Ten years ago, or maybe a little bit more, oily investment bankers were poised to take over the music industry. Smaller labels were apparently doomed; big ones chopped up and sold off. Music had lost its monetary value, they said, and there would be no more pop stars – not of the old-fashioned, eccentric, megastar variety. It was an unsustainable model.
As the industry came to terms with its own mortality, a small number of new British singers emerged who seemed to keep the balloon in the air. They made classic pop but they told a kind of colourful, alternative truth. They were women. They were all from London, and all a bit raw. The mouthy Adele. Amy Winehouse: self-destructing in plain sight. Lily Allen: drunk and topless at Cannes, sucking on a fag, and singing songs about the drug habits of her little brother Alfie – now a Game of Thrones star – with lines such as, “I’m trying to help you out so can you stop being a twat.”
For a while, these women – and a few who followed their model – were the last hope for the industry because they still sold records but they had their feet in a digital world that the suits were struggling to understand. Allen put all her demos on “a revolutionary community networking site” (said the Observer) called Myspace. She amassed “a staggering 24,932 friends” before she even knew how to do a gig. Across the Atlantic, the big pop alter-egos were starting to emerge – Gaga’s Fame Monster, Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce – but the London women were valued for their “authenticity”: on a sliding scale of personal turmoil, they appeared to completely inhabit their songs. Authenticity can be hard work. Adele dropped out for two years. Amy didn’t make it. And Lily motored on, getting into spats, and politics, and kept on tweeting through the chaos. She still does.
They were wrong about the pop stars, of course. They didn’t disappear – a superhuman variety emerged, with a new kind of public interface advocating self-care and self-empowerment. “Black. Women.” tweeted Janelle Monáe last month. “Pls take care of yourself,” said Ariana Grande. “It all starts with doing!” said Beyoncé.
Wrote Lily Allen, the same week: “Someone gave me a line of what I assumed to be cocaine at the Glamour awards once, but it turned out to be ketamine. I was thrown out (passed over some railings) of the Glamour awards for being in a K-hole.” She added some photos of the event.
“Tweet your loving, thoughtful and generous moments in future, NOT your flaws,” someone replied.
“Do you even comprehend your role in many young girls’ lives?” wrote another.
“Is this really something to be proud of?” asked a third.
Allen tweeted: “Probably not, what’s your point?”
She stands against a wall upstairs in the Union Club in Soho, a shock of orange mohair against artfully distressed green with an implacable, glassy-eyed stare. I couldn’t discern her at first among the staff on the photo shoot: at noon on a Tuesday Allen is quiet and self-contained.
On the other side of the block is the Groucho Club where, as a teenager, she would check in and get a room if she got back to the family home and found it empty. She knew she had credit there, even when she’d maxed out her cards. Her father, the actor Keith Allen, once put her up with Bez of the Happy Mondays in Manchester. She used to say his connections worked against her – made the industry wary, the same way her white reggae made them wary. Keith certainly spurred her on to be famous: she spent so much time with older people, growing up, she had to find a way of turning the attention to herself.
Did she ever expect to be a “role model”?
“No. I don’t really understand it,” she says. “I grew up in celebrity world, so I know what famous people are like, and I’ve never looked up to them in that way. I know how easy it is to run into trouble with substances and ego. In the Sixties, the Beatles were flying around fucking lots of teenagers. Is that a good role model? Is that what people wanted for their sons, to fly round the world and fuck young girls? Role models should be people that you know. Like your mum.”
We move to a sofa, where Allen dissects a chicken salad delicately with her long, orange nails.
Throughout her life, Allen has claimed not to be a proper musician. She was not very good at it, she said; it was not her calling. She planned to retire at 30 (she actually retired sooner) because she knew that she would be better at being a mum. She “didn’t even know the difference between a bass and a guitar”, she assured the Guardian, at 21 – when her huge, Wordsworth-inspired, calypso-sampling satirical hit “LDN” was rush-released in response to public demand.
The producer Greg Kurstin, who worked on Allen’s second album, was overwhelmed by the paparazzi presence around her. He once said that he thought the very personal nature of her voice had something to do with the invasion of her private life – that in a sense, the intrusion was innate in the music itself. Today, artists talk about anxiety, mental health and, in the case of FKA Twigs last month, their fibroids. But their lives are not messy; every wrong turn is converted into a message of empowerment for all.
“Things have become so sanitised,” says Allen, now 33. “A lot of my honesty, and wanting to be as authentic as possible, came from coming out of bands like S Club 7 – things that felt glossy, you know? And with the rise of social media there was an initial backlash against that glossiness, too. And then, I don’t know, somehow it managed to get lost again. For anyone who wants to express themselves, there is a platform for people to criticise that expression. People would rather their timeline was full of ‘You’re brilliant’ and ‘You look amazing’ than ‘fuck you’.”
She reads the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian for news; the Sun, the Mirror and the Mail for gossip: “I take it all in and come up with my own average of all the nonsense.” She spends five hours a day on Twitter, much of this trying to identify the troublesome bots of the alt-right. “Sometimes it’s username, sometimes it’s location; sometimes I tweet Piers Morgan and I’ll get loads of tweets from accounts that haven’t been active since 2013. Sometimes you just know because they’re ungrammatical.”
With her political tweeting, her attention to alternative media, and the steady drip of moralistic and misogynistic feedback she receives, Allen calls to mind Charlotte Church, who came of age at the same time, also drank and fell over in public, and released her first pop album a year before Allen did. They both “retired” and had families early. And they were both young women at the centre of tabloid interest at the time (Allen points out) when the internet began to shake the foundations of the traditional media, just as it did the music industry.
“I do think the tabloids came down on us particularly hard because for the first time, artists didn’t have to rely on journalists to speak to their fan base,” she says. “It was smack bang in the age of celebrities, so the tabloids thought, ‘Fuck! We can’t control the narrative!’ So they got worse, and they came down on us like a ton of bricks… I’ve been reading up on Leveson 2. And all those files that were deleted are from 2004, 05, 06, and 07 – exactly the era when people started to take control of their own narratives.”
She recently retweeted an “upskirt” photo that someone had sent to shame her. The tabloids can’t make cash off your knicker shot if you’re willing to get in there first.
In 2016, Allen went to the Jungle in Calais and apologised to the 13-year-old refugee Shamsher Sharin on behalf of the UK. “We’ve bombed your country, put you in the hands of the Taliban and now put you in danger of risking your life to get into our country,” she said. The Sun called for Allen to apologise first – for her last single, which they said was really bad, and for passing out in public, at the Notting Hill Carnival, and at Glastonbury Festival, where she also set fire to her caravan.
When asked by the Labour MP David Lammy what role pop stars ought to play in politics, Allen replied: “It’s definitely better for your career not to talk about these things.” She is a Labour voter. In 2008, she was said to have helped inspire a rebellion of 33 Labour MPs against Gordon Brown, when she wrote urging them to back an amendment to a bill on solar energy. Then, she came out for Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a Corbynista,” she says today. “I’m not a particularly astute political mind, but I do feel that we are living in a time where neoliberalism and capitalism have got to a gross point. What Jeremy seems to offer is an antidote to that, and I think that everyone knows that, which is why people hate him so much. Because they’re so terrified of what it is that he’s proposing, which is change.”
Can she see him being prime minister?
“Yeah. I mean, you know, I’m scared, as well. It means that life is not as cosy any more for people like me. But it’s about what’s better for us as a people.”
And what of those she once called the “Blairite Labour careerist bastards”? Are they still a problem?
“So many people who claim to be Labour are actually Tories now,” she says. “Like all my mum’s mates, spending their retirement money on buying up houses, little flats in Hastings. What the fuck are you doing? I actually can’t even engage in conversations with them, because they’re so in denial about what they are.”
I ask her why the Tories are still ahead in the polls, but Allen doesn’t trust figures.
“I feel like just data in itself is so manipulated now that I don’t really agree with any of those figures. I don’t even believe the Spotify figures [on music streaming] are the right figures; I don’t believe that anything that’s digitised is real. I think the Tories can only really still be in power because they’re lying to people on every level.”
A year ago, on Channel 4 News, she questioned official numbers on the victims of the Grenfell tragedy, a day after the fire. “I had been talking to Mutaz, a friend of mine whose cousin actually died in the tower, and he had introduced me to somebody who was pretty adamant that there were more people than were being reported,” she says. At that point the confirmed death toll was 17: she said it was more like 150 (it rose to 71). She was hastily replaced on a forthcoming BBC Newsnight panel.
“A staggering 24,932 friends on Myspace”: Lily Allen in 2006. Credit: John Sault/Idols/Photoshot
Allen’s social media provocations suggest not just a fighting instinct – and a desire to wind people up – but an eternal battle between self-confidence and self-defence. It is in opposing her detractors that she is defined – any psychological toll is just the necessary fallout. Her fourth album No Shame, released this month after a four-year break, is, she explains, as much about having confidence in her career as it is about telling the world she’s not ashamed of what she casually calls “the bad things”. It is her finest work in years – clean, powerful and minimalist, with dancehall breaks from Lady Chann and Burna Boy and cool melodies that are unmistakeably Allen. But it is wincingly raw. Written following her separation from the father of her children, Sam Cooper, a builder, songs throb with self-blame and the fear of being a bad mother. In the modern pop sense, it is the very opposite of “empowering”.
Allen tells me that if she tries to follow fashion, and write those kinds of records, it all goes wrong anyway. “That’s kind of what happened with my last album, Sheezus; it just felt wrong from the minute the horse bolted.”
That last record nearly lost Allen her career. In the song “It’s Hard Out Here”, she appeared to bemoan the pressure on girls to go for a kind of over-sexualised physical perfection, partly encouraged by pop stars (this was 2013 and it was all people talked about – the main culprit, they said, was Rihanna). In the video Allen was prodded on a plastic surgery table, and danced in front of slogans about baggy vaginas. It was a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”: but Allen had taken on what she later called a “one-size-fits-all feminism”, just as the debate was deepening. She was also accused of racism for her twerking black dancers. She had an “identity crisis”, and disappeared from music for a while.
Songs she wrote ironically, she says, are often misinterpreted as “grossly real” now. Such as “The Fear”: “I want to be rich, don’t care about clever, don’t care about funny.”
“People who are new to my music interpret that as peak capitalism. If you hear it for the first time you think, fucking hell, she’s so gross. Before Instagram and Twitter you could get away with nuance. On albums one and two, I could be tongue-in-cheek. On album three it got lost. Because the internet doesn’t cater for satire.”
But the music-buying public appreciated her satire very much. Part of the power in Allen’s words was in their sporadic tastelessness: she wrote a parody of 50 Cent’s “Window Shopper” about her nan (“Nan you’re a window shopper/Mad as fuck, only just alive”). In the song “22”, she charts the desperate antics of a girl pushing 30 on the pull (“I see that look in her face”). It was society’s problem, the lyrics claimed – but it’s a slippery portrait, written when Allen was just 22 or 23 herself. She was always a boys’ girl – female friendships didn’t come easy when she was younger. You weren’t going to get straightforward solidarity in her songs – but you would get the truth about being a woman, as in “It’s Not Fair”, a shruggingly powerful song about male sexual selfishness. She has always been open about these things. An interviewer once asked her about sex and love and she said, aren’t they the same thing?
Allen’s therapist recently told her that some people just seem to have “big lives”. Before her two daughters were born, she had a miscarriage, and a stillbirth. In October 2015, a man who had been stalking her for seven years broke into her house. She’d had metal shutters installed, believing he had previously hidden in her garden. He claimed to have written “The Fear”, that “peak capitalism” song, and to be owed millions in royalties. He is now in a psychiatric unit. Allen moved house after the incident.
“In the last five years I’ve lived a whole lifetime,” she says. “I had my mid-life crisis at 29. I’ve got my thirties and forties into the back end of my twenties.” When she separated from her husband in 2016, she lost many of her friends. The new song “Family Man” appears to take the position of her ex-partner – but in fact, she is the man. “I definitely was the breadwinner in our relationship, and probably played the family man role,” she says. Another track hints at her transgressions on tour – she cheated on her husband (“I had a suitor in Vancouver/I put that loser in an Uber/because you’re my one.”)
“When it came to what happened on the Sheezus tour, and me behaving in the way that I did, I definitely wasn’t given the leeway that Keith Richards would have been given,” she says. “My behaviour was reported back to my husband by our male friends, and I’d watched them do exactly the same things. It was unacceptable for Lily to behave like that – but it’s OK if you’re a guy.”
Allen might be a good person to ask why #MeToo hasn’t quite hit the music industry.
“It’s probably because we’re all in long-term contracts,” she says. “Like, 15 years. There isn’t an HR place to go to because everyone’s self-employed. You can’t go to the record company, nobody there’s looking after you. Management’s not looking after you, you’re all on your own.
“And also, I think, the whole culture of music is, whether we like it or not, geared around alcohol and drugs. From the making of music in the studio – people want to loosen up and drink, to get themselves into the writing space – to when it comes to playing live, what makes it tick is the booze. People feel like they can get away with certain things because there is lots of alcohol around, and alcohol can be blamed, rather than individuals. On both sides. I think women feel, ‘Oh, I can’t absolve myself of responsibility because I drank.’”
Isolation is a theme of Allen’s life – she attended 13 schools – though she says she has never had an extended period of time alone, apart from travelling around Asia years ago, “essentially stalking an ex-boyfriend”. She talks of being passed from manager to manager, PR team to PR team.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a home, to be honest,” she says. “It’s always been new people, nobody’s had any agency. You look at successful acts from that period of time and they’ve had the same team of people around them since the beginning. I haven’t: it’s been different for every album, in terms of management, labels, everything. I have no control over anything. Apart from my creative output.” I ask her about her memories of Amy Winehouse, who didn’t live long enough to look back on a career.
“Amy and Adele were way more successful than I ever have been, or am likely to be,” she says. “And Adele is very much, you know, fenced off in America. Me and Amy were both London girls, we went through a lot of similar things. I miss her for that. I feel like there’s probably one person who could understand a little bit!”
Could they be friends now?
“I think so, actually. We weren’t really close – and part of the reason for that was because the tabloids actively tried to put a wedge between us. It’s easy to bear-bait 21-year-old girls, you know. In our mid-thirties, we’d have probably been able to look back on it and think, “What the fuck was all that about?”
They could have been working on a duets album.
“Lily and Amy. Live at the Apollo.” She rolls her eyes.
A new song, “Apples”, is about Allen repeating the mistakes of her parents (ie not falling far from the tree) and finding herself separated with two small children. “It’s desperately disappointing! I can’t stress that enough. I came from a broken home, and childhood was not easy for me, contrary to what people think, and my driving force was to get married, have kids, live in the country, it’s going to be a fairy tale. I just wanted my kids to have everything that I didn’t, and I felt like I’d given them everything that I had! I definitely felt like I’m a massive failure, for them.”
She has moved back from the countryside, abandoned the fairy tale and made her best record in a while. Is she any closer to thinking she might be a musician?
“Yeah, maybe,” she says. “I think it is my medium, actually. I think to be honest I wasn’t really a pop star. I think I got the two things confused. Everything happened so quickly. I didn’t do the toilet tours, building a fan base. It really was: wham, bam, now you’re on the front cover of the tabloids.”
Musician or mother, she now suspects that she can’t be one without the other – though instead of phrasing that as a positive, as someone else might, she says, “I just change my mind all the time. I’m a very fickle person. Contrary! You know, I had been really excited about starting the promo trail and going on tour, but then I actually now really miss being at the school gates at three o’clock. So it flips: I’m just never happy!”
Her daughters, aged five and six, listen to the Spice Girls. “It is a completely joyous time to be around them. But I am also really enjoying the live shows. I think maybe that’s what I’m finding out: I can’t do one job without the other job. If I feel like I’m neglecting my kids, on tour, I want to just drink and whittle away the days until I can get back to them. And if I don’t feel like I’m creatively fulfilled, then I become grouchy and a bad mum. I need to be able to do both.”
The closing song on No Shame is called “Cake” (Allen likes to bake cakes). There’s a line about having your cake and eating it, getting a piece of your patriarchy pie. Is it a song aimed at girls, about having fun and having power? Being sexy and strong? Independent and loved? But this is Lily Allen.
“There’s elements of the verses that are feminist, but I guess it’s just me, as well,” she says. “Why shouldn’t you be allowed to do what you want?”
And that is possibly what she’s always done, looking back.
“People also think of me as a bit of a Marie Antoinette figure,” she says, fumbling for a post-prandial smoke. “I live in my ivory tower, and I tell people how they should live their lives – that’s what the trolls say. So that’s what the cake thing is. Let them eat it. I have committed to expressing myself in the way that I have done. I can’t change that, even if I want to. So I just have to keep going until I can’t any more, at 95. Then one day I’ll be like, ‘No, fuck this!’” – she stands up to leave – “and we’re done.”
“No Shame” is released on 8 June on Regal
This article appears in the 30 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead