Interviews

Interview: Lily Allen



Half an hour before we meet, 21-year-old Lily Allen has been informed of her debut single Smile’s midweek chart position. It looks set to top the charts this week at the first attempt.

The London girl’s devoted fanbase, nurtured through her MySpace page and burgeoning media profile, have followed her blogs for some six months, reading of family tiffs, trips to New York and shopping for dresses. Now their favourite girl is a bona fide pop star.

In accordance with her celebrity status we’re in a chi-chi hotel in central London where a room, with Philippe Starck interior, will set you back well over 200 a night. Lily suffered an altercation with a wasp the other day, and has a sore foot. Lily must lie down. The glass of champagne she carries from the lobby to the room is merely celebratory. And medicinal.

We knew about the wasp already, of course. Like so many of the incidents that make up Lily Allen’s increasingly hectic life, being stung by a wasp made her hugely entertaining MySpace blog. It’s a place utterly bereft of sacred cows and chock full of incisive views. Lately, news organisations have taken to reporting her opinions expressed there as news items.

“I’ve been blogging for a long time,” she explains, reclined on the starched white sheets on one side of the room’s ample bed across from me. “I’m quite an opinionated person, but I’d never written a diary before. I quite like it! Probably a lot of tastemakers and music journalists are getting pissed off with me writing on MySpace because it’s essentially eliminating them from being tastemakers. It enables people to go out and make their own decisions. So I think it’s really fun!”

What she says can sound innocuous to the ear, but when written down her words take on their own life. Does she want to usurp these tastemakers from atop their ivory towers? Is she power hungry? “Yeah,” she agrees, without batting an eyelid.

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to get something out of my dad, to no avail!”
– Lily Allen bats away those suggestions that daddy Keith is somehow responsible for her success…

Predictably, something of a backlash has already started. You can’t be as universally acclaimed – and opinionated – as Lily Allen without somebody coming along and saying they hate you just so their opinion stands out. No matter that her debut album, Alright Still, is the perfect soundtrack to a London summer, that she has lyrical talent and that she makes a lot of people happy. One website recently suggested she’d had more coverage since her front cover piece in Observer Music Monthly, that her printed press column inches, rather than the “urban myth” of internet word of mouth, made her.

“Observer Music Monthly wouldn’t have written the article about me if they hadn’t found me on MySpace,” counters our heroine. “That’s a classic case of people being used to (artists) not replying. I think it would take me five minutes to take that piece of writing down to the ground…” She’d read the article in question, as with a great deal of her press. And she’s not afraid to take on those who criticise her, as she sees it, unjustly. An unflattering review in The Guardian precipitated a reply from Lily on her blog, and the reviewer finding herself responding to Lily’s reply. Something new was afoot. “I’m allowed to have views on things, aren’t I? Isn’t that the point of living?”

Inevitably she’s faced criticism over being a middle class girl writing about what areas of the media perceive as “street” issues – LDN’s pimps and crack whores, Everything’s Just Wonderful’s debt crisis. “It’s about not having the money to be able to buy a flat,” she says of the latter. “Now I can because of the record deal. I come from a middle class background, but I don’t have millions of quid behind me, my mum’s not going to say, ‘oh no cool, let’s get you a flat’! I do come from a quite privileged background and I don’t say that I’m not.”

She’s been criticised too for involving her family in her own urban legend. Her younger brother, subject of the lampooning song Alfie, reportedly threw her laptop out of a window, so annoyed was he with her. “I think now I wouldn’t really involve my brother,” concedes Lily, “but at that point (MySpace) wasn’t as big as it is now. I don’t think I’d get so personal with my family any more.” Perhaps inevitably, her newfound fame is making her re-evaluate how she approaches life.

But what she’s unleashed through MySpace has provided her with some especially devoted fans too. “Sometimes I get a bit worried, as I get things from girl fans who are going through a hard time and want me to pull them through it, and I feel a responsibility to them in a weird way as they’re relying on me to help them out. But I’m not a therapist! But I keep in contact with them and try and make sure they’re alright.”

As far as her family goes, it’s father Keith Allen that certain doubters raise up, spectre-like, as the reason for Lily’s success. It’s all nepotism, they say. She’d be nowhere without his influence. “People always try to stir it up between me and my dad which drives me slightly insane,” she states, matter-of-factly, sipping her champagne. “At the end of the day we’ve known each other for 21 years and there’s not going to be one journalist who comes between us. People just assume.” But why? “I guess it’s ignorance, more than anything else. I spent my whole childhood trying to explain to people who my dad was, and now it’s such a burden on my shoulders the whole time. It’s ridiculous! I’ve spent my whole life trying to get something out of my dad, to no avail! He left when I was four…”

“I’m allowed to have views on things, aren’t I? Isn’t that the point of living?”
– Lily Allen shows no signs of keeping quiet any time soon…

Lily grew up with her mother, and at least some of her celebrity anecdotes owe their currency to her mother’s line of work in running a film production company that had a talent agency attached to it. This was how she met Victoria Beckham: “The woman that worked in my mum’s office used to look after her. My mum was going out to dinner with her and the other woman, and I went to The Ivy to pick up a tenner off my mum. I walked in and Victoria Beckham was there. That’s why I’ve never been starstruck.”

Her opinions on everyone from Carl Barat to Cheryl Tweedy are documented elsewhere, but she’s essentially happy to discuss pretty much anything. The World Cup, to take one example. “I don’t understand why they took Theo Walcott out… that Lennon kid’s much better than David Beckham… I don’t know what David Beckham’s meant to be doing,” she rattles off, seeming not to care what makes it to print.

Doesn’t she worry that journalists can twist her words? “I’m one of these people that does something for a reaction, or for a joke,” she says, citing her MySpace page’s headline that forbade goths. “I saw that on someone else’s page and thought it was funny. I don’t hate goths!” she says, but then adds: “I remember when I was at school and there were loads of goths. They used to be really angry and have a go at you all the time. You’d say something to them and they’d reply, ‘Yeah, well, at least I’m, like, individual.’ What are you talking about? You’ve just taken yourself out of one huge demographic and put yourself in another demographic. There’s nothing individual about it at all. You’ve just painted your face white and put loads of black eye make-up on, just like all the other goths.” So what makes an individual? Is Lily Allen unique, an individual? “I don’t think I am particularly individual,” comes the surprising response.

It’s possibly this ability to surprise that makes her sought after, that has contributed to her newfound celebrity status. After all there are plenty of starlets who reach number one in the singles chart without being remotely interesting enough to interview. Her lyrics are surprising too, at least first time round. Nan You’re A Window Shopper is a case in point – “There’s a leak in your colostomy bag/It’s got a hole in hole in hole in…”

And so the burgeoning fanbase continues to burgeon, and now beyond LDN and the UK. “I’m doing Germany, Italy, Holland and Switzerland next week.” How glamorous, I suggest. Lily looks at me with something like pity. “When I was in Germany I was wheeled into a room, sat there for two days and then wheeled out to the next country. That’s what it’s like,” she informs me with a world-weary look that suggests it’s not all glamorous at all. And the record’s London lingo apparently isn’t impeding her strident march across the continent. “That’s what’s important about the melodies, so (non-English speakers) can pick up on it. But I think we underestimate their English speaking capabilities.”

We don’t underestimate Lily’s English-speaking capabilities, but eyebrows have been raised at the fact she doesn’t play any instruments but gets the lion’s share of publishing money for her songs. Such comments are, by and large, from people who cannot conceive of how to compose using samples on a laptop. “When I set out to do this I knew I wanted to make songs that sounded a) up to date and now and b) really organic,” she says. “Because you can’t get really good players without spending loads of money these days, the only other option is to sample. The first song I ever wrote was Smile.” She wrote the piece with “a guy in Manchester,” she says, speeding up her narrative. “We just went through about seven or eight sample lyrics, found a beat, put it all in… Then when it comes to writing lyrics I write… like a rapper would, I suppose, with absolutely no melody involved whatsoever, I’m just getting my flow sorted. Then I write the whole text of the song and then ad lib the melody into the microphone. It’s not terribly clever!”

“I never understand any of his lyrical references. I’m not sure he does half the time!”
– Lily Allen on Jamie T’s songs…

Her label found some of her songwriting partners, she happily admits, “but the Manchester guys I found through my old manager. Mark Ronson was a friend through my boyfriend at the time and Greg Kursten, who did Everything’s Just Wonderful, Alfie and Not Big, was found through EMI.”

She’s also worked with fellow Londoner Jamie T, but the result of that recording is likely to be on the Wimbledon lad’s record rather than Lily’s. “I know that they mastered it last Friday,” she muses. “I just did it as a favour to him. His A&R man is a friend of mine. He was going to sign me at one point.” But he signed Jamie. “And then Jamie came down to play his first gig at YoYo (Notting Hill Arts Club), which was my boyfriend’s night so I met Jamie there and we stayed friends. His lyrics are very different to mine. I don’t really understand his lyrics! I can listen to his stuff and come out of it confused. Not that I don’t like it, I really enjoy listening to it, but I never understand any of his lyrical references. I’m not sure he does half the time! But he’s terribly clever…”

And despite writing a satirical song entitled Cheryl Tweedy, Lily wants it to be known that “I (don’t) have anything against her.” Smile’s B-side is, rather, about celebrity. She seems uncomfortable with the commercial promotion side of the celebrity machine. Would she not wish to decorate Ashley Cole’s arm then? “Certainly not. Horrendous!” Would she license a track for use in a shampoo commercial? Pause… “Yeah!” So why is that okay then? “I wouldn’t do things I think might jeopardise my… (pause) like, I wouldn’t do Coca-Cola. I wouldn’t do Slimfast.” Nike? “I really like Nike trainers! I’m quite open about the fact that it’s like a guilty pleasure for me, with the sweatshop aspect… They’ve sent me loads and I’m designing my own trainer with them.” It’s maybe too early for Lily to consider using her fame to achieve a socio-political aim – she is after all only just getting used to that fame. But at least she seems aware of the morals of globalisation and its effects on the developing world’s citizens.

“It’s fucking amazing for me now to be in the position I am, and be number one in the midweeks, knowing full well that all the A&R men I’ve been going into meetings with for the last three years will now be kicking themselves,” she effervesces.

“I’d like to go into scouting. A&R. I think I’d be good at it.”
– just one of Lily Allen’s alternative career prospects…

Being signed to Parlophone obviously has its advantages – this is the label that propelled Radiohead and Coldplay into the USA’s music consciousness. But there’s a snag en route to world domination for Lily. “I don’t think Capitol Records in America are particularly into (the album),” she says, but she has a plan to deal with that. “I’ve got quite a good plan – posting a blog with Andy Slater of Capitol Records’ email address on it, or a bulletin, saying ‘If you want my album to be released in America, I suggest you email this man!'” And if he gets 30,000 emails in the first hour and EMI’s servers go down? “That’d be good press!”

Despite all this label-baiting, the signs are that EMI rather enjoys her. On hearing that she’d not been nominated for the 20,000 Mercury Music Prize, there were reports that EMI paid that sum into her bank account shortly after Smile hit the top of the charts (the reports were false), but the love-in seems real enough. “The people at Parlophone and EMI are quite keen for me to get involved in other projects as well,” confirms Lily, “because I’m constantly thinking up new ideas and new ways in which to pitch things. I find it enjoyable seeing the results.”

So with an obvious interest in business, how did she end up getting involved in music? “I always wanted to do music but never really had the confidence to do it until my first manager George Lamb, who I met out in Ibiza, encouraged me.” She was working for Plastic Fantastic Records at the time, which she remembers – possibly – fondly. “Yeah, I was working in that record shop, selling Es and being bad,” she grins through drooped lashes. She met and agreed terms with Lamb. “But I don’t sign anything with my managers,” she says, asserting her independence. “I still haven’t signed a management contract. I could walk away whenever I fancied. But I wouldn’t. I think that management is purely on a trust basis, that’s how it works. If you work well for me, then you get 20% of my money. I don’t see why you’d want to sign a contract really, they’re the only ones who’d win out of it.”

Outside of music, when not designing her own trainer range or project managing for a major record label, Lily considers she has yet more career options open to her. “When all this ends – which will probably be in the next couple of years! – I’d like to go into scouting. A&R. I think I’d be good at it. I love going to see live music.”

So the first album’s done and dusted, the festivals for summer – including Bestival, Secret Garden and the Metro Weekender – are underway. Assuming she’s going to be round for a follow-up, what’s next – another cut of social commentary over ska-calypso samples? “Another era that’s had quite a big effect on my life is that Hacienda, Stone Roses, 808 State, The Smiths thing,” says Lily, sticking together a whole variety of musical luminaries from Manchester, “so we’ll see what happens.” And it’s glaringly obvious that Lily Allen will be alright still, whatever does.


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