Lily Allen's been in the news a lot lately. Competing articles about the pop songstress attempt to out-muscle each other with eye-grabbing headlines about sex with female prostitutes or mile high club encounters with fellow rock stars. Allen, who visits Houston's House of Blues this Saturday, has openly written about these and other sensational aspects of her life in her new memoir, My Thoughts Exactly. She’s addressed the unraveling of her marriage on her heartbreaking but exceptional and award-nominated album No Shame.
It appears Allen’s never shied away from a tough question; but, when I speak with her by phone ahead of this weekend’s show, I purposely try to ask about the most mundane, least scandalous thing she’s not yet revealed about herself.
“What do people not know about me guys? I’m with two friends in the car,” she says, and there’s a lightness in her voice as she chats casually with her pals. Something inaudible is said that elicits laughter and she returns with, “I don’t know,…I like baths? And scented candles.”
There’s more laughter now and I regretfully inform her that the world already knows this from a bit she did for Sali Hughes’ “In the Bathroom” video series.
“Then somebody knows it already!” she replies. “Okay, so then, I make a really good omelet.”
Everyone knows you can’t make one of those without breaking a few eggs. We circle back to the tumultuous years surrounding her tour for 2014’s Sheezus album, years where her marriage succumbed to the pressures of a demanding career and being a young mother and wife. Allen shines a light on it all over the bulk of 14 tracks on No Shame. I ask if it wasn’t exhausting to have to revisit those moments in song, and then keep revisiting them as she performs them for audiences.
“It’s interesting you say that because people often assume that the more personal and honest things are the more difficult it is, but I feel completely the opposite. If I feel something then it’s generally a lot easier for me to write from that perspective,” Allen explained. “I’ve always just written about what I feel, you know. I guess the first couple of albums feel more like sort of uplifting and carefree because I was 19 when I wrote my first records. I didn’t really have any responsibilities, you know, I didn’t have as much to worry about.
“As you say, when you take all of the records into account and there’s like this sort of arc there, it is a life story because that’s what I write about, is my experiences,” she continued. “It’s funny. I love writing songs, there’s nothing better creatively for tackling subjects. That’s what’s so rewarding about songwriting for me is that I try and process what’s going on in my life through the medium of music. And, I find it a lot easier to do that than I do with human interaction, you know? Music is my sort of best friend, in that sense, and that’s how I kind of process things. But no, it doesn’t feel hard and it doesn’t take it out of me, in fact it’s quite the opposite. It feels like a relief when I can figure something out in music.”
“Like, there’s a song on the record called ‘Apples,’ and I remember when I finished that song, not only do I love the song musically but it felt like I’d kind of got somewhere with that story,” she said, commenting on the therapeutic role songwriting plays in her life. “When I finished that, and then it sort of looping back ‘round to my parents’ relationship and linking into the dissolution of my marriage, it feels amazing being able to have something that lasts three-and-a-half minutes that explains it all, you know?”
“Apples” is the second of a trio of songs sequenced together on No Shame, sandwiched between “Family Man” and “Three.” They come right in the middle of the album, centered like the beating heart of this body of work. They’re quiet reflections on family and relationships. Sparse instrumentals allow Allen's voice to be heard clearly as she confronts her recent difficulties with a mix of some remorse, some defiance and, of course, no shame.
“The album starts off with ‘Come on Then.’ I think it’s funny starting it with that one because it’s a bit misleading in the sense that it opens up with this sort of chaos and quite typical ‘me’ type lyrics in the sense that I’m angry and berating people about fame and privacy intrusion, you know what I mean, that kind of stuff. But then once we get past that the album opens up and turns into something completely different.”
It’s not that different from what we’ve come to expect from Allen, which is unflinching honesty on record and in the press. I ask about her book and she says it took two years to write, two years of Thursdays set aside to recall wild stories about seeking the comfort of female escorts while lonely on the road and in the throes of depression over her spiraling marriage. There’s a bit about her and Oasis’ Liam Gallagher hooking up on a plane years ago while he was a married man. She reveals her own #MeToo moment in the book and recounts being violated by an unnamed record industry executive. That leads us to some discussion on the patriarchy’s push back against women like her who are unafraid to speak their truth.
“I guess in the years since my career started I always felt like this sort of second wave of feminism was on a good trajectory and I guess that Trump and Kavanaugh compromised that,” she said, noting she followed the recent Supreme Court drama here in the States. “I just hope that we can get back on course to where we were rather than having to reel things back again. Yeah, you know, I’d like my children to grow up to be equal to their male counterparts, but at the moment it’s looking a little bit precarious, which is obviously hugely concerning.”
She’s got two daughters and I note they’ll surely benefit from her example, the way lots of her fans have. I explain I’ve seen my own daughter, who grew up listening to Allen’s work, come into her own as a feminist, thanks at least in part to the art and actions of artists like her. She doesn’t exactly bristle at the notion of being a role model, but seems to consider it an odd side effect of simply being truthful with herself.
“I haven’t got much self-esteem so I kind of forget that people even listen to my music. I’m always quite sort of shocked when I walk out onstage and people are there to watch the show,” she says with a chuckle. “I read responses and stuff, like to the book and my record, and people will quite often say 'Your music’s really helped me or makes me feel empowered.' Those things are really nice to hear but there’s just something about my personality that doesn’t take it all on board. I think I find it quite intimidating, maybe.
“In order to keep the honesty and integrity within the lyrics I kind of have to separate myself from the fans and everything in order to deliver that in a good way,” she explains. “I think if I thought about how people were going to receive things then I would write things very differently. So, I think in order to keep things feeling honest and real then I can’t really take all of the other stuff on board.”
I tell her we’re excited to hear the new songs live and ask about her stop in Austin at ACL Music Festival this weekend. That’s when I learn something else about her, something far less salacious than the admissions of her bestselling book but far more important to a true Texan. Lily Allen loves tacos.
“I’ve not played Austin City Limits before but I’ve always wanted to, it’s been on my bucket list so I’m super excited to play there,” she said. “I think we’re passing through Dallas as well. I went to see Drake play there like four years ago and there’s this place called Fuel City Tacos, which is like a taco spot, like a petrol place, like a gas station and I’m super excited about revisiting there.”
Lily Allen performs Saturday, October 13 at Houston House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors at 7 p.m., all ages, $34.50.
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