Synth out sister
La Roux’s Elly Jackson is rattling cages with her 1980s-referencing synth pop. But the Bulletproof singer isn’t going back two decades for the shoulderpads and snoods – it’s all about the music, stupid. She tells Jim Carroll how the Mercurynominated duo p
IT SHOULDN’T come as any surprise that Elly Jackson fits right into the mix at Barcelona’s Sonar festival. As is now the norm at Europe’s largest gathering of electronic music hipsters, the Catalan city’s museum of contemporary art (Macba) is awash with exotic hairdos, studied indifference and sulky pouts. Many Sonar regulars may well be here to have a good time but, in some cases, the pose always comes first.
A pop star with the kind of ’do and pout last seen more than two decades ago, Jackson is here to perform at an afternoon showcase on the main stage. It’s a chance for the Catalan audience to gauge if the much-tipped La Roux (Jackson was up there with Little Boots, Florence & The Machine and Lady Gaga in all those “ones to watch in 2009” lists at the start of the year) has what it takes to break away from the pack.
Happily, it turns out that La Roux is someone actually worth all the attention. Her live show is an arresting, finely tuned production that transfers effortlessly from her just-released debut album. Jackson’s falsetto keeps its sharp tone throughout, and songs such as In for the Kill and Bulletproof push all the right buttons. Indeed, by the end of the weekend the bassy, ravey Skream remix of In for the Kill will become one of the tunes you just can’t avoid at Sonar.
Jackson is unaffected by the palaver she’s causing. The fact that In for the Kill has become an unlikely blockbuster single and that La Roux is out-performing her fellow pop-synthistas in the profile stakes hasn’t gone to her head. She says she never really paid much attention to all that tipping in the first place.
“I think that buzz at the start of the year was just an industry buzz,” Jackson reckons. “Those people who compile those polls, like the BBC best new bands one, for example, are in the music industry and they had known about me for about a year or so before all that went off. The real test came when we released a single and people who’d never heard of La Roux got to make their mind up.”
The “we” Jackson refers to is her musical partnership with producer Ben Langmaid. Before he heard from a friend about Jackson singing at a New Year’s Eve party, Langmaid had worked on one-off dance singles, spent a spell with a band called Kubb, and was involved in various gigs alongside Faithless director Rollo Armstrong.
Needless to say, Jackson was not the synthpop princess she is today when they first met and began working together.
“I’d written a lot of songs in a folk kind of area. My dad had taught me the guitar through Bob Dylan songs and, when I started to write songs, I was really into Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, so I wrote in that style. But the more me and Ben worked together, the more it became apparent that the folk stuff was a bit old hat. It sounded like, you know, coffee-table music, and that’s not what we wanted. We started mucking around on synths and it began to go more dance.”
Yet the emotional core of the songs continued along similar lines. “I think that’s something which makes it a little different,” Jackson says. “The songs started out being written in a bedroom on a guitar in a folky way and they’ve got that emotional side of them. When we started using the synths to flesh things out, we kept that quality.
“When we did Quicksand, we realised we were on to something. It seemed to have all these qualities we were after. It was a happy pop song, but one with a lot of emotion that you could relate to. I suppose that’s our trademark now.”
Another trademark is how 1980s it all sounds. Even a cursory listen will have you noting La Roux’s dedication to a decade when Eurythmics, Talk Talk and Tears for Fears were in their pomp. However, unlike previous 1980s revivalists, La Roux isn’t simply going back for the shoulderpads and snoods. She knows it’s not the most popular decade to revisit, but if she’s bothered she doesn’t show it.
“How come you can take the music of the 1960s or 1970s and put it into your music and no one bats an eyelid? When you do that with the music of the 1980s, people think you’re having a laugh. I mean, why do people look down on the 1980s so much? It wasn’t all bad. I loved that whole glamour side of pop music from the 1980s. I also think the fact that pop stars were much bigger then was because they had mystique. You didn’t have pop stars going on about their every move on Twitter.”
The issue of fitting La Roux into a clearly defined box obviously vexes Jackson.
“It seems to me that everything has to be new in order for people to sell it. But I really think if the music’s there and it is right and
you’re a good performer, you will be able to sell your record. All these new genres and things are just marketing. What I do is pop and I’ve no hesitation in calling it that.”
Langmaid has no interest in pop stardom and is content to stay in the background, leaving Jackson to be the face and voice of La Roux. “We produce together, and we write the lyrics together, but the songs are about my life and I’m the front woman. So while the two of us together are La Roux, I am La Roux.”
She laughs. “That sounds quite dramatic, doesn’t it? I didn’t intend it like that, but it can be hard to explain sometimes. We’re a duo, we are a band, but La Roux is my persona. We write together and co-produce togeth- er and it’s a collaboration. But La Roux is the character I become when I’m performing, and that persona came from the songs, and those songs are about my life. So it’s just a bit of an exaggeration of who I really am.”
When it comes to the live shows, Jackson slips with ease into her La Roux persona. “It’s great to go onstage and be that character and really get into it. I’ve done live gigs before in bands with mates and things like that but I was never the centre of attention, and it’s different when you’re the one people are loo’king at.
“I learn stuff every night I go out there. And I’m learning most of all that I’m getting more comfortable with what I’m doing with every show.”