The flame-haired musician Elly Jackson set the world ablaze in 2009. Armed with an unforgettable falsetto and androgynous style that was far ahead of its time, La Roux rode a wave of 1980s revivalism to the top of the charts. At 21 years old, her self-titled debut album La Roux was a critical and commercial success, earning her a Grammy for Best Electronic/Dance Album and spawning the colossal hit “Bulletproof.” But as idyllic as it might sound to immediately capture the world’s attention and adoration, it was the last thing Jackson had expected or prepared for.
The pressures of pop stardom ate away at young Jackson, who was open about her struggles with celebrity in the press. She was quoted in The Mirror as early as 2009, saying “I just have an urge to write songs. If it became about being famous, I’d stop.” In 2014, she told The Guardian: “Everyone else seems to know how to be a famous person and I just don’t.”
Her second album, originally due out in 2011, took 5 years to complete. In a recent interview, Jackson reflected on the process: “Everything surrounding Trouble in Paradise was trouble, it did what it said on the tin, it created problems.” During production, Jackson split with her silent partner, Ben Langmaid, who co-wrote and produced the previous album. Her label, Polydor Records, dropped her on New Years Day, in 2015.
Then, on tour, Jackson lost her voice due to an anxiety disorder. Speaking on the phone last week, Jackson reflected on the experience: “I think people really take for granted how much your voice is a mirror reflection of how you feel inside. Every tiny thing you’re not sure about will come out. Even if you’re lying to yourself, your voice will tell you exactly how you feel,” she said.
On February 7th, La Roux will release her third studio album, Supervision, which she wrote and arranged in just 3 months. The title is a double entendre: Jackson sees things clearer now than ever before, and also no longer needs supervision in the music-making process. After years spent collaborating with male producers, Jackson has finally awarded herself the trust and freedom to truly go solo. “I have a huge fear of being big-headed and think that’s actually made me ask people for help when I don’t even need it,” she said.
Jackson has been plagued by self-doubt since she first started making music. “I have this really vivid memory of singing to Stevie Wonder in the house and thinking ‘I’m not going to tell anyone, but I think I can sing really well,'" she recalled. She first discovered her talent when she was seven years old, but as she entered her teenage years, embarrassment and lack of confidence chipped away at her ability. “I lost that same freedom and abandon that I had as a child. It’s that abandon that I’ve only just sort of managed to get back now, that I had on the first record. I’ve really found the joy in singing again and a new part of my voice as well,” she said.
Toward the end of 2017, a recovered Jackson was three years into developing what she thought would be her third album when she had a painful epiphany. While on holiday with her then partner of 10 years, she suddenly collapsed to the ground in the throes of a panic attack. “It was like being shot with a gun. I had the biggest realization about my life that I’ve ever had," she said. "It was like realizing that everything you think supports your life and your happiness is basically a lie.”
She recognized that she had been engaging in the same harmful patterns that made Trouble in Paradise such hell and knew what she had to do: Start over. Jackson ended her decade-long relationship and scrapped her entire album. This time, she wouldn’t spend years of studio time obsessing over perfection or depend on collaborators who didn’t share her vision. “I think sacrifice teaches you more than anything else. People are so scared of losing things, but actually the more you lose, the more you learn, and I had to lose it all,” she said.
With Supervision, it’s clear that La Roux’s discography has, in many ways, been a reflection of her mental health and journey to self-acceptance. The new album is a meditation on the pain of enlightenment, and ultimately a reminder that the truth is always what sets us free.
On the eight-song record, you can hear Jackson’s liberation. The edge of her first album and melancholy of her second have been replaced with a kind of warm relief. “I wasn’t writing because I needed to explain my pain,” she said. “But of course there are angry moments on the record and I ached a lot to get there, but it’s different. It’s less that I’m sad or in pain or insecure and it’s more like, I finally know where I’m going and fuck you!”
The songs are danceable and light, with Balearic percussion that almost forces you to shimmy. “International Woman of Leisure” is a “Bulletproof” for 2020, and the feminist anthem addresses her recent split: “No I never want to see your face again/I will not be living in that space again.” Many songs feel like epiphanies. They’re the kinds of tracks played in the final sequence of an ‘80s movie, when the characters run off into the sunset.
The Bee Gees-esque “Do You Feel” rattles off an infectious loop of existential questions: “Do you feel like you believed in something and you never even questioned why?/Does it feel like you’re running from it, all the while running out of time?” On “Everything I Live For,” Jackson contrasts a difficult realization, “There’s something in the atmosphere/telling me things that I don’t wanna hear/taking me places I don’t wanna be,” with a gleeful, uplifting melody.
There’s a certainty that defines this iteration of La Roux, and it translates to her style as well. She’s shifted her approach to costuming: “I’m not trying to conform to my own very narrow ideas of what I’m allowed to do,” she said. In her video for “Automatic Driver,” which is more or less Caddy Shack meets Blade Runner, she bounces around in a casual pair of what she calls “Loewe tracksuit pajama trousers” with a beaming smile; it’s a far cry from her earlier music videos, where she’s armored in bold makeup and statement outfits.
“I’m allowing a little bit more of myself into La Roux,” Jackson said. “She is a character and I love becoming her, but I also love more of Elly now than I used to, so I’ve let them share a space. It’s given everything a more relaxed feel.”