English Beat: Lily Allen
An interview with her used to consist of a pizza-and-beer encounter in her manager's office; it's now been replaced with a tete-a-tete over tea in her swanky new flat in a nice part of North London, one of the more obvious benefits of the worldwide stardom brought by her hit debut album, "Alright, Still."
Meanwhile, that management firm -- Empire Artist Management -- is no longer in charge of Allen's affairs, replaced by Todd Interland of Twenty-First Artists.
Her label, too, has been ripped apart at the seams. She was one of the last acts broken by the old artist-friendly, financially profligate EMI and will be one of the first to test the brave new world of global artist priorities, synergized marketing campaigns -- and vastly reduced scented-candle budgets.
And if all that wasn't enough for the average 23-year-old British pop phenomenon to deal with, she's also had to cope with having every aspect of her life documented in lurid -- and occasionally invasive -- detail by a U.K. tabloid press seemingly incapable of distinguishing between nightclub high jinks and personal distress. Both have wound up serving as entertainment over the nation's cornflakes.
Her music has also been revamped. "It's Not Me, It's You" will be released Feb. 9 in the United Kingdom on Regal/Parlophone and a day later in the United States on Capitol. The album retains the playful spirit of her debut but, musically and lyrically, relocates her from too-cool-for-school hipster pop to somewhere between the dancefloor and the real world. It's still strong, uncontrived pop music. And it sounds stuffed with hits, starting with the lead track, "The Fear," set for a U.K. single release Jan. 26. It's already top 20 on Nielsen Music Control's U.K. Radio Airplay chart three weeks ahead of its release.
"I did a retro thing last time," Allen says. "And since I did that, a lot of other people did it too. I wanted to separate myself from the group and move forward. People think I've intentionally done something more serious but I haven't."
Indeed, the changes in Allen's life and profile should really make interviewing her now about as straightforward as trying to interrogate Britney Spears using only Amy Winehouse as an interpreter. But somehow, the bright, sparky talent with the filthy laugh and the disarmingly relaxed manner seems to have survived. She sashays in from the bedroom in denim hot pants and a pink top and snuggles up on the sofa under an old blanket to discuss everyone from Perez Hilton ("An irritating wasp in the beautiful rose garden that is my life") to Guy Hands, whose every mention is accompanied by an affectionate "jazz hands"-style finger waggling.
"I was watching my dad on the news," she says with a laugh, turning off the blaring giant plasma screen. "He was talking about me, which was very exciting."
Allen's dad is the perfect barometer by which to measure the exponential growth of her U.K. fame. In summer 2006, when she launched her pop career with the U.K. No. 1 single "Smile," she was usually described as Keith Allen's daughter. Two years on, and her father -- a well-known TV actor most famous as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the BBC's production of "Robin Hood" -- rarely appears in print without being tagged "Lily Allen's dad."
In Britain, Allen's celebrity is now so out of whack with her status as a musician that she's been able to propel her brother (actor Alfie Allen, affectionately lampooned on the debut record's "Alfie"), and his girlfriend (actress Jamie Winstone) to tabloid infamy by association. And her MySpace endorsement of Kate Nash was cited as a prime factor in breaking the Allen-esque singer/songwriter in Britain.
She's also found time to host her own chat show (BBC3's "Lily Allen and Friends"), start a fashion line (for retailer New Look) and get asked by London Mayor Boris Johnson to help sort out the capital's knife-crime epidemic.
"I'm still the same person," she says after a lengthy pause. "But life has certainly changed."
The musical changes have certainly paid off. That "It's Not Me, It's You" -- complete with songs about God ("Him") and George Bush ("F*ck You") -- should be so casually triumphant is something of a surprise. The album has been much delayed since it was first scheduled for release in early 2008, held up for personal (her miscarriage) and creative reasons. Allen maintains that the final release shift, which shunted the album from the fourth-quarter chaos to the relative tranquility of the first quarter, had her full approval.
"The label wasn't in a place where I felt comfortable," she says. "People were still getting laid off and I didn't want my album worked on in an environment where people aren't happy. I wanted everyone to feel a bit more . . . stable."
Allen is under contract for "loads more albums," but she says she would be unlikely to sign to a major if she was starting out now.
The star herself now displays some signs of digital disillusionment, bemoaning how press interest in her blog "outweighs all the benefits of blogging in the first place . . . I'm venting something in a particular place to certain people, I'm not writing things with the intention of them ending up in [U.K. tabloid] the Mirror."
"Alright, Still" has sold 520,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Allen is due to start a 20-date U.S. tour April 1. Her previous visa problems -- which caused the cancellation of her planned 2008 American jaunt -- have now been resolved.
Back in North London, Allen is also energizing herself to face the paparazzi pack that has now gathered outside her flat. Is it surreal to have such mundane moments recorded for posterity?
"Not now, actually," she says. "What's surreal now is when it's not there. To be honest, I start to slightly panic when people don't write about me for a couple of weeks."
And does she ever worry the attention might push her down the self-destructive path that's been trod by Spears and Winehouse?
"No," she says. "I know myself well enough. As soon as I feel remotely depressed I'm checked into a clinic and having intensive therapy. I've seen enough people fall apart to know that's not going to happen to me."
But it's striking how often Allen uses the word "terrifying" to describe aspects of her life and career. And it must be scary to put out an album in an environment where some are watching for the first signs of failure.
"If people like this record, then the record company will offer me more money to do another one," she says matter-of-factly. "And if they don't and I get dropped, then I'll re-evaluate my life. I'm not scared of that -- I'm excited by it. I like getting my teeth into something and having to survive."