Q&A: La Roux Faces Sexism Amid Her Summery, ’70s Sci-Fi Album ‘Trouble In Paradise’
By Courtney E. Smith
Getting La Roux‘s new album Trouble in Paradise off the ground turned out to be more challenging than the average sophomore album. Not due to the usual sophomore slump, but thanks to a split between Ms. Elly Jackson and her production partner Ben Langmaid, citing serious creative differences. “Once I started to know what I wanted for the album, I realized that that relationship wasn’t the best way forward,” Jackson told Billboard. Oh, and some unexpected vocal problems that stopped Jackson from being able to sing in her signature falsetto.
Following La Roux’s self-titled debut album, a dance-pop smash, Jackson found a big supporter in Kanye West, who asked her to sing on his smash single “All of the Lights” and the Watch the Throne track “That’s My B—h.” In the time since her very high-profile entree into music society in 2009, Jackson has been trying to craft the vision for a follow-up. Jackson partnered up with Ian Sherwin, La Roux’s engineer for the debut album, and found some sort of paradise on the sophomore La Roux effort.
Radio.com talked to Jackson about how she could never write songs the way Taylor Swift does, latent sexism in the music press and her epic disappointment that the future turned out nothing like sci-fi from the 1970s promised it would.
Radio.com: There are two contradictory ideas happening in this album; the theme is “the feeling of emptiness in a place where there was once joy” but you’ve said it’s also “musically cheekier” than your previous work. How do those disparate sentiments fit together?
La Roux: I think they fit together because it’s the mood of the record, in terms of its subject matter, is very much about seeing the beauty in trouble; the paradise part isn’t, the paradise is about the trouble. Anywhere that’s perfect can’t be a paradise in my eyes, it has to have imperfections. The mood of the record should, content-wise, feel like that — the storytelling content, the emotional content — the trouble is the subject matter, the paradise is the music. That’s how the cheekiness comes in and that’s how it fits together.
So then should we take the idea of paradise presented by the album literally, as a tropical, summery place?
Paradise is a few different things on the record. Paradise can be the person that you love, the way you feel that day or whatever it is. Or it may just be a literal place that you see as paradise. In terms of, for instance in the case of “Paradise Is You,” I mention that even in the world’s most beautiful paradise, often you can’t enjoy that without the person next to you that you like to enjoy things with. Stylistically, I would say the music in the paradise and that’s represented in different ways. Obviously it’s more summery in some parts of the record and less so in others.
You’ve gone from one mostly silent partner to another with this album — what about that creative pairing appeals to you?
I’m not really sure. Whenever I’ve spoken to another artist or band about the process of meeting a new producer and working with them, I’ve never been able to understand it. I guess I’m the odd one out in that. Most people are dying to work with their favorite producer or a famous producer or whatever. The way I see it is that regardless of the experience someone has, a producer is only worth anything if they understand who you are and what you want. Even if they’re the best producer in the world they could be useless to me, and they kind of are. I need to have a connection with somebody. Of course they need to have a certain amount of knowledge and experience, as was the case on this record, to pull off the record that was in my head. I certainly needed someone with a lot more experience than myself. I knew what my ideas were but carrying them out is quite another thing.
A lot of people nowadays will tell you, “I totally get what you mean,” but I feel like no, I don’t think you do get what I mean at all. It’s hard to find that person. I hope to find the person who understands and gets you and if they, like Ian [Sherwin, producer and co-writer], had the knowledge as well to go along with it then you’re in a good place. It just turned out he’s liked most of the same music I’ve liked throughout my life and is now almost quite good at mimicking what I might do in the studio. He’s that close to my style.
Me and Ben [Langmaid, Jackson's former collaborator], whatever happened between us, we were quite close. I think it made me realize how much more open and vulnerable you can be in needing to talk about the subject matter of a song — why I want to write that song and all of that stuff before I write it. I like writing in the studio a lot. I think a lot of artists write out of the studio, then they bring the songs to other people and they want somebody else to present them in a different light. I don’t do that, I write in the studio. So I need to already have that connection with somebody. Otherwise you’re just going in and telling a stranger your deepest, darkest emotional thoughts which I think is really f–king weird.
It’s surprising how many people do that — it’s every interview with Taylor Swift about her songwriting process.
I know, I think it’s weird. I don’t understand it at all, I couldn’t do it. I think it would make my work far less diverse, detailed and interesting because I’d be holding back a part of myself. Also, you need to know that person understands you. I can see through people. Someone’s going to be like, “Yeah, yeah I totally know what you mean!” And I’ll be like, “Do you though?” I’m very, very paranoid about whether someone actually understood what I mean or not.
There’s an adage from a Nick Hornby book, High Fidelity, where the lead character says something to the effect of what you like is what you’re like. Do you find that to be true?
Yeah, very much so. Your sense of humor has to be similar. I feel that. Me and Ian like pretty much all the same things. When we disagree it’s almost this feeling of, “What? What do you mean you feel differently about this than me?” [laughs] We’ve had many discussions and because we want the other one to understand our point of view so badly, it almost becomes too intense. We were with Alan Moulder the other day, who we mixed the record with, and talking about some film. I was saying, “I love that film!” And he was going, “Nah, I didn’t like it. I turned it off halfway through.” I was like, “What do you mean?” and Alan was like, “Oh you two. I’ve missed these arguments.” [laughs] There’s a lot of healthy banter, but essentially we want the same things and we strive for the same things. We’ve both very hard on ourselves and each other. It can be an intense relationship, sometimes.
You’ve talked a bit about latent sexism in the press, where people have been asking you about and assuming that you didn’t contribute musically to the last La Roux album. Do you think that’s a pervasive problem?
I find that, generally, questions about sexism and feminism are difficult to answer because in the one sense I’d always said in my whole life I’d never experienced sexism, that I’d managed to stay in a lane where it didn’t really involve me. I never really had a proper job and then, obviously, in the music industry I think unless you’re in a specific part of the music industry, which now I’ve experienced — if you want to be an engineer or whatever, it’s a very male dominated world. But I certainly never felt anything like that.
Then I noticed that, after a while, I’d read interviews or someone would read me an interview that I’d done or I’d hear a rumor. I’d start an interview and someone would say, “So, Ben plays all the parts…” And it put me in a really difficult situation where I’d want to say, “No that’s not true,” but also not wanting to sound petty at the same time. Nobody really wants to turn around and go, “I did that.” It’s not a very nice thing to say. You hope that people read up and know the information so you don’t have to put your hand up or made to sound arrogant. But it was very strange for me to say, quite blatantly, to people who I was the instrumentalist on the first record and for people to completely ignore it and assume that I could only possibly vocalist and that there was this guy who did everything on the computer and played all the parts. It wasn’t easy to read at all, especially when I knew that Ben didn’t play and instrument and he would have told anybody, had they asked him, that he didn’t play an instrument.
It was very frustrating because it was one of the things I was most proud of off the first record. I feel I’m more an instrumentalist than I am a vocalist, so it was really insulting.
When I started reading those types of conversations, it made me think immediately of M.I.A. & Diplo and Lily Allen & Mark Ronson; how those women’s early success was attributed to those men and their production efforts, even though they were minimally involved.
No one ever points that out. No one ever says, “hey you didn’t write half of this record or have a hand in the production of it what-so-ever, how can you still feel ownership of it,” which is what I want to ask a lot of artists. But at the same time, the press aren’t asking those people those questions and they’re giving full credit to a lot of other artists who would say, even themselves, “No, I don’t do that part of it. I come up with the idea and the vibes or whatever.” Most artists have no problem with saying that. But then as one person saying, “I did make all of this. These are my parts, these are my skills,” and being completely ignored was very frustrating. It is still frustrating.
You’ve talked about the ’70s being a big music influence on the album, calling it an idea of the future as seen through the eyes of the people of the 1970s. Where did that come from?
For people who are remotely interested in anything sci-fi or futurism, there’s so many different blogs and websites dedicated to a pretend era that never happened that’s a fake space era people only imagined. And they only imagined it in the ’70s, in this imagined future when a lot of sci-fi novels and films were coming up through culture. It is a very specific period of visuals and the only way to describe it, really, is “the way people thought the future was going to be in the ’70s.” It’s a huge disappointment to me that it isn’t like they imagined [laughs]. Every day I’m hugely disappointed that I don’t have a hoverboard, that everything is not made of cream lacquer and stuff like that but never mind.
I’ve always had that obsession and I was trying to explain the visual side of the record, which I hoped would help people understand the way I wanted it to sound. I’d been trying to explain it to myself and other people for a long time and Ian turned around and basically said, after a long evening of chatting, “It’s kind of like the way people thought the future was going to be in the ’70s.” I was like, “Are you f–king joking?” It was like he’d literally crawled inside my mind and then said the words I’d been trying to say for the last year or so. An important moment for both of us. I think the concept is something everyone can relate to, even though it’s completely random.