Pop sensation. Voice of her generation. Fashion designer. Political activist. Mouthy blogshite. X-rated sexpert. Fall-down drunk. WAG-tagoniser. Queen of MySpace. Exhibitionist. Style icon. Celebrity girlfriend. Celebrity daughter. Paparazzi prey. Party starter. Princess. Lily Allen has been called all these things, and much more.
Contrary, contradictory, occasionally catty, always compelling, Lily Allen, at 23, is Britain’s most consistently engaged and engaging pop star, as well as one of our most successful.Â Lily first commandeered the public stage in July 2006, a fully formed phenomenon with a song that would help define that summer, the hugely infectious Smile’, her 1st CD single and her 1st UK number one.
‘Smile’ served as an excellent primer for the Allen oeuvre, a breezy, lilting, ska-inflected slice of perfect pop distinguished by sugar-sweet vocals and unflinchingly autobiographical lyrics. It was a song of female empowerment sung by a smart-mouthed, wide-eyed, pretty post-teen in a pink prom dress and box-fresh Nike trainers, fluoro make-up and huge hoop earrings.
‘LDN’ was, if anything, even more insidious and distinctive: a faux-naÃ¯ve, text-spelt, profane paean to the city of her birth in all its grimy glory. By the time of the release of Alright, Still, her debut album, Lily’s stardom was solidified and her public persona cemented: cheeky, waspish, searingly honest, sparky, spiky and satirical. Some of the stories about her were even true.
Lily Allen was born in May 1985 in Hammersmith, West London, the daughter of film producer Alison Owen and actor Keith Allen. It was an unconventional childhood, but not one without its compensations, and it madeÂ Lily wise beyond her years and tremendously motivated to carve her own place in the world. Raised alongside her sister and brother in Bloomsbury, Shepherd’s Bush, Primrose Hill and Islington, she attended 13 different schools in total before abandoning her formal education at 15 and embarking on a teenage odyssey of innocence and experience: clubbing in Ibiza, studying to be a florist, always hoping to break into the entertainment industry.
She knocked on record company doors from the age of 16, and her first deal came in 2002, with Warners, who pushed her in an uncomfortably folky direction. It wasÂ 2 years later, working with producers Future Cut, whenÂ Lily began to find her feet as a songwriter. In 2005 she signed to Regal, an imprint of Parlophone, and, frustrated by the slow pace of the music industry, began to post demos on her MySpace page. Meanwhile, a series of live appearances at the Notting Hill nightclub Yo-Yo in the spring of 2006 whetted press and public appetites.
‘Smile’ was her 1st composition, a song so appealing it prompted the producer Mark Ronson to fly her to New York at his own expense, where they collaborated on the delicate ‘The Littlest Things’. Later, ‘Smile’ would win a BMI songwriting award. Not bad for a first attempt.
Ronson and another American producer, Greg Kurstin, were the crucial collaborators on Alright, Still, which eventually sold 2.5 million records, broke into the Billboard top 20 in America, earned Allen five BRIT nominations and a triumphant spot on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2007. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Allen must have been very flattered indeed, for her imitators were legion: suddenly the charts were full of Lily-alikes rhyming about relationships gone wrong.
Meanwhile, Allen provided guest vocals on songs by Dizzee Rascal and Basement Jaxx, among others, and made a specialty of unexpected cover versions. As well as her hit interpretation of the Kaiser Chiefs’ ‘Oh My God’ alongside Ronson, she has covered The Kooks, The Pretenders and Blondie, and offered a sardonic reworking of 50 Cent’s ‘Window Shopper’.
By no means has it all been plain sailing. The backlash, when it came, was ferosh. Lily, along with a select group of famous young women on both sides of the Atlantic, has been frequently and somewhat hysterically pilloried in the tabloids and on the gossip websites for her perceived misbehaviour. She has had spats with fellow pop stars. Her relationship with the paparazzi might be politely described as fraught. Her private life has been made public. Meanwhile, a series of personal traumas have occasionally threatened to overwhelm her.
“I was prepared for it because people said, ‘Are you ready for the backlash?'” says Allen. “But it was still upsetting and confusing. Sometimes it was just a barrage of hatred. Now if I go out and have a drink I’m a disgrace and if I don’t I’m boring. That’s the backlash. But there’s nothing I can do about it. You don’t have a choice about whether you become a celebrity or not. I think some people get confused about that.”
All this, most of it completely beyond her control, has led to a sense – one felt by her as much as anyone – that people might have forgotten why they liked Lily Allen in the first place. Lily Allen’s 2nd album, It’s Not Me, It’s You written and recorded exclusively by her and Greg Kurstin, began its life at a tiny rented house in the Cotswolds in the autumn of 2007, where the pair had gone to work. After a week and a half they hadÂ 6 songs and a new sound had emerged: darker perhaps, definitely dancier, clearly more mature.
“The way we work,” explains Allen, “is Greg and I will sit round a piano together and he’ll play different chords and I’ll stay “stop” or “start” when I like them. Then I’ll sing along over the top and come up with the words. “We decided to try and make bigger sounding, more ethereal songs, real songs. I wanted to work with one person from start to finish to make it one body of work. I wanted it to feel like it had some sort of integrity. I think the first song we did was ‘I Could Say’. That set the tone for the whole album. I think I’ve grown up a bit as a person and I hope it reflects that.”
Lyrically, It’s Not Me, It’s You is both a continuation of the preoccupations of Alright, Still, as well as a stiletto-heeled leap forward. The forensic, affecting, often very funny examinations of relationships and sexual politics are still there – and joyously so – but bigger themes are also tackled: God is on this record, as is George Bush, and Allen’s family are here, too.
“I find it hard to write songs about nothing,” says Allen. “I try to write things that are both relevant to my life – which is totally weird and surreal – and also universal. I think the record probably is a bit darker but not because I have a darker outlook on life. I actually feel happier right now than I did when I released Alright, Still. When I was writing the 1st record I felt like I was really struggling. I wanted to be doing something and I felt no one was interested. Now I feel like people are very interested.”
It’s Not Me, It’s You might be the only album they’ll hear in 2009 that references racism (‘Fuck You’); ageism (’22’); the dark side of celebrity and consumer culture (‘The Fear’); drug dependency (‘Everyone’s At It’); and 9/11 (‘Him’); but also TV dinners (‘Chinese’); premature ejaculation (‘Not Fair’); and the enduring rubbishness of men (‘Never Gonna Happen’).