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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

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.”

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