Over the past two years, Britain has warmed to the noir-pop fantasia of La Roux's self-titled debut and the gender-mysterious aesthetic that its frontwoman brought with it. (The outfit's name, French for "the red-haired one," mixes masculine and feminine forms; says Jackson, "That's the whole androgyny thing. And I'm a quarter French, and I've got red hair, so obviously that all gets mixed in.") The album peaked at number one on the U.K. pop charts, earning Jackson and Langmaid a slew of approbations -- nominations for the Mercury Prize, Best New Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards, British Breakthrough Act at the BRIT Awards, Best New Band at the NME Awards -- and garnering plenty of stateside attention, too. In the U.S. her single, "Bulletproof" broke into the top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100 and the band made several television appearances, including Jimmy Kimmel Live and, oddly, a performance on The View, where Jackson sang the single at the end of an hour otherwise absorbed with discussions of Lindsay Lohan's prison cell and an interview with Christine Baranski. With her penchant for oversize menswear, love of Gucci loafers and knack for writing her own songs, Jackson might not be the typical pop star, but neither then is her appeal restricted to underground clubs and after-hours parties.
The truth of it is that Jackson and Langmaid have a talent for penning catchy tunes that appeal to a wide audience. (Langmaid, as Jackson's co-writer and producer, is a silent partner in La Roux; he doesn't appear live or in any of the band's videos and steers clear of interviews. "I swear to God, he does exist," Jackson says with a laugh. "Listening to the record, it's me and Ben. Anything else [related to La Roux] is me. I think Ben would say the same thing.") The songs are skeletal synthpop constructions -- bleak, robotic arrangements that showcase Jackson's voice and the emotion it conveys. The frontwoman has explained that the album was written about a traumatizing relationship, and that the recording process was, at times, difficult. "I don't think I realized how darked out I was on that first record," she says. "When I was making it, there were literally a handful of times that I'd turn up to Ben's, slump down on the floor and just cry." The anguish is audible on tracks like "Quicksand," an ominous, mid-tempo dance track in which the singer obsesses over a lover's indifference, or "Tigerlily," where Jackson imagines herself as a stalker consumed by the twisted psychology of being rejected. The latter includes an unnerving piece of spoken word, voiced by Jackson's father, that's reminiscent of Vincent Price's work in "Thriller": "Lurking in the dark, there's someone who breathes you night and day/ There's a friend who wants so much more/ and if they can't have you, they'll never let you walk away."
"When you really, really love someone and you just can't make them love you back..." Jackson trails off. "Everyone knows the feeling. Apart from death, it's one of the hardest things in life to deal with."
While much of La Roux's debut examines despair in meticulous detail, Jackson shines on the songs where she picks herself up. Chief among them is "Bulletproof," an anthemic, disco-tinged number that's all about regaining -- and maintaining -- control. In what amounts to a declaration of independence, she sings, "Been there, done that, messed around/ I'm having fun, don't put me down/ I'll never let you sweep me off my feet." The song's energy and message of female empowerment makes for a clear hit, one that's still resonating at clubs and on the radio. (And if her choice of cover songs is any indication, that bad relationship has been totally inverted; she now plays the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" during live sets, a song that's included on Sidetracked, a new mix CD by La Roux that features spiritual brethren like Japan, Heaven 17 and Fever Ray.)
Similarly, Jackson's perspective on the video she made for "Bulletproof" represents a kind of growth. In the clip by French directorial team the Holograms, Jackson walks despondently through a CGI world, clad in shiny black American Apparel leggings, grey high-tops and a zebra-striped jacket festooned with dangling neon-colored geometric shapes. "When we made the record, I was basically dressed '80s," Jackson says. "I wore loads of leggings -- not like Flashdance, you understand -- and loads of patterns that didn't work together. Like the outfit in the 'Bulletproof' video. I don't like that video now. I don't like those clothes now, either. I would never wear any of those clothes, ever. But I guess that shows how much you can change in a year, right?"
Despite the bromides of the "Bulletproof" video, Jackson's music and emphasis on style have brought her to the attention of a variety of creatives outside of pop music. Designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf, for instance, invited Jackson to play an intimate set at their Spring 2011 menswear show in Paris -- just Jackson and her touring keyboardist. Over email, the designers wrote to say that they were intrigued by her masculine sensibility: "She plays with gender stereotypes, and we find that brave and inspiring. She has a unique personality and we are drawn to such uncompromising figures. It is also refreshing to see how successful she is, just being herself." The duo dressed Jackson in a custom blue-silk jacket and black tuxedo pants, a reflection of the sort of look that Jackson's drawn to naturally. "Her personal style is ultra-boyish, and we loved dressing her in our Monsieur line. It was the first thing that came to mind when we thought about the show: to dress her, a girl, in our men's stuff." In an interview with W magazine online, Horsting explained that they also asked her to wear high heels under the suit, but that she refused, which only intrigued the designers more. Jackson says she only owns three pairs of shoes she'll wear, and all of them are flats. "I remember people saying, 'One day you'll wear high heels.' Well no, I fucking won't. It's such a cliché to say, but it's just who I am. It's never going to be a different way."
Jackson says that her androgynous sensibilities have developed into one of La Roux's most important attributes. She feels like she represents an alternative to the way other female pop stars promote themselves, and that it's possible to write and perform music successfully without removing her clothing (or, say, wearing a bra that doubles as submachine guns). "It's really important for young girls because there isn't anything else," she says. "If you're not into that very exposed female look, what else is there? Apart from looking up to boys, which is what I did. I was always looking up to men, which is probably why I was all weird." But she delights in the showmanship of the job, especially as relates to costume and spectacle. Even as a child in south London, she always enjoyed raiding her parents' closets. "You know how most kids would dress up like a pirate or whatever? I used to dress up like David Bowie," she says. "One time I put on this outfit -- a Technicolor patchwork coat, really crazy pattern trousers and these shoes that were kind of platform-y. The look went well with this ruffly shirt I had on. My mom was like, 'I think I've given birth to David Bowie.' There's this really weird picture of me wearing it. I've got a rose tattoo on my cheek as well. I'm only, like, seven and I look New Romantic. It's really creepy."
The younger of two daughters, Jackson was born to parents familiar with the creative lifestyle. Both of them are actors: Her mother, Trudie Goodwin, is best known for her role as Sergeant June Ackland on the long-running British police procedural The Bill; while her father, Kit Jackson, who has appeared in a number of television and theatrical productions, was the family's primary homemaker. (Jackson credits him with teaching her to play guitar when she was five.) She says that they were happy for her to try music, "so long as I didn't try to go into acting." The family is tight-knit; Jackson's older sibling, Jessica, assists La Roux on tour. And although she describes her upbringing as positive, Jackson says that she developed problems as a teen at school. Struggles with dyslexia, her weight and self-image, and the sartorial requirements of a British private-school education made for an unpleasant experience. "School's just generally shit anyway, but I had difficulties for a number of reasons. It's difficult to explain. One of them was the uniforms. There was a drive against individuality, not being allowed to express yourself physically. So I went through this period in my life where I didn't feel like myself at all, because so much of how I express myself is on the outside."
Since hooking up with Langmaid through a mutual friend, Jackson's been able to do precisely that. La Roux's debut, released in June 2009, has spawned four singles, five videos and enabled Jackson and her group of touring musicians to travel the globe. In the interim, she has collaborated with other artists, including those she recruited for Sidetracked and the other mixtape she put out earlier this year with Diplo and Switch's Major Lazer, called Lazerproof. After a year-and-a-half on the road, though, she's ready for a break. This September, she's heading back into the studio to write and record La Roux's follow-up album. (She says she's been listening to a lot of underground '70s Italian disco, but at the moment doesn't know exactly what direction the second album will take.) She's also learning how to box and -- warning: this is a sore point with her -- to DJ properly. "I hate those celebrity DJs who just turn up at parties and get paid like $20,000 to play shit records from an iPod, you know? Really pisses me off." She continues, "I'm booking all these DJ gigs for those kinds of celebrity parties. But I don't want to just play at these pop-indie nights. You turn up, they give you a certain amount of money and they expect you to play all the latest indie remixes. Well, I'm not going to play a single modern track, so there's no point in booking me. I'll get booed off. So I told my agent, 'Just book me at places where people don't know who I am. You can book me under a different name. I just want to play good records. I don't care how much I get paid.'"
If there is a new goal for Jackson, it's the one she shares with many other U.K. artists -- to break into the geographically fractured and androgyny-averse American market. Unlikely women have done it before -- see Annie Lennox -- and Jackson's already had some early success. "I went into a petrol station in the middle of nowhere in L.A. the other day. Well, it wasn't in the middle of nowhere because it was in the middle of L.A., but everywhere in L.A. is the middle of nowhere," she says with a laugh. "The attendant was like, 'You're La Roux, right?' And I was like, 'Well, I've made it.' He was probably just an actor, though." But now that she's seen the way the industry works, she's developing a game plan. "When Lady Gaga's 'Just Dance' came out, I was totally unaware that performance art was going to be her vibe," Jackson says. "Knowing what I know now, I think she always had this in mind but she didn't have the money to do it. You have to build up this country's trust and the industry's trust, and there's no way she would have been able to do anything weird straight away because everyone would have just told her to fuck off." Jackson laughs. "I'm having that problem now. You have to build up people's trust, and then you can get away with whatever you want. I just never thought in a million years -- and this is completely honest -- that we'd ever even aim for America, or that America would ever...not accept, but take on what we had to offer musically. Now that it's started to take off, now that I've seen where it could go, I'm really excited. Now I'm like, 'Fuck this, I'm going to do it.'"
Check out behind-the-scenes footage from PAPERTV's photo shoot with La Roux here:
Styled by Martha Violante
Hair by Creighton Bowman for Exclusive Artists / Rene Furterer.
Makeup by Liz Martins at dwmanagement.co.uk using Kiehl's.
Producer: Luigi Tadini.
Fashion coordinator: Diane Drennan-Lewis, assisted by Brittaney Barbosa.
Interns: Gavin Brown and Sophia Spadafore.
Catering by La Esquina.