The Big Read
The Big Read – Lily Allen: “I’m taking ownership of my narrative”
In a world where public figures are scared to have opinions, we need Lily Allen more than ever. As the outspoken singer-songwriter releases sparkling new album ‘No Shame’, Nick Levine hears how divorce, defiance and the odd Twitter pow-wow helped her get her mojo back.
Lily Allen: “People try to reveal the most intimate details of my life without permission. This is me taking ownership of my narrative”
The current crop of pop stars are expected to be politically-engaged, to have a take on everything from feminism to Brexit. But when Lily Allen broke through with 2006’s reggae-infused debut ‘Alright, Still’, her plain-speaking persona made her a refreshing and exciting rarity. She became household name famous, but clearly understood the game for what it was. When she returned with 2009’s excellent second album ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’, she used lead single ‘The Fear’ to send up society’s obsession with increasingly vacuous celebrity culture. “I am a weapon of massive consumption,” Allen sang wryly. “It’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function.”
Her career only really faltered with 2014’s third album ‘Sheezus’, a messy but sometimes compelling attempt to reconcile her new life as a wife and mother with her younger days as a provocative pop star. Lead single ‘Hard Out Here’ seemed like vintage Lily, slick pop with a witty feminist message, but its video was criticised for surrounding the white, privileged singer with a troupe of black backing dancers. After being accused of cultural appropriation, Allen later admitted: “I was guilty of thinking – assuming – that there was a one-size-fits-all where feminism is concerned.”
Now she’s back with fourth album ‘No Shame’, a brilliant collection of low-key pop songs whose lyrics are often disarmingly honest. Addressing the breakdown of her marriage on ‘Apples’, she sings: “I had to do it baby, we were both depressed / There was a end, we weren’t even having sex / I felt like I was only good for writing the cheques.” But ‘No Shame’ has humorous and optimistic moments too, and in classic Allen fashion, she sneaks in a jab at self-interested Daily Mail readers on ‘Pushing Up The Daisies’.
When I meet Allen at a member’s club in Notting Hill, she’s half-lying down in a private booth filled with scatter cushions. If she looks unusually comfortable for a pop star doing an interview, that’s because she is. During our conversation she speaks candidly about Jeremy Corbyn, Twitter trolls, her financial situation, what went wrong with ‘Sheezus’, and why she was criticised for sharing her opinions on the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It’s easy to see why Allen still gets more headlines than her peers; she just has so much more to say.
So, why did you call the album ‘No Shame’?
“What I’ve heard back from people with this record is it’s very confessional and honest and gritty. People are like, ‘Why would you want to reveal so much of yourself?’ But actually, for the last 10 years, people have tried really hard to reveal the most intimate details of my life without permission. So maybe this is me taking ownership of my narrative and presenting it in musical form. I’ve got no control over what people are going to say about me, so I might as well try and get the truth across in the only way I can, which is music.”
Why do you think the tabloids are still so obsessed with you?
“I think they like to make an example out of me because I like to spark conversation, and that’s scary for those people. They want to control what people think. They don’t want people making their minds up for themselves. And the things I like to talk about outside of music are the things that are usually talked about by middle-aged white men in crap suits on the news. So when someone who’s younger and relatable is talking about those things in a language people can understand, that’s threatening for them, I think.”
“From the beginning, my USP has been authenticity and honesty. When I’m not quite there, people can smell it a mile off.”– Lily Allen
Do you think they want to keep you ‘in your own lane’?
“No, I don’t even think that. I think it’s actually more sinister than that now. I think that when it looks like Jeremy Corbyn’s doing quite well, they humiliate me because of the association. I think they almost use me to beat down the left. It’s like, ‘You don’t wanna be a leftie – look at this sad tragic girl that falls out of nightclubs and talks about drugs.’”
So you’re the left’s whipping boy?
“Ha! Basically. But the thing is, I’m not even a hardcore Corbynista. I’ve never said that I love Jeremy Corbyn. I’m not out at Corbyn rallies. I just talk about things from, I guess, a more leftist perspective. But they definitely like to label me as that.”
Given the shit you get, do you ever decide it’s not worth speaking out on a certain issue?
“No. I think as long as I feel strong enough to take the blows, it’s quite empowering. They can say as much as they want, but I’m still smiling, and I’ve still got a roof over my head, and I’m having a laugh on stage performing to my fans. I hope that people think, ‘Fair play to her. She’s said this, and they’ve come back at her, but we can see through that and she’s fine. So maybe it is OK for us to express our opinions and have a take on things.’ You know, rather than thinking, ‘Oh look, Lily’s said this and they’ve gone for her and she’s fallen apart. So we shouldn’t join in the conversation either.’”
“I think women have become more sexualised over the last 20 years. They don’t want to know you’ve had children passing through your birth canal.”– Lily Allen
Do you think what’s written about you in certain newspapers fuels the Twitter trolls?
“Yeah, I do. Although to what extent, I’m not quite sure. Out of the trolls, I’m not sure what’s automated and Russian, and what’s real. They’re not called Russian bots. They’re called, you know, PaulJames1979 with a Middlesbrough FC emblem. But I do know that if I get into a tête-à-tête – or tweet-à-tweet – with Piers Morgan, then suddenly I’ll get loads of automated stuff. So there are definitely right-wing triggers that if you converse and interact with, you get a sort of army coming at you. And you know that they’re automated because they have the same key words and they’re talking about exactly the same thing. In all the tweets, there will be four of five key words surrounded by other aggressive words.”
Do you ever want to take a break from Twitter?
“No, because I’m fascinated by it. I feel like Twitter and social media is the new pub. People don’t go the pub any more to talk about what’s going on. They go online, and I think it’s important for us to all talk about what’s going on otherwise people like Donald Trump can become President, Theresa May stays in power, Brexit happens.”
Do you think Twitter actually promotes debate though? It can feel like an echo chamber.
“I don’t really debate. But if someone posts pictures of my genitals, I will come back at them. In the same way, if I walked into the pub and someone went, ‘You fat slag, I just saw your vadge,’ I’d be like… ‘Excuse me’. I think it’s about applying what you find acceptable in real life to what you encounter online. And we’re all living online now so I think it’s important to stand up and say your piece.”
On the album’s opening track ‘Come On Then’, you confront head-on what people say about you: “I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad wife, you saw it on the socials, you read it online.” Do you feel as though your self-awareness can be a curse as well as a blessing?
“It’s definitely a curse. I mean, I think it’s a blessing in terms of my writing because I’m very observational and I’m obsessed with people. Before social media, when I was on the way home from school, I’d sometimes stay on the bus for a whole extra loop because I was fascinated by the conversation that was going on in front of me. If I’m at a restaurant with my boyfriend, I’m not paying attention to him, I’m paying attention to what’s going on at the table next door. I’m always writing stories for people and trying to fill in the gaps. I’m not just self-aware – I’m hyper-aware of everything that’s going on around me.”
Can you switch off this hyper-awareness?
“Yeah. But that’s a blessing and a curse too. I’m not very good at maintaining relationships. Because when things get difficult, I can just detach.”
But doesn’t the emotional fallout catch up with you eventually?
“No, I just carry on. Well, eventually people are just like, ‘Fuck Lily. We’re not sticking around for this!’ I think because I’ve got ADHD as well, I get very easily distracted. So if I’m trying to have a deep and meaningful conversation with someone and then something happens somewhere else, I just wander off. And that can be really hurtful and upsetting for someone who’s trying to have that deep and meaningful conversation with me.”
The album’s incredibly candid and vulnerable in places. Are there any songs you were in two minds about putting out there?
‘Apples’ is the song that really made me gasp…
“Ha! Which part?”
The way you draw a parallel between your divorce and the divorce of your parents. It felt like something you’d only tell a best friend.
“Right. Well, I suppose in lots of ways this album is my best friend. Because when I broke up with [ex-husband] Sam, I lost all of our group. Everyone sided with him. And after my stalker experience, I did completely isolate myself. I felt I couldn’t communicate with anybody because nobody was taking me seriously because the police weren’t taking me seriously. It was quite difficult trying to have a conversation about something that had profoundly affected me and have everyone not seem that interested. So I just ended up shutting down completely, and this album really became the outlet for me to share my thoughts. But I think that’s what music is meant to be – non-capitalist music, anyway.”
“I’m a million pounds in debt.
Put that in your article.”– Lily Allen
Is that why this album feels so different to ’Sheezus’?
“I didn’t feel any agency with ‘Sheezus’. So going into this record, I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve never been about radio plays and awards and magazine covers.’ Yes, those things happened in my career, and I’m very grateful – they bought me my house. But they’re not why I went into this. So I was like, ‘What are you doing this for?’ Well, I want to play really great live shows, and for that to happen the music’s got to be really good and I’ve got to feel connected. The only thing I have control over is my creative outlet so I just had to give myself over to that. And if all the other stuff comes because the music’s brilliant, that’s great. But it can’t be making it for that.”
I think fans can tell when you’re not really connected to a project.
“Oh, they did with ‘Sheezus’. Maybe not from the music, but definitely from the way I was holding myself. I hate talking about myself in the third person… but from the beginning, my USP or whatever has been my authenticity and honesty. So I think when I’m not quite there, people can smell it a mile off. I wasn’t refreshing and honest with ‘Sheezus’. I was heavily made up, a bit sedated, drunk, and falling apart. And I think people thought, ‘This doesn’t quite feel right.’”
Do you think ‘Air Balloon’ was when they realised? That song just didn’t feel like a Lily Allen song.
“Yeah! And I think leading into the album with ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ was a big mistake because it was such a contrast to ‘Hard Out Here’. But because it had such big success, the label were second guessing themselves and saying, ‘Fuck, is Lily a middle of the road artist know?’ I didn’t have a manager at the time so I was having to have these conversations about how many albums were being shipped to Sainsbury’s. It was a fucking nightmare. I never wanna go there ever again!”
How much say did the label have on this album?
“I didn’t engage with anyone at the label until the album was delivered. They didn’t have any other option. I wasn’t going to do anything else.”
On the last tour, you had giant inflatable milk bottles on stage. Do you think you ever managed to reconcile ‘pop star Lily’ with ‘Lily the mum’?
“I’ve still got the milk bottles, by the way. If you ever want one, there’s 25 of them in storage in Bounds Green. But I mean, I remember the days of Neneh Cherry prancing around with her big pregnant belly out. I always thought was really cool, and I thought I can celebrate this. But it doesn’t work.”
“I think women have become more sexualised over the last 20 years. People associate women – especially women in the public eye – with sex. They don’t want to know that you’ve had children passing through your birth canal. I don’t think people like being reminded of that.”
Looking back on your early career, you were so often described as “feisty” or “mouthy”, words that aren’t generally applied to male artists.
“And ‘outspoken’. And it works as well. You know, when your name is followed with ‘rants’ or ‘spats’ for 10 years, it works. It’s propaganda. I’m not outspoken – I’m sitting in an interview speaking. It’s my job.”
Some artists just say nothing interesting in their interviews.
“Well, that’s their problem.”
There’s a section on your Wikipedia page for ‘controversies’. Does that freak you out?
“It doesn’t freak me out for me – it freaks me out for the state of the world. It’s funny, I did that programme Would I Lie To You the other day. I remember doing a panel show when I was much younger and I felt a lot more confident then – I felt more able to play a part. I was the lad-ette, it was sort of acceptable. Now, being 33 and in that environment again, I found myself self-censoring a little bit and letting the men be funny. Which is really fucking sad. There were even a couple of times where I had the joke before someone else, and I was like, ‘Should I say that?’ But I held myself back. Because actually, I don’t think the viewer would like it. They don’t want women to be like that. They’d be like, ‘She’s full of herself, she thinks she’s so funny.’”
Do you think you also get criticised by the tabloids because you’re seen as ‘rich’ and ‘privileged’?
“Have been rich, currently rich, or what?”
Both. I’m thinking especially of when you spoke out about Grenfell.
“Well, I’m a million pounds in debt, so put that in! But you know, there’s a reason that’s what they picked on [with Grenfell]. Because I haven’t been falling out of nightclubs for the last two years, they’ll say, ‘Well, she’s rich.’ If I’d been falling out of nightclubs, they wouldn’t bother with the rich thing – they’d just be like, ‘She’s a fucktard.’ So I think it’s whatever they can get with.”
They’ll find another stick to beat you with.
“Oh yeah, sticks will always come. There’s always going to be another stick.”
Where does your resilience and toughness come from? Some people – most people, I think – wouldn’t be able to put up with all of this.
“My mum. She was 16 years old when she got pregnant with my sister and living in a working class, aspiring middle class, naval family in Portsmouth. They were very hardcore Catholics. She got pregnant with my sister and went into labour and her mum wouldn’t come to the hospital with her. And my sister’s dad was off at a Clash gig, actually, in Southampton. So she gave birth to my sister on her own at 17 years old and then left Portsmouth, came to London, met my dad, had two more kids, and made a career for herself. I mean, she really fucking did it. She was hardcore. She was clever and beautiful and hardworking and she had three children to look after with no help. She didn’t have a choice. So when things get tough for me, I think, ‘Could my mum handle this?’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, she could.’”
A few days after the interview, I watch Allen owning the stage at south London’s Mighty Hoopla festival, splitting her setlist between emotional ‘No Shame’ standouts and classic bangers like ‘Smile’ and ‘Fuck You’. Then the day before her album drops, she posts a video calling out Good Morning Britain for cancelling her interview because of her “Twitter spats” with host Piers Morgan. After her brief ‘Sheezus’ blip, it’s hard to deny that Allen feels honest, authentic and refreshing again. Despite the Daily Mail’s best efforts, I’d venture that she’s also well on her way to becoming a kind of millennial national treasure. In 2018, there’s still no one quite like her.