In 2013, I wandered into the Mojave tent at Coachella (triggering) to the familiar sound of La Roux's "Bulletproof," which wasn't surprising as La Roux was on stage performing it. The inescapable earworm had pervaded a post-iPod/pre-streaming music culture at just the right time, when mainstream pop was still newly obsessed with big club sounds. It remains La Roux's signature track, one that's emblematic of a very different period of Elly Jackson's career, before she split with collaborator Ben Langmaid.
Shortly after I saw her live, Jackson released Trouble in Paradise, five years after La Roux's eponymous debut. Six years later, she's returned with Supervision, an eight-song album with only one artist's handprints — and production — all over it. In the era of the super-producer (who makes a good pop record without Jack Antonoff these days?), Jackson is well placed to re-enter an industry where the person mixing the tracks is as vital as the one singing.
But La Roux's return also comes as the music industry will be forced to grapple with perhaps the biggest blow to artistic profitability the age of streaming: COVID-19. It feels outrageous to say that Coachella's postponement was the first major sign that the world as we knew it was changing irrevocably. But one of the global music industry's biggest tentpoles being canceled mere weeks before thousands of girls in flower crowns flocked to the desert with fanny packs full of MDMA and bank accounts full of money to burn made so many of us realize that things were not going to be business as usual for a long time — and the music business is a business, after all.
PAPER caught up with La Roux from her home in the UK, where she's already working on new music, to talk about Supervision, her newfound creative autonomy, and how coronavirus will shake and shape the lives of artists for years to come.
You have a new album out, and you're already back writing and possibly recording again?
It's really nice. It's how my career should have been for the last 10 years. I feel like I've just found my feet in the last few years. Like I found my feet a few years ago, but I felt like obviously now things are settling in, in terms of the fact that I've set up a new business and I've set it up in a different way. And now that I've set it up in a different way, it just works so much better for me, so it's a really enjoyable experience, basically, just being able to work and live at the same time in the way that I want to for the first time in my career really. But I think it takes everybody a while to work out how they want to live and work and stuff, and it's just taken me 10 years.
Your last album came out in 2014, so it's been six years. What made you want to take that time between the records?
Well, I definitely didn't want to take that time. I think between the first and second album, I could have come up with a lot of reasons why I wanted to sort of be away from everything and why maybe subconsciously or consciously I spent a lot of time hidden in the studio after the first album. I think there were lots of emotional reasons why that happened as well as practical issues, and relationships breaking up and stuff like that.
But I think the difference between the gap between the second album and the third album and the first album and the second album, the difference between those gaps is that I guess in this gap I actually figured out why it happened. Whereas in the last gap I was still completely baffled as to how I had spent that long on a record and how that time had passed and why my confidence has dropped and all the rest of it.
During that six years I made almost a whole other album with somebody else and then just realized that I just still wasn't really happy with the way that I was working. I wasn't happy with my work environment, and when you realize something that big when you're that far into a project, obviously it takes a lot of time to a) unravel and b) kind of build up from the ground again. So during that time while I was working that out and making those changes, I learned so much about myself that I now feel so equipped to move on without that ever happening again. There's just no need for it to happen again. It's not like a question of, "God, will it happen again?" I'm in control of it now, it's not in control of me. I know why it happened, and I know why it's not going to happen again.
How has taking that time and being more in control of the music you're making actually change the music itself?
Well, hopefully you can hear the way it's changed the music. I spent five years slightly moaning about Trouble In Paradise and a lot of my friends were like, "Why are you so down on that record? It's a great record. What's the problem?" And I was like, "I'm not sitting here getting myself down saying I think it's shit or anything like that. I know it's a really good record. I know it's a detailed, well put together, melodically rich album that I am proud of, but at the same time I can hear how unhappy I am."
That's really hard to explain to people, because they didn't have anything to compare it to. And obviously now when I listened to this record, I feel like now all those friends that said, "Why are you down on Trouble In Paradise?" are like, "Oh, I get it. I get it. You sound so tense compared to how you sound on this record." And I'm like, "Yeah, that's all I hear. All I hear is me struggling with my voice."
You know, that song that took two years to put together, I hear all that, whereas with this record, I just hear the actual situation of when it was made, which is in my kitchen, having a great time, being expressive, not being afraid, being happy and joyous and having a really great time with my hobby, essentially. And just singing and loving singing because I don't have any problems there anymore. I think it's very, very visible if you compare the two albums. I personally think it's very visible how it's affected my music. I think you can hear it.
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Supervision certainly sounds happier. I'm really interested in that idea that as an artist you have this baggage attached to the work you made and you can't separate your own experience of creating it from the music itself. When you say that you listen to old albums and you can hear that you're tense, are you looking forward to performing those songs live and getting to transform them?
I mean, yeah, definitely, but at the same time I always enjoy singing that work, and obviously I probably do sing it slightly differently now. For instance, I think it's just a classic artist thing, isn't it? I started doing "In For The Kill" slightly differently on the second tour just because my voice had come on a lot and I was like, "Oh God, I wish I'd had such a strong voice when I was making my first record and I could have sung it like this." But then obviously people were like, "Yeah, but it was also the kind of fact that you didn't sound like you knew how to kind of sing really, really properly on the first album, you were just singing as this like vulnerable, naive girl, and that's also what makes it kind of what it is."
There's something nice about changing things and getting to grips with them vocally more, and there's also something I think that can often be taken away. As an artist, I'm wary not to change things too much because it's those little changes that you think are just little changes that then later on down the line you find fans going, "Oh, I wish you sang it how you used to." Do you know what I mean? So I'm always very aware of that as well. However much I feel about it, they want to hear the record that they know.
"Especially in modern music, if you took a lot of the songs that are a big hit today and you took the production away, they would not be hits at all."
In the last few years of working on music, working on yourself, what are you making music about now? And is it different than what you had made music about in the past?
I don't actually know what I'm making music about right now, I'm like two or three songs in. I haven't finished them. I'm just working on three at the same time, because I think it's best to have multiple songs on the go so you never kind of get too focused on one thing. But I mean, they don't really have subjects. I don't know if this is true, but maybe I write in a mildly unconventional way because I don't really write songs anymore. Like they become songs, but I make tracks that I like the sound and feeling of, because production is so important nowadays and that's my main love is arrangement and production more than song writing, I'd say.
Which I don't think people quite get sometimes. Arrangement, for me, that is the reason I make music. It's not because I can write a song, but that's just an excuse to make tracks. I like to make soundscapes, landscapes, emotional scapes, whatever you want to call them, and until I make the right scape that inspires me to write a song, there is no song. It's not like I write songs and then I write a landscape to go behind them. It's not like that never happened. It's not like I haven't ever just sat down with a guitar like I did on the first album and have written kind of half a song, but really what makes it what it is and what makes it La Roux is the sound and the feel of it.
Especially in modern music, if you took a lot of the songs that are a big hit today and you took the production away, they would not be hits at all. It's the bass line or the sound of the beat. Like Dr. Dre, you take away the production in hip hop, what people are just going to listen to, an a cappella rap? It's unlikely unless it's really amazing. I think it's the escape of it. It's the world it puts you in. It's the groove of it. It's the aggression of it. It's the mood of it. Everything behind the production is really, really, really important nowadays. You can't sound futuristic just by singing a song. So that is the main thing that I start with now.
Production, more than ever, is so vital to music. Do you think that has set you up to be an artist who is more in control of their music in the way that the musical landscape is looking right now?
Yeah, definitely. For years I was always in the room with somebody else, and it was always only the same person. It's not like I've done writing sessions or anything. I've never done that. But I've always known one or two people, whether it be Ben [Langmaid] or somebody else, or an engineer that I've been in a room with. That just got in the way, because anyone's process can look kind of like math. It can look kind of like, "What are you doing?" to somebody else. I think for years I let somebody else be part of the discussion of that process, when actually there's no way of explaining what I'm doing when I'm in the middle of working something out.
Maybe I'll look like I've got crap ideas or like I'm losing my mind or being delusional for three days with something, but then eventually I know exactly where I'm going, and I think it's that conviction that's really made a huge, huge difference of my process, however mad it looks to somebody else, it being right for me, and I shouldn't have to explain it to anybody else and it shouldn't have to make sense to anybody else. It only has to make sense to me.
I think what's probably made the biggest difference is just going, "I don't fucking care whether you get it or not. I know this is going to be great." I know my own taste. I know my own judgment of other music and my own, and I think as an artist, yeah, like you say, especially now in the days where production is so important, if you don't have conviction of what sounds cool and what doesn't, you're fucked.
Your taste is so clear in your aesthetic and style, which has evolved while staying very true to who you are as an artist and a person. What is it like to re-enter a pop landscape where mainstream artists are playing with gender more than ever before?
It is definitely different to come back and realize how much the world's changed since I came out. Because I didn't even come out sexually or anything on my first album. I was really private about my shit and I really didn't want it to change. I never thought that I'd be as open as I am about it now, but that just shows how much the world's changed. I can't really explain to somebody now how it felt then when there's such subtle differences, but they make a huge, huge impact.
Certainly I feel like it's enabling me even in my everyday life to just be more boyish when I want to be boyish, and that doesn't suddenly feel like it used to. When I used to want to be like that, it used to feel different. It used to feel like it had a different look to it in society, like it was more butch or more like had negative sexuality words connected to it like "dyke" or whatever, and I just feel like that doesn't really seem to exist or feel like that anymore. It's like you can be really, really, really boyish as a girl and still be sexy in society, and that's really different.
"Having however many millions of streams is not amounting to the same as 'Bulletproof' having sold two million copies."
Obviously the world is really in the grips of a panic about coronavirus, and I'm sure having released an album you must have tours planned. What does it feel like to be a working artist whose livelihood depends on touring, looking at a year where that might not be possible?
Yeah, I mean it's really not funny. Jokes aside, I think for me, I'll probably be okay. But I mean I wasn't making much money on tour anyway, because I spend too much money. So I wasn't really exactly going to be in shitloads of profit anyway, because I don't have tour support anymore so it wasn't really my main concern. It certainly wasn't why I was touring. I was touring because I just really, really wanted to get back out there again.
But certainly, for some smaller bands and production companies, some management companies, lighting people, there are all sorts of people that if this really does carry on, it's just not funny. Band management companies, production companies going under, most of the music industry relies on live income. If something like this happens it's really going to take a hit to the industry for sure. I'll probably be all right. Like I'll be okay, but I won't be okay okay. I may not go bankrupt. It's not funny, it's not funny. If it's not funny for me, imagine how not funny it is for a smaller band that's on the rise.
Should we be supporting smaller or independent artists by buying merch and physical albums?
Yeah. Buy vinyl, yeah. If you are a real fan of something, if I'm a real fan of something, I'll buy it on vinyl. Obviously it's on Spotify anyway. It's not like I have to do anything. I do think it's important to put your money where your mouth is in terms of this. I know people don't believe it because of the '80s and because they've seen musicians make millions and millions and millions pounds. People don't believe that it's a problem still, I think. It is a serious problem. Having however many millions of streams is not amounting to the same as "Bulletproof" having sold two million copies. It's just not the same, because I still get an income from "Bulletproof," and I make absolutely zero, zero money from Trouble In Paradise.
It's not just because obviously it sold a lot less, but the point is that the figures were not all made up of physical sales, which the first album pretty much is. It's all downloads and physical sales, because it was just before streaming came in. And I cannot even explain the difference. It's insane. I mean, it's completely insane.
We do have to start doing something about it. It can't just be live gigs. That's all very well, but that's another art, that's another skill that you're then honing to do that. Whereas making an album is another one and it should be appreciated by the people that are buying it in a more valued way. We've got to do something about it, because at the moment the money is not turning around in the right way as they said it would. "Oh, in 10 years streaming will make sense." There's lots of great things about streaming. I'm not doing it down. It's got a lot of great attributes, but there are huge negative sides and they're not matching up at the moment, and they don't look like they're about to either.
When you released your first album, it was an anomaly in the pop landscape in a lot of ways. The sound of pop was still evolving from pop rock to EDM, and you really have maintained this commitment to synth-pop. Now artists like Dua Lipa are making synth-pop, Lady Gaga's new single as well.
Lady Gaga has got a new single out?
Yeah, "Stupid Love." You haven't heard it yet?
Oh, I didn't know that. No, I never leave my house.
Well you definitely have to listen to it. Why do you love that sound and why do you think it's back in pop music?
I don't know. It's kind of weird, because I didn't really know that was happening. I didn't intentionally come back at another time when there seems to be some weird sort of synth-pop revival again, but it does seem to sort of be ... It's not in the same way. It's nowhere near as intense as it was.
I wouldn't really call it zeitgeist, but at the same time there is definitely a trend for it again. I think it's coming back because it's fucking great. I can't think of another reason. I think that it's just that really genuinely was a great, great period of music, and it also paved the way for a lot of other styles of music to come out of it. You know, like you wouldn't have The Knife if you didn't have certain '80s synth music. There's so many things you wouldn't have. There's so many things in dance music you wouldn't have.
And then the mixture of the disco side of the '80s as well, mixing with the kind of funk electro boogie side of things, it's when you start combining and fusing all those things together you can get some fucking excellent combinations. It's like a really nice melting pot of things and textures, and it's just there's so much more scope to go so much further with it with electronic music than there ever was with almost any other genre I can think of. There's so many blends you can do. You can do like Dolby synth pop. You can do funky sort of boogie synth pop with a bit of disco. You can do African-y type synth pop. It's endless.
I just started writing a track downstairs that was like, it almost had a kind of country feel about it in terms of the little melody that I'd written. But then it's like if I start putting an African beat over it, suddenly it turns into something completely fucking different just because you put a texture with it that is kind of its opposite. It's endless and people are realizing this now. And also, it's more futuristic sounding. Synth-pop came out in the period where Back To The Future and all those films about the future and Alien and space films came out. So I still think that time has a link to things that are futuristic, even though it was like 30 years ago. It's kind of strange.
Do you think that people are looking for a bit of escapism in music now?
Yes. Yes, 100%. Everything's on steroids now. It's like people do want to be transported more than ever before. Well, not more than ever before, but when they do get transported, they expect more. It's like back in the day it would have been fine to just watch Charlie Chaplin running around, and now people want to be in like a virtual world on top of Everest. It's like everything's on crack. And I'm very aware of it when I'm making music. It has to have a power and a sound and a brand and a theme and everything about it the second it comes on. It has to be instantly recognizable as only that and nothing else. And that's a whole different ball game.
What do you want people to feel when they listen to your music?
Really up. Really up. I don't really like resonating the darker parts of myself that much. I think if you don't like La Roux, it's probably because you don't like happy music. Highly likely to be the combination, but I really just want people to feel energetically empowered. And for it to have enough detail and enough interest and intellect about where it's been done for people to return to it in 20 years. I think that was one of the main things about pop music that I really feel is really important to me, because there are loads of great pop songs out there, right? Even pop songs that I've been like, "That is a fucking brilliant pop song."
A lot of times I go back to it in a year and I'm like, "Oh, I didn't really get any feeling from this now. That's strange." And I'm not entirely sure exactly what makes that possible, but I know that there are other pop songs that I can go back to 10 years later and listen to five times a day and they still have the power every single fucking time. They give me the feeling I want. They give me that drug that I want at that moment. And for me it's really important that my songs keep their drug about them. They have enough intention and integrity woven through it or whatever it is that makes it that, but it's kind of unexplainable, which is why we make music.I think maybe it's an emotional thing, maybe it's an honesty thing.
"Everything's on steroids now. It's like people do want to be transported more than ever before. "
Are there any artists out there who you'd like to maybe do some production for, or are you really most interested in producing your own music?
People ask me this and I really like the idea of it. I think it's a lovely idea, but I wonder if in reality it would actually work because a) like I said, I'm only ever making productions for myself. It's not like I just sit there and make loads of tracks and then I think, "Oh, I've got 10 spare ones I could sell or tell my manager to shop them around or whatever." Which obviously I could do, but I don't have those spare tracks. I don't have those loads of bits of stuff that I didn't use, because if I didn't use it, it's not good and I don't want anybody else to use it because I don't want to hear it because it's crap. Because it would be like, "Oh, that was a crap idea. I don't want to hear that again."
So I wouldn't want to give it to somebody else and then end up hearing it on the radio. Even if it sold 10 million records, I'd still be like, "I don't think it's very good or it's very cool and I don't like it." So if I don't like it, I'm not going to let somebody else use it either. And if I do like it, I'm definitely not going to let them use it because I'll be writing over it.
My production is so much more focused that I think that's something I could become much, much better at over the years and I may want to do that. It's kind of a more relaxing thing to do in, like, your 50s, because I'm not going to be on stage trying to look like Peter Pan or whatever. I don't want to drag that out, so I think it'd be quite nice to have a studio in the country somewhere and mix some records and still make some music and put some albums out if people want to listen to them.