Watching the Channel 4 documentary about Lily Allen’s retirement from music in order to open a clothes shop with her sister got me thinking about the time I interviewed her nearly five years ago. It was about two months before the release of her debut, Alright Still and Lily was, at that stage, just on the cusp of being a huge mainstream star. She wasn’t yet real tabloid fodder at that stage.
Her’s was an exciting breakthrough and she was an exciting interviewee. Funny, warm and sweet, she came across as all together more interesting and honest interviewee then many other stars of her ilk whom I’d met. I think, despite her subsequent success, she seems to have thankfully changed little.
The big find of the interview — given I was writing the article for an Irish magazine — was her then totally unknown relationship to David Kitt, then one of Ireland’s biggest indie star. It elevated the article from a 300-worder to a Hot Press cover story and I believe the mag may have been one of the first to elevate Allen to a cover star at the time. Unearthing the link from her came from a total hunch. I think in my research I’d somehow found a tiny reference that she went out with an Irish guy once by the surname of Lloyd and somehow had an ilking that there was something more there. Anyhow, hope you enjoy the repost.
What’s Up Tiger Lily?
By Steve Cummins
Published in Hot Press, 04th August 2006
Lily Allen is pacing the room. It’s midday in London’s EMI headquarters and the brown-eyed beauty is furious. “They’re greedy bastards,” she fumes. “They’re just pulling the piss. I can’t be dealing with it at all. It really irritates me when they take you a longer route.” The 21-year-old smiles her winning smile, all mischievous and bright. “Fuck it. I gave him a right earful,” she says.
The object of her scorn is a sneaky cab driver, who took her on an unscheduled detour on the way to her record company’s central London offices. In response, she’s sent him on his way, ears ringing and tail between his legs. But let’s face it, the man is in good company: he’s merely the latest in a growing list of individuals who have suffered the wrath of Britain’s newest and brightest chart-topping pop star.
Lily is no less a fan of London cabbies than she is of Carl Barat (“obviously convinced he’s God or something”), Sandi Thom (“a liar”), Johnny Borrell (“he thinks he’s some incredible Mick Jagger rock star”), Edith Bowman (“a trollop”), Cristiano Ronaldo (“a dirty bastard) and our own Bob Geldof (“a cunt”) — all targets of the caustic star’s increasingly wide-ranging but nonetheless highly entertaining verbal venom. And that’s all without mentioning her unfortunate ex-boyfriends, whose inability to satisfy (‘Not Big’) and allegedly cheating ways (‘Smile’) are brought under the microscope to devastating effect on Allen’s superb ska, calypso and reggae-soaked debut Alright, Still. Forthright and opinionated – among a sea of plastic pop stars, Lily Allen is truly the real deal. “I just generally say what I think,” Lily smiles, fiddling with her flowing pink ball gown. “And when I write, I write honestly and about what I’m feeling that day.”
The dramatic dress is complemented by Nike trainers and huge hoop earrings: you mightn’t see it in Vogue, but Allen has the look. What’s more, she’s currently in the process of taking the British music business by storm. Within a month of making her Top Of The Pops debut with her first single ‘Smile’ — “that was pretty cool,” she says — Lily snatched top spot in the British charts, subsequently holding onto No.1 in the face of fierce competition from this summer’s other hot pop vixens Shakira, Nellie Furtado and Sandi Thom. With critical kudos piling up around her, the album Alright, Still performed the same chart-topping trick, announcing in style the arrival of a new female writer with a distinctive voice and stories to tell that are well worth hearing.
In a sense this is an example of how it works in the brave new world of post-internet rock’n’roll. There is no doubt that Lily’s MySpace site created the foundation on which her initial success has been built. Home to her regularly hilarious blogs, it’s received an impressive three million hits, while her army of virtual ‘friends’ has swelled to 50,000. But while MySpace provided the ignition, without other essential ingredients, it’s unlikely that Alright, Still would have captured the imagination so thoroughly. Fact is that she’s a very good songwriter, with a feel for what makes great and memorable pop music, with genuine mass appeal.
And so it’s proven, with her infectious tunes grabbing a huge share of daytime radio plays. In Ireland, heavily supported by 30 stations, ‘Smile’ became the most played song of the week, beginning Monday July 17. Meanwhile, her sharp, edgy lyrics and fusion of genres have ensured that the critics remain onside. From a marketing perspective, it has the appearance of one of those eureka moments.“It’s been mad and it’s been a bit rushed,” she says of her dramatic rise (it’s only been seven months since she signed her record deal). “But it’s been amazing.”
Not that it’s been without its moments of controversy. With only a handful of live shows under her belt, she’s had to deal with some nonsensical guff from envious critics about not having paid her dues or “trawled the dives”. And in the perverse way that seems unique to rock’n’roll, she’s been knocked for the fact that her parents are also in showbiz.
Lily, you see, is the daughter of comedian, actor, Fat Les star and Britpop hang-about Keith Allen. Her mother, meanwhile, is the noted film producer Alison Owen, who worked on Elizabeth, Sylvia and Shaun Of The Dead. For good measure, Agent Cody Banks 2 and Twin Town director Kevin Allen is her uncle. Between the three of them, the begrudgers argue, there must be an impressive contacts book for young Lily to take advantage of. It’s a claim she’s quick to dismiss.
“It seems a bit stupid really,” she says of the murmurings, “because my Dad has never met anybody in my record label or my management or anything. I’ve done it all by myself. I’ve made my own contacts.” If anything, she says, having a famous dad can be a hindrance. “Look at it this way,” she insists. “My dad’s an embarrassing guy, who writes football songs under the name of Fat Les. You know that’s not going to help me in what I need to do.” And in any event, that kind of carping misses the real impact that her background has had on her. This is where we can find the real grit in the Lily Allen saga.
Keith Allen left the family home when Lily was four years old. Following the split, her mother lived with another comedian, Harry Enfield. “My mom was with him for five or six years,” she remembers. “That wasn’t the best time either. Comedians tend to be very depressive people.” If her childhood was unsettled, she matured into a thoroughly rebellious teenager. She was expelled from numerous schools, indulged in drug use and embarked on a dark and potentially destructive period, which was to culminate in Lily selling ecstacy in Ibiza at the tender age of 15. “I wasn’t a really well-behaved teenager,” she says matter-of-factly. “I was probably quite an angry teen, I’d expect. I was angry with myself — and kind of destroying myself in a lot of ways. You know, through going out and taking lots of drugs and just generally causing havoc. I think I gave myself a bad name rather than pissing anyone else off, if you know what I mean.”
The Sun certainly does, running a story last week about Allen’s 2003 stay in the Priory rehab clinic. To show how genuinely concerned they are about her health, the paper printed an accompanying photo of the then 18-year-old flashing her breasts in a London nightclub. In the long run, however, Lily has made it all grist to her songwriting mill. Her unhappy childhood and teenage years are referenced at various points throughout Alright, Still. On ‘Alfie’ – an ode to her weed-smoking younger brother – she humorously urges him not to make the same mistakes as her.
“Although Alfie’s a stoner,” she interjects, “and I was always more of a Class A person. Not that weed shouldn’t be a Class A drug, especially skunk. It’s a terrible thing for young teenagers, but I’m not really allowed to talk about Alfie because he gets upset with me.” Sounds like a severe case of sibling rivalry. “It’s not so much him disliking the song as not wanting to be reminded of my success,” explains his big sis. “It’s that thought of, ‘If she’s doing really well then I must be doing really shit’. It probably isn’t great for your own self-esteem or confidence.”
It is, however, on the mellow break-up song ‘Littlest Things’ that Allen gets most emotional about her past. “It’s my ‘Dry Your Eyes’,” she smiles. “My childhood wasn’t by any means the worst in the world, but I never really had a chance to talk about it with anyone. About the bad bits I mean. I never felt that I had that many people to talk to. I was kind of a loner and never had constant best friends throughout my life. So that lyric (in ‘Littlest Things’) is a reference to finally trusting someone.”
As it transpires, Allen’s first boyfriend Lester Lloyd — the subject of the song — hails from Dunboyne, County Meath. As if to complete some kind of odd musical circle, he’s a brother of David Kitt’s wife Poppy Lloyd — a “mental but really lovely girl,” says Lily. Among other things, Allen credits Poppy with introducing her to the Sultans Of Ping. Poppy’s parents, meanwhile, look after Allen’s dog Stella and, for better or worse, he’s also the subject of her number 1 single, ‘Smile’.
“He lives in Dunboyne, but I lived in Leixlip for about a year and a half,” she explains. “My mom was doing a film in Ireland called Hear My Song. I was really young, like six or seven at the time. Weirdly enough, he was in the same school as me in Leixlip, but we didn’t meet again until something like eight or nine years later, which was a mad coincidence.” One of the things that stayed with her from that first relationship was the sense of family closeness that existed between her boyfriend and his parents. For someone raised largely by nannies, this felt completely alien.
“I remember when I got together with my first boyfriend and I went back to his house in Ireland and sat around a dinner table with his family and had dinner. And it was the first time that I’d ever sat around a table as a family and eaten a meal. And I burst into tears. I was like, I just couldn’t handle it. It was something I’d never seen before. Also seeing his parents cuddling on the sofa was something completely foreign to me.”
She says the warm feelings she has about Ireland are genuine and enduring.“I really love Ireland. My mom did another film there called Rat a couple of years ago and it was really nice to be back for a while. I like it because when you live in London, it takes so long to get into the country — whereas when you live in Dublin it’s like 20 minutes. Even the city is so beautiful it feels like you’re out in the country when you’re in the city for some reason.”
One Irishman she’s not fond of, however, is Bob Geldof. There’s a rather indelicate line posted by Lily on her MySpace site, that runs simply: ‘Bob Geldof is a cunt’. Tell me what that bit of common abuse is all about! “No!” she giggles. If there’s anything specific behind it, she isn’t saying. And the crimes against humanity that she does cite by way of background don’t exactly amount to a hill of beans.“I don’t want to say why because you’ll probably all hate me in Ireland,” she laughs again. “People always ask me about him and, I don’t know, but he’s just the kind of a person that I don’t really like. You know he’s so self-important and takes himself a little bit too seriously. I think he sold the TV rights for Live 8 to the BBC for millions of pounds, through his own TV production company, and he doesn’t really publicise that fact. He doesn’t really publicise that he’s got a two-million quid house in Battersea and all that. I’m just not a fan at all.”
She may be several million places behind Sir Bob in The Sunday Times ‘Rich List’, but Allen has been similarly criticised for downplaying her affluent background and — call the Class Police! — affecting a ‘mockney’ accent. “All that stuff’s silly. I grew up in London, not Washington, so I’m going to sing in an English accent. Anyway, the over-the-top mockney stuff I do is impressions of other people I see around me. Class doesn’t matter,” she expands, “unless you’re completely sheltered from the outside world, and not many people are. I live in a nice Georgian house in Islington, which is on the same road as a really scummy estate full of crack addicts and not very nice things going on. And those people walk past my house every day and break into my mom’s car and rob the radio, you know what I mean. So it’s not me saying that I come from that place, but that I live in London and not all of them are middle-class chicks. They’re all different, so why would I only talk about myself?”
The fact that Allen doesn’t gloss over the seamier side of London life puts her in a different bracket to your average Top 10-inhabiting pop star. “The days of Rachel Stevens and Duncan from Blue are over, thank God! Because kids have access to such good music through the internet, they’re starting to be into much better things. I’m not the only person to be opinionated and I think there’s a lot more to come. With so much in the world to be angry and talk about, why would you go, ‘Oh baby you drive me crazy/I love you will you be my lady’?” A surefire Westlife hit if ever we’ve heard one!
For the moment, however, Allen herself has no plans to use her status as a pop star within the political arena. “I don’t feel well educated enough to stand up there and make points because they could well be wrong,” she admits. But the woman who wonderfully rhymes ‘Kate Moss’ with ‘weight loss’ over the jaunty and inestimably groovy ‘60s beat of ‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’ does have a definite plan as to how she might utilise her growing fame for the common good.
“A lot of young girls are kind of seeing me as a role model at the moment,” she avers, “and so what’s important to me is to use the attention I’m getting in a way to make young girls feel more comfortable about themselves and their physical appearance. Because I think that the number of eating disorders and stuff in this country at the moment is something that’s really disgusting. So that’s something I’d like to address, rather than trying to say anything overtly political. But that may change. You’ll just have to wait and see!”
With an over-zealous radio reporter banging on the door, our interview time is coming to an end. I decide to press her once more on her father’s contacts. Surely she must have been interested in some of his Madchester associates? “Well, now you mention it, those are the only contacts that came in handy. New Order and the Mondays are all good friends of my old man and because I recorded a lot of the album in Manchester I ended up staying with Bez when I was up there.
“That was pretty mental,” she smiles, her eyes widening. “He actually left me for a night to look after his kids, just said ‘take them to school and pack their lunches and that, and I’ll be back tomorrow’. Needless to say, of course, I didn’t see him for a week! Madness.”
© Steve Cummins. All rights reserved.
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