Lily Allen on censorship, being lonely and what equality looks like

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Helen Bownass
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Lily Allen will never be at risk of fading into the background. So what drives one the most honest women in pop?

Critics slam singer Lily Allen after she claims Britain is run by a ‘fascist regime’ and people only trust artists ‘because they connect to them’. “I don’t pretend to be a pop star, so why does Miss Allen pretend to be a journalist?” “Rochdale, Brexit, equal pay… how Lily Allen became the rent-a-gob of the left.”

These are just a selection of headlines written about Lily Allen of late. But despite those particular tabloids’ wishes, the pop star has never stopped shouting, whether that’s about Grenfell, the Calais refugee crisis or our exit from the EU. Publicly, Lily is a nonconformist and unapologetic – about who she is, who she was, what the thinks – but privately, she’s also a people-pleaser who craves validation. So she’s a contemporary, and interesting, enigma.

Allen, 33, is also a woman who has been through much personally. It feels grim somehow to list the harrowing things she’s experienced like I typically list someone’s career accomplishments. So I won’t. Instead I’ll tell you that talking to her is fun. 

It’s enlightening, challenging – she’s not afraid to call me out on something she doesn’t agree with – and thought-provoking. I get the sense she is trying hard to manage her demons and – for now, at least – she seems in a good place as we chat about her new album, No Shame.

“The purveyors of shame are the patriarchy”

After changing the conversation when she burst from the MySpace womb in 2006 with album Alright, Still, it’s been a while since Allen has released anything of note – she would be the first to admit that 2014’s Sheezus was a bit of a critical and commercial disaster. Finally, though, she’s back making music – she’s also been writing her autobiography, due this autumn, and has announced a European tour for December this year – that says and means something. 

The new album is a confessional, blunt mix of ballads, rap cameos and bangers. It’s Allen rewriting the narrative that’s been put on her and taking back control. And it’s genuinely good; catchy, well- observed, grown-up and no less truthful than the Lily who sang Smile

The Guardian said of her recent live gig: “It’s 12 years since Allen opened the floodgates for bold British female solo artists, but even now few can match her fearlessness.” She sings of her alcohol dependency on Everything To Feel Something, the breakdown of marriage in the heart-rending Apples, and on defiant album-closer Cake she invites women to go and get their “piece of patriarchy pie”. A dish best served full of intent.

The new album is called No Shame. The feeling of shame is something imposed on a person by others. Who are the gatekeepers of shame to you?

The purveyors of shame are the patriarchy. That’s how people control women, especially the Daily Mail. The sidebar of shame [on] is a prime example: “How dare you leave the house without being in full hair and make-up, you disgusting human being! Look we’ve caught you!” 

But [women] don’t only feel shame about things projected on to us, but about things we should feel proud of. I’ve been made to feel that maybe I’m not responsible for my success – maybe it is all Mark Ronson, maybe it is the record company. It’s imposter syndrome, which is shame as well. We’re as bad at not claiming things for ourselves as the people pointing the finger. We pre-empt shame that’s going to be projected on to us. Where does that come from?

You tell me…

I took my kids to the recording of a BBC music show. I sang a song, then James Bay did, then 5 Seconds Of Summer and then Ella Eyre. Ethel [Allen’s eldest daughter] said, “Is this a competition, Mummy?” and I saw she was panicked that I wasn’t going to win because she thought Ella Eyre was better than me. 

I certainly try and build up their confidence and don’t want them to compare themselves, but somehow it’s managed to get through to them – and they’re five and six. Marnie [Allen’s youngest daughter] said, “Is she better than you, Mummy?” and I was like, “It doesn’t matter.” But they didn’t say it when the men were on, only when Ella Eyre came on.

“Male fame is a different breed to female fame”

How do you combat that?

F*ck knows. I don’t know where it’s come from. It’s really difficult because society tells them that they’re right: women’s value is in the way that we look. It’s not like things are being legislated to protect women in the workplace or that the pay gap is closing – nothing’s happening. 

So it’s really difficult for me as a mother of daughters to be like, “You can do whatever you want”, because actually they can’t. I want to believe that, and that’s the struggle: filling them with confidence and the reality of what the world is about. Because I don’t f*cking know. I thought it was one way, and I’ve got here and realised it isn’t.

What made you realise the world wasn’t the way you once thought?

Growing up, my dad [Keith Allen] was quite famous and so was my stepdad [Harry Enfield], and they were praised for speaking their mind and going out and getting f*cked up. So when I imitated that behaviour and was met with a completely different response, I was like, ‘Oh’. It was only relatively recently I realised that what I thought was fame, as a kid growing up, was male fame, which is a different breed to female fame.

And what is female fame supposed to look like?

It’s being seen and not heard, isn’t it? Women with voices are threatening.

There must have been points when it would have been easier to be seen and not heard…

Totally, it would have been easier.

What made you keep shouting?

Morals. Wanting things to change. Coming to those realisations and thinking this isn’t right, and I’d prefer to be a part of the conversation about the change than just playing the game and taking loads of money home.

So you’ve never thought, ‘I’ll be quiet for a bit and get that massive advertising campaign’?

A lot of the time when I’m on Twitter or partaking in these conversations, I think, ‘What are the pros of me saying this? What are the cons?’ The con is always: it might negatively affect my income, and that’s just not big enough.

People probably assume you say the first thing that comes into your head…

It’s not considered. I think it’s just, ‘Should I censor myself? Why would you censor yourself? Well, because it might negatively impact your income.’ And that’s not worth it.

You’ve described yourself previously as a people-pleaser. How does that fit with your propensity to be outspoken?

I find communicating on a grander scale easier than on an intimate [one]. I have real problems with intimacy. If somebody said, “Get on stage and sing Smile in front of 100,000 people”, no problem. If they said, “Sing Smile in front of 10 people”, massive problems. If I feel like I’m not pleasing this person here, I get anxiety, but I don’t care about pissing off the masses. I would prefer everybody loved me, but it doesn’t mean I’ll stop saying what I believe in order to get that love.

Allen at Mighty Hoopla festival in London 

The album is very raw. Do you fear exposing yourself like that?

No, I don’t. It’s really hard to make money out of music these days: people don’t buy albums and I don’t make any money from streaming because of my contract, which I signed in 2005. With all the negative attention I get from the tabloids and things beyond my control I ask myself quite often, ‘What am I doing this for?’ I’m past becoming a bankable brand as I’m not safe, so this is what I do and if I’m not going to make millions of pounds out of it then I might as well be doing it for the right reasons.

If albums don’t sell, why do record companies release them?

It’s more to do with the industry than the artist. If an A&R [artists and repertoire] man can get a great figure back from first-week sales, and does that with three different artists over a year, that guarantees he’s going to get his contract renewed.

You keep saying ‘he’…

Yes, because I’ve probably met two A&R women. It’s not common. The music industry is a boys’ club. It’s not funny [in reference to the fact that I’m laughing].

I’m laughing in horror! Can you ever see it changing?

It will only change if their hands are forced. If there was legislation from the government. My mum [film producer Alison Owen] has been quite involved in the #MeToo movement and trying to make that connection with music. She said it’s nigh on impossible. People don’t want to come forward.

“I’m learning to be better at making sure I don’t feel lonely”

Why won’t they speak up?

Long-term album deals, I would have thought. In film and TV you’re only contracted until the end of said project. With music, it’s like 15 years.

Do you get any catharsis from writing?

One hundred per cent. I’m not a great communicator with people who I have relationships with and I’m not very good at maintaining relationships, whether it’s romantic ones or friendships. My friends will tell you I’m f*cking useless at keeping in touch and I never do brunch with the girls. 

I find music a really good way to make sense of some of the situations I find myself in or relationships that are failing; I can give something a narrative – a beginning, middle and end – and set it to music.

Do you know why you’re not good at friendships?

That’s not something people often admit… It’s possibly quite a lot to do with my ADHD. If I find things difficult then I can make myself distracted with something else quite easily.

On Lost My Mind you sing, “Why am I so lonely ’cause no one f*cking phones me?” Do you feel lonely a lot?

Yeah. When I was 21 and didn’t have kids, everyone wanted to come to my house, everyone wanted to party. So I never really had to forge those relationships. After splitting up with Sam [Cooper, in 2016] and the last album not performing very well, a lot of those people cut themselves off, or I felt very cut off. Now I’m learning to be better at making sure I don’t feel lonely.

Are you good at being alone?

I like being alone. I just really like sleeping a lot. I actually prefer sleeping in the day. I love it when I’ve dropped the kids off for school and haven’t got anything to do. I get into bed, have a w*nk, maybe have a bath, and then have a kip for three hours.

What’s your day-to-day state of mind?

I think it’s that I’ve managed to figure out I have two jobs. One is being a singer and songwriter, and the other is being a mum. If I’m not doing either to the best of my ability then the other one suffers. So it’s important for me to get that balance and balance is something people struggle with for f*cking years and I feel like I’m just getting to the point now where it’s working.

“Women with voices are threatening” 

Is there something that helped you to get to that point?

Yeah, divorce [laughs]. I don’t think I was particularly good at being a mum when they were really little. But I feel like now that they’re bigger and able to articulate if there’s a problem, then I find it easier to solve it for them.

You are open about your alcohol dependency on the new album. Are you in a healthy place now?

It’s not really… it was alcohol one day and drugs the next, sex the next. If I’m really sad and I don’t have help on hand, whether it’s from family, friends or my therapist, that’s when I run into problems because I don’t have those grounding things. I start reaching out and looking for help in other places. I’ve figured that out now, so I make sure I’ve got the right people around me and that they’re there for the right reasons.

On Twitter recently, you talked about taking ketamine at an awards ceremony and having
to be carried out of the venue. Did you think about whether you should have posted that?

I don’t really think I was glamorising it, I think it looked pretty pathetic. It was 10 years ago and I’m not ashamed of my behaviour back in those days. The way we work through any of these things is by talking about them, so why not talk about them?

You are someone who has been through a lot of serious things [aside from everything we’ve discussed, a stalker broke into her home in 2015]. How were you able to bounce back?

By posting pictures of me passed out at the Glamour awards [laughs]. With music, it’s so much about trust, you know? If you’re pretending to be something you’re not then [everyone] loses. Being real, being authentic has always been my calling card, and as soon as I stop doing that, whether it’s sharing my sadness or sharing my happiness or my silliness, people can smell it a mile off.

You did a podcast last year describing you and some of your family as narcissists. How do they feel about such descriptions?

I don’t really mean it in that sense. My dad and my mum have been determined and focused on themselves, and quite rightly. You can’t do what my mum’s done without being focused. Maybe narcissistic is the wrong word…

Maybe selfish is a better word?

I get quite irritated about that, actually. I feel like selfishness has been rebranded recently as a positive thing. People are refocusing it as self-love and don’t let the negative stuff in… That is basically just the Conservative Party manifesto.

Let’s talk politics, then. The Grenfell enquiry has just begun; do you have any faith the truth will be uncovered?

Let me quickly just say something about this. I don’t consider my involvement with Grenfell to be to do with politics, it is to do with me being a member of my community and there being a massive towering inferno three streets away from where I live. It’s interesting that people convert what I think is being a human being interested in the world around them as being fiercely political.

I hear that, but Grenfell has become a political issue…

I mean, you’re right. But I think that some of those people who have hundreds of millions of followers have made the world feel like a very sanitised place where we don’t care about what is going on around us, only ourselves. That is not something I want to be part of.

How do you educate yourself about current affairs?

I’m finding it harder now, you know, living in an age of fake news. I do feel a frustration sometimes when I don’t feel educated enough about a subject but feel an instinct about it. Like, the state of the music industry and Spotify and the manipulation of figures. I feel like I know what’s going on, but I can’t articulate it because I don’t have the knowledge to back it up.

Do you ever have a yearning to study?

I’m eyeing up September and thinking about things I could study. But I’d have to go back and do my GCSEs again because I don’t even have one. I’d like to get myself to a point where I could pay off my mortgage and then go back.

Allen performing on stage during a concert at the Lido in Berlin, Germany

What are the subject areas you’re interested in?

I don’t know yet. Law, maybe? Medicine? After I lost my child [Allen’s son was stillborn at six months in 2010] I really wanted to go into midwifery.

What’s the most gratifying thing about what you do?

A lot of my work is about thinking some people might listen to this and think they’re less of a freak because somebody else is talking about an experience that they’ve gone through.

And personally, there is a moment – especially in the infancy of an album – when I first do live shows and see people mouthing words back to me and you can tell that they’ve connected. This person is validating my experiences back at me.

Do you still feel like an outcast?

Yeah. I definitely look for validation.

When will you feel validated?

In all honesty, I don’t think I will. But I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t what I’m after. I’m not under any illusion that it is going to be, ‘Here you go, here are 10 Grammys and a billion pounds’.

The final song on No Shame is about women seizing what men have. Do you feel hopeful for women currently?

I think we’re at a watershed moment [for gender equality]. It’s either change or The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. As soon as you have equal pay then that is equal power.

No Shame by Lily Allen is out 8 June

Images: Tom Van Schelven / Getty / Fashion:Arabella Greenhill