“I try to keep an open mind,” Lily Allen croons on “Come On Then,” the opening number of her fourth album, No Shame. “I feel like I’m under attack all of the time.” The album, written in her London studio over several years, is the singer’s most personal, revealing an intense struggle with depression that came from her recent divorce from Sam Cooper and a terrifying intrusion from a stalker. She worked with several producers and collaborators, but No Shame is largely Allen’s creation, one that finally allowed her to claim control over her career. It follows her 2014 effort Sheezus, a commercially successful album that earned mixed reviews. We spoke with the singer in London about creating No Shame, her disillusionment with record labels and why sexism continues to linger in the music industry.
How long ago did you begin working on your new songs?
End of 2015. So, quite a while.
Can you hear the long span of time you spent writing in the music?
Yeah, for sure. And “Family Man” is where it started. I hadn’t broken up with my husband at that point and I was obviously quite hopeful about where our relationship might go and it didn’t go that way. Then, you know, I get more suicidal as the album goes on and then start to feel a bit better towards the end. So, it’s a bit accurate.
It it purposeful the way the album begins with “Come On Then”?
Yeah. I think so. It’s like chaos, you know? That’s where I was when it started. When I set out to write this record the biggest theme from the last four years of my life has definitely been the breakdown of my marriage and that happened possibly because of the chaos that was around at that time. There are lots of different factors that contributed to that chaos, the press being one thing, but [this song is] a little bit playing with “Is it really the press’ intrusion and their take on the narrative of my life, or is it real?” Not really being able to differentiate. It is a weird one because actually before me and Sam’s marriage broke down people were already talking about our marriage breaking down long before there were any problems. And it almost became self perpetuating.
Is “Cake” an intentional punctuation mark on the album?
Oh, I think it was just like, “Oh, my God, everything I’m writing is depressing.” There must be a positive song in here somewhere. I remember writing that and calling Seb [Chew] and being like, “I’m being slightly optimistic.” And him being like, “Phew. OK.” It was a relief to get that one out.
Was it hard for you to be optimistic?
Yeah. Because I’d been really fucking depressed for the past few years, so yeah. I mean, it was a relief, not because of it being good for the album, but personally. It’s just like, “Oh, I haven’t written something that makes me want to slit my wrists. It must mean that the light at the end of the tunnel is making itself apparent or the horizon is getting closer or whatever.”
Has the light appeared?
Yeah, I definitely feel brighter. The black dog’s going off somewhere.
How do these new songs feel live?
Doing stuff live hasn’t always felt great to me. It’s always felt a little bit like going through the motions and a little bit of a disconnect, but this last run of shows has felt really good and like a challenge, but a good challenge and rewarding. And, you know, I remember, in previous tours I’ve numbered one to 20 – or however many songs you’re doing – but then on the other side of the page it would go 20 to one so that I would be able to count down how many songs until I was off stage. That’s how much I wasn’t enjoying it, whereas now I’m like, “Oh, God, it’s going to end.” So, it’s good.
You weren’t enjoying touring?
I haven’t … in the past, yeah.
Was there a point in the past where you did enjoy it?
Right at the beginning.
Well, I think [it’s] because I didn’t really get to build my live show and develop things. My success was pretty overnight. So, it was just like I was 19 and someone just ushered me into a rehearsal room and was like, “Here’s your band and this is what we do. It’s five session musicians and they replay your music in a live capacity and you go out and sing songs.” … And you know, none of my music has ever been written with live instruments. It’s always been written on a computer. So, the idea that you’re paying these five people that don’t really give a fuck about you or your music to re-create it in some noodle-y way that bears no relevance? I don’t know. It all just felt like a bit like painting by numbers, whereas the live shows that go with the record have been very considered and built from scratch. It’s my show. It’s like a whole new chapter.
How do you feel about Sheezus now?
I just prefer not to talk about it.
Yeah. It’s just a really bad period of time in my life, you know? I didn’t like who I was then. I was writing music for the wrong reasons. Or not the wrong reasons, but just reasons that didn’t sit well with me and I didn’t know who I was. I was having an identity crisis and for the first time in my professional career I’d sort of let other people make decisions for me, which I’d never done before. Nobody was manipulating me or trying to push me in a certain way. It’s just I didn’t know what to do, so I was asking people for the first time, rather than knowing and then executing. And it was a mess.
Do you feel like you know what to do now?
Not 100 percent, but [I’m] definitely in a better place. I know what I don’t want. And also I think that I’ve just like come to the realization that you don’t really have any control over this stuff. Like, once you put it out there it’s out of your hands. If you’re trying to do things in an honest way, anyway. And the only thing that you have control over is your creative output. So, if you put your everything into that then it doesn’t really matter how well or how badly things go. Because I know that what I’ve done is the best thing that I can do. And it’s the only way that I can leave my kids for long periods of time without feeling horrendously guilty. I think that was the hard thing with Sheezus, not being married to it and being really worn out and waking up on a tour bus in the middle of Wisconsin, drunk out of my head and depressed and not even really making any money and just being like, “Why am I not with my kids? Like, what is this?”
Where does the title of No Shame come into play?
Well, there’s the obvious thing, which is that I’m talking about some things that people might assume that one would be ashamed of. … As a woman and as a mother, as a young mother, I felt guilty about being successful. And I think it’s as much about that as it is about not being ashamed of taking all the drugs and that stuff.
Where does that like sense of guilt come from do you think?
The patriarchy. I think ever since I started doing well commercially, it’s always been like, “Oh, well, you’re only where you are because of your dad and it must be because of Mark Ronson and Greg Kurstin that you do well.” It’s just everyone apart from me is responsible for the songs that I’ve written selling millions around the world. And I think the way that like the tabloids dealt with me over the years. Every time they print a shitty picture of you, it’s like, “Oh, you know, she should be ashamed of herself because she hasn’t worn high heels and put loads of makeup on.” That’s essentially what they’re saying when they take a bad picture of us. Like, “How dare you leave the house without having your hair blow-dried?” It’s constant and it’s not something that men have to contend with in any way. I remember once being driven home from a party by Chris Martin in America and there’s a picture of both of us in the front of this car and it was like “Lily Allen, married mother of two seen here without husband being driven home by Chris Martin.” It’s like, also, “Father of two without wife.”
“Every time they print a shitty picture of you, it’s like, ‘Oh, you know, she should be ashamed of herself because she hasn’t worn high heels and put loads of makeup on.'”
Have you thought at all about why the Time’s Up movement seems to have not totally made it into the music industry?
Yes. Yes, I have. I mean, I think the contracts for a start and the fact that most artists are in five-album-long, six-album-long deals. It’s 15 years. I think there’s that. I think that it’s relatively small, the music industry, actually, in terms of how many labels there are, how many management companies there are, how many lawyers companies there are. And how in close proximity all of those different bodies are. So if you have a problem with somebody the likelihood [is high] that that is going to get filtered along the line somewhere or come back to harm you or impact your career negatively. And also, I think because so much of music is around alcohol, from the studio to the live experience. It’s like there’s alcohol and drugs everywhere. So, there’s less accountability on both parts.
Do you think the music industry is still trying to sell you with sex?
No. I think they’ve given up. But it’s disheartening when you spend three years writing something that you think is really brilliant and they want to pour all of the money into somebody that’s never written anything in their lives before and has had no commercial success but is spiking on social media because they’re getting their tits out and wearing lots of makeup.
At this point, how are you feeling about the music industry overall?
I can’t really talk about it. I mean, I can talk about it, but I can’t engage with it in the way that I used to. I just, as I said before, I don’t feel like I have any control over it. I’m really not willing to play the game in terms of like ass-kissing and making myself available to those people. That all I have control over is my creative output and if the music’s good enough, then people will want to come to my live shows and that’s all I really care about.
In your ideal dream world, how would you release your music?
Just all at once. I’d just drop a whole album.
Has anyone ever asked you to be less forthcoming on social media?
No. Because I fired them all.
Do you think about the stuff you say before you post it or are you just sort of speaking?
I’m just speaking. That’s what it’s for, isn’t for?
Do you ever worry about being seen as too political?
No. I think I’ve gone past that point. The thing is that I’m actually not that political. I talk about politics, but I think because it’s in contrast to what most other people in music are willing to talk about – the media tend to like to put people into boxes, don’t they? So, it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s the political one.’
Have you ever regretted something you’ve said or written?
Yeah. I have. I think, actually, when the ‘Hard Out Here’ video came out and my initial defensiveness. I regret that.
And now you’re feeling good about where you are musically and with what you’re putting into the world?
I do. I just feel like I’m at a point now where I’m just like happy with where I exist and I don’t feel like I’m chasing after something that I don’t really care about anyway. All I ever really wanted was to be taken seriously and now I’ve made the music that I think fits that.