Why Elly Jackson's hoping for happiness this side of Paradise
It's been a difficult few years of fall-outs and friction for Belfast-bound Elly Jackson, aka La Roux, but the singer tells Edwin Gilson how she's learning to smile again
In the cut-throat world of pop music, five years can seem a mighty long time. Overnight sensations can easily be left for dead, replaced in the nation's affections by the next buzz band or pristine new X Factor winner. It seemed for all the world like electro-pop act La Roux had been one such casualty.
After bursting onto the scene in 2009 with a succession of infectious singles - In for the Kill, Bulletproof and Quicksand were all hits on the Grammy award-winning self-titled debut album - it has taken La Roux half a decade to release another record, this year's Trouble in Paradise. And as its name hints, these past five years have been nothing short of turbulent for Elly Jackson, the face of La Roux, whose instantly recognisable falsetto and quiff (now gone) won so many admirers back in 2009.
"I was a very insular, aggressive person around that time of the first album," says Jackson today, down the line from London where, out of her taxi window, she is entranced by a rainbow over the Thames. "It's taken all of the time that I've been away for me to actually enjoy being on stage again."
Though many assumed when Jackson first fell under public scrutiny that La Roux was her solo project, the truth was that she was operating as part of a songwriting duo with producer Ben Langmaid. The pair seemed to have a perfect working relationship, as the success of La Roux's debut album attested to. However, that Langmaid is no longer part of La Roux is just one of the ways in which the Trouble in Paradise title is an accurate portrayal of recent events for Jackson. The split was acrimonious, and Jackson still isn't speaking to Langmaid. In an interview earlier this year, the former said that Langmaid "didn't agree with" her desired artistic direction.
"Walking away from him was a signifier in my life of a lot of things," asserts Jackson. "I did what I needed to do, for myself, in a lot of different areas - and that was the first step that needed to be taken. I'm not a hateful person, but that relationship was not good for me."
One of the songs on Trouble in Paradise that Langmaid had issues with was the epic Let Me Down Gently, a moving account of Jackson's emotional insecurities within relationships: "I hope it doesn't seem like I'm young, foolish and green". At a show in Chicago a few weeks back, Jackson broke down in tears while singing the song - though she insists the reason behind the meltdown was not just the emotional fallout of the split with Langmaid, but generally feeling "overwhelmed".
"I don't really know why it happened, I can't really explain it. It wasn't to do with the subject matter but more the atmosphere in the room. It was like I could feel each individual millisecond as they went by. I wasn't overwhelmed with joy, or sadness, just overwhelmed. I couldn't finish the song. Nobody else was crying, though, so I guess it must have been something to do with my own emotional mindset."
Around the time of La Roux's debut album, Jackson sometimes came off as both very shy, dodging questions in interviews, but also aggressive. This fieriness still exists in her, and occasionally finds an outlet in misguided ways - for example her recent outburst at rapper Kanye West: "F*** Kanye West, nobody likes him".
Mostly, though, this streak seems to have served her well, particularly in her seemingly ongoing battle with her record label Polydor, whom she accuses of belittling and patronising her and her music - another huge factor in the lengthy wait for Trouble in Paradise. The singer indicates that she and Ian Sherwin, her engineer in lieu of Langmaid, were put under pressure to "deliver a type of record that we knew we weren't delivering" - ie an album more like the single-packed 2009 debut.
"The label just wanted more hits - they kept asking for them," says Jackson, who is still evidently distressed by the whole affair. "They asked me to work with various songwriters in an effort to conjure up these hits, and it ended up with them taking me out to lunch and making me break down in tears. They basically said they weren't interested in what I was doing, and that they wanted hits, and I said 'Are you f****** joking?' That's when all respect was lost from me towards them."
Jackson admits that she, along with all performers, is "insecure" and if she doesn't have "somebody saying 'that's f****** great'" about her music, she starts to doubt herself. "Suddenly every riff you play, it's impossible to see the good in it anymore - even if you know you're really proud of what you've done. My judgment was all gone; rather than going with instinct and saying "that's the riff I want, that's the melody", I had this doubt creeping in. The label want me to be a confident, creative artist but everything they were doing was stopping me from being that person. It doesn't make any sense to me."
If that friction gradually built up during the recording process for Trouble in Paradise, how is Jackson's relationship with Polydor now?
"Err … I wouldn't say it was great. I'm still angry about it."
How did she manage to turn a corner and shed her self-doubt over the record?
"Just getting it out there helped - we knew we made the record we wanted to make. There are still doubts now because of the trauma of all that, even though we know we've made an amazing record."
Gratifyingly for Jackson, given the effort she has put into retaining her artistic independence, the critics were in almost unanimous agreement with her verdict on the album, praising how assured Trouble in Paradise sounds. Jackson sheepishly admits to reading some of the ecstatic reviews: "If you're aware that somebody has written something great about your music, it can be hard to resist having a look at it!"
The presence of funk guitar on songs like Uptight Downtown and Tropical Chancer was a result of Jackson's life-long love for the six-stringed instrument, and her "sadness at not having more of that on the first album". The falsetto that brought her to public attention on In for the Kill doesn't feature as often on Trouble in Paradise and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is another unfortunate back story behind this. Jackson was already suffering from panic attacks as a result of the success of her debut album (anxiety documented on new song Silent Partner), and then at a gig in LA, attended by her US label, her voice quite simply gave out. She opened her mouth and nothing came out. Jackson knew she was in trouble straight away, but those watching the show - including senior figures at the record label - tried to make out like nothing had gone wrong. Needless to say, Jackson was instantly suspicious of this reaction.
"It made me quite distrustful of everyone. What I hate most about this industry is everyone trying to protect you all the time, like 'We'd better not tell her this, we better not do that'. I'm a f****** adult! I'm 26-years-old; don't treat me like a child. It just makes me think that everybody's lying to me, I can't trust anybody and they can all f*** off. It did make me quite distrustful of people I used to love. Eventually I've realised that some of them only had my best interests at heart. There are still some I would tell to f*** off, though. It's a good lesson to learn, who you can trust and who you can't."
Indeed, Elly Jackson seems to have learnt a lot over the last five years. She's endured her fair share of strife, but now she's thriving through her own musical merit and claims to be "freer, slinkier and more relaxed on stage." And there's no better therapy for Jackson than a euphoric, life-affirming live show.
"Without meaning to sound like my mum, people are really 'getting down' to the new songs," she laughs. "It's one of the most rewarding things to see. People are coming to my shows and smiling, which is why I've started smiling too!"
- La Roux plays The Limelight, Belfast, on Wednesday, November 19. For details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com
On a collision course ...
Other musicians who've experienced strife with their record labels include:
The Clash - the London punks went into the studio in the late 1970s with the intention of making London Calling, their third record, a double album. Unfortunately their label CBS had other ideas, and flat-out refused this plan. However, when Joe Strummer and co went to record, they laid down a load of extra tracks which ultimately resulted in the double album they had wanted
Prince - the funk star spent much of 1993 in a legal wrangle with his record label, Warner Brothers. While the label wanted Prince to release a steady stream of albums to tie in with their promotional cycles, the singer refused and repeatedly appeared in public with the word 'Slave' written on his face. The issue lead to a wide debate over the rights of the artist
Elvis Costello - in 2011 Costello was engulfed in controversy when he encouraged fans not to buy a box-set of his material, being sold for an extraordinary £213 by his record label Universal. The singer described the price as an "elaborate hoax" and instead told fans to buy Louis Armstrong's Ambassador of Jazz collection with their money instead