Elly Jackson has a lot to say. The musician, who trades as La Roux, talks for half an hour longer than our intended interview slot, then carries on for another 20 minutes after I’ve turned off the dictaphone. When we finally wrap up, she looks out of the window of her publicist’s Brixton office to see that she’s been up here for so long that she’s been given a parking ticket.
Well, she has a lot to get through. It’s been over five years since her last album – the tellingly titled Trouble in Paradise – four years since she last toured, and a full decade since she was the hottest thing in pop, hitting number one with her invincible single Bulletproof and making her self-titled debut album a platinum seller. Now 31, she’s back with a new single, the empowering disco strut International Woman of Leisure, has an even better one, Gullible Fool, coming next week, and her third album will arrive in February. It’s very much a fresh start.
“I was really ready for the last 10 years to just DIE,” she says with huge emphasis. “Please say I had a smile on my face when I said that. It’s not in an angry or bitter way, but that cycle has ended and it was a very welcome ending. I did a lot of things wrong. You have to practice to be good at something, and I don’t just mean being good at going on stage or writing songs. I mean good at being a human being.”
The red Mr Whippy quiff that made her so recognisable in 2009 has been replaced by a floppy strawberry blonde style that she runs her fingers through constantly. She looks like David Bowie on the cover of Low. She’s still supremely stylish in angular blue trousers, purple Converse, a roll neck top and an elaborate array of rings and necklaces, with one earring in her left ear like a pirate. She’s forthright and passionate, ranty at times, uncensored and sweary. At one point I use Coldplay’s new release as an example in a discussion about albums getting longer these days, and innocently ask if she likes them. She doubles over laughing.
I’ve been sent the eight songs of the new album, which is called Supervision, and as its release is still a fair way off I ask if that’s the whole thing or just a sampler. That’s a mistake. “Yes that’s the record! Why do people think that’s weird?” she replies. “I’ve noticed some people are like, ‘That’s not an album.’ It’s 48 minutes long! What kind of weird greediness is this? And I’m not being funny, but with these long albums, is it just me or aren’t most of the tracks crap?”
She has earned a reputation for being musically meticulous, making synthpop songs steeped in funk and disco, with each part existing crisply in its own space. You can hear George Michael’s Faith in the new song Do You Feel, and Chic in the snappy rhythm guitar of International Woman of Leisure. It must have been perfectionism that also caused there to be five years between her first and second albums, right?
“No. This is what really annoys me. I’m not the procrastinator. The people that were involved in the second record, that’s on them. It’s got nothing to do with me,” she insists. “I know what I want from a song. I don’t want to discuss it and okay it with somebody. I don’t want to think something’s finished and come in the next week and they’ve changed it beyond recognition. I just want to fucking do it and put it out.”
La Roux was originally a duo with Ben Langmaid, who co-wrote the songs but wasn’t involved in the gigs. He left the group in 2012, two years before Trouble in Paradise was released, and ended up with five co-writing credits among the nine tracks. Engineer Ian Sherwin was the main collaborator after that. All nine are uniformly fabulous, with a fuller, more expansive sound than the debut, but although the album entered the UK chart at number six, it left the top 40 again the following week.
Jackson didn’t like the perceived sexist dynamic – that she was the face and the voice but others were doing the heavy lifting, even though it was her playing all the instruments. “There was lots of talk about ‘the keyboard wizard’ when I’ve always played all the keyboard parts. I’m not gonna lie – I’ve beeen extremely angry about that for years. It’s very, very hard knowing that the character of all of those parts and grooves has come from you and your personality, but somebody else is being credited with it, and that they’re not correcting people either. They’re fine to take credit for your work.”
It was a stressful time in other ways too. She split with her long-term girlfriend, who she had known since school. She fell out with her record company, Polydor, and is releasing her new music on her own label. “I really didn’t like them and they didn’t like me. I didn’t like all the decisions that were being made without me. It was really unpleasant.” She also brings up, and then retreats from, a discussion of money issues.
“You’re not allowed to complain because you have all this success so you’d better shut up. People don’t want to hear that you had all your money stolen from you and your accountant screwed you over. I don’t want to start talking about specific people but I had the debt, the near-bankruptcy, all that crap,” she says. “People don’t want to hear that. You’re not allowed to say that if you let yourself feel anything for more than five minutes you’d cry for three weeks.”
This pressure had been building for years. Towards the end of touring the first album it manifested itself physically in the worst way: the falsetto that makes her sound so distinctive just disappeared. She saw a performance anxiety specialist to work through it. “I couldn’t sing on stage or off it, so it wasn’t stage fright. It was life fright,” she explains. “You’re just really, really uncomfortable, so much so that your larynx has decided to go on strike. I thought I had throat cancer.”
Now finally, she has found a working process that suits her: completely alone, in a studio she has set up in her Herne Hill kitchen. “I walk around the garden, look at the trees, see what the birds are doing, then go back in the house and review what I did before lunch. It’s so nice.” Another producer, Dan Carey, was involved as an encouraging friend and then, once Jackson had finished the writing, when the time came to record the new music. She says each new track was recorded in about five hours – an unprecedented pace for her.
With this new creative freedom, she’s primed to show people what she can really do, and thinks she could handle big success this time around if it happened again. “With Bulletproof, I can’t explain to people how much of a shock it was. I didn’t know myself. I was genuinely too young. Now everything is so much easier. I’m much calmer,” she says. “I’m already four tracks into another record. I’ll never make anyone wait that long again.”
International Woman of Leisure is out now on Supercolour. The album Supervision will be released on Feb 7.
La Roux plays Feb 5-6 at Fabric, EC1. fabriclondon.com