Photography by Samuel Bradley. Styling by Justin Hamilton. Groomer: John Christopher
From Kate Bush to Amy Winehouse, Britain has long proved a wellspring of strong, singular, and iconoclastic female musicians. Elly Jackson, better known as La Roux, is nothing like Kate Bush or Amy Winehouse, of course, except in one key regard: “We’re quite ballsy women,” she says. “There’s definitely an attitude there.” She recalls being thrown out of classes for challenging the teachers. “I’ve always just questioned everything, and some people find it infuriating in me, and some find it refreshing,” she says, before quickly recon-sidering. “Actually, very few people find it refreshing.”
Away from the classroom, Jackson’s spiky, playful, anti-authoritarianism has found expression in two terrific albums. The first, her Grammy-winning 2009 debut, La Roux, put Jackson and her then-collaborator, Ben Langmaid, on the map as exponents of a refurbished ’80s synth-pop that found comparisons with early Eurythmics and the Human League. By her own account, the road to her 2014 follow-up,Trouble in Paradise, was long and arduous — she and Langmaid parted ways en route — but the result is an epic of muscular songwriting and slinky hooks, from the bouncy invocation of Tom Tom Club in “Kiss and Not Tell,” to the cool, disco-inflected “Sexotheque,” and “Tropical Chancer.”
Jackson, who grew up not far from Adele and Florence Welch, in London, attributes much of her distinctive voice to Britain’s cities. “I don’t think I would have been nearly as inspired to make music if not for the culture that surrounded me,” she says. “Tooting, just down the road, is completely Asian, and Brixton, where I live, is completely Jamaican and African, and all that mixed in with a very liberal kind of left-wing thinking derived from white hippies from the ’60s.”
It’s tempting to suggest that the dynamic of the city — its brashness and vitality — has rubbed off on her, too. “I definitely have always had a fire,” she says. “I get angry very easily, I get very emotional, I can cry with happiness at the drop of a hat.” She struggled in 2009 after her single “Bulletproof” reached number 1 in the U.K., and number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Celebrity proved a double-edged sword that earned her new fans but threatened to overwhelm what made her distinctive. “I’d meet people who didn’t even know my name was La Roux, but they knew the song,” she recalls. “They didn’t know what I was trying to represent, or that I was trying to be another woman to look up to, one who didn’t have her tits out, and who represented something else for people, sexually, all of which is fine — that’s the mark of having a common ground of success — but it’s not as easy to live with.”
That’s one reason it took five years for Jackson to release her sophomore album. La Roux may have lost fans in the interim — Trouble in Paradise was more of a critical than a commercial success — but don’t expect that to faze her. “There was too much possibility, after ‘Bulletproof,’ for me to be seen as a female pop star with not a great deal more to offer than some dance moves and a catchy melody, which I couldn’t live with at all,” she says. “Unless you believe 100% in what you do, it will get fiddled with and diminished. I’ve seen people lose their fire, and I don’t ever want to lose mine.” Don’t worry; she won’t.