A Brutally Candid Conversation With Lily Allen
Lily Allen didn’t like her last album. She says this and squeaks out a burst of nervous rat-a-tat-tat laughter. She does this a lot in conversation, touching on a topic that most people like to avoid, both in interviews and in real life, from dealing with stalkers to music industry machinations to her own feelings of self-worth, and then emitting a quick chuckle, as if to put a period on the sentence so she can move onto the next confession.
She’s never been one to hold back. Nearly a decade ago, while stuck in record label limbo with a team that didn’t know what to do with her and didn’t want to release her music, she began uploading her demos to MySpace, and also began blogging on the site. Both the music and her words were hilarious and revealing looks at life as a young British woman of means in the ’00s, dealing with daft blokes and always trying to fight through the hangover to remember what you did the night before. Eventually, her label released her acclaimed and wildly popular debut, 2006’s Alright, Still. Our own Chris Deville once argued that Allen set the template for confessional and sonically adventurous pop that stars from Lorde to Charli XCX would pull from. She also created the “feminist party girl” persona a few years before Amy Schumer got to it.
Hit singles like “Smile” and “Alfie” (in which she clowns her brother, the future Theon Greyjoy) made Allen a star, and her follow-up, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You further cemented her status. But she quickly became just as famous for her extramusical tabloid antics, such as getting into a drunken spat with Elton John.
Allen has always practiced what could be called radical honesty. No matter what hardship she was going through, she was quick to talk about it in interviews and social media. And there was a lot of hardship, from two separate miscarriages and struggles with bi-polar disorder, co-dependency, and substance abuse. She started work on her third album, 2014’s Sheezus, shortly after having her first child, while still in the thick of postnatal depression. Though the album has its share of hidden gems (including the evisceration of online know-it-alls “URL Badman”), it found her bending awkwardly to pop trends instead of leading them. And the video for lead single “Hard Out Here,” intended as a send-up of entertainment industry sexism and the objectification of women, was called out by commentators who thought that the inclusion of black back-up dancers was an act of both cultural appropriation and veiled racism.
Well aware of her missteps, she set out to right the ship with her new album No Shame, which sees her re-embrace the dancehall and new wave influences of her debut on singles like “Trigger Bang,” and offer up her most confessional and mature ballads yet on songs like “Three” and “Family Man,” which recount her recent divorce and the fear that her work is getting in the way of being a good parent.
Sporting a pink dye job, Allen talked candidly about her career, life, and upcoming memoir (and once the interview was over, her support for UK social icon Jeremy Corbyn; she’d make a great Chapo Traphouse guest) with Stereogum over virgin peach margaritas and chips and guacamole at a Tribeca taqueria. As ever, she had a lot to say.
STEREOGUM: What have you been up to after the tour for your last album?
ALLEN: Quite a lot, you know? Getting divorced [laughs] and writing this record. I’ve been pretty solidly writing for the best part of three years.
STEREOGUM: Why do you think it took so long?
ALLEN: ‘Cause I wanted it to be really good [laughs]. I wanted it to be really good, but I also wanted to A&R it myself and I wanted to make it myself. Like, I didn’t wanna do the traditional way of doing things. I didn’t wanna make a record with singles for radio.
I signed a deal that was an artist deal. So £25,000 for five albums, and then I was a pop star. I loved that for a bit, and then I think it went into Pop Star 101 on the last record, and I needed to figure out what I was.
STEREOGUM: Did it get to the point where you felt like you had to chase trends or work with whoever was the hot producer at the moment? That happens to a lot of pop stars.
ALLEN: No, ’cause the last record, I did it all with Greg Kurstin who did my record previous to that. I think a big part of me also wanted to make a good record that wasn’t produced by Greg Kurstin. I wanted to know I could do it without him.
STEREOGUM: I was reading some interviews with you, and you said that you weren’t super-into your last album, Sheezus. How much of this album is a response to the process of making Sheezus?
ALLEN: The whole thing. I think that the idea going into Sheezus was really well-intentioned. I think I was suffering from postnatal depression when I started writing it, and I think I was having an identity crisis, that I did not know I was a new mum. I felt like I needed to be a pop star to pay my bills, and I didn’t feel like that, so I did what I thought pop stars should do, and it was very wrong. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Did you know it at the time you were making it that it was the wrong direction, or only in retrospect?
ALLEN: Well, I don’t think the music, actually, was that bad. It was more the marketing and the way that I looked, the clothes that I was wearing and the stage design. It was like a sort of weird Alice In Wonderland, but bad.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it seemed like they tried to market you along the lines of Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry with that album. Nothing against them, but it doesn’t really seem like who you truly are.
ALLEN: Yeah, I mean, yeah I’d say that’s right. But I can’t blame it on anyone. I OK’d it, I approved it. But because I didn’t have a sense of self at the time, I was looking to other people to guide me. And I’ve always done it myself, which is, I think, what translated to people before. The sense of honesty. I think I just felt like I couldn’t sell it, ’cause I didn’t know who I was.
STEREOGUM: I know that a lot women say that after you have a kid, sometimes you don’t necessarily know who you are, besides being a mom.
ALLEN: Well, I think there’s that, but then I think also the record industry doesn’t know how to deal with it. It’s like, “Shit, those tits are for selling records with, not feeding children with,” you know? [laughs] “What are we meant to do with those?”
STEREOGUM: It can be hard to market a mom to the kids who want to listen to pop music. And with the music industry, you’re expected to have an album out every three-to-four years or two-to-three years, and you might not be ready to do that. You might not have done enough reflecting.
ALLEN: Not only that, but I think the record industry is the boys club, and I think the boys club are OK with manipulating young women that don’t have any responsibilities. And maybe they feel slightly more guilty behaving that way when a woman’s got children, and their life is real, all of a sudden, you know? It’s OK to rip off a little crap that’s taking drugs and getting fucked up. But it’s not really that cool to do that to a young mum.
STEREOGUM: You would hope they would have that level of compassion, but I wouldn’t put anything past the record industry.
ALLEN: I don’t know. The thing is, you have to remember that I lost a child in a very tragic circumstance, and I think that was pretty real for a lot of them. I think there was some pretty unclear behavior going on in terms of fiddling with the books and finances. I think there probably was guilt and shame associated with that and they didn’t know how to deal with it.
STEREOGUM: Do you still work with the same people, or did you change teams since?
ALLEN: There’s nobody at my record company that was there when I signed to them, and I’ve been through about seven managers since the beginning.
STEREOGUM: The album got the most divisive and derisive reviews of your career. Did that hurt at the time? Or did you already know it wasn’t your best work?
ALLEN: No, I knew. I talked about it in interviews. I didn’t like the single choices. It was bad from the beginning.
STEREOGUM: Is it tough when you at some point realize, “Well, it’s too far along now, there’s nothing I can do to stop it?”
ALLEN: Yeah. I started drinking. It wasn’t like an escape, but I was like, “Fuck, I sold tickets to concerts for the next year, I’m stuck in this.”
STEREOGUM: “To play songs I don’t really like.”
ALLEN: Yeah. And I was having to spend long periods of time away from my children, and it was too much.
STEREOGUM: That’s gotta be rough. Once all that stuff ended, when did you start writing and working on this one?
ALLEN: Pretty much straight away, actually — in fact, because I was feeling so guilty about not being with my kids and our relationship was really intermittent. And I hated that. I hated going back to them because they didn’t know me, so it was really difficult. So actually, I created more work to stay away, because I didn’t want to go back, because I was so scared of rejection, you know? [laughs]
STEREOGUM: That’s gotta be rough.
ALLEN: Yeah, it was actually. We finished the US tour here, and I rented a house in LA for like a month and said, you know, “I’ve gotta get this next record done, I hate the last one so much, I’m so pissed off.” I didn’t think it would take me three years [laughs]. But the first song we wrote was “Family Man.” It’s telling that that’s the first song that came out, I think.
STEREOGUM: Is that around the time you said you were getting divorced?
ALLEN: Oh, yeah.
STEREOGUM: You’re going through that and you know you have to make a great album to come back from the last one. How difficult was it to actually focus and make something great when you’re going through all of this?
ALLEN: It was really hard. It is really hard, you know? I finally got to the place where I knew what I had to do professionally in order to sustain myself. Not sustain myself financially, but creatively. I knew that I just had to get rid of red carpets and designer dresses and courting attention. It all had to go. I had to get a space and immerse myself in whatever. I still wasn’t happy, so I was like, “All right, maybe it’s my marriage.” Then there was that that I kind of had to get out of. Quite soon after that happened, I had a stalker break into my house and try to kill me. That was horrifying [laughs] mainly because I’m a really codependent person, so it took a lot of courage to leave my marriage, and I was like, “I can survive on my own in the real world.” Literally three weeks after I split up with my husband, somebody broke into my house and tried to kill me.
STEREOGUM: I’m sorry, that’s awful.
ALLEN: [laughs] It was really intense, and it was six months from that happening to when he got put in jail, the court case and everything. There was loads of other weird stuff involved with that, the police. Yeah, it was a very difficult time.
STEREOGUM: I have heard that literally every woman in the public eye has a stalker.
ALLEN: I think quite a lot of people not in the public eye have stalkers. Especially in this day and age.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned you didn’t want to work with Greg Kurstin again. There’s certainly a very sexist idea in the music industry and amongst fans and critics that there’s a guy who writes all the songs, and then the female singer goes in and sings them, and they wanna give the producer all the credit. Were you consciously trying to break away from that idea and be like, “No, he’s great, but I’m the one who made those albums?”
ALLEN: No, I’m not that kinda person. In fact, I’ve never really believed in myself, so I think it was more I was always like, “Well, Greg’s the genius, not me.” And I think that because things really got to a low point with the last record, it was like, “Do you want to do this? Is this what you’re meant to do? If this is what you’re meant to do, then you have to do it, and you have to do it on your own.” Just for myself. Not like in terms of, like, I’m expecting this album to be a financial gold mine. It’s not gonna be like Ed Sheeran’s Divide [laughs] you know?
STEREOGUM: Well no, ’cause it’s actually a good album.
ALLEN: [laughs] It’s not “Shape Of You,” but…
STEREOGUM: Well, thank God.
ALLEN: Yeah, I needed shit to mean something.
STEREOGUM: Was anyone at the label pushing you to make more radio songs?
ALLEN: I didn’t talk to anyone at the label. I still haven’t. On the last record as well, with Sheezus, my manager resigned just as I was heading off on tour for festivals. I got an email on the way to the airport from my manager just saying, “I don’t wanna be your manager anymore.” And so I was kinda like on my own, and it’s such an important relationship, I didn’t want to just jump into bed with somebody. So I was kind of like self-managing for ages. I don’t know, the whole thing was a nightmare [laughs].
STEREOGUM: Sorry to keep asking you downer questions.
ALLEN: No, no, listen, it’s been a downer time, and the album reflects that. Anyway, after that period of time, ’cause I had no manager, I had to go into label meetings and stuff and then hearing about yourself as a product without the filter of a manager. And also, before that when people talked about album ships, that’s when people sold records. So it was like, “Oh, we’re gonna ship 500,000.” Now they’re talking like, “20,000, 30,000″ and I’m just thinking, “Oh I’m a failure,” not thinking, “Oh, the market’s changed.”
STEREOGUM: Yeah, nothing to do with you.
ALLEN: You can stream now. [laughs] My confidence just went right down, and I was talked about in a way that an artist should never be aware of, listening to those things.
STEREOGUM: To your face?
ALLEN: Yeah. It’s not their fault. They had to tell somebody, and I didn’t have a manager.
STEREOGUM: What would they say to you?
ALLEN: Just like, you know, things about supermarkets and shit, boring shit. But just talking about me as a person as a product they had to sell, and you just don’t want to hear those things as an artist. Having been privy to all of that stuff and seeing all the people I’ve been working with for years in a different light, I knew going into this album, I did not want to see any of those people. I didn’t want to talk to them. Not because I don’t like them, but I just couldn’t, it couldn’t bear any relation to what I wanted to do with this record. So, yeah, it was just like I wanted to do it on my own time.
STEREOGUM: You’ve always had those ballad-y moments on your albums, but on this one you really embrace it. I think from “Family Man” to “Three” or maybe “Apple,” there’s a stretch of ballads where you’re more raw than we’ve seen you, and really to the point. Was it scary to put all of that out there and embrace that side of you?
ALLEN: Yeah. I wanted to write a record for me that felt truthful and honest, but also, I don’t wanna disappoint any people that supported me through the years. I’m self-aware enough to know that what people like about my writing is the directness and the honesty, but I think the difference between this album and previous records is that that honesty has usually been observations of other people and looking outwards. This time it was about turning the observation in on myself. There’s nothing really that profound in that, I think that’s just growing up, realizing I’m actually a person in the world who has to be doing some shit.
STEREOGUM: There’s less irony and sarcasm and snarkiness on this album. There’s not none of it, but it’s a lot less.
ALLEN: Yeah. It’s cute when you’re in your early 20s, late teens, not so cute when you’re older. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Having kids makes people a lot more earnest.
ALLEN: I don’t want to describe the record as being earnest or precious, because it doesn’t feel like that to me at all.
STEREOGUM: When you make songs like “Family Man,” you know that “The person I wrote this about will definitely hear this.” Knowing that, is it tough to put that song out there?
ALLEN: Yeah, maybe, but listen: The person that that song’s about — my husband — knew what I did before he got together with me, so there was a strong likelihood that there would be some songs written about him at some point. [laughs] Anyone that gets involved with me knows that there’s a risk that that might happen.
STEREOGUM: On the song “Trigger Bang” you talk about feeling like you’re “too uncool” to hang out with the kids. Is that really how you feel?
ALLEN: Oh it’s not really about hanging with kids, it’s not even just about drugs and alcohol. It’s about industry people, people that give me anxiety and make me think I do have to lose weight and have to be seen in this dress.
STEREOGUM: So the things that might trigger you in the past and get you to drink and forget them?
STEREOGUM: Are you sober these days?
ALLEN: Eh, I don’t take drugs, but I’ll drink with dinner or something. But actually, not even really. I don’t smoke anymore, I don’t smoke tobacco, but I’ll smoke weed if it’s not got any tobacco in it for as long as I can take it, which is about three hits [laughs]. But I’m not using. I don’t think I’ve ever really been an addict though, to be honest. I think I’m a raging co-dependent and then when I feel like I can’t cope, I abuse alcohol and drugs to plaster over some stuff, but I’ve never been somebody that craves a fix.
STEREOGUM: The substances themselves don’t seem to be the problem, to you.
ALLEN: No, I’m the problem [laughs]. I think some people wake up in the morning and they’re like, “I need a drink,” whereas I’ll be like “Fuck! I’ve got a photoshoot, and I feel really insecure, I don’t want to do a photoshoot because it’s such a weird environment.” I’ll drink to make it through. But if I can navigate what I’m comfortable with and set healthy boundaries, then I don’t need crutches.
STEREOGUM: On the song, “Three,” is that written from your children’s’ perspective?
STEREOGUM: You talk about the child wondering if they’d be abandoned, and you’ve said in interviews that you worry that people call you a bad mother. That’s a really terrible thing to say about anyone, calling them a bad mother. Is that something that’s been on your mind lately, that people think of you this way or even your children might view you this way?
ALLEN: No. My children wouldn’t because we’re really close and have a great relationship and I’m not really worried about that, but I think it’s difficult to explain to kids. I say to my kids all the time, “I love you, I love you, I love you so much, I love you more than anything in the whole wide world!” And then I walk out and go somewhere. As a small person, that’s difficult to compute. You’re like, “You told me you love me! Why are you leaving me again?”
STEREOGUM: A lot of this album feels like you’re taking stock of your life, and you seem a little too young to be doing that. In a way, this feels like the album you would write when you’re in your 40s.
ALLEN: I think that I’ve done my whole life way too earlier.
STEREOGUM: So you got to the reflecting album a lot quicker.
ALLEN: I think that the things I had on Sheezus, that was my mid-life crisis. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Only three albums in.
ALLEN: But you know when I was a teen people always used to say, “you’re a really old soul, you’re way ahead of your years.” When I was 12, all I wanted to do was be 16, so I could drive away. I was employing 30 people by the time I was 22. It was pretty crazy stuff.
STEREOGUM: Not to keep harping on the Sheezus era, but you took a lot of shit on that album, especially from people mad at the video for “Hard Out Here.” In retrospect, do you think they had a point?
ALLEN: Yeah! Sure. If somebody says something and that they feel something has made them feel a certain way, then of course they’ve got a point, that’s their feelings. I’m not going to tell them that they’re right or they’re wrong. You have to take responsibility for shit that you put out there. I put that out there.
STEREOGUM: Were you blindsided when you started hearing the criticism?
ALLEN: I think I was shocked, but I was also interested because it opened my eyes to stuff I hadn’t necessarily paid attention to before. I’ve read lots of books about intersectional feminism since. Social justice has become a big part of my life in the past four years, and I’m pretty sure that had a lot to do with it. There were girls posting YouTube videos crying about it, really offended. I just want to make people happy and feel connected. Like “this is the last thing I want.”
STEREOGUM: So what does the album title mean to you? It seems like you’re talking about some heavy stuff and you don’t seem too bothered by putting it out there no matter what people might think of you.
ALLEN: Oh no, I do care. I think it has two meanings. Like so-and-so’s got no shame, which is basically meaning that that person behaves in a shameless way. That’s something a lot of people think about me, so I guess it has that meaning. And also it’s me saying, you know, I’ve been through some pretty fucked-up shit, I’ve behaved in some pretty fucked up ways, I don’t want to feel guilty about it anymore, so let me tell you about it and apologize for some of it and hopefully I can rid myself of shame — not much fun walking around feeling shameful.
STEREOGUM: Does being honest and owning up to your mistakes come naturally to you?
ALLEN: Yeah it does, but also I just believe in talking and believe in honesty and transparency, because the opposite is what gets us in trouble, isn’t it? When people are hiding things, and they’re lying to you, generally the outcome is not good.
STEREOGUM: Let’s end on a high note. What music do your kids listen to?
ALLEN: Taylor Swift. They love “Despacito.” Their dad is better at playing them lots of country music and I play them Michael Jackson. They like watching Michael Jackson videos.
STEREOGUM: Are they too old for kids’ music?
ALLEN: Yeah. They’ve just never really been that into it. Annoyingly, the only song of mine they want to listen to is “Air Balloon.” [laughs] My worst song! I hate it so much! It’s the only thing they’re interested in. They’re like, “‘Air Balloon,’ Mummy!” I’m like, “No! It’s my worst one.”
STEREOGUM: Kids can be so cruel.
ALLEN: They are. My daughter really winds me up, actually, because she’s just caught on to “Mummy is well-known,” so like when we’re out in public in the supermarket or something, she’ll say my name really loudly because obviously, people turn around and she gets attention, and I get really embarrassed. It’s fun for her to have that power over me.
STEREOGUM: Do you worry what’ll happen when they’re old enough to start Googling you?
ALLEN: I do, and I’ve written a book, actually, which will come out later in the year in October. That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the book because I do really worry about them Googling me and me not being there to tell them the truth about certain things so I’ve written the important stuff and then I decided to sell it. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Maybe they’ll look back and say, “Hey! Mom was pretty cool!”
ALLEN: Well there’s a lot of stuff in there about me and my promiscuity and the divorce. It’s important that they know I was out my fucking mind! [laughs]
No Shame is out 6/8 via Warner Bros. Pre-order it here.