed to be an hour, but ran for about five hours in total. The A&R man told me he was blown away by what he’d heard from me, and he was the same guy that signed Lady Gaga and Avril Lavigne, so he was a legendary A&R. That first meeting was a real eye opener, and it was still my first meeting. So this was how I really got into the industry.”
Writer for hire
So at this point, was Heather trying to launch herself as an artist, or attempting to establish herself as a dependable songwriter for others? “Oh, I was always trying to be an artist in my own right,” Heather says. “But at that point, I didn’t quite know who I was. I think that in order to really connect as an artist, then you have to know who you are. So I just thought, ‘I’m going to develop myself as a professional songwriter and eventually someone will have to sign me!’”
The stars soon aligned. “I ended up having a very successful career very fast. Lyricists are very rare, while good top-line melody writers are relatively common, but to be a great lyricist is something so rare in the music business, when the business sniffs out that there’s a new lyricist in town – well, they get all the work!”
We ask Heather what genres she tried to accommodate in her writing. “My idea at that point was to be quite versatile,” she explains. “I was doing pop, rock and R&B. I could kind of move around different genres. I became quite a successful writer, but I wasn’t really doing what I really wanted to be doing, which was to be an artist. So I started working on that. I tried to keep the songwriting-for-others thing going for a while, but both my artist life and the songwriting suffered as a result. So I focused all my energies on being an artist… I didn’t want my songs to go to waste.” This was a gamble, however: “Moving from my career as a pro songwriter to being an artist meant I had to take a big financial hit. But I was happier. But one thing I didn’t realise was how fast the money would run out!”
Enter Bright Lights: Heather Bright’s artistic identity, and a bona-fide separate creative persona. “This was the time that the purple hair started. I created a new name and I decided that Bright Lights was who I was and this was what I was doing.”
Despite this new career clarity, financially, things weren’t looking too peachy. “I had spent all my money and was sleeping in my car for a while. During that time, the song Language, which I’d done with Porter Robinson, came on the radio. I remember thinking in that moment: “I’m broke as fuck, but I’m happier now than I’ve been so far in my music career.”
Bright Lights’ status in the industry was rapidly elevated, thanks to a series of hugely successful featured-vocalist appearances and songwriting credits on hit tracks such as 3LAU’s How You Love Me, Hardwell & Dyro’s Never Say Goodbye and the aforementioned Language. “When you release a record and see some success on it, the sense of pride is enormous,” Heather tells us. “For me, that was a payoff from all of this, seeing the records take off. My latest single just did 200,000 views on YouTube, which is obviously small fry compared to those huge artists like Taylor Swift, but then again, I haven’t got the same amount of marketing power people like that have, either!”
For Bright, making a human connection is a vital motivating factor in what she does. “I’d probably say How You Love Me [Heather’s song with 3LAU, aka Justin David Blau] is the song I’m most proud of – that record has touched so many lives. I’ve never gotten so many responses from people who have said: ‘This song changed my life.’ A few months back, I was playing this show, and a couple walked up to me at the end and said: ‘I just have to tell you that How You Love Me saved our marriage.’ I had to stop, the whole room just went silent at that point. It was such a huge statement.”
If you build it…
Turning to Heather’s songwriting process then, we ask her what her usual approach is? “You know, I always write in the most random places! I don’t even ‘write’ as such, really – songs just seem to come to me as ideas first. When I was songwriting professionally, I had a different approach, I’d sit down and think things like, ‘Okay, today we’re going to be writing a pop/urban song for Rihanna.’ I don’t do that anymore. I might be driving down the road or crossing the street when suddenly, an idea will just appear in my head.
“I’ll then start thinking about the melody with different instruments and how the mix will sound. I’ll then bring them in to the studio. I’m a bit smarter now – when I’m working on my songs now, I’m always thinking strategically, questions like: ‘Who is this for?’ and: ‘Who is going to listen to this record?’ and for what demographic is this song going to be ‘their shit’, y’know? I’ll then try and steer the production towards that. That normally lends a song a vibe, and that’s all really in the production. My next single which I’m working on now is called Zamn Zaddy – the first version of it was almost house-sounding, but it’s actually 112bpm. Yet it feels like a house record.
I love this version, but I went back to it and toned it down, and made it a little bit colder. I tried to make it more like a Pharrell or Busta Rhymes record. With this example, I kept the exact same topline, but altered the mix so much it felt like a completely new song. Now it feels like an urban hip-hop record. I’m planning on releasing the house version first and the hip-hop version later. So getting the production right on my songs is so important and needs a lot of thought.”
Heather tries to keep the process fluid and unshackled to any strict rules. “I don’t have any session templates in my DAW. I like to keep things open. When I open up a session, it’s free game. I try to do things different – I’ll play around with new instruments I’ve not played with, or a plug-in I’ve not messed with yet. I try not to work on other artists’ work when I’m not ‘in’ with them. If I’m going to be working on your music, then I need to be sitting side-by-side. I want to know what other artists you like or what music is your shit right now. I want to get to know the artist to find out where they are musically, creatively and also personally. I think it’s important to have a one-on-one relationship. Usually, the best records come out when you share your experiences.”
Selected credits from Heather Bright’s career so far…
Somebody To Love – Justin Bieber (co-writer)
Hands Tied – Toni Braxton (co-writer)
Trouble For Me – Britney Spears (co-writer)
Language – Porter Robinson (featured artist)
How You Love Me – 3LAU (featured artist)
Billion Dollar Love (main artist)
Gringa (main artist)
In terms of instrumentation, Heather again tries to stay open-minded.
“I mostly write on keys, but guitar is actually my favourite instrument. Unfortunately, I haven’t practised enough to be truly good at it. So I can write with it, so when it comes to recording, I’ll use professional guitarists. But I’ll give them an outline of what to play. I’ll give them the chords and I’ll give them the rhythm.
“When it comes to being creative, I’m mostly in-the-box,” Heather explains. “There’s a lot of soft synths in my stuff, but recently, I’ve fallen in love with the classic old Mellotron sound. It’s like a $3,000 piece of gear and well worth it. But of course, you can’t travel and use that! So you’ve got to compromise. I love gear – I could collect loads of it. I hope to develop a really kitted-out studio with some really fun toys soon.”
The hub of it all, though, is Logic. “When I started out, I would mostly use Pro Tools, but around seven years ago, I tried out Logic and have never looked back. I also use Ableton Live for some aspects of production – stuff like timestretch is useful. The algorithms are better than anything else, really. The average ear may not hear it, but
I hear it!”
Switching back to those soft synths then, Heather tells us that she really loves Xfer’s Serum. “I’ve used that on lots of stuff. I love how it’s simultaneously really versatile, but also user-friendly. I’m not a ‘native’ producer, I didn’t start out in the business programming and sequencing, I’ve only been doing that really seriously for around four years. I’m still learning more every day. Software instruments like Serum are incredible for people like us. I also recently got a Universal Audio Apollo Twin.
“I was talking to my mixer Andrew Wuepper about this the other day – he’s worked with Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and many other huge names. He said to me: ‘Mixing has changed so much in the last 10 years. With your Universal Audio rig, you can now pull up most of the same things that I use in my studio.’ So when I’m working on stuff, I’m already creating a lot of things that already sound mixed! Andrew says that mixing has become a lot less creative than it used to be, because everyone is now capable of doing it themselves.”
Show and tell
Integral to the Bright Lights experience are the impactful, high-energy shows she performs. “I actually have two different styles of show,” Heather explains. “One is more of a DJ setup, though I do still sing. I love to sing! and the other is a ‘proper’ show, with choreographed dancers and musicians and confetti and lights! The Bright Lights experience is a big production. I love both, for different reasons – the performer in me loves to play in a bigger venue with great sound, but there’s another side of me that just enjoys a rusty-ass DJ gig. It’s more intimate and intense. It’s dark as shit and no one can see you. You just play and read the crowd.”
But which does she prefer, playing live or recording in the studio? “That’s really tough – I’ll answer that this way, what am I best at? The answer to that is songwriting. But what do I love the most? Performing. So I need both sides to fulfil those aspects of me as a human. If I go for two months without a show, then I’m so depressed. If I’m on the road too long and I can’t get to a microphone to record, I get very frustrated.”
For Heather, a combination of obvious talent and persistence brought her the acclaim and creative fulfilment that she sought, so what are her words of wisdom for those looking to forge a similar career path? “I’d say: ‘Just don’t stop’,” she says. “If people tell you your sound is garbage, or not good enough, then just keep going. If you’re making records that you really love but can’t figure out how to market, then just keep going. You never know where your break is going to come from. Sometimes, it’s a lot of little breaks that amount to one big break.
“Recently, I’ve been having the most amazing opportunities just falling in my lap. After I released my latest single, Gringa, I got a Taco Bell sponsorship, which is a huge opportunity. Being on my own, and managing my marketing spend, my artist profile and what music I put out is the most rewarding thing. Putting out my own records changed everything and when I started producing my own records that changed everything, even more so.”
So what’s next for Bright? “I’ve been doing a tonne of label work lately. Up until this point, I’ve been hands-on, pretty much producing everything. I think I’m pretty good at the label side of things, too, and I feel like I need to invest time in doing that right now. I’m making demos and hitting up my Italian friend and mixer Gabriel and seeing if he can finish them, that leaves me the time and space to focus on marketing Gringa. I’m at the club on Friday and Saturday. I’m doing dance competitions on social media. It’s a fast-paced world!”
It certainly is, and for Heather it seems to be a careful balancing act, but crucially, she’s in the driving seat of her career. “That’s where I am now – I’m learning that careful balance of being a businesswoman and an artist.”
For music, tour dates and all things Bright Lights, head to her website.