La Roux interview: ‘Nothing against Ellie Goulding, but I won’t make music that boring’

Elly Jackson is back, evoking the 1980s with a new album, and tells Neil McCormick she still stands up for what she believes in

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Elly Jackson, who performs under the name La Roux
Elly Jackson, who performs under the name La Roux Credit: Andrew Whitton

I once heard Elly Jackson described by someone in the music business as the most difficult person they had ever worked with. The 31-year-old singer-songwriter snorts with outraged laughter when I mention this. “Yes, I’m passionate and I will stand up for what I believe in,” she says. “I have principles and that’s a dangerous thing in a business that worships money and success. But it’s too easy to say so-and-so is a nightmare, which basically just means she dares to disagree with our s--- ideas.

“There is so much male ego to placate in this business, it just gets boring after a while. If I was a bloke saying exactly the same things, they wouldn’t call them difficult, they’d be doing coke with them in the toilets.” She fires off a stream of obscenities that would make a sailor blush but at the same time she is laughing with what sounds like genuine relief. “They are absolute d--------. It’s absolute bulls---. I’m so glad I’m not a part of that any more.”

When she first appeared as one half of electro duo La Roux in 2009, Jackson had the world at her feet. Sporting a ludicrous pointy red quiff and jagged make-up, she looked like the love child of David Bowie and Annie Lennox. Her clanging, shrill synth-pop delivered some of the era’s boldest and most inescapable hits. In For the Kill was remixed by Kanye West, an early admirer. Bulletproof brought her a UK number one. Debut album La Roux sold by the millions and won a Grammy Award for Best Electronic/Dance Album.

But the wheels started to come off very quickly. Jackson turned down potentially lucrative collaborations, publicly fell out with West and split with songwriting partner and producer Ben Langmaid, continuing as La Roux solo. Torturous and expensive sessions for her follow-up album dragged on for years. When Trouble in Paradise eventually emerged in 2014, it marked a dramatic musical shift towards sleek, Eighties-style disco. Acclaimed by critics, it failed to spawn any hits. Jackson was unceremoniously dropped by record label Polydor on New Year’s Day 2015. And then nothing. For five years.

A new album, Supervision, is released on Jackson’s own independent label, Supercolour, this week. Written, arranged, co‑produced and in large part played by Jackson herself (with producer Dan Carey), it continues the funk guitar-driven sound of her last offering, with Jackson’s high, distinctive voice riding on upbeat grooves that recall the sophisticated Eighties sound of Talking Heads, with a dash of Chic and Let’s Dance-era Bowie.

La Roux performing in the Netherlands in August 2015 Credit: Paul Bergen/Redferns

Sleek, catchy songs celebrate female power (International Woman of Leisure) and self-emancipation (Gullible Fool). Automatic Driver, a song about breaking up with her romantic partner of 10 years, makes divorce sound like a hoot.

“People are depressed enough already,” smiles Jackson. “I don’t need to add to it. It’s really about breaking up with a previous version of myself.”

Sporting a big, brash, multicoloured jacket, hair slicked into a quiff, Jackson still looks like she has stepped out of another decade. “Until something better than Prince, George Michael, Queen and Michael Jackson comes along, people are gonna keep looking back,” she says.

Born in 1988, Jackson is nostalgic for a time she never even lived through. Her original eye-catching haircut was inspired by the elaborate mullets of Flock of Seagulls. “The singer looked like he had the Sydney Opera House on his head. It was so f------ ridiculous. I thought, how do you get your hair to do that?” It is, she admits, high maintenance. “It’s mousse, blow-drying and three kinds of wax in very specific order. There’s no wash and go in my life.”

Trudie Goodwin, The Bill actress, and a young Jackson in 1996 Credit: Alpha Press

Jackson proves good company: chatty, candid, entertaining and outspoken. She has complaints about her treatment by the music business but seems under few illusions about her own contribution. Discussing the long gestation of her new album, she admits “that’s completely on me. Bad, unhealthy relationships contributed to a lack of confidence.”

When she finally left those relationships – breaking up with the aforementioned girlfriend, her management company and a musical collaborator in quick succession – her outlook changed and she gained a sense of catharsis.

“With any art, if you’re not being true with yourself, you can’t fake it. It’s like the music knows you’re lying. Honesty has an incredibly positive impact on creativity.”

Jackson scrapped years of work, writing and recording her new album in the space of a few weeks. Songs came fully formed. Lyrics arrived unbidden. “There’s too much focus on the thought process in music,” she says. “It’s not a school project, it’s a natural expression.”

Although she rose to fame making electropop, Jackson has been playing guitar since she was five and writing songs since she was 12. “My dad showed me a few chords and it was like a friendship that blossomed. The guitar is the one constant love in my life.”

I suspect Jackson’s romantic and idealistic notions about music lie at the root of conflicts with record industry people whose job is to commercialise her art. Fame came as a shock to her.

“I was inspired by stuff that was weird and left field, not global radio fodder. And suddenly that’s where I found myself. And it really got to me.”

She is caustic about celebrity. “It’s like everyone wants to forget the past version of themselves. I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb in that world because I’m like, ‘Why aren’t we all talking normally? Why are we all talking like pretentious d----?’ ”

Jackson lives in Brixton, within walking distance of where she grew up, and still hangs out with her school friends. “I’ve always loved my area. I never wanted to escape.” Her parents are actors Kit Jackson and Trudie Goodwin (who played Sgt June Ackland for more than 10 years in The Bill).

“I see them all the time. I’ve never even heard them have an argument. They still say ‘I love you’ and hug and kiss every day. It’s almost creepy.” Her point is: “I didn’t make music to get happy, or to get rich. I’d rather be poor and make music that I like.” She cackles at a memory of saying that in a meeting at her former record label. “They nearly fell off their chairs. ‘Ugh! Oh, my God, she just said she’d rather be poor!’ ”

La Roux performing in 2009, shortly after her first album was released Credit: Dave Hogan/Getty

She turned down so many commercial opportunities that an exasperated executive once disparagingly told her she could have had the career of Ellie Goulding, who has sung a John Lewis advert and struck multiple brand arrangements with companies including Pantene and Nike.

“They said that to my face,” says Jackson incredulously. “Nothing against Ellie Goulding, but I’m never going to make music that’s boring enough to be on TVs all over the UK. I don’t want people to look back and go, ‘Oh yeah, I remember her for the John Lewis advert.’ That would be a gun-in-mouth moment for me.

“If I’m not proud of myself, take me to the nearest cliff, let me walk off it. I feel that strongly about my work. Nothing else can compete with that feeling. Nothing. No amount of money.”

Supervision is out on Friday

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