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La Roux
La RouxPhotography Ed Miles

La Roux had to totally reset before she could come back

La Roux

Elly Jackson is back with Supervision, her first album in five years, and a renewed creative energy. She says she’s feeling happier than ever – but to get here, first she had to lose it all

“It’s the question that everyone’s been asking: where have I been?” Elly Jackson is pensive as she repeats my first question back to me. Sitting in a cosy room in the back of her south London townhouse, the flame-haired musician has been talking a mile a minute since I arrived: about her cat Calypso, which she got from a mad farmer in Dorset; about her various home improvements, like the studio she’s just installed in her kitchen; about her general annoyance with technology, and why she doesn’t do online check-ins when she flies (“That’s what I’m at the fucking airport two hours early for!”); and about the fact that her entire house currently seems to be running off of a single plug. But when we start talking about Supervision, the upcoming third La Roux album, Jackson takes a deep breath. The last few years have been... a lot.

La Roux last released a record in 2014. Talk about a difficult second album – not only did the aptly named Trouble in Paradise have to follow a debut that spawned monster hits “Bulletproof” and “In For the Kill”, it came with delay after delay, issues with collaborators, and the eventual breakdown of her creative partnership with Ben Langmaid, originally one half of La Roux alongside Jackson. A collection of songs that she felt she had wrestled into being over the course of five years, Trouble in Paradise tried to make sense of a taxing time in her professional life through pristine pop music. Five years was a long time to spend making a record, fussing with every tiny detail, and although it didn’t achieve the commercial success of La RouxTrouble in Paradise was critically beloved. Touring that record as a solo act (she and Langmaid had parted ways before its release), in interviews at the time, she spoke enthusiastically about what she was working on next: it was underway, it was happening, it was good. But the years came and went with no sign of La Roux’s return. Had she given up music? Would she ever release another record? Was she sunning herself on a beach somewhere? Was she just taking a long break?

“Oh my god, I would love a break,” she shouts, throwing her head back and self-consciously fluffing her now-strawberry blonde quiff. The last five years have not been a holiday. “After the last album, I felt very unsettled, creatively and personally. Regardless of anyone or anything else, just within myself. I just felt like, ‘Why do I not feel like I’m in the right space?’” This insecurity crept into every area of her professional life. “We toured that record for six months and then it was like, ‘Why aren’t we touring this more?’ And I was still very aware that I had confidence issues.” More than stage fright, those issues had become all-consuming. Even before Trouble in Paradise, Jackson’s voice had disappeared. It wasn’t nodules or laryngitis. For a while, her doctors thought it could be cancer. But no, her voice was just... gone.

Talking about it today, it’s clear she still can’t believe that it happened. The reason that train whistle falsetto is a bit deeper, a bit less keening than on the first record, is because she had to learn to sing those high parts in a totally new way. “When I got it back, I could sing – I was able to sing – but it wasn’t in a way that I was enjoying. It still didn’t feel...” She pauses, searching for the right word. “...free.” During the Trouble in Paradise tour, she’d obsess about the parts of performances she felt hadn’t been perfect, giving herself complexes about certain songs, making her wary of going on stage at all. A singer, let alone one with such a recognisable tone, suddenly finding she has no voice, would have been enough to trigger a deep existential crisis – but losing her voice became both a symptom and a cause of everything else swirling in her life.

When the tour ended and she was three years into work on La Roux 3, things came to a head. “I just really felt, like, this is not how I wanted my life to go? I’m doing all these things and so many of them are great and I’ve just made an album I’m really proud of even though it took fucking forever, but... I still just didn’t feel right in my life.” She wasn’t lying in those 2015 interviews – she had started work on the next album. She’d spent three years working on it, collaborating with a number of new musicians. “I started a journey with some other music. I was halfway through that journey, probably more than halfway through, and I just realised that everything had got even worse.” Around the same time, her personal life was also entering a state of turmoil as she and her long-term partner split up. A ruffle of the hair. A pause, because she wants to downplay what happened: “Long story short, I had, like, a breakdown – a very, very, very mini breakdown, a very quick one.”

A breakdown – even a very very very mini one – is a big deal. Realising she was repeating the same patterns that had made making Trouble in Paradise such a hellish experience – the long, punishing hours, the years spent years fussing over every tiny detail – Jackson recalls getting up one day and thinking to herself: “What the fucking hell are you doing?” She decided on a scorched-earth policy. “I just had to stop right then and there. And everyone would ask, ‘What are you going to do?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know – but this has to stop.’ And so I stopped that project, pretty much overnight. No, not ‘pretty much’. It was overnight.”

“Long story short, I had, like, a breakdown – a very, very, very mini breakdown, a very quick one” – Elly Jackson, La Roux

It’s unlikely we’ll ever hear the lost La Roux record; even Jackson has only revisited it once since she scrapped it. Everything seemed to be falling apart around her. She’d chucked out three years’ work, her ten-year relationship had ended, and if she didn’t get her act together, she wouldn’t have a job, or a purpose, or anything. What, or who, was Elly Jackson at this point? She wasn’t sure. And then, to top it all off, her shower broke. So she started taking baths every morning instead. What was once an annoyance quickly became salvation. “I shit you not, I am never fucking fixing that shower,” she says now, a full-on bath evangelist. Time to think, space to breathe – turns out, that’s exactly what she needed to figure her life out.

The “Hello, I’ve scrapped the entire album I was making” phone call is probably not high up on the list of things that managers want to hear from their charges, but Jackson’s new manager, David Bianchi, took it in his stride. It turns out that he’d already come to the conclusion that starting over was exactly what she needed to do. “He said, ‘Okay, what do you want?’” Jackson says. “And I said, ‘I want you to leave me alone until I’ve done it.’ And that was in February last year.” In the end, after three years of grind, Supervision took just three months to write and arrange. “I called him in April and said I’m pretty much done.” 

Jackson says that she hates to share, but she’s certainly given collaboration a good whirl. She’s guested on tracks by New Order, Kanye West, and Tyler, the Creator; was for a long time part of a two-piece with Langmaid; and has tried to get albums off the ground with Nile Rodgers, an unnamed indie band (which may or may not have been White Lies), and more that didn’t even reach the rumour mill. Each seems to have gone down in flames. “I don’t like sharing. I’ve never liked it. I don’t like it when somebody says they don’t want a chocolate bar, and then when you come back from the shop they’re like, ‘Give us a bit of yours.’ It extends to everything else in my life as well. I got really bored of having to ask if there was something I wanted to try. And I realised that was part of why everything was taking so long.”

After nine years of wrestling songs into fruition, the track that kicked off this new new La Roux era was “Do You Feel”. She wrote it, alone, in her kitchen, in four days. It’s a shimmying swoop of a song, full of neat guitars and gently woven harmonies. The song is about her best friend, one of the people who helped her reach a happier, healthier place, with daily texts checking in and unquestioningly being there for her. Space was a key element too, both metaphorically and physically. “It’s just my ideas, in my way, in my flow, in my time, in my house. Suddenly there was freedom for me in my house. I could be creative all day, all the time.”

“I feel happier than I’ve ever felt... Totally free in my mind, free in myself” – Elly Jackson, La Roux

The flipside was that she found herself ricocheting between moods, one minute elated by the work she was creating, the next looking at a shelf and seeing something that would remind her of the relationship that had just ended. “It would remind me of the last ten years of my life and my relationship – which was basically a marriage, for all intents and purposes – and I’d suddenly find myself crying uncontrollably.” But it was always the work that brought her back. She found her feet and her confidence, avoiding calling people for help when she hit a snag and finishing the job. Supervision is a play on words. “I can literally see clearly now,” she says, laughingly conceding ground to her penchant for puns, “but also, I don’t need supervision anymore.”

Where La Roux barreled headfirst into 80s power pop meets nu-rave, and Trouble in Paradise leans into the funk of Chic-style production and elegant, Grace Jones-ish vocal shapes, Supervision avoids consciously referencing other eras. Of course, you can’t help but hear those “Let’s Dance” guitars, the flash of disco, or the warmth and shape of George Michael’s songcraft, but the only thing they really remind you of is... La Roux. The imagined nostalgia of Jackson’s music now not only harks back to that 80s that never really existed, but also to years that definitely did: 2009 and 2014, both very different eras to the one we’re living in now. The times may be harder, but there’s a much softer side to La Roux in 2019; you can feel her flexing her new vocal muscles, stretching ideas into songs that seem to fit like a patterned neon power suit. It feels lighter, more at home in its own skin.

A few days after our interview, Jackson calls to talk about something she felt she didn’t quite cover properly, a colleague she wants to give his dues. But she’s wary of how she does it. She previously expressed a desire to avoid getting into “feminism and the ‘sexism in the studio’ thing”, and we didn’t explicitly talk about what it’s like being a woman in music. Jackson is aware that being a woman in music is woven through everything she does, from the pervading idea that women are mouthpieces and men are puppet masters, to the reputation she’s previously been given for being difficult to work with. So when she talks about someone who worked on the album, who was key in its creation, she doesn’t want to leave any space for anyone to conflate his involvement with ownership of the work.

“Part of why I was able to do this – everything I arranged and wrote – was because of the confidence that my manager and Dan have given me,” she says carefully. The ‘Dan’ in question is Dan Carey, the producer who gave bands like Hot Chip, Bat For Lashes, and Black Midi a sense of cohesiveness and urgency, not to mention co-producing indie-adjacent pop hits like Kylie Minogue’s “Slow”. They’d worked together only once before, on La Roux, bonded by their mutual overenthusiasm for the distortion that gives “Quicksand” its dancefloor bounce. “We’d stayed in touch and seen each other at parties and stuff, but then there was a lot of bad press about me and my working with people, that I was impossible to work with – which isn’t true, but that was kind of the rumour...”

When she sent him the Supervision demos – “to ask if they were shit,” she says – there was a level of trust that she’d been lacking in other collaborations. “Just knowing that I had somewhere to go, where I completely, 100 per cent not only trusted the person, as a human being, but that he was 100 per cent going to understand where I was coming from and what I wanted,” she says, made all the difference. With her new way of writing songs in weeks rather than months, it made sense for her to work alongside a producer who also works on instinct. Although she didn’t stick rigidly to the philosophy of Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label, where every song is recorded in one day to “avoid faff”, the whole of Supervision was recorded in under two weeks. Bringing Carey in as a co-producer after everything was written and arranged meant that his input was supportive and right, but it hasn’t been baked in. These are La Roux’s songs, and she’s sweated them from the first note to the last. “I’m obviously scared things will happen like they have in the past,” Jackson sighs, “where all the credit will be given to the one with the penis.”

This inequality in the studio is also the foundation of her first single, “International Woman of Leisure”; a funky disco track that dovetails from sardonic falsetto to a chorus that could be an allegory for the last 18 months of the La Roux story: “Oh I can feel a change in the weather, where I’m going I know it’s much better.” With Supervision, Jackson has found a way to escape that world that had been built up around her. “I feel happier than I’ve ever felt. This sounds really ridiculous, but you know when you’re six or seven, and you’re happy? I feel like that. Totally free in my mind, free in myself.” Sometimes, you have to break down to build yourself back up again – and start every day with a bath.

La Roux’s new album Supervision is out February 7, 2020