As she glides into an East London photo studio, the first thing you notice about Elly Jackson, better-known as British electro-pop artist La Roux, is invariably her radiant auburn hair and its new style. Shorn of the gravity-defying, Ed Grimley-like quiff — or “iced gem,” as she jokingly calls it — that the singer (whose stage name is mangled French for “red-haired one”) wore at the time of her 2009 breakthrough, Jackson’s hair has been cropped into an equally eye-catching relaxed wave, dyed multiple shades of vibrant red. After voice issues and fatigue prompted the 26-year-old to spend the last three years mostly out of the public eye (more on that later), it makes for a startling, semi-androgynous reintroduction that, complemented by her porcelain complexion and glass-cutting cheekbones, evokes a cross between a young Tilda Swinton and David Bowie circa “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
“I just got really f—ing bored of hair spray,” says the dry-witted London native, dressed in an elegant yellow Paul Smith suit. “I wanted to be a freer, more natural artist. Nothing visually should be less striking — just a lot more natural.”
The same words could also be used to describe La Roux’s sophomore album, “Trouble in Paradise,” due July 8 on Cherrytree/Interscope. It comes almost five years after the U.S. release of her self-titled debut, which won a Grammy for best electronic/dance album, spawned the hit singles “In for the Kill” (No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart) and “Bulletproof” (No. 8 on the Hot 100), and led to guest spots on Kanye West’s 2010 magnum opus “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and West and Jay Z’s “Watch the Throne.” Needless to say, the artist’s hairstyle is not the only thing that changed in the intervening half decade.
“It feels like another lifetime ago,” says Jackson. Today marks the artist’s first in-depth interview since announcing her return earlier in May. As such, there’s a slight trace of nerves in her voice, but most of all she’s keen to talk, remaining long after the last of her team has exited the building.
The reasons behind her protracted absence are numerous, explains Jackson, but many of them could be categorized as mental and physical “burnout” after two years of nonstop promotion of her debut. “It just took it out of me. I was less hardcore than I thought,” she says. “I needed some time on my own and I didn’t really feel comfortable in myself for a while. I felt a bit too self-conscious and I just wanted to go back to who I was when I was 17 and didn’t think about any of that stuff, so I could come back with a much more level head.”
Most troubling, after wrapping touring in early 2011, she found herself unable to sing falsetto. “All that would come out is the sound of air,” she recalls glumly. “Nothing else.”
After months of seeing throat specialists, Jackson was diagnosed with residual muscle tension brought on by a form of performance anxiety. “I would do a sound check in the afternoon and sing perfectly, and then come evening no sound would come out,” she says. “It was like this big ball of tension in my throat that had closed up and I had no control over it. I couldn’t sing for about a year.”
The problem was eventually solved with the aid of a confidence therapist, but progress on her second album remained painfully slow. Disagreeing on the direction the record should take, Jackson and her musical partner — producer-composer Ben Langmaid, the mostly unseen other half of La Roux — parted ways in February 2012. “Once I started to know what I wanted for the album, I realized that that relationship wasn’t the best way forward,” says Jackson tactfully.
Engineer Ian Sherwin stepped in and took over production duties. Their shared goal, says Jackson, was an album that evoked “what people in the 1970s thought that the future was going to look and sound like. I didn’t want to do the same record as my debut. I didn’t want it to feel the same because I didn’t feel the same.”
True to her word, the six tracks (of nine total that will make up the album) she played Billboard show a progression from the jagged electro-pop of “La Roux” to a more organic, richly layered contemporary disco-meets-new wave sound filled with pulsating neon grooves. Immediate highlights include bouncy ’80s synth-pop gem “Cruel Sexuality,” the dancehall-infused “Tropical Chancer” and first single “Uptight Downtown,” a sprightly mix of echoing, Nile Rodgers-inspired guitars and Jackson’s ethereal vocals, singing of “streets alive with people, people who want to move.”
“I like to think everything on the album could be a single. If not, then why the f— is it on there?” says Jackson, who embarks on her first U.S. tour in over three years this summer. “Songs like ‘Uptight Downtown’ and ‘Silent Partner,’ there is an energy to them that I feel is extremely akin to who I am. I was very aware that however cheeky the arrangements became, however bouncy the groove became, that it should still be intrinsically me.
“You have to make the record that you want to make, when you want to make it,” Jackson continues. However frustrating it might be for management, the label or even my own career, I’m not going to do something unless I feel that it’s the best thing that I can possibly do.”