Her five years off were packed with lows (meltdowns, label shakeups) and highs (marriage, kids), but with new album “Sheezus,” pop’s outspoken Brit is ready to put behind the “ego and narcissism” of her early work and prove what a nice person she is — but not before she shows you, as she says, how hard it is out there for a bitch.
Lily Allen appears in the lobby of Manhattan’s Mercer Hotel late one cold spring afternoon, wearing a denim jumpsuit and silver Louboutin stilettos. There’s an electric blue Chanel purse slung across her narrow shoulder and a stack of thank-you notes in her manicured hand. After taking a sip of a vodka soda with extra limes, she kicks off her shoes, crosses her legs underneath her and explains that she plans to handwrite cards to those who’ve helped her out during this trip to New York. “People who gave me free clothes, stylists that let me borrow something to go to the ‘Game of Thrones’ premiere,” she summarizes. How was the premiere? “It was sick,” she says vacantly.
With her Swarovski-encrusted pair of iPhones, her sparkly blue nails and perfect makeup, Allen, 28, looks the part of a carefree party girl ready for a night out on the town, but she feels like a forlorn mom. This morning, she put her two young daughters — who’d been with her in the city for a few days while she lays the ground for her comeback record, “Sheezus” — on a plane back to the United Kingdom. She misses them already.
“Sheezus” (her first album on Warner Bros. Records, due in May) marks a new chapter for Allen, an outspoken but wounded pop star who once sang only half-jokingly about wanting “loads of clothes and f—loads of diamonds.” The title’s swipe at Kanye West signals her feminist queenpin ambitions. But her sadness right now (which turns teary a little later) shows how hard it is to balance the bling life with the domesticity that has become so important to her.
It has been a minute since we’ve heard from Allen. Five years ago she released a second album, “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” full of cheeky and insightful electro pop tunes. In the months leading up to the release Allen had suffered a miscarriage; split with her then-boyfriend, Ed Simmons of The Chemical Brothers; and while swigging from a bottle of Champagne she’d stashed onstage, told Elton John to “f—off” while the pair was co-hosting an awards show in London. In the months that followed, she began dating a carpenter, Sam Cooper (her now husband), got pregnant, suffered a second miscarriage, was briefly institutionalized and announced she was retiring. She was 24.
In the years that have passed, she and Cooper had two daughters, bought a country house and by all appearances live a mostly quiet life. “I’m a homemaker,” she says with a shrug. “People are really shocked when they come to my house in the country because I’m literally like, candles everywhere, flower arranging and bottles of water next to everyone’s beds. I mean, ridiculous. It’s not something people would usually associate me with. But I do love that.”
Allen is the first to admit that her inclination toward domesticity is a result of instability in her childhood. “I grew up in weird surroundings,” she says. “Things were not very stable. My mom was constantly having to remortgage the house. My drive has always been: I have to make a lot of money and buy a house.” It was always part of Allen’s plan to become a young mother, just like her mom, who had her first child at 18. “It was selfish,” says Allen. “I wanted something that was going to love me unconditionally and, you know, a puppy just wasn’t going to cut it.”
Allen’s mother is film producer Alison Owen (“Elizabeth,” “Proof”), and her father is renegade actor, TV personality and sometimes rocker Keith Allen. A frequent collaborator with British filmmaker Danny Boyle, Keith Allen is probably best-known in the States as one of the drug dealers in “Trainspotting.” In the late ’90s he played in an ad hoc band with artist Damien Hirst and Blur bassist Alex James. Joe Strummer was a family friend when Allen was growing up.
The singer’s parents split when she was 4 and Allen was raised mostly by her mom, along with her older sister and younger brother Alfie (now an actor, he plays Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones”). “They are very bohemian,” she says of her parents. “They’re both socialist.” Allen inherited a serious anti-authoritarian streak from her parents, but in spite of her father’s lack of interest in the trappings of glamour (“He’s the most unmaterialistic person you’ve ever met”) Allen was exposed as a kid to a rarified lifestyle. “I saw how people get treated better if they’re famous and successful so I was just like, ‘We’ll give that one a go,’ ” she recalls. “Of course I wanted to be famous. And I still want to be famous.”
After attending a dizzying series of elite schools she found herself, at 15 years old, on vacation in Ibiza, Spain, with family. “I didn’t want to go home so I stayed out there and worked in a record shop,” she recalls. As the story goes, she supported herself in part by dealing ecstasy. “It wasn’t like a vocation,” she clarifies. “I took it and maybe sold a couple to some friends but I wasn’t a drug dealer.” Just the same, a friend who was a music manager told her Ibiza wasn’t a good place to stay. And Allen — who had discovered the power her voice could wield when she was 12 and made all the moms cry singing at a school event — moved back to London.
She began writing songs and putting them up on the then-brand-new Myspace.
The accompanying blog Allen wrote was profane and hilarious, with running commentary on celebrity culture, music and her insecurities; it read like a mainline into the musings of the young millennial mind, just like her songs. Allen was signed in 2005 to Regal Recordings (a subsidiary of Parlophone) “for £20,000 [$33,000],” she recalls. “They were literally the only people with an offer.” But her connection to the burgeoning online music community proved powerful. When Parlophone saw the attention her songs were generating on Myspace, it responded with a new level of support.
When her debut, “Alright, Still,” came out in the summer of 2006, it established Allen as a novel kind of pop star. “She created a new avenue for female artists,” says producer Greg Kurstin, who Allen first met when they spent a day in the studio sketching out one of the three album tracks he worked on, “Everything’s Just Wonderful,” a cheery hand-clap-driven pop song with existentialist lyrics about not fitting into Kate Moss’ jeans and other examples of the anxiety and emptiness of modern life. “All of a sudden there were artists coming out in England that maybe wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for Lily,” says Kurstin, who has gone on to work with Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Ellie Goulding, among others.
Allen’s debut sold over 2 million copies worldwide (626,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan), was nominated for a 2008 Grammy and made her a bona fide celebrity back home in the United Kingdom. The singer and the British paparazzi were made for each other, the kind of combustible couple whose fights other people like to watch, car-crash style. Highlights include Allen’s 2007 arrest for allegedly attacking a group of paparazzi waiting for her outside of a London club, and the Glamour U.K. Women of the Year Awards in 2008 where she arrived wearing a dress decorated with images of a decapitated, bleeding Bambi and departed drunk and sobbing in the arms of her bodyguard. “It’s Not Me, It’s You” featured a lot of songs about the trials of public life.
Growing up, Allen felt like she and her family were “imitating” the life of the rich and famous. Part of her goal in pursuing music had been to taste the real deal. “It was ego and narcissism,” she says of her early motivation. “It was about proving a point.” What point was that? “I proved that I’m a massive d—head,” she half jokes, taking a sip of her cocktail. “No, I don’t know. I proved that I could win. But once I proved that it was like, ‘Well, what the f— was the point in that?’ ”
“It’s Not Me, It’s You” opened at No. 1 on the U.K. chart, and sold over 2 million copies worldwide (though just 358,000 in the States). But after its release Allen began to lose interest in making records, compounded by instability at her label, which first underwent massive layoffs, and then an acquisition where EMI was acquired by Universal and Parlophone was sold to Warner Music Group. “That’s part of why the four-year hiatus happened,” she says. “That was a transition and I didn’t want to be a part of it until we knew what was going on.”
Primarily, though, Allen’s break from the public eye was inspired by her husband. “I’d met somebody and I thought, ‘I want to see if this can be a thing,’ ” Allen recalls. She beams when describing how disinterested Cooper is in pop music in general and in Allen’s work in particular. “He’s got taste, for a start,” she says, chuckling. “If he was here and you asked him to name five of my songs he wouldn’t be able to do it. Recently he was like, ‘How many albums have you sold?,’ and I was like, ‘Which album?,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, you know, that one It’s Not Fair About Me.’ I was like, ‘I haven’t got an album called that but thanks.’ That’s why I love him.”
“Sheezus” may be Allen’s first album in five years, but she began working on it not long after the birth of her first child in late 2011. “I was just like, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore. I have to reconnect with myself,’ ” remembers Allen. “And the only way I know how to do [it] is get in the studio and write.” But then Allen became pregnant again in the spring of 2012. “I tried to write when I was pregnant but the songs were really bad,” she says.
It wasn’t until last year, during a series of sessions with Kurstin, that the record began to take shape. As a joke, Allen’s assistant floated the title “Sheezus” and the singer ran with it, writing a track around the album title. The song’s message — that there’s room in pop music for more than one female star — reflects the entire album’s explicit feminist message. The first single, “Hard Out Here,” for example, is a tirade against record business misogyny told with Allen’s trademark acid tongue (“Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits/It’s hard out here for a bitch”).
“When I was putting together this record and coming up with the release date you can see the people at the record company looking at the sheets of who are the other females around [that date coming out with albums] and if it’s a risk going against Rita Ora,” says Allen of the industry experiences that have inspired her rage. “It’s like, ‘Why?!’ ”
Allen is not as easily riled up as she used to be, the occasional Twitter spat notwithstanding. “This is such a heated question, someone is going to get upset,” she says, shooting this writer a pointed look before declining to name the last thing that really pissed her off. But Allen’s wit has not softened with age — she has just learned to wield it more wisely. “People always make me look like a spoiled little c—,” she says when asked what she’d like to clarify about her public image. “I’m not. I’m a nice person.”