With a French
moniker that translates as "the
(male) red-haired one,"
androgynous and otherworldly
singer Eleanor "Elly" Jackson
took the British pop scene by
storm as the voice and public
presence of La Roux, scoring
major hits in the U.K. with the
singles "In for the Kill" and
"Bulletproof." She delivered on
the promise of those tunes with
a self-titled debut crafted with
her musical partner, Ben
Langmaid. And now, looking to
expand the buzz that's been
building since "La Roux" was
released here last fall, she's
making her live debut on these
shores with an introductory tour
that brings her to Lincoln Hall
on Monday, Feb. 1.
Jackson starting making music by strumming romantic folk songs on an acoustic guitar--she's said that she first met Langmaid as a 17-year-old after a mutual friend put them in touch when he heard her doing her Joni Mitchell routine at 4 a.m. during a New Year's Eve Party--but she soon discovered the rave scene and fell in love with the electronic dance sounds of such as Cut Copy and M.I.A.
The forty-something Langmaid first made his bow in the music world in the mid-'90s with Rollo Armstrong of Faithless in the house duo Huff & Puff. The mysterious multi-instrumentalist began collaborating with Jackson in his home studio in Brixton in 2006. Yet while he is a key part of La Roux's sound as Jackson's co-songwriter and the duo's producer, he doesn't do interviews, won't appear in photos and stays home in the studio while the singer tours. (Onstage, Jackson is backed by two keyboardists, Michael Norris and Mickey O'Brien, and a drummer, William Bowerman.)
"That's how he likes it," Jackson said of her partner's role in the shadows during an interview with Australia's Courier Mail newspaper. "I wouldn't say I'm jealous, because I love performing, but some days in the middle of a string of interviews, you think, 'Bloody Ben, living the life of Reilly at home!'"
Unconventional as their partnership may be, it clearly works: Jackson and Langmaid have an unerring ear for instantly memorable hooks, driving rhythms and lyrical messages of defiant self-empowerment in the wake of failed romance. The pair favors an instrumental palette heavy on the reedy of early digital synthesizers and the tinny pitter-pat of first-generation drum machines: '80s synth-pop bands the Eurythmics, the Human League, Yazoo and Depeche Mode are frequent points of comparison in reviews, and the duo is gearing up for a collaboration with Heaven 17.
But there also is a futuristic quality to La Roux's music, especially onstage, where Jackson's urgent vocals can sound as if they're coming from an especially soulful robot--she's described her voice as "falsetto in the ghetto"--and her stage presence, capped by a scarlet mane that strives to outdo anything ever sported by A Flock of Seagulls, evokes an alien of indeterminate gender. Think of the actress Tilda Swinton portraying David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase, and you're still only half way there.
The now 21-year-old Jackson has declined to talk about her sexuality with the ever-inquisitive British press, though she has cited theatrical, gender-bending stars such as Bowie, Annie Lennox and Prince among her inspirations. "I hate being lumped in with other female musicians just because of my gender," she told the American music magazine Paste.
"I've always been a little androgynous. I was a tomboy at school. I always had people slag me for being a strange little boy-looking-girl. And it has just developed as I've gotten older. There are many aspects of being a woman that I love and some aspects that men can get away with that I like to pick up on.
"If you're different, it may take a little longer to break through, but hopefully it sets you up for some longevity. It's cool to be unique. There are so many identikit artists."
Indeed there are, but in this identikit universe, La Roux is another welcome opportunity to hail the true individualists.
La Roux, Yes Giantess, Moneypenny
8 p.m. Monday [Feb. 1]
Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln