The Lost Lily Allen Interview
As any regular concert-goer knows, shows get canceled all the time -- and if notice of schedule changes reach newspapers like this one in time, articles about such gigs get the ax, too. During my years at Westword, such a turn of events has meant that three interviews I conducted with major touring artists never saw print. The first, dating back to the early '90s, involved the Gang of Four's Andy Gill; I still have the transcript in my office somewhere, and if I had a month or two to spare, I might be able to find it. The second, in 2003, was with Julie Goodman, who performs under the name Hesta Prynn as part of Northern State; the band is slated to return to Colorado later this year, so there may be hope for that one yet. And the third? Lily Allen, who spoke with yours truly on April 10 in advance of a May 21 appearance at the Ogden Theatre that never happened -- but which resulted in the Q&A that can be found below.
Transcribing this conversation was a brain-wrecking experience, because Allen spoke while strolling and/or riding along the streets of Philadelphia using a pathetic excuse for a cell phone that rendered her voice all but inaudible. Topics I could actually hear her touch upon include the video for "Smile," from her debut CD Still, Alright, which turned her into an MTV star; the ways she deals with frustration; the fascination journalists seemed to have with the role of MySpace in her rise to prominence; controversy over her casual use of raw language; a faux feud with British crooner James Morrison; the frequency with which her comments and writings have been turned against her; and the ways that growing up as the daughter of British celebrity parents (actor/musician Keith Allen and producer Alison Owen) and their British celebrity pals helped her deal with her own stardom.
By the way, I omitted the half-dozen times Allen, who was with a retinue of people, asked for questions to be repeated, as well as numerous can-you-hear-me-now exchanges. You're welcome.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Are you there? You sound like you’re at the bottom of a well.
Lily Allen: Yeah, I’m outside. I’m on the streets of Philadelphia and it’s very breezy.
WW: Well, if you could really shout it out, that’d be great, because I can barely hear you.
LA: No worries.
WW: I wanted to start off with a question from one of my daughters, who’s 13. In the “Smile” video, she feels bad for the guy in it, because you never really see what he did to make you do all the terrible things to him -- and besides, he’s, in her words, “incredibly hot.” So what do I tell her to make her realize he deserved it?
LA: I don’t know. I suppose it’s just your first love, really. You don’t realize that you’ll fall in love again. At the time, you don’t really understand that. It’s your first adult relationship, really. And he kind of made me feel like it was the right thing to do, because he actually sold stories to newspapers back at home. So, you know, it is the way it is.
WW: Do you wish that the video had shown more of what the character did? Or would that have made it more like a documentary, and less like a revenge fantasy?
LA: Maybe we could have fit in a bit more. There’s a scene where people jump on him and start beating him up. To me, it’s playing with the images of violence that are out there. It isn’t necessarly to be taken literally. It’s more about what you think about in your head.
WW: So it’s more symbolic, rather than a way of you saying, “Hey, girls, here’s how you get even with that asshole you used to be with.”
LA: Right. You think about it, but you don’t do it. But you think about it a lot (laughs). I just had the inspiration for that song, and that’s how it came out.
WW: One of the things that’s so appealing about that song in particular is that the sentiments may be angry, but you don’t express them in a really angry way. Is that the way you are in real life – cool, calm and collected even when you’re really pissed off? Or do you come completely unglued and can only step back in retrospect.
LA: I’m not a very angry or violent physical person. But I do like to blow off steam. One of the things I do is let off a big, loud scream every now and again (laughs). But that’s it, really. And right now, everything’s good. I’m happy and I’m doing what I want to do with my life. I’m in a happy relationship, so I’m happy at the moment.
WW: I guess that means there’s not a lot of screaming going on right now.
LA: Actually, there is a lot of screaming – when I’m in airports, in particular. I go “AAAAHHHH!” really loudly, and I don’t care who’s around (laughs).
WW: In all the articles about you, there’s a big focus on MySpace, which seems strange to me. It’s not like you invented MySpace, and every band I know has had a MySpace page for ages. Why do you think there’s so much focus on that with you?
LA: I don’t know. It’s just one of the top ten questions I get asked, and it hasn’t really changed after a year. It’s still one of the talking points, and I just wish I could move on from that. They want to talk about how influential it was, and of course it was influential. But it’s also my music as well that helped me. If people didn’t like what they heard, then even with MySpace it wouldn’t have worked. A lot of them ask, “Could you have done it without MySpace?,” and that’s kind of a funny question to ask. MySpace is really a brilliant thing, and I’ve been into it forever. I don’t mind telling people that. But I’m a bit tired of that question, really.
WW: I’ll bet another of the top ten questions is about profanity, which I also don’t really understand. It’s not like you’re the first person to use the word “fuck” in a song. Why do you think so many people are obsessed with you using that kind of language?
LA: My mockney accent, as they call it? (Laughs.) I don’t know. I think it’s an English thing. People kind of focus on the way you talk and where you’re from and how that all relates to each other. I have friends who grew up in different places and they feel like it’s important to speak a certain way. But I grew up in Islington, which isn’t really an apples-and-pears kind of place.
WW: Young people talk that way everywhere, though. So why does it matter?
LA: I don’t think it’s a big thing now. There are all kind of violent images on the TV and so on. So what’s so bad about hearing an f-word? Hang on just a minute. I’m getting into a car.
WW: (Fifteen seconds of rustling noises later) Even though your career has taken off, you’ve kept up with your online journaling. Have any journalists ever actually thanked you for doing that? Because it gives them some great material.
LA: Yeah, it does (laughs). It’s funny, because I post something, and four hours later, it’s all over, and all these different stories have manipulated it or whatever. I suppose it’s probably the lazy journalists out there who type these things up.
WW: Well, I’m going to be one of those lazy journalists and ask about some of the things you’ve put up recently. In one post, you talked about how fed up you are with people trying to cook up a feud between you and Amy Winehouse. You wrote that maybe someone should try to cook up a feud between you and James Morrison.
LA: Yeah. It would be a lot easier to have a feud with him.
WW: Well, now’s your chance. What could you feud over with him?
LA: I don’t like that he spits when he sings (laughs). Being in the front row of one of his concerts is dangerous.
WW: In another one of your posts, you wrote that Americans are backward, which was obviously just a casual, offhand remark. Why do you think people took it so seriously?
LA: I don’t know. A lot of things that are taken seriously are just me having a laugh on some topic. They’re just not that important. Sometimes it feels like no matter what I say, somebody can make something out of it.
WW: Does that ever make you feel you can’t be spontaneous – that you’ve got to be guarded about everything that comes out of your mouth?
LA: I don’t worry about that. I’ve never been guarded, and I’m not going to start.
WW: So you’re not going to go into interviews thinking, “I’ve got to be careful about everything I say.”
LA: It doesn’t matter if I did or didn’t. No matter what I say, somebody can twist it. There’s no way to control it. So I’m not going to change the way I do things.
WW: You also wrote that you’ve started to feel like posting blogs is your job. Has that become kind of a drag, with everyone expecting you to put up new things all the time?
LA: Not really. If something’s important to me, and I feel like putting it up, I put it up. I’m not bored of that. I’m just always thinking about what I want to do next.
WW: That’s got to be time consuming, though.
LA: Yeah, it is, but I don’t need to do it if I’m doing something else. If I’m in the studio writing new material, I don’t have to stop it and write a blog. I’ll write the new material.
WW: You’ve talked in the past about having grown up around famous people. Is it different having all the attention focused on you?
LA: I don’t really compare. But it’s kind of what I wanted – having all the attention on me.
WW: So has being famous been what you expected?
LA: I don’t really think about those kinds of things. It just is what it is.
WW: Let me ask it this way, then: Are you enjoying it? Or are there parts of it you’re not enjoying very much?
LA: I’m enjoying myself, yeah.
WW: Do you feel it’s helped you, having been around famous people all along? Has it helped you deal with everything better?
LA: I think it’s different for different people. You’ve got your mentality and your personality.
WW: Some people tend to freak out when the spotlight’s on them all the time, but you haven’t seemed to do that.
LA: Well, I’ve got good people around me, very good professionals. Honest. I’ve got a good team around me, and you need that. I have that, so I’m very lucky.