La Roux's Uncomfortable Paradise

Five years after her debut album and La Roux is finally back. She's been listening to a lot of dub and putting her anxiety behind her.

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Aug 1 2014, 9:00am

A jolt went through me when I read the headline: La Roux was back? Five years ago Elly Jackson and Ben Langmaid brought their ice-cold Britpop to Stateside shores, snatching up Grammys and high-profile collaborators like Kanye West for their debut self-titled album. And then… nothing. No follow-up albums, no leaked material. Instead there were reports of Elly losing her piercing soprano from over-touring and anxiety, not to mention Ben's decision to leave the group (they parted ways in 2012). Everyone expected the pair to capitalize on that critical surge of success, but pop stardom seemed to be slipping in the other direction. They were split asunder.

At last Elly has a new album, the aptly named Trouble In Paradise, and unsurprisingly, it's something of an artistic about-face in comparison to the dynamite power of "Bulletproof" or "In For The Kill." It’s still essentially electro-pop, but her falsetto is dialed back a notch and the music is fraught with tropical unrest and undercurrents of calypso, dancehall, and ragga. Some of this comes from Elly, but these influences can also be traced to Ian Sherwin, her engineer and new de facto collaborator.

When I ask Elly if she'd ever work with Ben again, she replies, “Definitely not.” She doesn't want to talk about Ben, she’s flipped the page and wants to discuss the music, the mood. I'm getting powerful Dirty Dancing vibes from this new record—a subject which we thoroughly delve into—along with the vulgarity of modern sexualized pop, how she dealt with anxiety, and the evolution of her signature androgynous style.

Noisey: This album has a pretty strong theme what were the inspirations behind the sound and the concepts of paradise and trouble?
Elly Jackson:
The whole title for the album came from "Tropical Chancer." It’s the ultimate trouble in paradise dilemma—a guy needs to escape from somewhere that we’d consider paradise—which is often the case in a lot of places that we holiday or vacation. We find it charming but a lot of the people there are actually quite perturbed by the tourism. Even though they know they need it, they actually only want it so that they can go out and find a better life for themselves. But also, the sunniness of the record became more and more important each day.

It’s also about the mood—something beautiful and pensive—‚there's just something not quite right about it. I wanted a paradise on the front cover, but it has to be an uncomfortable paradise, a paradise you're not sure if you want to be in or not, but one that’s nice to look at.

I love that idea of not quite paradise. But I was still drawn to the sweetness of "Paradise Is You" more than any song on the record. Can you talk about the process behind that?
That one came quite early on. It was just a piano song I'd written at home. Ben and I spoke about the pleasure beach of the British holiday scene, and we kept bringing it back to a line that would maybe be in a brochure. It's just a very honest song about the way I feel about a particular person.

This is one of the only songs that has a soulful element, the rest of the album has a very different sound.
Ian really brought in dub influences. He grew up dancing to a lot of jungle and dub and stuff like that. I've always loved ragga, reggae, and dancehall and he brought more of that in it. He pointed to the dub references in The Clash and how they dressed it up in their own way. We got really into Dillinger and King Tubby. Obviously there’s that whole theme of paradise, but also a bit of trouble, like dub can be a bit troubled.

There's a few different references to sex on the album, what is your take on the relationship between sexuality and pop music?
I found the way people are sexualized in music to be fairly vulgar. The best way to express yourself is to do it through your art, and I really wanted to talk about the cheekiness of sex, or the more tongue-in-cheek side of it, without being vulgar or boring. Having music that sounds sexy rather than talkingabout sex. I think that's something that Ian and I and a lot of people miss in music. Not about what the song is about, but just about the way the music makes you feel. Like the most sexual part of a song will be the middle eight where the song becomes quite sexual and melancholic at the same time—it makes you feel yearned for.

That's the kind of sexuality that I wanted to get across on this record. We tried to make it as sexy musically as possible. It's weird. I think it's really odd the way that people have picked up on the way that they think it's a record about sex, although it is musically, it isn't in terms of its subject matter. There's just so many different stories on the record.

Not even musically, but listening to it, what I kept thinking of was Flashdance and Dirty Dancing because both of those movies feel like that to me: beautiful, but not quite right. Even Dirty Dancing—they're like in this paradise but there are terrible undercurrents.
Yeah, think of the assault scene! I like that comparison. Everyone who is a female and of a certain age has a soft spot for Dirty Dancing, even if they wouldn't put it on on a Saturday night. I think it's the soundtrack, there's three or four awful songs on it—there's that one about she's the wind in my tree, which is really terrible—but that soundtrack has also got some brilliant records. "Stay"? That's genius! That's what makes it all the more watchable.

Totally! Those movies are also great because of the clothes, so let's talk about your personal style which channels androgyny in an amazing way. When did you become drawn to that style? It reminds me of Katharine Hepburn because it's powerful, but also there are hints of feminine.
It took me a long time to actually accept it, and people say it as if it’s a decision. It's certainly not a decision. I didn't even know what the word androgyny was until someone told me that. I always just wanted to wear mad clothes. There's been times in my life when I was brave enough to do it and times when I haven't. I think it took me until I was seventeen to really embrace it. When I went to college and I didn't have a uniform is when I came out of my shell and started discovering the kind of clothes that I like to wear, which took a while. I'd buy clothes that I thought I liked and they'd feel too boyish, or I'd buy clothes that I thought I liked and they'd feel too feminine. It took quite a while to find the clothes I feel like myself in. Even if I don't have my hair a certain way I literally don't feel like myself at all.

la roux

Well that's the other thing I was going to ask you about—your hair! Every single thing I read leads with your hair, people love talking about it.
I know. It's hilarious!

When did you start wearing it like that?
When I cut my hair I felt like, “Now I make sense.” I used to have long hair, no wonder I felt weird! I just thought it would look so weird to cut my hair, but I'd always wanted short hair since I was a kid. I liked the idea of waking up and not having these locks to train, and it so didn't suit me either. I just got so sick of it one day that I was finally like, “I'm chopping my hair off.” Then, obviously because I was into a lot of 80s bands, the natural progression from there was to play with my hair and I enjoyed how changing my hair made my head look completely different. I just wanted to have a hairstyle no one else had.

You've also talked about losing your voice and the struggle with anxiety. Do you think those two things are directly related? You kind of lost the thing that brought the anxiety on?
They're definitely connected. It turned out there was nothing wrong physically with my voice, I’d just gotten out of whack for whatever reason. It was my body going on strike in a way.

I know that you and Ben aren't on friendly terms. Do you ever see that being resolved?
No, definitely not.

So how did it come about that you were working more closely with Ian?
We were already all working together. He was our engineer for the first record as well, not from the beginning, but he was there for a lot of sessions. Ben and I both loved him and thought he was amazing at his job. Some of my favorite bits on the first record we did with Ian. He's a brilliant engineer and understood my voice very well. Ben and I both wanted to work with him again. He actually left a project working with My Bloody Valentine to work with us, which was super nice. The record that we started to make became something that I thought Ian understood more than Ben understood, and that became a difficult situation. It's not a public argument in any way and it shouldn't be. It's very sad that the record that we spent two years making is focused on that in any way. It should be about the music.

How does it feel to release an album when it’s been so long since your debut?
I don't think I could've come back to performing the record or even finishing doing the vocals on the record had I not sorted out my anxiety issue. I needed it to feel like there was no way my body or my mind could ever do that to me again. It took quite a long time to get to a space where I felt strong enough in my mind that that would never happen again. But I also realized it wasn't just a psychological thing. The tour scheduling wasn't tailored around the type of voice that I had and the amount that I was singing on the first record was exhausting. The amount of falsetto I had to sing every night… if you speak to any vocal coach they're like yeah, if you're singing that much, it's not going to work. The voice is the most important thing. I put my foot down quite a lot. I'm good at putting my foot down.

Follow Caitlin on Twitter - @harmonicait.