A Very Frank Conversation With Lily Allen

Did you, too, meet Lily Allen on MySpace? It was November 2005 when the singer rose to fame with ‘LDN,’ the tune that juxtaposes her home of London's cool exterior with the gritty reality of city life. It was a global hit. Then, she told us to ‘Smile.’ Later, she’d thank us with a big ‘Fuck You.' Now, with her latest album No Shame, she wants us to cry. A lot.
Though few have tried, no one’s been able to come close to flattering Allen with a rip-off of her style; that goes for music and fashion. In three albums, she’s owned a space in pop she carved out herself, all the while using Twitter as a microphone to connect with her most loyal fans — and fight back at her haters. This week, Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan is Allen’s target for reprimanding her wearing of a necklace with a bedazzled-but-miniature AK-47 on it.
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But when isn’t Allen embroiled in drama? Without her short fuse, we wouldn’t have Sheezus. In fact, on ‘Higher,’ the second single off her latest record, she owns it: “I can take this down to the wire / soon see if I fight fire with fire.” Of course, if she was a man, critics like Morgan and others would pick on someone else. But that’s how Allen has been a not-so-silent pioneer for women in music. Her tunes may have crescendoed from upbeat to melancholic, but her lyrics still hit you where it hurts — and it just so happens that, on No Shame, it’s the heart.
As exploitative a culture as the music industry can be, we, as fans and consumers, are the other half to the equation. It happens every three to five years: Where an artist’s debut album is innocent, usually about partying or emerging from a breakup better than ever, their third or fourth album, as in Allen’s case, is when they finally reveal themselves. Where the loudmouth songstress once twerked the pain away, she’s now wallowing in it and letting us know, without mincing a single tear, precisely how it feels.
A divorce, postnatal depression, and the crushing pressure of trying to stay fresh-faced in a society that has gone tits up will do that to a person. No Shame may be the saddest hand-written diary you’ve ever danced to, but it’s enchanting and brilliant; it’s Allen at her best, and will be on repeat to ad nauseam.
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But emotions aside (though only for ‘Trigger Bang’ and ‘Pushing Up Daisies’), it’s with her fashion that Allen has the most fun. Over the years, we’ve watched her party-dress-and-sneakers look blossom into a front-row worthy, Chanel couture-level aesthetic. And she’s not afraid to use it.
Below, we caught up with Allen at the New York stop of her press tour to talk No Shame and style, from then to now. Spoiler alert: She’s kind of over it. But wouldn’t you be too?
How long did it take you to make this record?
Lily Allen: “Well, I’ve probably been making it for, like, three years. I was here promoting my last record four years ago. That ended pretty badly...I kind of stopped promoting the last album before we’d finished it because I was really unhappy with so much of it.
“I don’t know if it was that I needed a break, but I think I went down a wormhole of hell with that record. I’ve always been very honest and open, but also, I’ve had defiant, complete creative control over what I’ve done. [With Sheezus], I just didn’t have a very good sense of self. And I was suffering from postnatal depression, and I didn’t really know who I was. I was having a bit of an identity crisis. I was looking to other people to tell me who I should be, and I think that’s where things got a bit lost. I didn’t like that person that they came up with. A lot of this job is doing things like this and having to sell things, and as I said, I’m an honest person, so if I’m not convinced by something, then it’s really difficult for me to convince other people. I was not convinced.”
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Being a woman in music now is different from even three years ago. How are you taking the reins on the creative aspects of this record?
LA: “Well, it’s all about these isn’t it? [Grabs iPhone] Everyone is taking information from their phones. I’m trying to have boundaries and put my foot down and not doing everything that people ask me to do. I feel like so much of being an artist now is about giving so much of yourself to everyone else via all these different platforms, which is really, really hard, but necessary if you want to be commercially successful, I suppose. The only thing I really have any control over is my creative output, so I’m focusing 100% on that. Because once you press ‘go’ and get it out there, it’s no longer yours; all I can really vouch for is the shit that I make. It’s not just the music; it’s the videos and the live shows, too.
“Everything else — the red carpets, the photoshoots, and stuff like that — it’s not that I’m not into it, but it’s just, like, when I was 15 and wanted to be a singer, I didn’t think that we would be where we are now. It’s great, a lot of it, but it gives me a lot of anxiety. I’m a creative — that’s what I do. I signed a really small deal with Warner Bros. when I was 19 years old; the amount of money I got did not reflect the level of fame that came with it. So I think on the last record, it was like, What am I doing? Do I want to do this forever? It’s all about who has the biggest marketing budget. And I don’t want to play the game. I just want my music to be as good as it can be.”
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Photo: Rune Hellestad/Corbis/Getty Images.
Photo: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images.
Photo: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage.
So, what is this new era of Lily Allen going to look like then?
LA: “I shot a video for one of the songs and I wasn’t really in it until about 3/4s of the way through, and I quite enjoyed that. The album cover is a picture of me, but it’s a really blurred outtake. When I first came into this business, it was like, my face and my body were what sold so much of everything. And it’s not that I’m turning my back on all of that, but I’m just not interested in it being so much about that [anymore]. Because men don’t have to do any of that. When I think of great graphic albums, like Pink Floyd or Kanye, they're always [done by] males. Men get to do that. Women don’t get that opportunity.
“With the album, we did this big photoshoot — with the hair and the makeup, and loads of stuff — but it’s just like, I don’t look like I’m 20 anymore. And I don’t want it to look like I’m trying to. It’s called No Shame because it’s like, I’m 32 — there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I chose that image because I thought people would look at it and be like, What is this? Well, I’m gonna listen to the music to see what it is because it’s definitely not about this picture.”
Someone once referenced you as the arbiter of the party dress and trainers trend. Do you still do that?
LA: “I did do that a lot. But no.”
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Does the idea of “shame” have anything to do with your personal style?
LA: “Not at all. I think people like to project shame. That’s what has happened a lot to me over the past 10 years. I don’t mind people saying You look like shit in photos — that’s their opinion, whatever. But when people say ‘Lily Allen suffers embarrassing wardrobe malfunction,’ it’s like, the only person who can tell you whether that was embarrassing or not is me, and I’m not embarrassed. It really irritates me when people assume your emotions about something and put it into print. Because those are my feelings. And also, what you’re saying is, like, If this happens to you, you should be ashamed. But it’s like, I literally just walked down the road and my boob fell out — it’s not really a big deal. And if there wasn’t someone there with a long-range camera to capture 90 frames per second, then you wouldn't have seen it either. Like, it’s not real.
“That’s another thing about No Shame: I’ll tell you when I’m ashamed about something. And I’m a pretty honest person. I’m quite good at telling people how I feel.”
Photographed by Bella Howard.
How do you expect people to relate to this album?
LA: “I’m not expecting anything. I think the digital world that we created for ourselves, as much as people like to think we’re being outward and honest, we’re really not. We’re broadcasting a version of ourselves that we want other people to believe is real. But in a propaganda sense, we’ve become conservative, our generation. That whole “no bad energy in 2018” and “living your best life” and all of this stuff, it’s just like — what the fuck? That’s not us. That’s not empathetic. That’s not helping anybody. How are people supposed to feel like they can go and ask people for help if there’s no bad energy? It’s dangerous.
“The media has always had a love-hate relationship with me because I do talk about those things and there is no filter. But I think the reason they hate that so much is because they feel threatened by it. The only way you work through stuff is by talking. Nothing has ever been solved by shutting down and hiding stuff, or burying things like that. It doesn’t work. We should just stop, because there’s a lot of really fucked up shit going on.”
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