An interview with La Roux

I’m convinced Elly Jackson is the coolest person I’ve ever encountered. Popularly known by her band name, La Roux, she’s a Grammy Award winning tropical castaway who seemed to get lost at sea after her stellar eponymous debut. It garnered her fame and seemingly fortune. But Elly tells me that the success deflated her like a punctured beach ball, washed up by the tide.

Like so many greats of pop music – Michael Jackson, Stevie Nicks, David Bowie – and so many of us, she suffers from crippling anxiety. It’s the kind of anxiety that robs you of any semblance of self worth and motivation, making you curl up like the first leaf of autumn. That’s where she’s been since 2009. Yes, it’s been that long since we were dancing to anthems like “In For the Kill” and “Bulletproof”. She can’t believe it either.

I am touched that Elly want to share such personal details about her life with someone she has only just met, at the end of her gig. I ambushed her whilst she was still dazzled by strobes and smoke; being guided along the guard rail by a burly security man. I’m curious, and I’m charged on the electric of the gig I have just witnessed.

Boldly, I ask for five minutes of her time. Smiling and squinting, she automatically agrees and I have to use my entire inner adult to play it cool. The conversation stretches to thirty, maybe because I told her it was my birthday, and by the end we’re laughing about the paradoxes of being a woman, her five years spent out of the limelight and her creative process.

I can’t help but ask her about her absence from the public eye. She sighs; I reflect it’s probably the most common question she’s been asked. Patiently, Elly opens up about her struggles with anxiety, “I wish people would understand the situation.” Wisely, she muses, tinged with obvious life experience “one thing that I’ve always found weird is that you’re supposed to be perfect in some way if you do something of note. If people were more honest about their downfalls it would be a lot easier. Life is far more real than that. Things can be hard, whatever you’re doing with your life.”

Looking at Elly, you wouldn’t have thought that she was anything less than unflappable, with not a hair out of place, even in the heat of Oxford’s O2 Academy. She is feisty and outspoken when I ask her about being a woman in the public eye.

“You feel like you aren’t allowed to say as much as men are. I’m extremely opinionated, probably too much for my own good, and it really gets to me when you know that if a man had said that, everyone would have gone “oh they’re just being them again”. If Noel Gallagher says anything, it’s just funny. If a woman says it, it becomes part of a political debate. You’re instantly branded as a bitch.”

Clearly, Elly has not been immune from the pop political discourse that has been raging for the past year. Feminism and sexism have become topics that all would-be pop stars need to have a suitable PR line for. Not Elly. She isn’t afraid to challenge my question about what it’s like to be a woman in music. “You don’t ask men that question. I used to say “I don’t know what you mean, I’ve never experienced any sexism, I think if you’re a strong powerful woman you don’t experience it” but then I started to notice the subtleties in being asked that question.”

Although, she agrees that in the music industry, like many industries, there’s widespread, ingrained sexism that does go unchallenged. “I was in a duo with a guy for a long time and the assumption was that all I did was sing and come up with one line – but maybe I couldn’t possibly do that because I’m a woman,” Elly rages, her tone climbing higher with sarcasm.

“Actually it was quite the opposite. If I say: “I made this track and I want to finish it” they say “well what bloke are you going to finish it with?” If you can’t pick a man that you want work with they don’t feel satisfied that you will be a success. It’s unconscious so much of the time and that’s why it’s so dangerous.”

Music is a personal thing for her. She lives and breathes it, viscerally absorbing all her experiences and baring them creatively. She becomes quieter, more relaxed when I ask her about her creative process. This is her territory.

“I think it’s better to work with someone who you have a connection with – you’d end up with better results than if you went with the biggest producer or designer. I think it’s something that this industry has forgotten and it’s something I want to remember all the time.”

Elly recounts the story of how she met Alex Brown, graphic designer extraordinaire who won acclaim for creating her first album cover, aged 18, on MySpace through a friend adder bot. “I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me by mistake. He turned up to the pub I was working at, and we’ve done artwork together ever since.” She gushes, laughing. I try to picture her working in a pub in New Cross, but somehow it seems alien. Elly Jackson pulling pints – with that quiff?

She narrates the formation of the concept for the album cover. “I wanted it to be an uncomfortable raga-Hockey Richard Hamilton.” Surprisingly, the cover for Trouble In Paradise is made completely of life sized cut outs and photo projections. Elly describes the process in minute detail, for a good ten minutes, like a proud parent.

“What I point out to people is that it’s more about the connection you have with someone rather than what they look like on paper. It just happens that Alex is pretty fucking good on paper too, but I could have never done that artwork with the best artwork designer on the planet. This was so good because Alex knew me.”
The conversation winds down. Thirty minutes have elapsed when I only asked for five. Neither of us wants to end the conversation first, and we’re stuck in a weird cycle of thanking each other politely and telling each other how good the conversation was. I hadn’t realised how much time had passed, like talking to an old friend.

Elly Jackson: Bulletproof enigma of pop culture, androgynous icon, music maker extraordinaire, is really just a lovely girl from London. Like a cool older cousin you only see at weddings and funerals, she’s the one you want to sit next to. Older relatives will tut at her hair, but she doesn’t notice. Or care. You want to be her shadow for the afternoon, drinking too much of the cheap wine and sneaking cigarettes out the fire door. The stories of her life make you envious and proud.