While she certainly garnered much more publicity and made a much bigger splash on the U.S. pop charts, Lady Gaga wasn't the only striking female presence to make her mark on the music scene in 2009 with a distinctive, over-the-top image and an intoxicating mix of vintage synth-pop hooks and cutting-edge dance grooves.
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.
The daughter of actress Trudie Goodwin, well known in the U.K. for playing a police sergeant on "The Bill," a TV show that ran from 1984 to 2007, Jackson grew up in Herne Hill, South London. Raised to the sounds of the Carole King and Nick Drake records that dominated her parents' collection, she attended what she has frequently called an ultra-strict "Nazi school" that did its best to stamp out her rebellious streak, but only succeeded in making her more of a non-conformist.
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