Quite a lot’s transpired in the pop music arena since La Roux, the bespoke-suited disco-singin’ lost cousin of Tintin, dropped her dancehall stomper “Bulletproof.” Lady Gaga went “avant-garde.” Miley Cyrus morphed from cherub-faced Disney tween into raunchy twerker. Lana Del Rey was forged in the fire of Interscope Records. And that aforementioned tune, a high-octane, Yazoo-meets-Guetta blast of synth-pop defiance, was even remixed—and later sung a cappella—by Anna Kendrick’s character in the cult flick Pitch Perfect.
Five years after her debut LP La Roux, the singer-songwriter formerly known as Elly Jackson is back with her long-awaited follow-up, Trouble in Paradise. In the interim, she’s collaborated with Kanye West and Jay Z on Yeezus and Watch the Throne, lost her voice, broke up with her bandmate and co-writer Ben Langmaid, and found a new partner-in-rhyme in Ian Sherwin.
And Trouble in Paradise, out July 22, is a worthy follow-up—a more reflective collection of down-tempo dance songs that she describes as ragga-disco, along with a handful of moving ballads.
It’s been some time since we’ve heard from you. How long did it take to record Trouble in Paradise?
In terms of the record that you hear, or the record it’s turned into, that record’s been being made for two years and we finished it around the beginning of this year. We started in Spring 2012. But “The Feeling” is the earliest song on it, and that has the closest connection to the first record I believe, and that was from around 2010. That was quite a long time ago.
Right. You began penning a follow-up to your debut back in 2009. Why did it take so long?
We just rushed into writing. Some people can do it on the tour bus, or on the plane, or every time they’re home they’ll pop into the studio for a few days. I’ve found that, at least at that point in my life, I needed to section myself to certain tasks at certain times without crossing over. I had some things I wanted to try and we started some tracks, two of which we were working on up until 2012, but they never materialized into songs—they were just ideas. I realized that when you try to make a record too quickly after the one you’ve just made, you end up making a record out of the dregs of the end of the album you’ve just done, rather than a new, fresh one. And that’s what we ended up doing.
Was there also pressure to record a follow-up since your debut album was so well-received?
Of course that’s there—it would be mad if it wasn’t—and the pressure you put on yourself is so much greater than even the pressure of what’s been done before, or what anyone else can put on you. It’s part of the reason why I decided to go in a different direction. I didn’t really want to make just an extension of that record, or make a similar-sounding record with different songs and melodies. I felt I’d exhausted that genre, and there was no point trying to revisit it, which took me quite a long time to realize, but once I realized it, I thought, “Oh god, now I’m free to do what I want.”
You also split with your La Roux bandmate, Ben Langmaid, whom you’ve previously said was half the band. What happened there?
At the end of the day, the thing that really broke it was quite large personal differences and big creative differences. The general results we were getting I felt weren’t good enough. And it wasn’t out of the blue, either. What I haven’t told anyone before is that we almost split up about three times before that over the previous year-and-a-half, and it’s not like we didn’t try to make it work, but it came to a head. After trying to patch it up so many times and it not working, and the music suffering, it had to come to an end. There were personal differences as well, but I’m not going to talk about those. Sadly, I can’t say that we’re still friends.
Your debut album, La Roux, really struck me as a combination of a breakup album, as well as a rebirth.
Yeah, but it wasn’t necessarily about one thing. It was about a few different things that all made me feel the same, but in slightly different ways. It was more about not getting what you want than walking away from it. It’s the story of my life. Everyone who wants me, I don’t want them, and everyone I’m not allowed to have, I want them. It’s great. It’s brilliant. [Laughs]
Well, you must have been all, “Ha! Told you so…” to the guy when the album blew up.
[Laughs] I’m not going to say what exactly happened, but it was all fine in the end.
I’ve always been fascinated by your look, which is a bit Tilda Swinton-ish—the pale, androgynous face that really clashes beautifully with your red hair—as well as your keen fashion sense. Did it take you a while to embrace your androgyny?
I couldn’t say that I’d always embraced [my androgyny]. I wanted to, but I was too scared to, and didn’t embrace it until I was 17 or 18. Before that, I was torn between being the person I wanted to be and dressing the way I wanted to dress, and fitting in with everyone else around me. I’d always been a tomboy. I never liked doing girly things. I liked climbing tress and doing boy’s sports. I’ve never painted my nails and never worn a dress—never wanted a dress. I’ve just never been interested. But, even as a young kid, I’d always wanted to wear a suit to school and I still love men’s tailoring. I’d always been really jealous of men being able to dress in the way that they did, and have a uniform, in a way, yet still look very sharp and powerful. I feel it’s very difficult for women to look powerful in a feminine way without being sexually dominant. Also, it’s very difficult for a woman to display power without being branded “a bitch.” They say, “Oh, she looks like a bitchy businesswoman.”
Right. We see that a lot when people—usually men—describe women in power, like Hillary Clinton. We see them use the words “cold” and “calculating” a lot.
Exactly. For me, I always felt like the only way to represent myself was to have a crossover in the way I presented myself. I never wanted to wear a skirt. The thought of tights literally makes me want to vomit. There were a lot of years in my teenage years where I wasn’t able to express myself and I wore a uniform and tried to fit in with the girls around me. It wasn’t good for me at all, put me in a weird place, and I didn’t feel good about myself. I met some friends when I was 17, and I finally found myself. I knew I didn’t look like everybody else but I suddenly didn’t care, and I didn’t want to look like anybody else. I look back and I don’t even know who that person was. But a lot of teens go through that. You’re just surviving, and you’re not really expressing yourself. School is a visually-competitive, weird, and cutting environment, and everyone is so insecure.
When I spoke with Tilda Swinton recently, who should definitely play your mother if they ever make a movie about your life, she said that she felt awkward and out of place in her teens because of her looks, but then one day while browsing in her local record store, she saw David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and it comforted her. Did you have a similar kinship with Bowie?
[Laughs] Bowie came later. But when I found ‘80s-era Bowie I fell in love, although that was only in the last six years. With me, finding out how expressive people could be in music really saved me. And Annie Lennox saved me. I used to look at her and think, “OK, you make more sense to me than a lot of the women I see in front of me.” But I also fell in love with Buddy Holly, Michael Jackson, and Gerry Rafferty. I didn’t feel like I needed to be the same sex as someone to feel comforted by who they are.
A lot of people might not know this, but you’ve collaborated with Kanye West quite a bit. You’re one of the voices featured in the chorus of “All of the Lights”…
I can’t hear it! There were so many singers on that.
But how did you two hook up? Because you’re also featured on “Lost in the World” and “Who Will Survive in America,” as well as the Watch the Throne song “That’s My Bitch.”
Kanye just asked if I would do some stuff on his record, and I obviously was interested and wanted to hear what he was doing. When I did hear it, I really liked the melodies he’d written. It was a very strange three days, as I’m sure you can imagine—which I’m not going to go into—but I came out thinking, “You’re very talented to me and interesting, but I don’t think I’d put myself in that situation again.” [Laughs]
From a musical standpoint, what are some of the key differences, for you, between your debut album and Trouble in Paradise?
The tempo of the first record was disco tempo, around 112 BPM, and I started writing basslines and grooves that were in that kind of place because I’d been listening to music at that speed. I realized quite early on that it would be different in that respect—a slower tempo. Also, there’s a lot more bottom end, which takes from dub, and ragga. We call it ragga-disco. We’re trying to make party tunes out of much slower tempos, which I really like and there’s not a lot of in music.
What was the recording process like for the new album? I read that you recorded it at a converted barn in Devon, UK.
After the label realized that it couldn’t be rushed—or that we wouldn’t be rushed—and very kindly stepped back, we felt very free. We’d play tracks and think we loved them, and then completely ripped them apart. Ian [Sherwin] challenged me a lot, and I needed to become a better musician. I’m a guitarist and Ian’s a bassist, so we’d build a rough groove, jam along with it for an hour, find the best bits, and go back to that groove. We built it in a very natural, organic way. Everything I do will always have a dark and light, and whether it’s the contrast between a happy, dubby bassline with saying something dark, or just generally the context of the record in terms of all the things that were hard, took time, and were emotionally difficult—even having created a studio in a beautiful barn and having problems. Ben was there for the early parts of that process, before we parted ways.
You were also having vocal troubles in the interim, but when I saw you perform in Brooklyn recently, your voice sounded great. What happened?
They’re really good now, but that was another thing that went under the heading of Trouble in Paradise. I had residual tension, which means my larynx wasn’t paralyzed, but so tense that I couldn’t access my falsetto. It took me about two years to unwind the tension, so in that time, I almost had to relearn how to sing. But now it’s all good!