On the day we meet in a West London pub, La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill’ has just risen up the charts to number two. Two days later, it’ll go up again to the top. By that point it had already spent a month in the higher reaches of the chart, gradually transforming itself from a debut single to a bona fide public phenomenon.
Of all the pop debutantes perched on the edge of success as 2009 began, La Roux – AKA 21 year old South Londoner Elly Jackson - is currently the only one to be commanding such genuine mass crossover appeal. Her music is as likely to appear on urban blogs, as it is to be blazing out of cars and over summer parks from Radio 1 or pounding out of Shoreditch clubs. This spring she headlined the sold-out NME Radar tour, which, considering the previous year’s headliners were art-punk dilettantes Crystal Castles, pays great testament to both La Roux’s credibility and broad appeal. After all, not many artists headline an alternative music tour while sat at the top of the charts.
This self-possessed young girl, poised beneath an extraordinary gravity defying hair sculpture, making music that looks backwards to leap forwards, has leapt beyond her electropop contemporaries with the raw confessional quality of her songwriting and the sharp sophistication of her through-the-looking-glass 80s aesthetic. La Roux seems to know exactly who she wants to be and is fully aware she’s already achieving it with ease.
So at this point perhaps it’s worth a quick recap:
The music that’s sending her onto pop’s big table may be channeling the spirit of The Human League and Yazoo, but Elly Jackson - as she’s known off stage - first discovered music in her dad’s Neil Young and Nick Drake records. From here she picked up a guitar and started writing her own music, debuting early versions of future electronic hits like ‘Quicksand’ on the South London folk scene. “Well,” she corrects, “there’s not really a scene, just a bunch of people calling each other sell-outs. All they’d listen to was Jeff Buckley, and I thought it was so boring I couldn’t stand it. I’m not the kind of performer who likes to sit still with a guitar, but that was all I had.” Fortunately, as she strummed away at one house party, a songwriter called Ben Langmaid was watching and soon they were studio partners. “One day me and Ben were working on a song and starting playing with some of the synths lying around at Ben's. We put a synth line over the acoustic track we had been working on and it just took off. From that day the guitar started to seem a little obsolete to us.”
Discovering a shared love of the polish and poise of eighties synth pop, Elly and Ben worked together for over a year before news started to filter out to record labels that something special was happening. “Out of nowhere there was suddenly loads of interest,” Elly remembers. “But some of the labels wanted to split us up and wanted me to go and work with other people and I was like 'this is stupid, it doesn't make any sense, you said you loved the demo's and you loved what we'd done together and then you wanna go rip it up and tear it apart, I don't understand how that works', we were both baffled by it. Just because he wasn't a known name in the industry and he wasn't a known writer, or a known producer, no-one kind of trusted him, no-one wanted to take the risk, and we just started getting really fed up with it. So he said, “Why don't we make it a band and then they can't do anything?” and so that was the way we did it.” And so La Roux was born, culling their name from a book of French baby names found in a skip. “I opened it, and on the first page was La Roux – the red headed one” For the part-French Elly it was perfect. “We write together, but all the songs are about me and my experiences. There are no throwaway lyrics on the record, everything is there for a reason, though I don’t like going into it too much, I don’t want to tell people what they’re supposed to think about my songs.”
In a corporate pop world of international songwriters for hire, La Roux’s debut album is written and produced solely by Jackson and the publicity-shy Langmaid. Together they have lovingly produced an album free of commercial consolidation, but still full of songs with the wit, romance and heartbreak to appeal far beyond underground bloggerati. ‘In For The Kill’ may have been her breakthrough moment, but it’s far from her only triumph. The elegant and plaintive finale, ‘Armour Love’ is an open hearted account of abandonment which sits in a cradle of stripped back electronics more fitted to the avant garde world of The Knife than the tearful bedrooms of British teens. ‘Colourless Colour’ is a warm and witty re-imagining of 2-step’s ecstatic bounce. ‘Fascination’ is an unplugged piece of euphoria, equal parts Devo, Annie Lennox, and Daft Punk, while ‘Tigerlilly’ is an arch, threatening love-song, as brash and confident as the woman herself and retuning Whitetown’s bedroom beats, and Thriller’s gothic voguing into something tribal and dystopian. At its heart, new single ‘Bulletproof’’ is an amyl nitrate blast of disco seemingly culled straight from the dancefloor of Heaven or The Saint circa 1983, while the electro drama of ‘I’m Not Your Toy’ is surely a future smash.
Combining both visual glamour and sonic drama, La Roux have made the oddest of things, a populist album which doesn’t patronize the populous and is undoubtedly one of the debut albums of the year.