Elly Jackson: 'It's not just being catchy'

On the eve of the Ivor Novello Awards, La Roux frontwoman Elly Jackson reflects on the mysterious, cathartic and collaborative art of songwriting

Wednesday 19 May 2010 00:00 BST

One thing I've learned from the success we've had is that you never quite know what makes a hit record. Once you've had some success, you might think that whatever you write will at least get a few spins. But it doesn't work like that. Following the release of "In for the Kill" and "Bulletproof", we released another single and it didn't do amazingly well. It's so difficult to judge. Often the song that is the writer's favourite isn't the public's favourite at all.

The magic ingredients that turn a song into a successful single are very hard to pin down. The biggest single is not necessarily the nicest song on the record, or the one that makes you feel the best. There's just some mysterious element to it and contrary to popular belief, it's not just about how catchy it is.

I don't know anything about what made a hit in the 1990s, but I do know that what made a hit back then was completely different to what makes a hit now. I find very angular music, like my own – quite aggressive-sounding music – is popular now. In the 80s, there were a lot of very happy, cheesy melodies, and that doesn't work that well on radio anymore. Even love songs that have formed the mainstay of the charts for the last 25 years struggle to do well these days.

I think you have to approach love songs in a different way now. "Bulletproof" is a very different love song. In fact, it's a relationship song about being fed up – fed up of treating myself like this, and of letting myself be treated like this. It's saying I'm not going to do this anymore, or make the same mistakes anymore. It's been very good for women who are just breaking up with men, or independent women. It's like my Destiny's Child song, I guess.

I remember my lawyer saying that "Bulletproof" had been great for him. I asked why, and he said he had been breaking up with his girlfriend, and their relationship had been on and off. Apparently, "Bulletproof" was their song for a while. But people use our songs for so many different things. Someone thought "In for the Kill" was about a gay boy coming out of the closet.

It must have been said a million times by songwriters at the Ivor Novello Awards, but it's so true that a song means whatever you want it to mean. The tracks that have always meant a lot to me are the ones where I'd swear that they were written about my life. Someone sent that song down from the heavens just for me to listen to, personally, and no one else, and I'm the only one that loves it this much. That's when music becomes a religion. I'm an atheist, so it certainly does for me. It's that same sense of security of thinking that you're not the only one.

People are surprised when I say that the song "Right Down the Line" by Gerry Rafferty has always given me that sense. It's one of the weirdest facts about La Roux, but he was probably the biggest influence on me, musically. City to City is one of my favourite albums of all time; I love his tone of voice, and you never hear a Scottish accent anymore.

Now, it's very difficult to make any producer or mixer do what you hear on that record. You have to beat them around the head with a fish to get someone to leave the backing vocals at a slightly lower level than the lead vocal, but not to put them in the background – to leave them as a massive stack of vocals that runs through the track like a slab of caramel that's been poured all over it. With some voices, it's just textures, tones and harmonies that sound great.

In La Roux, Ben and I always try to work it so that the music presents the mood of the track. Even if you listen to "Bulletproof" without vocals, it sounds defiant, and it's relentless. "In for the Kill" is supposed to have a feeling of striding, of purposefully doing something. You have to create a soundscape that goes with the track.

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That's the essence of songwriting for me. It's not just about writing lyrics and melody, it's the whole thing. We're never going to be one of those groups that writes 100 songs then picks the best ten. If we start a song and we don't like it after half an hour, we just don't go back to it. Ben won't even let me put a proper beat in until we've written the song. You can always tell a good song, no matter what style it's in, by whether you can pick up a guitar, or go on the piano, and play it.

"Bulletproof" is a good example. We started it, and it felt really good. We had a great verse, and then we did about five choruses. The lyric went "This time I'll be... " and there was too much of a gap. We'd both been sitting there in silence for ages trying to work it out. Suddenly, we both looked up and went "This time, baby" and thought, "Yes, let's get it down." I do remember that when we wrote that, we thought "Call the manager, we've got the one".

All of the songs on our debut album changed so much over the years. I think we did 57 versions of "Tigerlily". "Quicksand" was written on guitar. "In for the Kill", I wrote the verse and chorus on my guitar at home. There was an article on the floor with the headline "In for the Kill". I was writing about going to Paris and telling someone that I loved them, so that was just so appropriate.

Maybe when I'm in my late 30s or 40s, I might want to be just a songwriter for other people. But certainly for now, with everything I write, I couldn't bear to hand it over to anyone else. When I write a song, what makes me finish writing it is that I'm instantly thinking about singing it live, and how it's going to make people feel in the live environment. I want to execute that, and I don't want anyone else to get their hands on it.

My mother's friend said that she remembered asking me, when I was three or four, what I wanted to do when I was older, and apparently I said I was going to be a songwriter. I didn't say that I wanted to be a pop star. I just wanted to make good music, perform it well and be a professional singer-songwriter, and do my job properly.

When it comes to performing, I refuse to mime. Even if I turn up to a television show where they only mime, I absolutely point-blank refuse. If you can sing, you can sing. If you can't sing, go away. I don't think there's any excuse for it.

Recognition is important for any artist and getting a nomination for an Ivor Novello Award is more important to me and Ben than any other award. I think it is for any songwriter. If you're a pop star, Grammys and Brit Awards are what you want. But this was something Ben and I spoke about. He said, "As long as we get an Ivor, I don't care." It's a proper award that considers the work that goes into songwriting. It's not about who sold the most records, who got the most videos played, who wore the craziest outfits or who won The X Factor. It's about who wrote a great song that punched through to all ages and all walks of life. It's recognising a craft.

But success is a strange thing. I definitely don't feel any less pressure now than I did before we sold lots of records. Last year, on the weekend that "Bulletproof" was No 1, I had Glastonbury to play. Nobody could have convinced me that there was going to be anybody at that gig. I thought, "No one knows who we are. This is Glastonbury. Maybe somebody knows who we are in Hoxton. No one's going to turn up, I'm going to look like an idiot, and I'm so nervous." And there were 10,000 people there.

I did that at every single festival all of last year and, still, this year. At Coachella recently, I thought "There's not going to be anyone there," and there always is. I feel that if I always think the worst, I won't be disappointed.

So my advice for anyone starting out would be that it's really important to work out exactly what you're going to be happy with. All you want, as in any job, is to be recognised for the hard work you've put in.

Taken from the Ivor Novello Essays published at Basca.org.uk

"In for the Kill" by La Roux is nominated in the Best Comtemporary Song category at The Ivor Novello Awards, which take place tomorrow

For further reading: 'Ivor Novello: A Portrait of a Star' by Paul Webb (Haus Publishing)

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