UK street-pop icon Lily Allen has delivered the comeback album of 2018 in No Shame — her rawest work yet. Not that Allen ever disappeared. But even she was disillusioned with her last album, 2014’s Sheezus. Indeed, the singer-songwriter has spoken of enduring an “identity crisis” after she married builder Sam Cooper and began raising children. Allen paid too much heed to industry dictates and trends, especially with her image.
The Londoner grew up around the volatile show business world — her dad the actor/comedian Keith Allen and mum Alison Owen a film producer. Dropping out of school, Allen took a DIY approach to her own career. She was among the earliest MySpace upstarts. She introduced a fresh British hybrid of punk, ska and (post-Mike Skinner) hip-hop on 2006’s debut Alright, Still, her lyrics wryly observational. Notably, Allen liaised with future ‘It’ producers Greg Kurstin and Mark Ronson. Alright, Still cracked the US charts.
The ‘Smile’ hitmaker soon transformed into a slashie, hosting a talk-show and venturing into fashion and entrepreneurialism. Plus the forthright Allen threw herself into activism, recently advocating for refugees. Nonetheless, she also became a tabloid fixture as a ‘wild’ party girl. Allen’s deeply personal experiences with mental health, miscarriage and the stillbirth of a son were exploited by the same media.
With No Shame, Allen has followed Kanye West and Taylor Swift by going meta. In the preface, ‘Come On Then’, she counters the media commentary. However, Allen shuns artifice. She isn’t cultivating a persona, nor escaping one. This evolving feminist writes about her marriage breakdown, parenting dilemmas, friendships, new romance, mental health, partying and substance abuse. In fact, ‘sharing’ is the album’s theme as much as selfhood. Musically, No Shame spans everything from electro-soul to tropical to classic pop.
Bunkering down in Los Angeles in 2015, Allen commenced album four with her old studio pal Fryars, before returning to London. And she reconnected with Ronson (cue: the piano ballad ‘Family Man’ and ‘My One’). Allen has a cult fandom in the grime scene, guesting on Stormzy’s ‘Cigarettes & Cush’ (alongside Kehlani). For No Shame, she plays off her rapper bestie Giggs on the lead single ‘Trigger Bang’. A&Ring herself, Allen likewise brought in two dancehall trailblazers — Nigeria’s Burna Boy (Allen blessed his ‘Heaven’s Gate’) and London’s Lady Chann.
Prior to this chat, Allen’s label requested Music Feeds focus on the star’s music, not her personal life (she IS writing a memoir). But, if Allen got the memo, she ripped it up, being characteristically unfiltered.
Allen hasn’t lost her playful charm, either — even the telephone conference administrator gushes “she’s adorable”.
Music Feeds: It’s compelling how the narrative and musical threads come together with No Shame. I know you’ve expressed some uncertainly about Sheezus. What did you resolve to do with this record?
Lily Allen: Well, I think I just wanted to do the exact opposite of Sheezus. With Sheezus, I definitely set out to make an album for the market and to try and be successful and live up to the hype that I had created with album one [Alright, Still] and album two [It’s Not Me, It’s You], whereas this record is an antidote to that. I feel like I sat down at the beginning of this record and was like, “What is it that you want, what are you doing?” And it was, like, “Well, I would like to be looked at like less of a cartoon and taken more seriously as a songwriter, which is what I’m good at.”
Also I think the cartoon version of me that came out about on Sheezus, I was so uncomfortable with it, that it’s kind of where my dalliance with excessive amounts of alcohol came from as well. I think that I felt so sort of weird, and things didn’t feel right, but I didn’t know how to articulate it and didn’t want to disappoint anybody. So I just started to drink so that I could be more comfortable in that situation.
I just wanted, with this record, to do something completely different and to be connected and for it to feel authentic and to not have to put myself in that situation where I was trying too hard and having to be something that I didn’t feel like I was — and also just stopping the bullshit. I didn’t go to any red carpet events. I wasn’t out at celebrity parties. You know, the handbags stopped coming through the door and the designer clothes stopped showing up. Those things were hard as well, but it was a choice. It was like, “That’s not what you are, you’re a songwriter, so let’s write some songs. Forget about the other shit.”
MF: The sonics of this album hark back to your early work, with the influences of reggae and ska, but there are also some bespoke Lily hybrid sounds. What in the wider pop culture fed into this? What kinds of things are you into?
LA: With all of the songs on this record, most of them, bar from ‘Cake’, which is the last one, were all written completely from scratch. On previous records, sometimes I’d be sent a track almost finished — not in terms of topline and lyrics — but whatever’s going on in the background. So most songs on this record were just written on a piano or on a guitar and then we built the production up from there. But I was very much part of that process, which I haven’t always been.
I guess what shaped it was what I was listening to, really, so Jamie xx stuff and lots of Lil Silva… I’ve always listened to lots of reggae and ragga music and dancehall, so that’s always gonna play a big part in what I do, especially with the more uptempo stuff. And then Fryars, who I collaborate with, brings his own ideas as well, and [DJ] Seb [Chew] and [studio gun] Emre [Ramazanoglu]… Seb’s my manager.
‘Come On Then’, which is the first track on the album, and ‘Lost My Mind’ — we’d got a few different producers to come in and try those tracks and it just didn’t feel quite right, so we ended up producing those ones ourselves, which was different for me. Playing the drums on a drum machine myself was a new experience, and having the confidence to let that stick… And, actually, even having the confidence to articulate and say, “It doesn’t feel right, I want it to sound more like this,” I’ve never really done that before, which is mad, seeing as it’s my name that’s written on the front of all of my records and who people come to see in the shows. So, yeah, I definitely claimed more agency with this record than I have done before.
MF: I love the interplay you have with Giggs. You’ve discussed your friendship and how ‘Trigger Bang’ came out of that. Could you work together again? Because you guys have something there!
LA: Yeah! Giggs is like my brother now. We speak three or four times a week. He buys my kids birthday and Christmas presents… He’s been a real part of bringing me out of my shell. I guess people would never associate me with being stuck in a shell, but I really was. I really struggled coming out of my marriage. I had a run-in with a stalker a couple of years ago and so I was deeply affected by that and disconnected from my main group of friends. Everything that man said completely changed for me.
Giggs came into my life and really helped me, musically and socially. So, yeah, definitely, we’ll work together again. Our studios are a five minute walk from each other so, whenever he’s in town and I’m in town, he’ll pop by and play me music and, if there’s anything that I wanna jump on, I’m sure he’d let me and then vice versa (laughs).
MF: The other collab I really enjoyed was that with Lady Chann on ‘Waste’. It’s a really powerful number.
LA: That song was written with a guy called Ellis [Taylor], who’s of a production duo called Show N Prove. Lady Chann lives at the end of my road. I definitely wanted to have a female feature on this record, but I didn’t want to force it by just being like, “Right, who’s in the charts and who’s a girl?” I wanted it to be authentic and formed from a real relationship.
Chann came with me to the studio — actually, I bumped into her on the morning that we wrote that song. She was like, “Oh, what are you doing?” and I said, “Oh, I’m just heading off to the studio.” She’s like, “Oh, I’m going to the doctor’s, but I am around later – why don’t I come by?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” So she came over. Ellis was mucking around with some music and then that beat materialised and she was like, “I can definitely do something on this.” Then we ended up figuring out what the concept was and going from there.
All of the collaborations have been really natural, nothing was forced. It wasn’t like I shopped anything out. I never really agreed with that — I’ve not disagreed with it — but, ever since I started in this business, people have always said to me in interviews, “What’s your dream collaboration?” I just think, I don’t know. There’s like an energy in the room when you’re collaborating with people.
I definitely couldn’t do the ‘sending something to someone and then waiting for them to email it back’ kind of collaboration, ’cause it’d just feel too inauthentic for me. I understand why other people do it, but I just wanna work with cool people that wanna work with me and it feel real. I think that we’ve succeeded with that with Burna Boy and Chann and Giggs.
MF: This album is quite meta and such a strong statement in itself. You could follow Beyoncé or Taylor Swift and just not do interviews. The record almost says everything! So I wondered what it was that you’re keen to amplify? Why you’re even talking to us fools?
LA: Well, I think I’m contracted to (laughs). It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you. But, yeah, I definitely scaled it back a lot compared to what I’ve done in the past. Beforehand, I think I would have probably come out to Australia and done a run of promo, which I haven’t done this time ’round. I trust my manager now to make those decisions for me. I’m not having those conversations with the label myself. I guess I just do what I’m told, really!
MF: But what do you hope listeners take away from the record?
LA: (Long pause). I don’t know! I think I just hope that they like it. I feel really confident in the fact that I’ve written the best record that I could write at this point in my life and it feels like the most authentic record that I could write, and that was what I set out to do. I feel like I’ve already succeeded in that, to be honest. So I’m not really worried about what’s gonna come back. I don’t really mind how people interpret it. I hope that nobody’s offended; that would be annoying or sad. But I hope that people like it.
MF: Actually, is there any prospect of you touring Australia down the line?
LA: Yeah, I definitely think that there will be a plan in action. When I say I would have usually come out, I mean just having come out there to do some promo. But I’m pretty sure that there are some plans afoot for coming over and touring, for sure.
MF: How has your headspace changed since you started No Shame and now?
LA: I feel a lot clearer. I feel optimistic. I know what my boundaries are and what it is that I wanted to achieve and how far I’m willing to be pushed. I think that primarily I’ve realised that I need to be around for my kids. There’s not the anxiety that I’ve had on previous records, because I know that I’m not gonna be away for months at a time, because I have to get back for my children. So I think that sort of open-ended, not knowing thing that has given me lots of anxiety in the past. I don’t feel that anymore, because I know where home is and that I’ve gotta get back to it.
MF: You reunited with Mark Ronson for this record. I imagine your dynamic has changed a little bit since you were both working in the early days. What is it like?
LA: It’s actually quite hard working with Mark… I mean, it hasn’t really changed, the dynamic, ’cause we’re incredibly close. He is also like a brother to me. I’ve known him for nearly 15 years now. He’s also best friends with my manager… Actually, it was easier working with him in the early days because I didn’t really care what he thought, whereas now, if he says something that’s annoying, I really take it to heart.
It’s difficult for me to articulate or to communicate back to him because we have a relationship, so there’s a relationship to be saved. I can’t just be annoyed and storm out and never come back (laughs)… But he’s very opinionated and so am I, so sometimes it is a little bit fraught in the studio with me and Mark. He’ll say things, not that upset me, but that irk me and vice versa. Also, because he’s so successful, I guess he sometimes forgets that I’m Lily and that I knew him before he was a superstar producer. I’m sure if he does sessions with younger musicians that he can talk to them in a certain way and get away with it. I’m like, “Uh-uh! Hey, Mark. I know you. This isn’t you.” So it’s an interesting one.
MF: The latest single is ‘Lost My Mind’ and it’s such a melancholy, beautiful record.
LA: Yeah, it is a song about going into a relationship and it being sort of non-exclusive and feeling like that would be okay at the relationship’s inception, but then it becoming quite clear, quite quickly, that the non-exclusivity thing is a bit of a problem, for me anyway. The lack of attention is a problem for me, and contributed to my mental health being quite severely affected. So, yeah, it’s about that.
MF: You’ve done some shows in the US lately. You had that huge record there with T-Pain [2011’s ‘5 O’Clock’ sampled Allen’s ‘Who’d Have Known’]. How important is the US market to you? Because you’re such a quintessentially British artist and the Americans took a while to open up to particularly urban music with different cultural inflections – grime is still underground there.
LA: You know what, I’m very driven when it comes to making music, but I’m just not very driven on the back end of things. So whatever opportunities are presented to me, then I’ll give it a go — and, if works, it works and, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t really have a game plan with America. It’s just sort of like, you know what, if radio pick up on a song and people wanna buy tickets for the tour, I’m there. But, if not, I’m not gonna get too worried about it. I’ve got other areas that I can concentrate on. So I don’t really feel any type of worry about it. I just go wherever the wind takes me.
Lily Allen’s new album ‘No Shame’ is out now.