Interview

La Roux: ‘The gay community are dying for you to label yourself’

Elly Jackson, back as La Roux after a six-year hiatus, talks to Alexandra Pollard about falling out with her record label, why she’ll never write another ‘Bulletproof’ and the difficulty of navigating her sexuality in public

Wednesday 05 February 2020 20:41 GMT
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‘I wasn’t ready to be on a pedestal of like, ‘I represent all gay people’: The musician is still irked by the obsession people had with her sexuality
‘I wasn’t ready to be on a pedestal of like, ‘I represent all gay people’: The musician is still irked by the obsession people had with her sexuality (Andrew Whitton)

Of course everyone wanted another f***ing ‘Bulletproof’, even my parents wanted another ‘Bulletproof’,” says La Roux’s Elly Jackson, feet up on the radiator, her stool tilted so far back that she’s about three degrees away from a nasty accident. “But it was obviously not gonna happen. A lot of people were like, ‘You should have stuck with Ben [Langmaid] – you could have had commercial, formulaic pop hit after commercial, formulaic pop hit.’ Did I want that? Did I f***.”

Jackson, back after a rocky, six-year hiatus, is a surprising interviewee. Dressed in a hoody and tracksuit bottoms, preferring to look out of her rehearsal studio’s window rather than make eye contact, the 31-year-old has the body language of a surly teenager – but not the reticence of one. She is almost uncomfortably forthright, sounding off about her former label, the clashes she’s had with the gay community (despite being gay herself) and her issues with gender identity. Although she’s generous company, when she tells me she once sacked her entire team in a fit of pique, I’m not entirely surprised.

Before things went wrong, La Roux were a duo. Jackson met her former co-writer and producer, Ben Langmaid, through a mutual friend. After dabbling in acoustic folk, the pair found their sound – a futuristic, falsetto take on Eighties synth music. If the punchy, piercing “In for the Kill” put La Roux on the map, its follow-up, “Bulletproof”, scrawled their name on it in neon pen.

Soon, nearly every singer around was trying to emulate La Roux. Kanye West declared himself a fan, recruiting Jackson for his 2010 track “All of the Lights” and remixing “In for the Kill”, and the charts became saturated with a sound carved in Jackson’s image. But just a year after the release of her 2009 self-titled debut album, which went on to win a Grammy, she declared the genre “so over”. Synth music “was my thing”, she said, “and I’m bored with it”.

By the time La Roux came to make a second record, the cracks were starting to show. Jackson felt she’d outgrown the sound that had made her famous, but everyone else – including Langmaid and the band’s label, Polydor – disagreed. In a surprisingly husky tone, given her famously high-pitched singing voice, she remembers the kinds of things they would say to her. “‘If it sounds like it can be popular, why would you not be making it? You could make a million pounds. Who cares if you like it or not? Who gives a f***, Elly? It’ll sell all over the world.’” She scoffs. “Well I do care.”

Langmaid left the band acrimoniously in 2012. La Roux’s second album, the aptly named Trouble in Paradise, came out two years later. The record was an eloquent, elegant piece of work, but it didn’t exactly make a dent in the charts, and the trouble wasn’t over. Jackson started making a third album, but once again, “I just found myself in situations where I felt slightly manipulated”. A panic attack mid-holiday was the final straw; she realised she needed to change everything. She left her label, ditched the record, broke up with her girlfriend of 10 years and started over.

The result is Supervision, which she’s releasing under her own label, Supercolour Records. It’s a slinky, soulful record with distinct George Michael vibes and a more organic sound than anything she’s done before. Writing it was a “breeze”, says Jackson, “because there was nothing standing in my way”. She made most of it at her kitchen table, with only a guitar, a bass and an old computer, and found the constrictions strangely liberating. “That lack of choice was a great thing. One of them would always fill the gap I wanted it to fill.”

She decided to stop overthinking the lyrics, too, and some of what she came out with surprised her. On the languid yet jittery “Do You Feel”, the first song she wrote for the record, she sings, “Do you feel like a man in the morning/ but you feel like a woman at night? Don’t you realise it’s all just nothing?”

Jackson has always had a Bowie-esque androgyny about her, all quiffs and patterned trouser suits, and says she believes there are “at least four or five genders”. But she doesn’t really care which one people use to describe her. “I couldn’t give a f*** if somebody mistakes my gender,” she says, “because I’m not that petty. I don’t care if somebody calls me giraffe, sir, madam, boy, child, binary, non-binary. I couldn’t give a f***. I’m not gonna get offended, because I know what I am. And I feel like that’s the place that we need to work to. Not this place of, ‘I can only be OK with myself if a stranger labels me correctly.’ I’m confused by that. But maybe it’s because I’ve never been through certain things that other people have been through.”

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I’ve never been misgendered, so I haven’t been through those things either, I say. “I’ve been misgendered. I don’t care. I got called sir three days ago by a delivery guy. And then they look at me for more than two and a half seconds and they’re like, ‘Oh, sorry, I thought it was a bloke then.’ I’m like, ‘It’s fine, I didn’t cut my hair and dress like this so everyone could think I was Gwyneth Paltrow.’ I am making some choices here. I take responsibility for it.”

Those “choices”, as Jackson puts it, led to speculation about her sexuality from the word go. Look back at old interviews and you will see her toiling with how open to be. “Everyone just thinks I’m a raging lesbian and I want to see everyone’s boobs,” she said in 2009. “Sorry, I’m not.” A year later, she said, “I can appreciate other women. Beyoncé is beautiful. But I find men or women sexy. I’m not saying I’m bisexual, I’m just sexual.” When an interviewer asked her if she had “swung both ways”, she said, “Not necessarily in practice, in theory,” before adding, “I wouldn’t say even if I had.”

Throughout this time, she had a girlfriend. When I suggest that the repeated, fading refrain on “Automatic Driver” – “After I’d waited so long to find you/ Why did I let myself run and hide you?” – might be an allusion to that, she doesn’t disagree. But she’s still irked by the obsession people had with her sexuality.

“I was 21,” she says, “and I was like, ‘I’ve only just realised I’m in love with my best mate, can you f***ing chill out? Can you leave me alone?’ I wasn’t ready to be on a pedestal of like, ‘I represent all gay people.’ I just wasn’t ready to say that.”

‘I didn’t cut my hair and dress like this so everyone could think I was Gwyneth Paltrow’: Jackson says she does not care that she’s been misgendered
‘I didn’t cut my hair and dress like this so everyone could think I was Gwyneth Paltrow’: Jackson says she does not care that she’s been misgendered (Andrew Whitton)

She struggled, too, with the idea that she should put herself in a box. “People made out like I was really backwards about it, but if we have to state it, it’s almost like having to state that you’ve got a disease or something. I swear to God, labelling yourself creates segregation. It drives me mad. The gay community are dying for you to label yourself, and I’m so confused as to how they think that’s helpful. It’s where I’ll always have friction with some part of the gay community, even though I’m a f***ing gay person. How does that make any sense?”

I understand her point. Nobody should feel pressured to label themselves if they don’t want to. But as someone who grew up poring through interviews, looking for someone to identify as queer so I would feel less alone, I also understand why people looked to her for hope.

“Yeah, that’s totally valid,” she says. “I guess, it took me so long to identify as gay, but it wasn’t a hard transition for me. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m in love and they love me back.’ So I was never looking for somebody else that was talking about being gay. But I can properly understand, especially if you knew you were gay from the age of 12 or 13, that by the time you were 16 you’d be like, ‘I need to f***ing read about some gay people.’ But everybody knows what I am. It’s not like it’s hidden. It’s not like everybody thinks I’m your average straight girl. I just don’t see the point of a label. I’m called Elly. My name is fine. Thank you.”

A few minutes later, though, she circles back to the topic and concedes that it wasn’t just that. She had seen other musicians be open about their sexuality from a very early stage, and it had affected their careers. When her straight friends would go to shows by gay artists, they’d report back that they had felt “unwelcome” because they were so in the minority (which is probably how the queer people at those shows felt just about everywhere else). “I was really overly paranoid that my whole show would just be full of gay women,” she says. “And that it would just become a gay scene thing. I don’t mind if there’s 50 per cent this, 50 per cent that, but I just didn’t want it to be lent totally straight and I didn’t want it to be lent totally gay. I think that’s what drove me to not talk about this stuff for a long time.

“Obviously now I’ve realised, ‘God you were a bit weird about it,’” she adds. “You definitely were a bit weird about it. It’s not a f***ing big deal. And maybe it’s easier to talk about now because it is 10 years later. You can’t take that for granted. ‘Why do I feel so much more comfortable talking about this now?’ Well, you’ve been through s*** loads and everything’s moved on in a really big way.”

In every way, Jackson’s ready to move on. As the release of her first album free from the constraints of a major label approaches, she is equal parts anxious and upbeat. Doing everything herself – from fiddly production tweaks to ordering neon paint for music videos – has taken its toll. “But it’s not as stressful as being pushed into things because somebody else owns your record and they own your time.”

The other day, someone messaged her on Instagram to ask why she wasn’t selling her first two albums on her website. “Think about it,” she says. “I don’t own them. I don’t own the rights to them. They’re not mine. They might as well not have my name on them. Polydor could sell them, but they won’t, because they’d rather that just went in the bin. The less well I do the better, for them.” I laugh. “No, seriously.”

Now she’s a free agent, Jackson can just be herself. “It’s like, shackles are off,” she says. “I feel so much more relaxed about being La Roux. I just feel like I can be me now, and I’m not bothered about anything else. I just couldn’t give a f***.”

Supervision is released on Friday 7 February

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