BLACKBOOK INTERVIEW: La Roux’s Elly Jackson on Being Human, Needing Space & Taking Baths to be Creative

Image by Ed Miles

 

When Elly Jackson’s second album, Trouble in Paradise, came out in 2014, it was as if her life’s story had written its title. The artist otherwise known as La Roux—and perhaps equally for the ginger wave that famously flops around atop her head—had already managed to take literally the entire world by storm. Her debut album, 2009’s La Roux, produced singles “Quicksand,” “Bulletproof,” and “In the Kill,” nabbed her and her former bandmate Ben Langmaid a Grammy award, almost endless attention, and with it a world of complications that come with being catapulted to fame at a young age. She was all of 21 then. Looking back at her early videos, it’s hard not to notice the traces of baby fat still on her face.

If you have been to any public space that at least attempts to play trendy music in the past 20 years, you have absolutely heard “Bulletproof.” Anyone over 40 will respond to its arcade game nostalgia. Anyone under 40 will register it as vintage electronica cool. Everyone will bop along to it. It’s impossible not to.

Whether it’s her tough-girl persona, her unusually elegant voice (a former falsetto), her fabulous power suits, her uncanny ability to infectiously reimagine the sounds of her youth, her androgyny, or that aforementioned swirl of red hair, her sonic superpowers enable her to use her vocal and musical talents in unique way, that’s frankly a bit odd yet still creates a pop feeding frenzy. And while everyone knows who she is, or at least has unknowingly heard her tunes, what people don’t really know is where the hell Jackson’s been for the past few years (or five).

While Trouble in Paradise garnered critical acclaim, everything leading up to and through the album ultimately blew up her life. It broke up her partnership with Langmaid, got her kicked off Polydor, the major label to which she had been signed, broke up a 10-year personal relationship, inspired her to can an entire third album, La Roux 3, and sent her down plenty of anxiety-induced rabbit holes. The perfect storm had started brewing as early as 2010, when Jackson lost her voice entirely due to anxiety. She had to train herself how to sing again. The pressures of fame weighed heavy on the otherwise spry, and hilariously blunt Jackson, and the cascading effect it had on her unraveled her completely by 2017.

 

 

And to make matters even worse, her shower broke down. Yet it was that same nuisance that changed her life’s rhythm enough to allow her to course correct. Unable to shower, she was forced to take baths.

“That mental space slowed me down enough to change how I thought about my life,” she says. “And today I’m just in such a better place.”

And so the carrot-topped phoenix felt she literally had nothing to lose, stopped all the noise, locked herself up in her kitchen and got to creating Supervision. As Jackson wiggled herself out from her past, she jettisoned plenty of baggage with it. Ranging from her hyper-referenced approach to building her songs to nearly every collaborator and the interference of another record label, Jackson decided to fly completely solo on the new record.

The result is a delightfully short spin through the world of La Roux, just as Elly Jackson. No less of an adorable fuck you, certainly no less of an earworm much less fun, the album itself is a play on words referencing that she can both see clearly now, but also that she doesn’t need the supervision of anyone to get along.

We sat down with Jackson to hear her thoughts on her comeback, her music, and what a young superstar does to get her life back in balance and back on her own terms.

 

 

You have definitely come back from a period of silence. When reading about your story, it’s uncanny how life put you on pause– twice–before you could make your next breakthrough. You first lost your voice, and second had a broken shower that forced you to take baths.

Yeah, a lot has changed. I just feel so much better. There’s just a lot more space and peace in my life, generally, and it’s a very nice place to be. I’ve slowed myself down and realized what my priorities are. I pretty much have to work out every day or I’ll pretty much go insane. I wasn’t doing that nearly enough before. It’s easy when you’re in the studio to drop really good habits in the name of working your ass off pointlessly.
You just turn nocturnal in that mindset and say it must be helpful to work 17 hours a day. But it really just isn’t helpful. It’s really been about finding the balance again. I have found it and it’s a much nicer space to be in, for sure.

La Roux had started off as a collaboration and you have done several since. I read that you don’t like to share. As we age, we definitely become clearer about our healthy boundaries. Was your solo approach to this album a function of that?

I don’t want to make this all about what I’m about to say, because I think it can get annoying; but I really think that most women can possibly relate to finding it harder to [manage boundaries] than men. It’s firstly hard to even know yourself that way. So many people don’t even know what their boundaries are. It’s hard to then set them if you don’t know what they are.
You’ll say, “Yeah, I have boundaries!” Then you’ll say, “Wait. Do I?”

It’s a tricky balance…

If you want to be a nice person, especially with women, one has to sort of learn that being perceived as nice is not necessarily what’s best for you. I’m not saying that I’m not a nice person, or don’t value niceness, but I have come to understand that I don’t want people to cross certain lines because it will make me uncomfortable.
And then I’ll start to feel vulnerable, and I may not like it, and then I could start acting quite stressed and angry. I can start to feel like I’m not protecting myself or that someone’s coming into my cage and it’s too much space invasion.
It just takes time to understand that as a human being. You can’t fucking understand it overnight, and you certainly can’t grasp it when you’re 21. Anyone who knows that when they’re 21, I want to meet them because they will certainly become a fucking guru! But I feel that I at least hopefully have learned how at the right time.

 

Image by Ed Miles

 

Speaking of your age, it’s funny looking at your head spinning in the “International Woman of Leisure” track—you can see you have very defined cheekbones. It made me realize just how young you really were when “Bulletproof” came out.

Yeah it was a shock to me. I never knew that I would get this face. Some people thought that I had gotten plastic surgery. I was like, “Come on! I just lost a little weight and I’m not a child anymore!” All of that happened when I was in my early 20s.

Now that you’ve gone through what you have, what would you tell young Elly that could have maybe helped her navigate that level of fame and what was to come.

I don’t know, it’s so difficult. You know how you are at that age and you just think you know everything. You think you have it all down, and it’s just hilarious because you don’t. It’s kind of impossible, because I know who she was—since I’m her. And [laughing] she would have just said, “Yeah shut up, I’m fine.” Even though I really wasn’t fine.
Nobody can tell you what’s right for you, even if it’s ultimately what is right for you. It’s like the old adage about the addict, you just can’t tell them when to stop. They have to be fed up with their own behavior.

Right, it has to come from within.

I think it would have been really hard to have a talk with that girl. But I was lucky that I had a lot of people say the right things to me. They tried to make me see things in a more positive light and to help me feel less stressed and worried. But it’s just hard when you are constantly stressed and worried and you can’t see a way out most of the time.
But I would have told her to try to not think so much about needing someone else—whether in her work life or personal life. Even that word, “need…” in needing something else you’re just taking away—an experience, a lesson– from yourself. I had to remember at a point that this all started with me in my bedroom with my guitar.
But that is what I would tell her, “If that is where she started, with her guitar, why had she gone so, so far away from that place?” Think about that.

It’s funny you say that, because my predominant image of you with any instrument is you standing behind a keyboard.

Weirdly I am always behind the keyboard; but even more weirdly, all my songs start on guitar even if you don’t hear guitar in them. Pretty much every song on the first album was written on guitar, apart from “Bulletproof.” It may not really sound like it, but that is the case.

Speaking of your style, your first two albums had definitive vibes to them. La Roux was a more synthpop dancey thing and Trouble in Paradise, a bit of a Chicago / Grace Joneseque sort of thing. Supervision really isn’t bundled stylistically in any way. There’s an authenticity to it, because you can more clearly hear who you are.

That’s really important to me. There is just a pain trying to re-creating something that you love so much. Like loving Depeche Mode and Grace Jones. It’s like, great! Love them! But you also have to be you. Don’t sit there and reference them so much that you drive yourself crazy. It’s difficult to get away from the music that is intrinsically inside you that you’ve listened to your whole life—it will show up in your work. For instance, I never once listened to George Michael on this album but you can hear a lot of him in it.

 

 

How did the process of even making this album come to be? You wrote it in just a few weeks at home? It just seems like there’s an ease and flow here that wasn’t available to yourself before.

It’s definitely been a very different experience and feeling. Even though I was the one who always brought the subject matters, the sound, the melodies, it is a different feeling to be [on my terms]. But when you’re in a studio and there’s someone at the computer, or you’re in someone else’s space…or even if you’ve let someone else into your space and you’ve let them commandeer…it always felt like I allowed even the tiniest details, like the order things are done in, to be in someone else’s hands. It had always kind of been dictated by somebody else. I found myself over the years just being so uncomfortable with it.
It came to the point where I just knew I could do something better or quicker, but I didn’t know how to say that without hurting someone’s ego or without sounding delusional. Obviously, I’ve dropped all of that and I don’t live in that space anymore in any way, shape, or form.

You actually shelved your third album?

Once I ditched that record and started making this one, the whole process was just one of pure elation. It was like, Oh! I have these riffs, some voice notes and these bass notes—this chorus.
I had the riffs for “21st Century,” I had the chorus. I had chords to “Do You Feel?” It was honestly kind of like I had no other choice. I had exhausted all my other options and they just didn’t work. It was like, you’ve only got one way left—just you on your own. And it was funny, within hours it was just obvious to me as I sat at my computer that I should have been doing it this way all along.

Epiphany is a wonderful thing.

It’s just so much more fun and so much more me. I definitely had these moments where I worried that if I wasn’t referencing as much or wasn’t as painstakingly sitting there with a fucking engineer, doing stuff that I think is a waste of time, that people may not like the way it sounded. Or that they may not want to listen to me. But then I realized that I didn’t fucking care. There is nobody but me on any of my albums playing the instruments…save the saxophone, which I don’t play. Everything has been written by me, actually. So why did it feel like such a change? But it really did.
All I knew was that I liked the record I was making. I just got to the point where I stood in my kitchen where I was like, “Okay, either you’re insane or you’re right.” But when I realized that I didn’t care, and that I was happy, it has never been the case that I make music in order to tick other people’s boxes.

As women, we’re always told how to feel and be and what should make us happy.

It’s true. But there just comes a point where you’re liberated enough to be yourself.

 

Image by Ed Miles
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