Elly Jackson isn’t resting on any past laurels these days.
When the flame-Haired British frontwoman—who, as La Roux, her frothy duo with multi-instrumentalist Ben Langmaid, won a 2011 Best Electronic/Dance Album Grammy for her eponymous debut—took the San Francisco stage recently, opening for New Wave icons New Order at one of three sold-out California shows, she jumped right into material from her new, aptly-dubbed sophomore outing, Trouble in Paradise. Sporting a typically androgynous look—button-down men’s dress shirt; high-waisted, soot-suit-baggy trousers; her coif slicked back into a vintage rockabilly pompadour—she and her band (which no longer features Langmaid) started off quietly with the gorgeous new ballad “Let Me Down Gently,” then turned up the heat with a sinister-pulsed ‘70s disco dabbling, “Uptight Downtown.”
The crowd, which had been slowly filing in, stared dumbfounded at first, then began moving to the bass-heavy backbeat. It was impossible to resist. And Jackson kept turning up the hip-shaking heat, introducing more thumping Trouble tracks like “Cruel Sexuality,” the reggae-tinged “Tropical Chancer,” a sprightly “Sexotheque,” and the perfectly chugging synth-pop centerpiece “Silent Partner,” in which she sang murky musings about living in the shadows, how something inside was dragging her down, and how she truly treasures silence, in general. Her two vintage-single offerings—“Bulletproof” and “In For the Kill”—sounded almost dusty by comparison, as if they had been penned by some awkward, wide-eyed naif several decades ago.
Which, in essence, they were, sighs Jackson (who was 17, 18 when she wrote them), after finishing the gigs and having a closing-night powwow with New Order itself about career longevity and what makes a timeless pop classic like “Blue Monday” or “Love Vigilantes” tick. “And what we’re finding really strange is that the old songs that aren’t the singles from the first record weirdly intersperse quite well with the new songs, and we enjoy going from one to the other,” she explains. “And the singles are the ones that stick out the most now, and are the ones that I feel need the most work. But it’s difficult—you’re torn between not wanting to change people’s favorites, and I don’t like bands that do stuff for their own satisfaction, rather than the audience’s enjoyment.”
Jackson understands the irony involved. The only way she actually made it through to La Roux, Mach 2—now basically a solo act—was by clearly defining her personal space and grabbing the reins on a life that had grown so hectic it began to physically affect her, as anxiety attacks morphed into temporary voice loss. “It was really scary,” she recalls of that period, when she sought help from roughly 30 quacks before settling on vocal specialist Andy Evans and speech therapist Phillippa Ratcliff. “And this is a very weird comparison to draw, but it was like temporarily losing a small limb or like forgetting how to walk. Singing is something that I’ve always done so naturally and so effortlessly, so that’s one of the nastiest things that can ever happen to you—when something very simple and everyday becomes very complicated, and you overthink it.”
Ratcliff taught Jackson throat-soothing techniques, like laryngeal massage, tactile exercises, and avoiding air conditioning, plus a curious method called straw breathing, which she does before every concert. “My band says like I sound like a pigeon when I do it—I just make pigeon sounds through this wide straw,” she says, laughing. “But it’s very relaxing, and it gets your diaphragm in the right position, so you’re singing from the right place.” Through Evans, she learned how to conquer her fears psychologically. “Andy showed me that you have to be constantly aware of what’s going on around you and be in control of your own environment,” she adds. “And any time you feel a huge loss of control, or you feel yourself freaking out, you need to work it out—like ‘What is it? What’s bothering me?’—and then fix it, straightaway. And that can be down to things that aren’t even connected to my working life, or to music in any way. So it’s two different forms of therapy, I guess.”
Identifying what made her so anxious was crucial, says the singer, who initially followed her increasingly cluttered tour and promotional schedule without question. It wasn’t as if someone else grabbed her off the street, manufactured her image and created the worldwide demand that—post-Grammy—was overwhelming her as La Roux. Just to go on vacation, or even meet up with London friends, she had to scan her datebook nine months down the line. “But I went out searching for all this work, so it’s my business at the end of the day, my life,” she admits. “So my problem was that I saw the schedule as, not a chore, but something that somebody else is making you do, and there was something imprisoning about that. But what I realized is, it’s not imprisoning at all—it’s about the way you look at it, the way you perceive that schedule.”
The Langmaid situation didn’t help. Jackson had met her older mentor/co-writer when she was still in her teens, and he had dutifully shepherded the synthesizer-based La Roux concept through to completion. And his name is listed in the credits for several Trouble in Paradise tracks, too—he was definitely heavily involved in its genesis. But eventually, the pair had a falling out over directions the music was taking. She was thinking Grace Jones and Tom Tom Club; he wasn’t. So she continued sculpting the record with her longtime engineer, Ian Sherwin, and no longer even speaks to her old partner, who has wished her well in subsequent interviews.
The New Order gig made it clear—when the house lights went up and Jackson and company shuffled offstage and the then-packed house cheered in rafter-rattling unison—Trouble is a fan-pleasing hit and a great aesthetic leap forward—or into the glittery, disco-balled past—that should bring a bevy of new La Roux boosters onboard. Does Langmaid understand that his fledgling has left the nest? Jackson pauses, chooses her words carefully. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “I don’t know whether he gets it or not. But I don’t think it really matters anymore.” She doesn’t want to sound ungrateful for all of his support, she adds. “But there is a certain distance that someone else can get you, and the rest of the way, you have to go yourself. You can be taken a couple of steps by somebody else, but then you’ve got to take on what you’ve learned from them and take it somewhere. And you are the only person who knows how to do that.”
Jackson understands that it’s important to always claim some “me” time. Two Trouble numbers—“Tropical Chancer” and the idyllic beach ballad “Paradise is You”—were inspired by the unnamed Caribbean island where she regularly retreats to clear her head, for a month or two at a time. And no, the ivory-skinned artist growls, she doesn’t sit around, soaking up the rays. “I fucking hate sunbathing—I don’t understand it, and I think it’s such a waste of time,” she says. “I like sitting in the shade and reading, just contemplating things.” She’s less forthcoming about her romantic life. “I’m, uhh, very happy,” she allows. “Let’s put it that way. I don’t understand people who talk about their personal life—I find it very strange when people want to parade their relationships around in front of others. I mean, you won’t see me getting married in Hello magazine, that’s for sure!”
Ultimately, Jackson is glad she took time off, from 2011 to 2013, to reconnoiter, get her La Roux bearings. “I just didn’t see the point in returning until I was truly ready,” she concludes. “And now I know to always give myself time creatively to do what I need to do and to stay focused and never lose sight of myself, regardless of what anyone else thinks or any outside pressure that I might feel.
“So I will always just do the right thing for the music. Because every time I’ve strayed from that and not followed me heart? Everything just goes tits-up, basically!”