Lily Allen is apologetic—kind of.
“I’m sorry,” Allen says, doing her best Dowager Countess impersonation. “I invented being a snarky bitch on the Internet, and I feel responsible for it.”
Quite a lot’s happened since the pop chanteuse, with her contradictory blend of airy, delicate vocals and caustic chav persona, burst onto the scene in the mid-aughts. It was a time when Lady Gaga was an NYU brunette, and Justin Bieber hadn’t sprouted his first pube yet. A time when Lana Del Rey cranked out granola acoustic ditties under the pseudonym “May Jailer,” and a Pink Polo/mini-Louis Vuitton backpack was Kanye West’s ensemble of choice.
The year was 2006 and Allen, like her fellow UK countrymen Arctic Monkeys, was borne in the freaky fires of MySpace. Her debut album, Alright, Still, released when she was just 21, sold over 6 million copies worldwide on the strength of catchy hits like “Smile” and “LDN,” and vaulted her to pop’s A-list.
But Allen has, the occasional mean-spirited tabloid item notwithstanding, been largely off-grid since her 2009 sophomore effort It’s Not Me, It’s You, which failed to catch on stateside.
“I fell in love,” she says of the hiatus. “My husband is a builder and doesn’t have the kind of job where he can fly around the world with his pop star girlfriend, so I decided that I wanted to give that relationship a go, and—hey presto!—I got married and had two babies. It was a good move.”
She's speaking with me from a room at The Plaza in Manhattan, where she’s prepping for the Met Ball later that evening. Allen, now 29, is in the throes of promoting her long-gestating third album, Sheezus—a collection of vibrant pop confections showcasing her trademark brand of quick-witted puns and dulcet croons, dripping with insouciance.
“The inspiration behind it? There wasn’t one, really,” says Allen with a chuckle. “My albums are never ‘concept albums.’ They’re just silly songs about stuff. Sure, it’s an ode to Yeezus, I love Kanye and think he’s amazing, and because I’d been away for a while there was a resurrection element to it. I was really trying to push for the album to be released on Easter Sunday, but that didn’t happen…But it’s just a funny joke!”
Much ink has been spilled over the title track, whose chorus pokes fun at some of the biggest pop divas of the day.
“Ri-Ri isn’t scared of Katy Perry’s roaring / Queen B’s going back to the drawing / Lorde smells blood, yeah, she’s about to slay you / Kid ain’t one to fuck with when she’s only on her debut.”
But Allen thinks people are reading too much into it. “When I’m in the studio writing songs, I’m not really thinking about how it’s going to be perceived on the blogosphere. I’m just entertaining myself,” she says. “In all honesty, most of my songs start off with me thinking of one rhyme, and then trying to contextualize that rhyme. So I knew I’d call my album Sheezus, so what rhymes with Sheezus? Divas! So who are the divas? Katy Perry’s roaring rhymes with… Beyoncé’s drawing… and so on. It’s about trying to find the verse that makes sense with the chorus, not to make a statement about women in music.”
She adds, “I can’t be bothered with being a bitch anymore.”
The singer has, it seems, turned over a new leaf. After a dark period in 2008 that included a miscarriage and subsequent psychiatric stay, Allen met Sam Cooper, a builder, in July 2009. Around that time, she announced that she was taking an indefinite break from music-making to focus on her relationship, and building a family.
But she didn’t entirely quit. During the interim period, Allen wrote the music to a theater musical version of Bridget Jones’s Diary that’s yet to see the light of day.
“I wrote the whole thing!” she exclaims. “What was really amazing about it was that each character in Bridget Jones is of a different age, so I chose a different musical style that represented the era of each character. The mum had a Very Lynn old-school vibe; Daniel had a faux Rolling Stones sound; Bridget had a mix of stuff that was a bit Sade-ish, a bit Janet Kay. I don’t know if it’s happening, though…you’ll have to ask Helen Fielding.”
After Allen suffered a stillbirth in November 2010, she and Cooper got engaged that Christmas and were married the following June, when the singer was several months pregnant. She gave birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Ethel Mary, in November 2011.
But her baby suffered from a severe case of laryngomalacia—a throat condition—and was subjected to a trio of operations.
“My eldest child wasn’t very well when she was born, so it was very tough emotionally, and physically,” says Allen. “She had to be tube-fed until she was 7 months old. Once she got better, I was exhausted but relieved that she was okay, and felt like I needed to do something for a few hours a day to reclaim my life a little bit and reconnect with myself.”
So, Allen began writing music again as a “creative outlet.” The writing occurred in mid-to-late 2012, including a two-week session with her longtime producer, Greg Kurstin. But she pumped the brakes when she found out she was pregnant with her second daughter.
“I kept writing throughout my pregnancy but none of it was very good, so it wasn’t until my second was born and I stopped breastfeeding that I started to become me again, and the songs became better,” says Allen. “With the hormone imbalance, you just become so disconnected; it’s like being on a permanent period.”
In addition to music writing, another way Allen passed the time while pregnant was watching her younger brother, Alfie Allen, on the HBO series Game of Thrones. Allen plays Theon Greyjoy, the ex-hostage of House Stark who was brutally castrated by the sadistic Ramsay Snow.
“It’s really awful, isn’t it?” she says of Alfie’s torture. “It’s difficult for me to watch him like that because I’m his big sister, and the idea of him being in that position in real life…I just want to save him. But when it’s over, I realize that he’s just Alfie and he’s fine.”
Alfie, of course, was the subject of the tune “Alfie” off Allen’s debut LP. The song painted her adolescent younger brother as a listless stoner who refused to leave his bedroom—and it’s one of the only songs that Allen wishes she could erase from the airwaves.
“If I could take back that song I would because it’s not representative of who he is at all now, and he’s felt so stigmatized because of it, so I wish I hadn’t done it,” says Allen. “He’s Alfie and he’s fantastic, and there’s this fucking annoying song that’s floating around.”
One thing Allen won’t apologize for is her recent music video for the first single off Sheezus, “Hard Out Here,” which recently attracted the ire of the Twitterati. In the video, a satire of contemporary music video tropes, Allen is seen dressed provocatively and strutting her stuff in front of a group of (mostly black) backup dancers who twerk on fancy cars and pour champagne on their sizeable derrieres.
Allen’s parody video had reactionary sites like Jezebel crying foul, accusing her of “racism” for “denigrating…the black female dancers she deliberately surrounds herself with from start to finish.”
The video caused such a stir that Lena Dunham rose to Allen’s defense on Twitter:
“I’ve got mad respect for Lena and think she’s amazing. I love Girls and I love Tiny Furniture as well, which I watched with my mum before Girls was even a thing,” Allen says. “I have no problem with people taking their clothes off and being sexy—Rihanna did it in ‘Pour it Up.’ What I have a problem with is men telling women that that’s how they should present themselves. I’ve done many a sexy photo shoot and enjoy it, and when I go to the club I do sexy dancing in very little clothes. But a magazine recently said, ‘We’ll only put you on the cover if you do it in your underwear,’ and I said, ‘Fuck off! That’s not happening.’”
She pauses. “It’s crazy…It’s hard out here for a bitch, I’m telling you!”