The British pop star’s been through the wringer since the very start of her career. Now she’s taking back control of her story.
Lily Allen knows what you think about her. The British tabloids will have you believe she’s an unfit mother, a partier, a bad wife, an addict, a “nip-slipper,” a flop, a has-been. They’ve been at her since the beginning, and they show no signs of letting up.
“I feel like I’m under attack all of the time,” she sings on “Come On Then,” a wounds-opened-wide opus that launches her new album No Shame. “Yeah, I’m a bad mother / I’m a bad wife / You saw it on the socials, you read it online,” she adds. “What you say is so far from the truth.”
“That’s why it’s called No Shame,” Allen says, sitting cross-legged in the air-conditioned lobby bar of the Bowery Hotel in late April. The album, a tightly-plotted, brutally honest 14-song effort out June 8 via Warner Bros. Records, is her chance to own that “shame.” “I’ve been photographed onstage and my boob’s fallen out, and they will always frame it as ‘Lily Suffers Embarrassing Nip Slip.’ It’s just like, ‘Hang on a second.’ Embarrassment is a feeling, and the only person that can tell you whether something is embarrassing or not is me. Stop owning my feelings and presenting that as fact.”
No Shame certainly lives up to that sentiment, more stream-of-consciousness soul-baring and narrative-controlling than conventional pop record. It’s Allen’s opportunity to grab her story back from those who’ve tried to own it. “You can come back at me with whatever,” she says of those entities, her gaze growing steely. “That’s more about you. I’m very clear on the fact that there is no shame. I’m not coming out and saying, ‘Fuck you for writing this,’ but I’m just being like, ‘This is my truth and if you’re interested then here it is. If you’re not, keep reading the tabloids.’ In an ideal world, the Daily Mail would write about what a brilliant mother I am. But it’s not going to happen.”
It’s not Allen’s first attempt to reclaim the narrative. She notably tried it four years ago on Sheezus, her third album, a critical and commercial disappointment. On the pounding lead single “Hard Out Here,” she sings lines like “If I told you ’bout my sex life, you’d call me a slut” and “There’s a glass ceilin’ to break / Uh-huh, there’s money to make” and “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? / Have you thought about your butt? / Who’s gonna tear it in two?” It critiques a million different things at once, masked in snark and sneers. And it’s good pop, too, with a music video that puts Allen under the knife in order for her to meet unrealistic modern beauty standards.
But the “Hard Out Here” video caught heat almost instantly, and not for the reasons Allen hoped. Critics called it racist for its depiction of women of color shaking their asses in what the singer says she meant as a “feminist statement,” a reclamation of the sort of depiction of women you’d expect to see from a male gaze. But a backlash is a backlash, and Allen—who originally stood by the video—apologized for it. ““I was guilty of appropriating when I did a video called ‘Hard Out Here,’” she told the BBC in an interview two years ago. “I was guilty of assuming that there was a one-size-fits-all where feminism is concerned.”
“With Sheezus, I just suddenly lost agency,” she says of the album’s reception. “I just was like, ‘What have I done?’ I’d made a record for the record company and for everybody else and for what people’s expectations of me as a person were. Everyone thinks Lily Allen is this brash, bold, funny person. It was all just a bit of a facade, and bravado. And I couldn’t sell it.” She laughs. “It’s the truth!”
Hence No Shame, an album meant to please no one but herself. “This record I can sell,” she says. “And I’m sure it will be a commercial disaster.”
Lily Allen’s music has proven inescapable for the last 12 years, give or take an album. You know “Smile,” a bouncy spark plug of a single that sounds as fresh today as it did on its release in 2006, the sort of shelf-life most pop stars can’t even imagine. You also probably know a sizable chunk of her self-assured debut album Alright, Still, a 12-year-old, 12-song collection that’s as lyrically resonant and melodically current as anything popping off on Spotify right now.
You’ve surely heard “The Fear,” or “Fuck You,” just two of the many neatly-packaged, sharply written songs from her sophomore follow-up, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. Perhaps that’s where you start to lose the thread of Allen’s narrative, so hang on tight as we catch you up to speed. In 2011, the pop star gave birth to her first daughter. Two years later, she gave birth to her second. Then 2014 brought us Sheezus, Allen’s glossy, shoot-for-the-rafters album that’s brimming with songs that could’ve been hits had they been properly marketed—think “Hard Out Here,” or the hiccuping floor-filling “L8 CMMR,” or “URL Badman,” a takedown of fuckboi/hypebeast culture.
By all accounts, Sheezus should’ve been a success. Instead, critics used the album as a whetting stone and plunged their knives in accordingly. “[It] has a few good points and some admirable intentions, but too often it misses the point,” Pitchfork wrote in its middling 5.4 review of the record. “Lily Allen’s ‘Sheezus’ Is a Tepid Mess of Bitch Bombs and Botched Satire” SPIN declared.
“The last album was a mess because I forgot what I was doing,” Allen says bluntly. “With the first two albums and with my social media, I’ve always been very open about who I am,” she adds. “I had been able to lead that narrative. [With Sheezus] I didn’t really know what I wanted to do except for: be really successful and be played on the radio. So I worked with Greg Kurstin, who makes pop hits. I was just lost.”
She also let the outside in. “I listened to people,” she says. “I had never done that before. I always knew what I wanted to do and it all came from me. And on the third album it didn’t. It came from other places. Then in turn I felt lost. That’s when the alcohol started to become a problem.”
Much of No Shame tackles the hardest shit life can throw at you. It’s an exercise in pairing radio-friendly tunes, your “uppers”—the “til death to us part” rebound-banger “Pushing Up The Daisies,” the springy decidedly feminist “Cake” (sample lyric: “Eventually you’ll get a piece of that patriarchy pie”)—with songs about cheating and rebounding and forgotten nights, your “downers”—the slurred twinkle of “Everything To Feel Something,” the innocuously titled “Apples,” a soft-spoken number about the dissolution of her marriage, complete with a knife-in-heart chorus about her parents’ divorce: “I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Really, though, No Shame allows the singer to be open about her problem with alcohol. Allen is… well, maybe not happy to look back on what got her here, but certainly ready to have the conversation. It’s something she’s thought a lot about over the last four years. Backstage during the Sheezus tour in 2014, the singer realized she had what she calls “an alcohol dependency.”
“My drummer came into my dressing room and he put his drink on the table,” she says. “My typical is vodka and soda water. I would drink a lot of vodka soda. I had put like, that much vodka”—she spreads her thumb and pointer fingers far apart here—”and [just] a bit of soda,” she says, pinching those fingers until they nearly touch. “[My drummer] put his water down next to mine, and I couldn’t tell the difference between the two drinks.”
Her tone is matter-of-fact, now, but she’s speaking quietly. “It had become that bad. He was like, ‘Oh, which one’s mine?’ And I was like, ‘I… don’t know.” It was that moment that I was like, ‘This is… this is a problem.’ Because I never really had been a drinker before. I always had been a drug taker, and the drinking was an accessory to doing drugs. I realized, ‘Oh, fuck, I haven’t taken any drugs for ages, but I’m drinking a lot.’ I was drinking a bottle of Grey Goose a day. It was really bad.”
Allen says she’d start drinking early in the morning during that period of her life. “Especially if I was doing promo, like getting myself into work mode for photoshoots. That was what would get me most.” She was drinking so heavily in part, she says, because she was promoting an album she wasn’t particularly proud of. “And part of it was… I was really heavy after I gave birth to Marnie, my youngest, and I lost a lot of weight,” she says. “I was down to, like, eight-stone from 14, which is a lot, you know. I was trying to meet the beauty standards and wasn’t eating and I felt very insecure about the way that I looked. So being in front of the camera in front of different photographers every day of the week, my confidence was gone.”
As her drinking continued at a heavy clip, Allen looked around and saw everything around her starting to crumble, including her marriage. “I started to just lose everything that was valuable to me in my life,” she says, snuffing a nervous laugh with her hand. “I lost my house and my kids started to feel really distant and I broke up with my husband and started to realize [drinking like I was] probably wasn’t working.”
So she stopped drinking and committed herself to six months of complete sobriety. She attended 90 dependency meetings in 90 days. “I fell off that wagon, but [it made me discover] that I’ve always been a big self-medicator,” she says. “Now knowing that, if I’m not feeling 100, I just stay away from drugs and alcohol, basically.”
It’s a difficult road, of course, especially for a celebrity and pop star who makes most of her income on the road, bouncing from club to club for performances across the world to promote a new album, but she’s become more mindful of the triggers. “I hadn’t had a drink for ages,” she says, “but then last night when I came offstage, I was feeling pretty damn good, so I felt confident to have a couple of drinks, you know? It’s when I start to drink to get rid of sadness—that’s the problem.”
As any good songwriter would, she turned the experience into a No Shame standout moment. It’s called “Everything To Feel Something,” and it is arguably the rawest moment on an album filled with open wounds. “I feel it in my gut / I’m gonna let you fuck me / I know I’m being used / I’m just another thing to do,” she sings as a piano flutters just under the track. “Sex, alcohol, and drugs / It’s a long way off amazing / But I can’t ever see it changing / I can’t tell you what I do it for / Nothing really moves me anymore.”
There’s also No Shame‘s first single “Trigger Bang.” The song’s piano-driven melody only slightly veils its candid lyricism. “And it fuels my addictions / Hanging out in this whirlwind / If you cool my ambitions / I’m gonna cut you out,” she sings in the lead-up to the song’s chorus, itself wrapped in M.I.A.-indebted, gun-cocking sound effects that belie its meaning: “That’s why I can’t hang with the cool gang / Everyone’s a trigger bang, bang, bang, bang.”
And that’s all before any of Allen’s verses on the song kick in. “Anything went, I was famous / I would wake up next to strangers / Everyone knows what cocaine does / Numbing the pain when the shame comes,” she sings on the first proper verse. It’s a lead single about fondness for the good old days while grappling with the knowledge that your nostalgia is clouded because those “good old days” were fueled by substance abuse.
The thing about blunt, fuck-all-else honesty in mainstream pop music is that, more often than not, Spotify listeners clicking through curated playlists aren’t frequently looking to hear about songs about divorce, or abandonment, or alcoholism. And if they are, they probably want it neater and glossier than Allen is willing to offer. “I don’t make any money from streaming at all,” she says, shrugging. But success isn’t what she’s after this go-around.
That’s not to say she doesn’t have ideas on how to market No Shame, but Allen says she’s feeling pushback already. “It’s frustrating because I think that they don’t listen to me because I’m a girl,” she says. “And I don’t work in marketing and those ideas have to come from the men that work in digital marketing agencies for them to have confidence and give money to it. They’re just interested in budgets for their departments and everything coming in under budget and them keeping their jobs. They’re not interested in me or my longevity.”
“I don’t know,” she says, repeating the phrase several times in a row. “It feels… it feels good being able to just own it. I want to just write my authentic self and that’s my priority.”
There are two right ways to experience No Shame properly. The first is alone, in your headphones, letting the lyrics soak in as deeply as they deserve to. Do that first. Then, if at all possible, go see Lily Allen do this album live, because No Shame totally and unequivocally bangs when given some honest-to-god breathing room. The songs unfold and expand. They sound fuller and sharper all at once.
It’s the night before our interview, and Allen is headlining a sold-out album preview show at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg. It’s her first show in the U.S. since the Sheezus tour wrapped its stateside leg in the fall of 2014. Her set is dominated by No Shame songs, with several old favorites sprinkled in. Nothing from Sheezusmakes the cut.
Allen introduces “Family Man” as “another song about the breakdown of my marriage.” She stands and sways in place as she sings, shrinking in size, one hand in her pocket, eyes on the ground. It’s a far cry from the commanding stage presence she’s shown throughout the rest of the concert. The audience stands in place too, hushed, soaking up the lyrics like mice would crumbs from under the table. “I don’t like most people / But I’m scared, not evil / Everyday has its challenges / I just never know what day it is,” she sings.
“So that finished, along with half my house and money” she says of her marriage after the applause dies down. There’s laughter, but it’s reverential in a way. We’re laughing because she seems to have run the race and come out the other side alright. We’re laughing because we’re hopeful we could do the same if the universe decided to pick us up and wring us out like wet laundry when we least expected it.
The next afternoon, she says, “What’s so great about shows like last night is when you’re playing music that people haven’t heard before and you can [hear] a penny’s dropping. That’s so rewarding because it makes me feel like less of a freak. Like, ‘Oh great, people get it.’ That’s all I want, really, is validation. (I want) people to say, ‘Yeah, you’re not weird.'”
“I remember when I first started,” she says, “I had this rule that nobody was allowed to introduce me on stage because I was so terrified of people booing me. I kind of still have that a little bit, you know?” She looks up from her sneakers. “This time round, I’ve said to my PR people, ‘Look, I just want the music to get out there, and if people really love the music and they want to put me on the magazine cover then that’s great. But it has to be because of the music. It has to be validation for the music. If the music’s not good enough, then I shouldn’t be on the cover of magazines. If it comes, then it comes.”
She adds: “And if it doesn’t, then better luck next time,” noting that, after No Shame, she only owes her label one more album.