Lily Allen’s upcoming LP Sheezus (in stores May 6th) is the British pop star’s first new album in four years, and there were times during the hiatus when she was tempted to walk away from her career. “After I met my husband I just wanted to take time to get to know him better,” she says as she puffs on an e-cigarette in the lobby of a posh downtown New York hotel. “It was a nice rest, though it wasn’t really restful because I had two kids. But I found myself at home with two human beings that couldn’t talk or respond. I wanted to get out of the house for a few hours a day and engage with people.”
Allen reconnected with Greg Kurstin — the producer behind her first two albums — and they slowly began work on a what became Sheezus. The whole process took two years. We spoke with Allen about returning to pop, the stress of living under never-ending tabloid scrutiny, why she wants to leave the major label system and her hopes of finally having an American hit.
I thought you were going to change your name back to Lily Cooper. What happened?
Well, my name is Lily Cooper on my passport and stuff. I wanted to come back as Lily Cooper, but the label just weren’t having it. They were like, “No, you’re Lily Allen.”
Did that piss you off?
It kind of did. But there was so much anxiety associated with coming back. I’m also so terrified of failure. They freaked me out and convinced me that it could be a massive contributing factor to my failure, so I was like, “okay.”
What would you consider failure at this point in your career?
People throwing bottles of me when I go onstage. [Laughs] I guess it would be the album not selling and every reviewer saying it was the worst thing they ever heard. That would be a failure to me.
You spent two years on this album. That’s much longer than usual I imagine.
Yeah, but there was a whole pregnancy and a child in the middle of it. I started when my oldest child was seven months old and I wrote through a lot of my pregnancy with the second one. Nothing really came of that, though, since my hormones were all over the place.
“Silver Spoon” is a pretty bold song. You pretty much take on every single myth about you, from having rich parents to sleeping with executives in order to get signed.
People are just so judgmental and convinced they know exactly who I am. They come to their own conclusions and their mind won’t be changed. That’s the world we live in. I always kind of try to look at people and see the best in them and give them a chance.
But people that are probably less fortunate look at me and think, “Well, she’s got everything. She’s had everything. It’s been handed to her on a silver plate.” It’s just not true. I’ve been through some really, really awful things that other people haven’t been through. We’re all human beings and life is not fucking fair.
I guess people get an image of celebrities in their heads and it’s hard to get them to shake it.
Yeah. It’s like, “You’ve never met me. What are you talking about?” I also think it’s because both my parents work in the entertainment business. Literally, everyone thinks I’ve been driving around in limos since I was five. It’s not true.
My dad’s been in four indie films and a few commercials. He’s got thirteen children. The money doesn’t spread that far. [Laughs] My mom is the daughter of a primary school teacher from Portsmouth. It’s very unglamorous. But now she works in film and he’s an actor, people just assume that I wake up and roll out of bed and onto a red carpet. It isn’t like that.
I think that a lot of people in America don’t understand the tabloid culture in England. It makes what goes on here seem very tame.
It’s really vicious. It’s tough. But on the plus side, I have a really beautiful house and an amazing shoe collection. We all have to suffer shit bits because of our job. That’s what makes them job. That’s why we’re paid for them. And that’s the shit bit of my job.
Do you read online comments in stories about you, or do you find it’s best to just ignore them?
If I put up a video, I’ll read the YouTube comments for 48 hours. It the Daily Mirror online writes something about me, I’ll look at the pictures, but I won’t read the comments. I’ll read the piece that you write, but I won’t read the comments. I mean, honestly, do you comment on articles?
Who the fuck does that? I mean, who’s got the time?
Tell me about the title track to Sheezus.
I wanted the album to be called Sheezus before I had a song with that title. The word inspired the song, and “divas” rhymes with “Sheezus.” I was really working backwards. Then I had to figure out a message. It starts off with me being quite scared about coming back. I’m really a sensitive person, and I take that on.
I don’t like being compared to other people because I’m quite aware that there are people who are far more talented and have better singing voices than me. I don’t like being put in the same category as people because we have the same genitals and boobs. Nobody is going to write “Lily Allen vs. Ed Sheeran.” It just doesn’t happen.
Right, and you always see “Lily Allen vs. Katy Perry” or something.
Because she’s a girl and I’m a girl. That’s it! I think in terms of humanity and evolution. It feels like the reason we play women against each other is because it’s the last bit of power that men have. They’re like, “Let’s make them feel shit about each other.”
You do namecheck Katy Perry in “Sheezus,” along with Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Lorde and many others. I’m sure a lot of people will misinterpret what you say and think you’re taking shots at them.
It’s completely the opposite of that, though. I’m saying that I want all of them to be Sheezus, and I want to be Sheezus too.
I know, but I can still see the headlines of “Lily Allen attacks Lady Gaga.”
It’s just not true. And if she’s not succeeding commercially because she’s standing by what she does as art, then that’s a fucking great thing. That’s to be commended. That’s what makes a martyr. There’s nothing wrong with that.
How has the pop scene changed in the four years that you were away?
Well, it’s tough. I feel very much like I’m not in control of it like I used to be. I used to have my MySpace page and that was almost my A&R resource. I used to put stuff up and gauge the reaction. I feel a little bit more scared this time around since people haven’t heard my music before it comes out.
Before, I had pretty good indicator of what songs people liked. And now people at record companies are terrified of losing their jobs. There’s not that much money around anymore. It’s cutthroat. I feel like I have to be second-guessing everyone all the time. They’re just trying to see out the next six months. I’m thinking about my job in the longterm. That makes it difficult.
You made it clear that you weren’t happy with the label over their choice of singles from your album.
It wasn’t their fault. I would love “Hard Out Here” to have been a single, but you can’t have a song that has the word “bitch” in it 72 times on the radio. It’s just not gonna happen. I would have liked to see “Sheezus” as a single, but it’s not up-tempo enough. It’s also got the word “period” in it, which is really offensive to people, even though half the world has to deal with it once a month.
When I heard that I tried to think of another pop sing in history that talks about periods. I couldn’t think of one.
[Laughs] It’s groundbreaking! I’m proud of that. It’s fucking awesome. I think that “period” is going to be my “surfboard” with Beyoncé. People will wear sweatshirts to my concerts that are just going to say “period.”
Do you think that Kanye West is going to mind that your album title is so similar to his?
No. In fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. He’s, like, a friend of a friend of mine. I said to my friend, “Can you just make sure he knows that it’s a respect thing and not a piss-taker?” The message has been received and sent.
Why do you think that you’ve never really had a big hit in America?
Well, the first record did as well as it could have for a debut from the UK. My second record was high on the charts, but then I got my visa revoked and I couldn’t come here for two and a half years. That meant I couldn’t do any promotion. The other answer might be that none of the songs were good enough. I’d really like to have a hit this time, though.
Why did your visa get revoked?
I actually don’t think that I’m legally allowed to talk about it.
Tell me about the song “URL Badman.” What inspired that?
I wrote that after I put out the video for “Hard Out Here” and everyone said I was racist. I was really alarmed by that reaction. I stand by that video and I know what my intention was and I’m sorry that people interpreted it in a different way. A lot of that negative stuff came from females and the feminist blogger scene. What really pissed me off was the misogynistic, hipster, male bloggers that went after me in a completely different way. And I just thought, “Fuck you, I’m going to write a song about you.”
You talk about how content you are with your life on “Life for Me,” the second-to-last song on the album. Then you wrap it up with “Hard Out Here,” where you just seem miserable.
I like how the record opens with “Sheezus” and ends with “Hard Out Here.” It’s annoying being a woman since everyone pits us against each other. Then you go through the whole journey of my life with the album — almost like in a diary — and at the end it’s like, “Mhmm, still hard out here.”
Do you think your next album will come out faster than this new one?
I just want to get it done as quickly as possible so I can get out of my deal.
How many more albums do you owe?
Two. It might be one and a greatest hits. That’s not because I want off my label. I just want to have more control. I want to put things out in the way that I want. I feel like I know my fanbase better than they know my fanbase. I communicate with them every day. I set it up on MySpace. I saw how it evolved and how it worked. I wish they would let me do it in my way.
Do you want to sign to an indie label?
I have my own label. I don’t know if I’d sign myself. What I’d like to do is team up with a hedge funder and do it that way. They could help me pay to get the record done, and I could just give it away and then go on tour.
People used to go to a Rolling Stones concert and if you were really fucking lucky, they’d play a song that no one had heard before. You don’t have that anymore. Everything is so meticulously thought-out and marked researched. It’s why everything is so fucking boring.
Do you still even remember your MySpace password?
I don’t have any idea what it is.
When was the last time you even logged on?
I don’t know. It was years and years ago. I couldn’t even tell you. I’ve got sort of embroiled in this whole anti-piracy campaign when that guy Bob Lefsetz came after me. He’s such a penis. After that I was like, “Fuck the Internet. Fuck all this shit!” And I actually switched off for six months. I got myself this shitty telephone, like an old Nokia that flipped where you can’t even have pictures in your messages. If i was lost, I’d ask another human being for directions.
When was that?
About four years ago. It was a great experiment. You should do it.
I do feel like Twitter is melting my brain.
What worries me more is Instagram. We’re in the age of the Selfie. It’s just encouraging vanity. It’s not even representative of anything except how you want people to perceive you. Think of when people are partying and having fun. They’re like, “Hey, look at us!” You’re obviously not having that much fun because otherwise you wouldn’t be stopping to document it. It’s stupid.
I hate going to concerts and seeing everyone spend the whole show taking photos on their phone the whole night.
Right. Who is going to go back and look at those photos or videos? Imagine in twenty years, me going to my daughter and saying, “I think I’ve got this twelve-second footage of Beyoncé’s concert from 2005. Let me dig it out.” That’s never going to happen.
If you could push a button and completely rid the world of the Internet, would you push it?
I would. But then again, if it wasn’t there, I might not be here.