Elly Jackson has never felt comfortable in girly clothing. In a pop world of in-your-face sexuality and scantily clad stars tiptoeing around in high heels, the singer for British synth-pop duo La Roux would rather wear flats. But when she explains this to photo-shoot stylists, they seem baffled, says Jackson. "They don't think you're serious. Like, 'Seriously, you don't want these Jimmy Choos?' No, you could give me a room of them and I wouldn't care. But if you put me in a room of Gucci loafers, I'd live in there."
Her boyish frame, paired with a flair for pants, tailored blazers and chunky necklaces, only adds to the intrigue of the androgynous 22-year-old frontwoman for La Roux, whose other member, Ben Langmaid, is a nearly invisible presence outside of the recording studio. There is also Jackson's fire-hued Woody Woodpecker-esque coif, which has become her trademark.
In fact, the presumptuousness of stylists sometimes annoys her. "I suppose I'm quite defensive about it," she says of those suggesting a more classically feminine look for her. "I've always been more of a tomboy and a bit androgynous. When I was on the women's floor as a girl I thought, 'Boring.' I just find it a bit boring. I feel like a transvestite or a drag queen in women's clothing. It's that extreme."
Jackson is in the process of concluding a U.S. summer tour, which arrives in L.A. to a sellout crowd at Club Nokia on Thursday. The date comes as the band is drawing more attention in the States as a result of La Roux's worldwide smash single "Bulletproof."
The duo's watershed gig at Coachella in April offered shocking evidence that La Roux had been embraced in the U.S. after earning a string of hits in England. Drawing a massive crowd that surprised Jackson, she said the experience made her think, "maybe America is coming well onto La Roux a bit." Indeed, the tiny Gobi tent at the annual festival in Indio was overflowing with fans, who struggled to get into the space.
Since Coachella, the band's eponymous debut album has made a steady gain on the U.S. charts — no small feat considering it was originally released more than a year ago. It's sitting at No. 70, capitalizing on the infectiousness of singles "In for the Kill," "Quicksand," "I'm Not Your Toy" and "Bulletproof."
That last song, which features Jackson's high-pitched voice paired with a club-ready beat, is an instant pop addiction with a simple, anthemic hook: "This time, baby, I'll be bulletproof." The single was her first No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom; in the States the song peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Although Jackson is undoubtedly the face of La Roux, producer Langmaid completes the team.
But you'll seldom see him. The shy beatmaker, who wants to remain in the shadows, refuses to be interviewed or photographed. He also doesn't appear on stage with Jackson.
Together the two crafted a pulsating ode to electro-pop and New Wave bands like Depeche Mode, Eurythmics and Heaven 17. Crafted in Langmaid's living room, the synth-heavy album offers a wormhole into the '80s (minus the fluorescent leg warmers and shoulder pads). But although Jackson is aware that the album presents the duo as an '80s-inspired revivalist act, she says they have already grown out of that sound. .
"This album is really heavily, heavily '80s influenced," she says. "We can't deny that. What's important is people know that's not what La Roux is. That's what this album is. The next record will be something different."
Jackson was introduced to Langmaid by an engineer who heard her outside a club singing and playing the guitar. The two began talking and sparked a friendship. They worked for four years on the music that eventually became their debut.
Those first conversations with Langmaid were difficult, she says, and her style was far removed from what the pair ultimately created.
"I liked Joni Mitchell and Carole King, and he could see there was something in there that he wanted to get out. I'd never done the bold singing. He'd say, 'Go cover "Call Me" from Blondie and come back in a week.'" As they discovered a musical voice, their confidence grew.
"When we wrote 'In for the Kill,' we were dead certain it would fly. I was very involved in the underground dance scene. When we started making [the music] it wasn't very trendy. By the time we finished … it was becoming fashionable," she said.
Martin Kierzenbaum, chairman of Cherrytree Records and president of pop and rock A&R at Interscope, echoes Jackson's thoughts.
"La Roux's music is a fresh combo of futuristic sound and empowered lyrics," he said. "When Cherrytree/Interscope first introduced their music to the U.S., nothing else sounded like it, and nothing still does."
With the band's "Gold" tour set to wrap in August, Jackson is ready to tackle its second album, which the pair has slowly begun. She says the band expects to go into the studio in September and is planning on a summer 2011 release.
But, she says, the two aren't in any hurry.
"You can always tell when a record is rushed."