The return of Lily Allen - And her extraordinary life
Lily Allen's self-imposed retirement to the country is over and the mother of two is back on Twitter, back on the red carpet and back with songs about pangs for her party days, praise for her husband's talent in bed and protests about being covered in baby food. She tells Mick Brown how hunger for fame drove her in the past and how love has healed the hole in her
It is one of the charms of Lily Allen, in her life and her music, that she has always been an open book. And, if you want to know what she has been thinking about in the four years since her so-called retirement, and in the months before her comeback, you need look or listen no further than her new album. It's all there: domestic bliss with her husband, Sam – who, we are told, is a great lover with an unparalleled ability to delay ejaculation (unlike an earlier lover, in an earlier song, who suffered from the opposite) – and the joys and frustrations of being "head to toe in baby food".
Allen also covers the conflict between loving the life you have and missing the life you've left behind. Then there are her feelings about people who, in the world of the fashion party or diary columns, may appear to be friends, but whom, in fact, she rather despises.
Plus, she takes on the objectification of women, her insecurities and determination to get back into the pop music game, and has a go at reclaiming the word bitch – as in "it's hard out here for a bitch."
By her own admission, Allen does not have the most amazing voice in pop; nor is she an incredible musician, although she knows her way around a guitar and a piano.
"The only thing I can do, really, is write lyrics," she says. "And the only way I know how to do that is by being honest and doing it with integrity, because, otherwise, there's no point. I don't want to feel like a fraud. I don't. It just wouldn't sit well with me. So the only thing I have to offer is . . ." Yourself?
The picture of Allen that you might derive from her songs is of a clever, observant, opinionated, gobby girl who speaks in an Estuary accent (which she doesn't), and who doesn't care too much what people think (which she does).
In a world of prefabricated pop music, where every new artist seems to be groomed, stage-managed and airbrushed, Allen seems to be wholly and refreshingly herself. Her success as a performer, too, has been very much self-created.
More than any of her contemporaries, Allen is a creature of the internet, whose rapport with her fans – her USP, as she puts it – has always been firmly rooted in the not altogether illusory sense of intimacy that social media engenders.
Allen was 20 when, in 2005, she started selling her music off her Myspace page (in the days when people had Myspace pages), at the same time writing a blog about her life that harvested followers by the tens, and then hundreds of thousands, until the overnight sensation had turned into a much longer-lived sensation and, as she puts it: "tabloid journalists started lifting things from it and sensationalising them, and it all got a bit boring."
Then there was Twitter (she was an early adopter). In the four years that she has been living in the country, having children, Allen's reach on social media has necessarily diminished. She changed her name – her Twitter name, that is – to Lily Rose Cooper. But, last year, she changed it back to Lily Allen again, and now she's on to it full pelt, behaving, it has been observed, "almost like a normal person" – or, at least, as normal as someone with 4.57m followers can be. Allen says she spends about two hours each day on her Twitter and Instagram accounts, doing much the same things that normal people do: promoting herself, jibing at things – and people – she doesn't like ("literally go fuck yourself . . ."). She recently posted pictures of her daughter, Ethel's, first patent shoes ("Heart. Broken"), and lamenting the fact that "My yonce hangover won't go away" – tweeted after a night out at a Beyonce concert, at the same time posting a photograph of herself on the London Underground on the way to the show. Well, the Tube is the quickest way to the O2, isn't it?
She notices that a lot of other "well-known people", as she puts it, shamelessly curry favour with their audience on their Twitter feed, pretending to know them personally; that awful thing of "love you, guys".
"But I think if I did that my fans would see right through it – 'What are you doing?'" she says. "Anyway, I think it's patronising talking to people like that." She snorts. "They're not five."
It is lunchtime and we are sitting in the bar of a newly fashionable London hotel, the only people here. It is a measure of Allen's status that the management have willingly shut the bar for the duration of her meetings. It doesn't hurt to have Lily Allen seen coming in through the swing doors and hanging around in the lobby.
She is petite and elegant, dressed in tapered black trousers and an embroidered jumper, her hair scrunched in a tie. There is a bracelet of tattooed symbols around her right wrist, a Rolex watch on her left. She is much prettier than her pictures. And more demure. Adjectives she'd probably kill you for using.
A waiter brings cappuccino. She hasn't been sleeping well lately, Lily says. She's got a lot on her mind, what with the comeback, and worrying about the children, and trying to balance the two.
Allen announced her renaissance with a Christmas number one, the Keane song, Somewhere Only We Know, which was used for the Christmas commercial for UK department store John Lewis – a saccharine cartoon of a bear and a hare. A shrewd choice to get her back in the charts, but hardly characteristic. Now her record company is insisting it should be included on her new album as a bonus song. She sighs. "I think a record, in the traditional sense, is a body of work. You don't just throw things that bear no relation to it on to the end. But they obviously don't think of it as anything to do with artistry – it's just money, pre-order sales, instant graphs. But they own my music – well, for the next three albums – so I've got to play the game a bit."
Then there's the controversy over another song from the album, Hard Out Here, a witty jibe at the objectification of women, not least in the music business – "no need to shake my ass for you, cos I've got a brain". Its accompanying video, a pastiche of misogynist rap videos, featuring a handful of scantily clad, gyrating black dancers – had commentators agonising over definitions of feminism, and whether, by employing the devices she was purporting to attack, Allen was actually having her cake and twerking it. A storm in a teacup, but "I didn't anticipate that at all," she says.
"What really took away from that whole thing was the assumption that I was trying to solve the whole of feminism in one three-and-a-half-minute pop song." She laughs. "But, if you're going to make music and music videos, and put them out there, then you have to be prepared for people to get pissed off about that. And that's fine."
She ignites an electronic cigarette and blows a plume of smoke towards the ceiling. It's a new thing. She used to smoke 30 a day when she was in the studio, writing, five a day at other times. "I think we'll find out in 10 years that they're probably worse for you than actual cigarettes." She laughs again. "I never realised before that it was the nicotine that I was addicted to."
Allen says she always wanted to sing, but, more than that, "I think I wanted to be famous." It's an almost comical statement – the default position of the modern teenager, although, in Allen's case, it was immediate proximity to fame, rather than its remoteness, that made her hungry for it.
Her father is the actor, television presenter and sometime songwriter, Keith Allen. She points out that they are the only father and daughter ever to have number ones in the British charts: Keith Allen co-wrote New Order's World in Motion. Her mother, Alison Owen, is a film producer.
Her parents separated when Lily was four. Her father was already firmly locked on the trajectory that had taken him in early life from being sacked from his job as a stagehand after joining Max Bygraves's chorus line on stage naked, to serving three months in Pentonville prison, for running amok in the Covent Garden club, Zanzibar, a year before Lily's birth.
This sort of behaviour would continue throughout the Eighties and Nineties, with lively accounts in the gossip columns of him bombed out of his mind in the Groucho Club with Damien Hirst, who is Lily's godfather, and his other cronies.
Lily grew up with her mother, her elder half-sister, Sarah, and her younger brother, Alfie, who is now an actor. Her parents' separation made for a difficult time, she says, "but not as difficult as it would have been if they'd stayed together."
"My father was not . . . (she searches for the right term) . . . at his best when I was four. My mum would have been even more unhappy. In fact, she may not have made it if they'd stayed together. It would have been too self-destructive for her to have stayed with him." More difficult still, she says, was her mother having to work as hard as she did to support three children on her own – off making films for long periods in Los Angeles. "She was absent quite a lot."
Her father remained a fitful presence in her life. She wrote a song about him on her second album, part castigation, part forgiveness. It featured the lyrics: "He wasn't there when I needed him/No, he was never around/His reputation was preceding him/And he was out on the town." But also: "Now all I knew is that he loved me very much/He was my hero in disguise." The last line ends ". . . now everything's fine."
What, I ask, is the most important thing you learnt from him?
"Just to question everything you're told and ask why. He's a rule-breaker and slightly anarchic. Now, when people tell me something, I always think, 'Where's that coming from?', and just to dig a little deeper – 'Why have you said that?'"
All in all, her childhood sounds pretty chaotic. The family lived in a housing-association flat in central London, until her mother started living with the comedian, Harry Enfield, who, for three years, as he once put it, was their "common-law stepdad". By the time she was 15, Lily had been to more than a dozen schools, including a state primary, a prep school in Kensington, and private schools Millfield and Bedales.
"People like to latch on to that and say, 'Oh, she's posh, really'," she says. "But I went to other schools for a lot longer. I'm a middle-class person." Some she was expelled from, others she left because she was unhappy. You sense that she was unhappy quite a lot.
I ask what was her main consolation during her childhood, thinking that she might say a song, a book or a friend. But, instead, she talks about a comfort blanket that she had until she was 13. "I remember racing home from school and wanting to go and sit on my bed with my blanket and suck my thumb." She pauses. "It makes me a bit teary thinking of it, actually. My youngest, Marnie, is the same. She's got this bunny, and it's actually really weird, it's got exactly the same smell. I haven't smelt my blanket since I was 13, but I recognise it. It was actually a cot duvet, and it was pretty gross.
"One nanny I had cut it up into eight pieces and I just had this one section of it. I have a feeling my dad negotiated with my housemistress at school to get rid of it. I remember coming out of class one day and going back to my dorm and it being gone, and searching everywhere for it in complete panic stations, and I never saw it again."
There is a moment's silence as we both reflect on this sad and, to my mind, genuinely telling, story – which Allen punctures with a burst of gleeful laughter. "Oh God!" she cries.
She wasn't good at making friends with children of her own age. Her life was spent mostly with grown-ups. When her mother was in London, Lily would be hanging around in reception at her office, or in the runner's room, or at lunch with Harvey Weinstein. "I think I was quite precocious. I would sit at dinner parties and try to have adult conversations with grown-ups, and they'd be, like, 'OK, we'll indulge her because it's quite sweet and she's obviously a bit of a troubled kid.'"
She left school at 15 with no qualifications, went to Ibiza, the party island, on a family holiday and simply stayed on, working in a record shop and taking lots of Ecstasy. She came home and worked in a bar and a florist's and answered telephones in a friend's PR company. She spent a fair part of her teenage years walking into the Groucho Club with her father, "and seeing how people treated famous people better than they treated not-famous people."
But, thinking about it, it wasn't so much fame itself that she craved, but to feel special. "Wanting to walk into a room and someone show you to a nice table – just that special treatment." She pauses. "I don't think that's part of my make-up. I think it's probably just a product of what I saw and what I grew up with. Actually, it's probably less to do with my dad than watching my mum being a young film producer in this world of glitz and glamour, surrounded by people who had lots of money, dripping in diamonds and jewels, and it always felt like we were acting and we weren't really part of it.
"Mum would get dressed up and go to the Baftas or a film premiere, and I felt like I wanted to make that a reality. That I was part of that world and had a right to be there, rather than feeling like we were acting at it."
Her first single, the reggae-influenced Smile, reached number one in the British charts in 2006. Her debut album, Alright, Still, sold more than 2.5m copies around the world and brought her nominations at the Grammy and Brit awards. Her second album, It's Not Me, It's You, reached number one on the album charts and sold a further 2.5m copies.
For two years, she was touring and performing – and partying – constantly, until things began to spiral out of control. In 2008, she was expecting a baby by her then boyfriend, Ed Simons of the Chemical Brothers, but miscarried. Her relationship with Simons broke up.
One of the things the media most loved about Allen was her inability to keep her mouth shut – attacking Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole, talking about her brother's attention-deficit disorder – and her tendency for falling out of nightclubs. But, having been lauded for her irreverence and high spirits, she quickly found herself being castigated for exactly the same things.
In the ongoing jousting between the tabloid columns and Allen's social media postings, the stories became more unflattering, her retorts more defensive.
"I don't really like to respond to things I read about myself in the press," she wrote in a blog in May 2008. "But, for the record, I was not thrown off anybody's yacht in Cannes, occasionally I drink wine with lunch and, yes, I swim topless, this in my book is not embarrassing behaviour: I'm 23 years old."
And, shortly afterwards, when she was photographed being carried out of the Glamour Women of the Year Awards by a bouncer: "Kids, drink responsibly or you'll end up looking like this – not pretty!" Not that she heeded her own advice, of course.
It was a year later that she started going out with Sam Cooper, a builder, who was to become her husband. They had known each other since she was 15 – he was a friend of her first serious boyfriend – but they finally got together when she was performing at the Glastonbury Festival. "That was the first time we kissed. I knew, pretty instantly, that I wanted to have children with him."
It was the time in her life when she was "most off the rails", she admits. "He sat me down one day, it was just after I'd got back from Japan, about two months into our relationship, and he said: 'I really like you a lot and I want to make this work, but I can't be in a relationship with somebody that behaves the way you're behaving. I can't watch it happen. It's too much.'
"And I remember thinking at the time, 'All right, I will give that up – well, not give it up, but rein it in – if you promise that you'll look after me. Because this is my way of coping at the moment, because there's a lack of something there. And, if you're telling me that you'll be the person that can fill that hole for me, then, yeah, OK.'" She laughs. "And he did."
At the time, she was still locked into her working schedule, touring around the world. "I was having to get on planes to Australia, speaking to him on the phone all the time, and then I'd catch two days with him and have to get on a plane again," she says. "It just got to a point where I thought, 'I just want this tour to end and be with this guy that I love.' It seemed appropriate to pack it all in."
In 2010, she became pregnant with their first child, but the baby, George, died after she went into labour at only six months. She was taken to hospital with serious blood poisoning and almost died herself.
"And I remember Sam saying, 'It's going to be fine. I'm going to be here for ever.'" They married in June 2011, and set up home in Gloucestershire.
Cooper is celebrated in two songs on her new album. "I had that awful feeling that I needed help/My life had lost its meaning, but you saved me from myself," she sings on Because You Know I Love You. The other song, L8 CMMR, is an unabashed paean to his abilities as a lover. "I think he's embarrassed," Allen says. "He's a very shy person. He likes to go to the pub and hang out with the lads, but he's not like, 'Wahey! My wife's singing about how good I am in bed!' It's more, 'Oh God, really? Do you have to?' And I have to go, 'It's not really about you, it's just an idea.' But, of course, it's about him."
Their first daughter, Ethel, was born in December 2011, their second, Marnie, in January 2013. Allen says it was what she had always wanted: the husband, the kids, the house in the country.
"I love my parents, and I love my brother and sister more than anything. But I never felt I had someone looking out for me. Since I've had my husband and had my children I suddenly feel, 'That's my lot', do you know what I mean?"
But motherhood proved a far-from-easy ride. Another song on the album, This is the Life for Me, describes her sitting at home ("No energy left in me, the baby might have taken it all") looking at pictures of her friends on social media ("Everyone looks so wasted/Totally off their faces"), wondering why it is that she feels she's missing something, when she knows that "Been there and done that, it's good for nothing", and "Actually I'm complete."
Shortly after her birth, Ethel had a problem with her throat that required two operations and necessitated her being tube-fed for seven months. "It was a really trying time for us, especially with what had happened with our baby before that," Allen says. "I remember lying awake at night, waiting for her to go to sleep before I could put the milk in the tube, feeling really exhausted. And I'd sit there on my phone looking at what everyone else was doing.
"I was very content that I had a baby, finally, after this long journey, but I think I felt a bit pissed off: why isn't it a bit more simple? And maybe I've done the wrong thing, and maybe I should be out there with my friends having a laugh, and why is this all so difficult? So, that's the sentiment of that song." She laughs. "But, then, it is being sarcastic."
Allen says that she had never intended her retirement to be permanent. As much as she loves being a mother, there has to be something else – "a part of me that I needed to reclaim" – and "I only really know how to do one thing." Like the previous one, Allen's new album has been produced by Greg Kurstin, the American producer who has also worked with Kelly Clarkson and Ellie Goulding. It is a beguiling mixture of airy electropop and R&B; one of Allen's great skills has always been to wrap up her abrasive, and frequently sarcastic, lyrics in irresistibly breezy tunes.
Her description of the recording process is disarmingly matter-of-fact. Kurstin prepares some musical ideas – a track, a beat – and then she goes into the studio and starts writing the songs. She never writes at home. "I'll literally go through my iTunes and start playing other music, and I'll say, 'Why don't we do a song a bit like this' or 'I really like this section of this song' – it's totally inspired by other people's stuff. But it's not really about musical style, because that always changes. It's more about a sort of feeling, and, as soon as we've got that first little bit, either I'll come up with one funny rhyme and work backwards, or I'll think, 'I want to write a song about this.'''
It was her friend, Amy's, idea to call the new album Sheezus, a pun on the title of the Kanye West album, Yeezus, and the arrogance that calling your album that implies. This also, of course, becomes a joke at her own expense – "although I think people know me well enough to know I don't have that high an opinion of myself to actually call myself Sheezus.
"And then the only word I could think of that sort of rhymed with Sheezus was 'divas', and then it worked backwards."
Allen's songs bear a scrutiny that most pop songs don't, because they seem so unguarded, and give so much about her away, often in ways that even she may not intend. So Sheezus, in which she likens herself to a boxer getting back in the ring – boasting "I'll take the hits", is actually more revealing about her insecurities, how she'll be received and measure up to the other singers who now dominate the pop charts – Katy Perry, Lorde ("smells good"), Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyonce.
"Second best will never cut it for the divas, give me that crown, bitch, I want to be Sheezus", she proclaims. Thinking about this, she says the song is "about pre-empting stuff – a bit of self-preservation. I am a bit scared – worried about how am I going to be received, and what my kids are going to think, in retrospect, when they grow up, and, because I'm not bigger than Beyonce, people will write about it as being a failure."
She quickly qualifies this. "Not that I'm putting myself in the same bracket as Beyonce. But it's also about being a woman, as well, because you don't have that competitive thing with men. There doesn't have to be a king in music, in the way that Beyonce is the queen. You don't see after the Oscars, 'Who wore it better, Brad Pitt or Matthew McConaughey?' They're not pitted against each other like women are."
Anyway, of course she wants the comeback to be successful. "On an ego level, there's worries that things will go badly and I'll feel like that little girl at school being laughed at when you walk into the lunch room and fall over. And being well-known, in this country especially, it does feel a little bit like being in a zoo and being pointed at; people love to see someone fail.
"They love to point and laugh, and go, 'Ha, ha – you thought you could do it and you can't.' And I really like my life. I like to be able to go to Selfridges and spend £200 on make-up if I want to. And I like to be able to live in my nice house in the country – and so there's a certain element of me wanting it to work because I want to be able to pay my bills."
Allen has dedicated the new album to Amy Winehouse, whose Back to Black album was released in 2006, the same year as Allen's debut album. They were acquaintances rather than close friends: "She was not in a great place when we knew each other, so I don't feel I knew Amy; I knew a version of Amy." But she knew her well enough to watch her downward spiral with sadness and horror, and to feel some affinity.
"What she had to deal with was 10 times anything I had to deal with. She'd sold a hell of a lot more albums than me, and there was a lot more interest in her. There were people outside her home 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I know what that was like on a much smaller level, and I felt trapped.
"She couldn't do anything or go anywhere without there being a frenzy, and she was all about life and enjoying herself and socialising, and when that's taken away from you . . . she was a prisoner." Allen thinks about this. The problem with Amy, she says, was that "she was too damn interesting for her own good."
Did Allen ever feel she might have been heading along the same destructive path?
"I'm too much of a control freak. I think I'm maybe better equipped at knowing when I need help and being able to ask for that. And I've got two children and a husband."
She went through therapy as a child. It was, she says: "the fashionable thing to do. That Bridget Jones era, self-help books, Steiner Schools and kids in therapy." She giggles. "And because I had a weird childhood."
She has continued with it, intermittently, since. She has a nice therapist to whom she can talk when things get a bit much. "Those times when I get a bit paranoid and think I'm going a bit mad, and need to see somebody who knows about mad people to tell me that I'm not."
She shrugs, uncomfortable with the turn the conversation has taken.
"I don't think it's a fame thing or an ego thing, to be honest. It's a pressure thing, and juggling too much. And I want to be the best mother that I possibly can be, and I feel like that's being a bit compromised at the moment because I've just taken on too much. So, yeah, guilt and shame, and all that stuff comes in, doesn't it?" Her voice tapers off. But the next minute, she's putting a bright face on it. She's "more in control" of her life now than she was last time around. She's got it all planned.
Weekends at home in Gloucestershire, and, when she's away working, two weeks' holiday to fly home and see the family, or for them to fly out and see her. "Beforehand, I didn't look at my diary because it just terrified me. I'd wake up in the morning and somebody would tell me where to go, and I went. Whereas, now, I'm a little more focused." She pauses, probably thinking about this. "When I was doing this last time around, it was more of an ego thing, proving to myself that I could do it.
"Whereas, now, I know that I can do it, my drive is different. It's not about going to festivals and seeing who I can sleep with and how drunk I can get, and how much fun I can have, it's about doing something I can be proud of. And that my children and my husband can be proud of." She laughs. "And making us some money."
- 'Sheezus' is out this week
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