Lily Allen

Lily Allen's debut album, Alright Still, is none too deep; she's only 21, and her lyrics highlight that, with their focus on clubbing, smug attitudes toward rivals and ex-boyfriends, and her amused superiority over members of her family. But Alright Still is an almost irresistible album, a bouncy, summery, infectious collection of hard-to-shake earworms. Allen was a hit in her native England before she even had an album out; the tracks she posted to her hugely popular MySpace page attracted a whirlwind of attention, including positive press reviews and BBC Radio play, and when Alright, Still came out in July 2006, it rocketed to the top of UK sales charts, with her single "Smile" eventually reaching number one. The American version took nearly a year to arrive, but Allen recently launched her first U.S. tour in support of the CD's U.S. release. Just before appearing on Saturday Night Live, she took time to speak with The A.V. Club about her methods, her madness, and her feelings on women in rock.

The A.V. Club: How literal or autobiographical are your songs? When you're singing about a relationship or a breakup or a night at a club, are you remembering one specific one, or capturing a more general feeling?

Lily Allen: No, all of my songs are about me and my experiences. They're very literal.

AVC: They tend to have a very sunny, upbeat attitude about everything from dead relationships to little old ladies getting mugged. Are you that optimistic yourself?

LA: I think of myself as quite a confused kind of person, because I think there's so many great things about the world, but there are so many awful things too. I feel very guilty a lot of the time about enjoying my life so much when there are people living in such misery. And I guess that kind of comes out in my record, you know? A bit confused.

AVC: What's your songwriting process like?

LA: It kind of varies with the different people that I'm working with, but most of the time… I only ever write in the studio when I'm actually there laying a track down. I'm not one of those people who has notebooks and stuff, who writes loads of stuff before, in preparation. I kind of need to be inspired by the music coming out in the session. And then I'll kind of write my lyrics, in kind of a monotone way with no melody attached. Once I have the flow of the lyrics, then I'll stand in front of the microphone and ad-lib my melodies.

AVC: Do you write the tunes, or do those come out of collaborations too?

LA: I usually take in a bunch of records and kind of listen to old stuff and become inspired by other people's music, or try to sample stuff or rewrite stuff that's similar. It's kind of a group process; if I could do it on my own then I would. But I need the help of my production team.

AVC: There are a lot of different musical influences, themes, and styles on the album. Does that come out of working with a lot of different people?

LA: I've always listened to music, since I was really, really young. My mom had a massive record collection—she still does. I guess it kind of came from there, and from my dad and my dad's friends. I was at Glastonbury Festival for the first time when I was five weeks old, and I probably used to go to four or five music festivals every summer. I go and check out bands that I want to see, and I'm a record collector as well. I'd spend all my pocket money on vinyl.

AVC: How about the production side? How much are you involved in the actual production of a track?

LA: Not too much, to be honest. I mean, it depends—there are so many different uses for the word "production" these days. [Laughs.] Some of the big-name producers that I've worked with, they don't have any musical input to a track; they just get two songs, and sample bits, and put one on top of the other. Whereas other producers I've worked with have written every note from scratch. It depends on what you mean by production, really. I have a little input here and there. I play a bit on the keyboard, and I'm learning guitar now. So it's getting to be more and more, but probably at the beginning, not so much.

AVC: What's been your most rewarding collaboration so far?

LA: I love my boys Future Cut from Manchester, but I think most inspiring for me was working with Greg Kurstin from Los Angeles, just because he's an amazing musician. Everything he does is completely from scratch, and he's just a very talented guy.

AVC: Who would you like to work with in the future? Who's on your dream list?

LA: I don't know; I don't really have a dream list. I'd really like to work with someone like Randy Newman or Burt Bacharach or something. Someone more from the old school.

AVC: At the beginning of the video for "LDN," you walk into a record store and go through this lengthy, awkward process of asking for something that's sort of drum-and-bass, but brokebeat, but dubby, but soulful. And the clerks look at you like you're nuts. Is there a joke there about the difficulty of describing your own music accurately?

LA: No, the joke is more about record shops, I think. [Laughs.] I don't know, when I started buying records, I was really intimidated by… People who are record collectors and DJs kind of fall into their type of music by the scene they're accepted by. Well, I don't know how it works over here, but definitely in England, that's how it works. I think it can be quite intimidating, walking into a record shop if you don't know what you're looking for. I think that was kind of taking the piss out of record shops, in a way, because actually, it's a perfectly all-right question to ask, asking for something you don't really know about. But they'll kind of look at you as if you're an idiot. It isn't really fair, because I was just curious.

AVC: You worked at a record store yourself as well. Did you have other jobs before becoming a musician?

LA: Yeah, I was a florist. I went to floristry school. I worked in various bars and restaurants for a while; that didn't go particularly well. I worked for TV production companies as a runner or the receptionist. Yeah, I've done lots of different things.

AVC: You were kicked out of 13 schools, and you dropped out at 15. How did that happen?

LA: What do you mean?

AVC: You've said in interviews that education "just didn't work" for you. What about it didn't work?

LA: It wasn't so much that it didn't work for me—it was that I didn't see the point. Not really. I think that education works up to a certain point, but I didn't really… I think unless I wanted to be like a nurse, or a doctor, or something that required that kind of knowledge, then education is fine. But I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I didn't see the point in spending seven more years of my life studying something. And I don't think you can know what you want to do at that age. And I knew I wanted to do something artistic. And I thought if I went and studied film, or music in depth, or art, once you finish your degree in that subject, you only have to start in the same place as somebody that hasn't got a degree does anyway. Sort of like in film, once you leave university, you have to start as a runner for a film-production company for two years before you get a decent job. It doesn't matter if you have a degree or not, so I just didn't see the point.

AVC: Do you think there are ways to improve the school system so it'd be more relevant or useful?

LA: Yeah, there probably are, but it's not my job to do that. [Laughs.] I wouldn't want to comment on what those ways are. I think that people have gotten a little bit too comfortable. I think the world has changed so much, and the education system hasn't in a long time. I think it's kind of a little bit of an old-school way of teaching. Yet the world doesn't work in the same way that it did, you know?

AVC: What about your musical education? Where did that come from, primarily?

LA: I studied voice when I was at school, and I was in the chamber choir, and I studied music theory as well, so I guess a lot of it came from being taught at school. But I definitely wasn't taught about jazz music. Actually, I was—I used to study jazz improvisation, but I wasn't really taught about the things that interest me now.

AVC: When people write about you, they inevitably mention all the other musicians or journalists you've dissed or argued with publicly. Who's tops on your annoyance list right now?

LA: No one. It doesn't really work like that. When I've slagged people off, it's been in answer to a question. It's not like I walk into interviews and go "I hate Madonna!" {Laughs.] They'll say something about her, and I'll react to it. I'm not media-trained, so I'm not good at keeping my mouth shut in those situations.

AVC: You've complained about how you've been portrayed in the press at times, especially in NME. Is there some specific image of you that you want people to get instead?

LA: No, not particularly. I just don't really like the way that they have portrayed me. I don't really like the way that journalism works in the UK anyway; it's all about getting the most shocking thing out of somebody and kind of twisting people's words, which isn't really journalism, as far as I'm concerned. If you're a good journalist, you'll be able to get an interesting story and do it the right way. And if you're not, then you should fuck off. [Laughs.] Don't be a journalist.

AVC: A lot of musicians say, "I never read reviews, I never read my press, it's not important." But you clearly do read your press and interact with the people who write it, especially online. Is there any particular reason?

LA: I think people probably lie about not reading their own reviews. I don't think that's true—I've been to a lot of music festivals and hung out backstage, especially in the past couple of years, and I see all these bands reading about themselves in newspapers. So I don't think that's true. I think people just probably don't want people to think that they're vain. But you know, I'm curious. If I've sat through an interview that's taken an hour out of my life, I'm curious to see what people are going to think I said. Plus, Google makes it so easy. [Laughs.]

AVC: In the same way, you interact with your fans online, you chat with your detractors—is there a reason you're so involved in the Internet as a community?

LA: I guess because I'm not at home to interact with my friends and my family. You know, being on the road, the Internet enables me to interact with people in some way. It's not so much interacting with my fans—it's about doing something with what I have. I have my camera and I have my computer, and if I have some spare time, rather than watching some mindless bullshit pop-idol program on TV, why not show people my pictures and try and discuss things that I feel are important?

AVC: You made an end-run around the studio process by releasing tracks to MySpace and building a name on your own. Did you have a plan when you started out?

LA: No, not at all. I think I just set up the MySpace because everyone else was doing MySpace at the time. Everyone in my age group was getting online in that way. Actually, at first, I just set up a personal one. After a few days of looking around, I realized, "Oh, wait, if you're a musician, you can have your own music page." I thought, "Hey, that's pretty cool." So I cancelled my personal account and set up a music account. That's how my story started, really.

AVC: You've talked a lot about way women in rock tend to get patronized as "the female version of this male artist," instead of being written up for themselves. And you took on NME over a comment about how you can rock "even in stilettos." Why do you think there's so much of a problem finding positive ways to talk about female musicians?

LA: I don't know. I'm really saddened by the whole situation. It makes me really, really angry. I think that there's a view of… I think that as long as women are parading around on television, taking their clothes off to sell records, then guys will be able to take the piss out of us. That's what it comes down to. I have a little brother, Alfie, and he has a very poor view of women, and I think the only explanation… He's got three incredibly strong women surrounding him in his home life, yet he's so affected by the stuff he sees in the media and the way women are portrayed. And I think until TV programmers are more responsible about putting these slutty women on TV dancing around, that's the view that kids are going to have. Ultimately, that's my only explanation.

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