As can be expected from someone who wore a T-shirt declaring “I’m a c*nt” when inking her record deal, 21-year-old La Roux front woman Elly Jackson alternates between emphatic declarations and an almost clinical self-awareness about her burgeoning musical career. When the band’s addictive debut single “Quicksand” and corresponding video featuring the flame-haired Jackson perched on the edge of a margarita glass materialized on blogs late last year, curiosity about this mysteriously polished band with an ultra-stylized MySpace was ignited to fever pitch. Now on Polydor, La Roux has been anointed on virtually every “Ones to Watch” list, is a serious contender for the prestigious Mercury Prize, figures prominently in articles about the return of androgyny and the eighties, commands prime time at festivals, and is quite frankly, running the risk of overexposure.
All this doesn’t negate the catchiness of last month’s self-titled debut, it just foretells one of two futures: a) La Roux will soon reach the upper echelons of pop stardom or b) they’ll fade out by the end of the year. We recently sat down with Jackson in a sequestered room in Universal Music’s Berlin headquarters to find out which seemed more likely.
I enjoyed the lipstick that came with the press kit. What the fuck was that? They did that here and they didn’t tell me and then I opened it up and I thought “why, why is that in there?” because it just isn’t me.
So you don’t wear red lipstick? No! I don’t wear lipstick. I don’t get it; it’s just like: “why did you put that in there without telling me?” They’d already all been made by then, so what can you do?
Did you try it on? No! It’s a horrible colour. Did you think it was really tacky when it turned up?
It was a press tactic I hadn’t seen before so I liked it. That’s all right then.
What was the biggest challenge of making the album? I think finishing it. (Laughs) Making final decisions and knowing that they’re final, I think that’s really, really hard. There are moments on the album like “Cover My Eyes” which are more vulnerable. They were harder to write than the angular, aggressive stuff. I think those were the two most difficult things.
Your label [Polydor] seems to be keeping a tight handle on the blogs: a lot of your songs are only available for streaming, YouTube videos cannot be embedded, etc. Do you agree with this way of handling music in the modern age? Yes! I do, I think there should be a good amount of control. I have a real problem with people being able to discover anything they want about an artist within six months of knowing about them and being able to hear everything they want to hear, and can see videos, they can see webisodes. Which I’ve just stopped, we’ve done a few, there are a few on the Internet but I stopped them since I don’t think it’s a good idea. People say, “Oh, the people want to know more about you” and I say, “Well, good! Let’s keep it that way.” Why do we have to give everyone everything they want, straight away? My favorite artists are people like Michael Jackson. He was around for 30 years, and still everyone wants to know more. That’s what made him the King of Pop. I think it is really important to hold stuff back. I don’t know, it’s just so early!
I think labels get this weird view — it’s almost like they want to rinse everything the artist has to offer within a year. I was reading an article yesterday about me and Ladyhawke and this whole eighties thing. It’s talking to the guy from Spandau Ballet and he said: “it’s just not the same as it was in the eighties. In the eighties it was like a slow, gradual build towards everything.” He was like, “Now La Roux, for instance, has already been on the cover of the Guardian and she hasn’t even released her album yet.” And it is kind of weird how that can happen nowadays. But it does, and you can control it to a certain extent but everything moves faster now and people know about everything a lot quicker. I think just doing only a small amount of decent press and not having music and videos all over the Internet is the bit that you can control, and you should.
Are you trying to cultivate a mysterious persona? It’s not even that, I just think it looks a bit cheap if you don’t. Already you go on MySpace and there are advertisements for La Roux at the top of the page. That’s enough, you don’t need to go on YouTube and see 400 videos of me in my house. All that personal stuff, I think it’s really cheap. It looks desperate as well. I’m not at a stage yet where I feel like anyone should really care what goes on in my life because hardly anyone knows who I am. When you get to a certain stage, people start to get interested about what you do in your private time but I don’t think I’m there yet. I don’t think you should feed that kind of behavior. You can like music, but you don’t have to be deeply obsessed with a person.
You don’t think it’s healthy to be interested in musicians? I’ve been deeply obsessed with people, but people that deserve it. You know, like Prince and Michael Jackson, people that are seriously, seriously worth being obsessed about. People get obsessed with singers that don’t even write their own songs; it’s just because they’re obsessed with their lives. This weird celebrity magazine culture makes anyone seem fascinating and they’re not.
The older half of La Roux, producer Ben Langmaid, enters the room bearing croissants. “Chocolate or almond?” he asks. “Almond please. Can you see if there’s any sugar as well? And a spoon or stirrer or something of that nature?” Jackson asks. The bearded Langmaid, who previously made it clear he was not interested in being part of this interview, rustles through the bag: “They’re all fucking chocolate. Is chocolate with almonds all right? It is, he leaves and Jackson continues:
Pop stars are there for a certain reason and obviously people need their idols. I don’t think it’s wrong to idolize someone or obsess about someone in that way and be fascinated by their music and what their lyrics mean; I think that’s cool. I think when it’s just a pure obsession for the sake of having an obsession, because you can find out anything you want about them, because all their life information is on the internet, I think that’s a bit strange.
People really enjoy reading the blogs of their idols, though. I have a photo blog. I’ve always been really weird about diaries and stuff; I see blogs like diaries. My songs have always been my diaries. I feel like there’s so much information on that album, about me and my life; there’s more information there than I’ll ever write on a blog, you know what I mean? Whenever I’ve tried to write a normal diary, the two times I’ve tried, I just find it impossible to write [about my day] without sounding like an idiot, and without reading it back and wanting to delete the whole thing. As if anyone gives a fuck about what I do.
How did you develop your writing persona? Just by being really honest. I don’t think it was anything more complicated than that. It’s harder to be yourself than anything else when you write a song. It’s really easy to say, “Oh, I want to use this word because it’s cool, or I’m going to write this because it sounds cooler”. It’s much harder to say something that you don’t think is cool and make it sound cool. Honesty is the key. If you can say exactly how you’re feeling intricately and interestingly, that’s hard enough.
The album addresses some intense themes; can you tell me about them? I can’t tell you much but I can tell you a little bit. It’s just about trying to work through something, emotionally. I don’t know how I would have got through the situation that I was going through without writing the songs. It’s bit like a therapy album, because when you write about something negative in your life, it becomes positive because you got something productive out of it. It’s a really good way to work through stuff; it’s a good process. It does address some things that maybe I’m not willing to speak about.
Fair enough, it’s only lunchtime. (She laughs) How did you develop your sound? It took a long time. Me and Ben used to be kind of guitar-y, because I grew up on folk music and so did he, and rock and roll. When I met him, he was like “what songs have you got?” and I played him the few songs that I had, the bits of songs that I had. And then we just started restructuring them and making them more listenable arrangements. Over the course of two years, the songs started to get less folksy and we started to introduce beats and keyboards and then after a while, the guitar just sounded really passé and neither of us wanted to make that kind of music, or acoustic music. We realized that we both felt really uncomfortable with the kind of music that we’d been making for about a year and a half, but we’d been too scared to say anything, because I’d grown up playing the guitar and it was like…my life. I think he felt bad saying anything and I felt bad about wanting to stray from the guitar. I felt like I was betraying my roots.
Then I started going out clubbing loads, and listening to lots of different music, like Cut Copy, Coldcut, SebastiAN, DJ Mehdi, and Sébastian Tellier. It just all started to change. And then we wrote “Quicksand” in the way it is now, and began using all the old songs we had with the backing track stripped away. We started from scratch with the same lyrics and melodies but changed everything else.
How have you been influenced by electronic music? Well, just from going out clubbing and stuff. It was kind of like rediscovering the ‘80s and discovering modern electronic music at the same time. It started to really excite me, like folk music had done when I was eight; it was the same feeling again. I got really excited by it, and started to find out more and more and went and bought loads and loads of electronic music and that was it!
What’s next for La Roux? Lots of work. Promo for the album. Gigging, touring, making the album known all over Europe and hopefully America!
La Roux -“La Roux” is out now on Polydor.