Lily Allen: ‘We need to fight back against these forces’

The pop provocateur is back with her fourth album. Here she discusses recent bumps in the road and answers questions from our readers, and famous fans including David Lammy and Jeremy Corbyn

Though Lily Allen – singer, songwriter, pop star, provocateur – is never far from the headlines (one tweet, one photo, one rumour away), the news that buzzes around her is not always of her own making. The most recent Lily hoo-ha is a yarn about her supposedly having had aeroplane sex with Liam Gallagher.

“I mean, I haven’t said one thing [to suggest that]. I literally have never said anything,” she points out. “Nine years ago, they first tried to print this story, and I didn’t say anything then. And now Nicole Appleton, bless her, she’s reacted to it [Appleton tweeted: One day our paths will cross @lilyallen!]. So that’s made it seem real. Now my Twitter feed is: ‘Oh, stupid attention seeker, she just wants another minute in the limelight.’ But I literally haven’t said anything. I haven’t even liked a tweet. Nothing.”

She laughs. Allen laughs a lot: her mood is cheerful. She’s just finished having her photo taken and her hair is pink, in little knots. This, combined with her pristine grey sweats, dangling gold jewellery and devastating nails, makes her look like a fairy-cum-hood-rat: “That’s me!” She’s very happy to answer my questions from famous fans and readers, friendly or not; her replies are thoughtful, interspersed with the odd insane cackle.

Her new album, No Shame, is a mixture too. “Half Keane, half Beenie Man,” she says. There are swooshy ballads alongside minimal dance beats, cameos from rapper Giggs, UK dancehall queen Lady Chann and Nigerian Afrobeat singer Burna Boy, songwriting and production from Mark Ronson, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, Fryars. The lyrics document her recent life, beginning with her difficulties with high-octane partying (Trigger Bang), taking in the break-up of her marriage (What You Waiting For?), her kids (Three is written from one of her daughters’ point of view – and perhaps her own, when she was young), her new love with Dan London, AKA grime artist Meridian Dan (Pushing Up Daisies), and finishing with the upbeat, defiant Cake.

Themes? The difficulty of relationships, from social to romantic; how to find happiness; what family means; and men v women, in the sense that there are things that men are free to do that women aren’t. So, Family Man examines the “what happens on tour stays on tour” cliche; Cake argues that women should go out and get their “piece of patriarchy pie”.

Allen took her time with the album, which she began in 2014, immediately after finishing the American tour of Sheezus, her third LP. Her marriage to Sam Cooper (they have two daughters, Ethel, six, and Marnie, five) was failing (they finally divorced in 2016); plus there was the lingering grief around the 2010 stillbirth of her son, George. Added to this, she was being stalked by a mentally ill man, Alex Gray, who believed he had written one of her songs. This came to a head in 2016, when Gray broke into her flat while she was sleeping, pulled off her duvet and threatened her.

“I can’t stress how much it affected me,” she says. “After he broke in, I became completely isolated from my entire social group, and my family. I was too scared to go to any public events, because of course people would know that I was there. And I’d just split up from my husband, so I was really very, very alone. I was legitimately terrified. I just stayed at home, for about two-and-a-half years. I went to the studio and that was it. It’s only really since I’ve started to do promo for No Shame that I’ve started to leave the house.”

She gets “the odd letter” from the Home Office, informing her that Gray remains in a psychiatric facility. “But there will come a point when he’s not any more. And unless he takes his medication, I’m not safe.”

The first single from No Shame, Trigger Bang, seemingly a regretful song about mad socialising, is actually partly about that time: “When big, traumatic events like that happen and you’re hanging out in really shallow, hollow environments, it’s like… I love these people, and I love this world, and I love this job, but it just seems so stupid compared to how I feel.”

Lily Allen meets a 13-year-old boy from Afghanistan during her visit to the Calais refugee camp in October 2016.
Lily Allen meets a 13-year-old boy from Afghanistan during her visit to the Calais refugee camp in October 2016. Photograph: BBC/Victoria Derbyshire/PA

No wonder she seems a little different to when I first met her, in 2006, right at the beginning of her pop career. Allen is still defiant, unpredictable, charismatic and funny – but she knows how serious life can get, and she is more serious because of it. After the break-in, she moved flats and spent the next couple of years travelling between recording studio (in east London) and home. Her relationship with Dan London was in its early stages, and, through working on music, she became friends with his friends – “this group of boys, rappers mainly. They gave me a lot of confidence.”

“They’re some of the loveliest, most loyal people I’ve ever met,” she says. “So protective. They were like: ‘You’re good at writing words and making music, so do that!’ They had a different perspective, like: ‘Why do you want to go to the Glamour awards anyway? Why don’t you stay here and make some tunes with us?’”

Previously, Allen had felt she needed to attend high-profile parties or endorse brands in order to keep her pop-star status high. But she made a move away from the public eye, apart from the occasional deliberately news-worthy foray, such as her visit to the refugee camps in Calais, or when she took on the authorities around the Grenfell fire, insisting that more people died than was being acknowledged.

Not a completely quiet life, then… but quieter. Last year she revealed she’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; she tells me she takes antidepressants, does yoga (“I need more of that”), and tries to practise transcendental meditation. “I’d do more of that too, but the kids come into my room early, before I can get 25 minutes in.” She’s not drinking at the moment, either.

“I’m always going to have an addictive personality,” she says. “I’m just going to have to make sure that the things I’m addicted to aren’t detrimental to me. So if I’m drawing, making music, that’s OK. My biggest vice now is tweeting on my phone. For some reason I think it’s less bad for me than cocaine, but it’s probably just as damaging.”

During her stay-at-home years, she also wrote her autobiography, which is due out in the autumn. Unfortunately, she couldn’t recall much of her early life. “I thought I would remember more than I did!” she says. “I was a handbag kid, so I don’t think I was in one place for long enough to take in my surroundings. I like to travel. I come from a travelling family. My grandad was a submariner, my mum’s dad was in the navy. Even my mum [Alison Owen], she’s a film producer, so she’d always be off to America for three months, and the same with my dad [actor Keith Allen]. It was always like: ‘Right, we’re going to live in a hotel here for a bit.’ That’s what Alfie [her actor brother] does, and that’s what my job is as well.”

There was a time when Allen seemed unsure of what her job actually was…

“Yes, this is my job,” she says. “I’m not good at many things. But I really like songwriting and I get a good reaction from it. There’s not much that I do that causes a good reaction, so it feels like if I want to have good things happen, then I should do the things I’m good at. I mean, in all seriousness, I left school at 15, I’m unqualified to do anything else. And writing music is important for me, because I’m not very good at articulating myself in real‑life relationships. I’m very easily distracted, so I find myself veering off and doing something else. Sometimes, writing songs forces me to look at a situation and give it a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Nice to have you back, Lily. No more staying at home, Netflix-and-chilling.

“Oh, I still do that!” she says. “While tweeting racists.”

Famous fans’ questions

Sara Quin.

All the greats of my generation seem to have struggled to manage their personal and public dramas while also maintaining careers. I’ve always wondered if you’re as prone to controversy as it looks from the outside, or if that is just part of a larger narrative of sexism in the industry?

Sara from Tegan and Sara
Canadian indie pop band
I would say that it’s part of a larger thing. I recently had to check information to do with the phone-hacking scandal, and so I had to revisit all of the tabloid coverage from when things started for me. There were four massive files. And I was looking at the early stuff [critical articles], and I thought: “Fucking hell, what was your problem? I was 21.” It felt so pointed and unnecessary. None of the stuff that I was saying or doing was so far out there, it really wasn’t that out of the ordinary, but it was presented [by the tabloids] in such a way that I do think it was rooted in sexism. And a lot of that early stuff was lifted directly from my Myspace blog, and then regurgitated in a way that bore very little relevance to what it was that I was trying to articulate. They didn’t want a young woman expressing herself, talking about things other people seemed to identify with. And what they did worked. I stopped talking in that way and started talking in other areas.

Jeremy Corbyn

It seems to me the more successful you’ve been with your art, the more political you’ve become. Was there a specific moment you decided to use your position to make a change?

Jeremy Corbyn
MP; Labour leader
Yes, actually. When George died, my baby [he was stillborn when Allen was six months pregnant in 2010]. That was the first time that something really, really traumatic happened to me. I’d had these amazing highs, and I had this horrible low, and I was left with a feeling of: I’m lucky to have Sam [Cooper, her former husband] and to have people around me to help me through. And also that there were lots of people out there who go through shit all the time, these traumatic experiences are being lived by people up and down this country, and all over the world. So if there’s anything I can do to help those people, use this platform to help them, then I’ll do it. That’s what going to Calais was about. That’s what me doing the Observer article after the stalking was about, and a little bit about what my book is about, and what this album is about. So, yes, I think that losing the baby was a trauma which led me to… My whole outlook on everything changed after that.

Emily Eavis

You arrived at Glastonbury a couple of weeks early in 2015. None of us knew you were here until I had a phone call about your caravan setting on fire. Have your eyelashes recovered?

Emily Eavis
Co-organiser of the Glastonbury festival
Yes, my eyelashes have grown back. It was an old 70s caravan, and I’d just bought it, and I’d taken it down there to get my space and set up my camp, alone. I was backstage at the Park stage. And I went into Street to go and load up on supplies from Tesco. When I came back in, I was like: “Ooh, I’ll have a bacon sandwich.” And the gas hob must have been on and had gone out, but I hadn’t realised. I went to draw a match to light it and the whole thing just blew up. It literally ejected me out of the caravan… it blew me out of the kitchen, out the door, it was the loudest bang, and somebody came running from down the hill, they were like, “What the fuck happened?” All the hair on my arms was gone. I couldn’t believe that the hair on my head survived! But my eyelashes, yes, they went. What’s so bleak about it is it was me there, on my own, three weeks before Glastonbury started.

Carole Cadwalladr

You’ve tweeted photographs from Evgeny Lebedev’s party of Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch, on the weekend after the EU referendum. What was going on there?

Carole Cadwalladr
Observer investigative journalist
What was going on there? Everyone will say I’m a nutter conspiracy theorist, but I think they were all having a meeting before the party even started. I got there 20 minutes early, and it was Evgeny Lebedev, Rupert Murdoch, Nigel Farage, Liam Fox, Sarah Sands. Those people were arguably the five highest-powered people going. And those kind of people usually turn up towards the end of the party, they’re not there at the beginning… I think a lot of these parties like Met Gala, Amfar – all of these high-powered parties and galas with political figures – are just covers for meetings, because then they don’t have to be on record, because they’re attending a party. They can go to a hotel room and do their dodgy deals off the record.

David Lammy

We met in North Kensington in the aftermath of Grenfell. What role do musicians, actors, athletes and other cultural figures have in protesting against injustices?

David Lammy
Labour MP for Tottenham

I think it’s each to their own, for a start. But throughout modern history, big political, cultural movements have started in music. From John Lennon and Yoko Ono, to Andy Warhol, to the Clash and the Sex Pistols and Rock Against Racism, and ska music… these movements started in music and led a national narrative, and things changed as a result. I do think that that’s not really happening any more, and I am concerned about that. And I think there’s a reason for it: people are intimidated by the backlash. I was reading an article on MIA the other day and she said she feels like she’s made an example of, to tell other pop stars how not to behave. I feel a degree of that. It’s definitely better for your career not to talk about these things… 100%!

Miranda Sawyer (interjecting): And why do you think people want you to be quiet?

People like Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch are so insistent on diminishing or humiliating celebrities because ultimately they know how much power they have. Why else would you just constantly try to demean a whole group of people, unless you felt threatened by them? That’s their MO, you know? And in this age, where people feel that they can’t trust the media, they don’t trust politicians… people always trust artists because they connect to them. That’s what art is. So I think that there is a role [for artists], and I think that people should be empowered by that role, and not be so scared. Because if everybody came together to fight these forces, then maybe we could stop this fascist regime we’re living under. In all seriousness, that’s what’s happening, isn’t it? I mean, sending British citizens “back” to the Commonwealth. It’s fucking disgusting. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this populism and the rise of the far right is happening in this age of the internet. Tabloids feel like they’re losing their power, and the tech companies seem to have taken over that power. But people with a voice within those tech platforms feel like they can’t talk, because they’re so terrified of the backlash. But the backlash isn’t fucking real, that’s the thing. It’s all bots, like, Cambridge Analytica-style bots. I know, because I get loads of them, so I know which ones are real and which ones aren’t. And the majority of them aren’t.

MS: How do you know when they’re not real?

Because they’ve got stupid numbers after their names. And you can tell by the language.

MS: Do you ever feel that it’s better to shut the laptop and walk away?

Yes. And I do sometimes. Generally, I speak up when I think that there’s a reason to speak up, you know? And a lot of the time, like with the misogynist stuff, I just feel like, “Well, if somebody was to say that in a pub to a woman, would I stand for it?” No. So of course I respond to it. Because by not doing it, I feel like I’m saying it’s OK. And that’s not really a world that I want my kids to inhabit.

Reni Eddo-Lodge

What have you learned from the Hard Out Here music video debacle [the 2013 video’s use of twerking black backing dancers was criticised for stereotyping. After initially defending the video, Allen apologised for cultural appropriation]?

Reni Eddo-Lodge
I learned to listen, and I learned to think a bit more, to take responsibility. I don’t think I would make a similar video now. Not because I think that it was wrong, but because I don’t really feel in a satirical mood at the moment. It felt right at the time.

MS: Can you understand why people were upset?

Yes, completely. I don’t think there are rights and wrongs really, in that video. I think that everybody perceives things in completely different ways, and as long as you are willing to engage in conversation and to learn… I learned to try and look at things from as many different perspectives as possible before putting shit out there. It was ignorant in lots of ways, but at the time I was only looking at it from my perspective, you know? I wasn’t trying to tell anybody else’s story, I was trying to tell my story. In retrospect, it felt like at that moment, we were at the beginning of a wave of something, and now that conversation has gone further. Yes.

Two years ago, we worked together to raise awareness of stalking. In the light of that campaign and the #MeToo movement, what do you think it will take for the political establishment to take violence against women and girls seriously?

Sophie Walker
Leader of Women’s Equality party
Wow, that’s a big, heavy one. In all seriousness, what would it take? I don’t know. Because you would think that Rotherham and Rochdale and things like that would have woken people up, but it hasn’t.

Elizabeth Wurtzel

I admire you so much, I’m curious if you believe #MeToo will turn into real change. I mean, we’ve got some men fired, but will it be good for women?

Elizabeth Wurtzel
I think we’re at the beginning of it. A little bit like what I just said about the Hard Out Here video [that it was at the start of a new outlook]. You know, this wave of feminism, the #MeToo thing is a conversation that’s started. I hope it will come to fruition. I think we need people to start to go to jail and the police to start acting on things. At least get them to court. That would be nice.

Caroline Criado-Perez

In my early 20s, I, like many women, silently endured my unfair share of disappointing sex with men. So I was delighted when you released Not Fair. It felt like it was calling out all those men down the years who seemed to never have heard of the clitoris. Do you think it’s important for you as a female songwriter to articulate a specifically female perspective in your songs?

Caroline Criado Perez
Activist, feminist campaigner
Yes, although actually on this album it’s more about muddying all of those lines. I think we’re living in the age of the individual, aren’t we? And trying to get to a point where everybody feels that they can express themselves and be who they are without judgment and fear. And that’s something I try and work into my lyrics, for sure.

Readers’ questions

I’m looking forward to hearing all your collaborations – Giggs, Burna Boy, Lady Chann. Is there any artist with whom you’ve always wanted to collaborate and have not yet got?

Darcy, Melbourne, Australia
No, actually. I don’t have dream collaborations. The only people I want to work with are people who I enjoy working with. There’s not a dream because I don’t know what it would be like to work with Madonna or… I just want people who are nice, that I like, that like me – that feels like a good environment to be working in. And those three people who are featured on this album, they tick all of those boxes. It was really natural, not forced in any way.

Giggs is my friend, and Lady Chann lives around the corner, and she was like: “What are you doing this afternoon?” I said: “Oh, I’m in the studio, come by.” Burna Boy was the same, but over Twitter. He followed me from Nigeria, and I was like: “Oh, when you’re in London, come to the studio, I’d love to meet you.” And that’s what happened. He came over, and smoked some weed… And Bob’s your uncle.

What do you think is your best song?

David Harrison, Newcastle upon Tyne
I really like a song off my second album called Him, which is about what God would be like if he was a person. And off this album, I think maybe Apples. Because it’s… good!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Fi McKenzie, Melbourne, Australia
Probably being interviewed by Miranda Sawyer, again… it’s pretty much once a decade. I don’t know… my kids will be 15 and 16, so I’ll probably be out there beating up [their] boyfriends or girlfriends.

Do you have any intention to work with Calvin Harris, because you would fit in a genre like deep house/EDM.

Ricardo Ros, Barquisimeto, Venezuela
Hmm… I don’t have any plans to work with Calvin Harris. Getting myself a Las Vegas residency would be all right. But no, house music is not my genre. I’m really into words.

Lily Allen photographed in London.
Lily Allen photographed in London. Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Observer

Is it possible to even earn a living in music any more?

Raphael Pour-Hashemi, London
No… Well, yes, it is. It depends on what level you’re talking about. I had hits at the beginning and that’s when I earned some money. But I think that the people who have smash hits now don’t really make money from that, they make money from brand partnerships. And that’s all done within the record company. Most artists are on sort of, like, 360 deals. You’re not going to go stratospheric from being independent. Especially now that the majors are negotiating favourable royalties on Spotify. It’s not that major-label artists will get more money, but if you’re signed to a label you’ll get more plays, which means you’ll get more branding endorsements. Record labels will always take the money. And independent people will make money, but they’ll only ever get a small amount of plays – you won’t ever be as big as Ed Sheeran or Dua Lipa as an independent artist.

Who would you say is your main inspiration?

Haemodroid, posted online
My life. In all seriousness, I am my main inspiration. Sorry.

What’s the starting point when you write a song – music or lyrics?

Eleanor, Tufnell Park, London
It depends what you mean by music or lyrics. Because sometimes it’s a word that starts me off, and sometimes it’s the melody. I always just stand in front of a microphone and make stuff up, but sometimes I’ll have a sentence that I might speak into the microphone and then I’ll write the melody later. Or sometimes I’ll just sing a melody with no words. So, either/or. The most exciting part is when it all just falls out of your mouth. It’s so satisfying.

If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you’d done?

@Grey_Wolf_1, via Twitter
Hmm… I don’t know, actually. Speeding? It’s not going to be robbing. They’d probably think that maybe I’d got in a fight with someone. Breach of the peace.

How did you stop smoking?

Chio Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Oh, God. I had a cigarette this morning. It’s been like five months, though. Um… hypnosis was how I stopped.

Does your brother hold any resentment for that song depicting him as a little monster?

Rob, Brighton
Er, yes [laughs]. If I wasn’t bound by the contract, I could talk about it. There’s a family contract that I’ve agreed to that means I literally can’t talk about it. Has he got payback? That’s also covered by the contract. I’m saying nothing.

I follow you on Twitter and I’m astonished by the amount of vitriol and abuse you get on there. If it was me, I’d just delete my account. How do you manage to get back on there every day, and why?

Pollytechnic, online
Well... a) Social media, what it’s for, is to partake in conversations. Just because my conversations are amplified or misconstrued, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be able to express myself, and that’s what we’re talking about, really, freedom of expression. b) Every marketing budget now takes social media engagement into account. So if I didn’t tweet and I didn’t do Instagram I wouldn’t be here right now – we literally wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Lily Allen with her brother Alfie and father Keith go-karting in Clapham, London, 1994.
Lily Allen with her brother Alfie and father Keith go-karting in Clapham, London, 1994. Photograph: Rex

People are still under the illusion that every woman who’s successful owes it to a man, and the boss. Can you honestly say that you are your own boss? What gender is the boss of your record label, and what gender is your manager?

Germanlady1, online
Well, I’m self-employed and CEO of my company, so I guess I am my own boss. The record label owns the copyright on my music, and yes, the head of that company is a man. I don’t answer to them. I have a female manager and a male manager, both of them are employed by me, so I am their boss.

What do people misunderstand most about you?

Mike Jarrey, Ghent
I think they think I argue all the time. I mean, I definitely opine and I like to talk, but I don’t think I’m a particularly argumentative person. I stand up for myself. And I stand up for others when I think that people are taking the piss out of them. But I think that a lot of what people know about me doesn’t come from me, it comes from really old white men who run newspapers.

Do you acknowledge that accusing the government of lying over the death figures in the Grenfell disaster is an example of fake news?

Mark Lovell, Düsseldorf
No, I don’t! Do you acknowledge that the official police figures and fake news might not be separate things? I don’t know exactly how many people died, but I know what the general consensus in the community is, and that is that more people than have been accounted for died in Grenfell.

How many refugees have you taken in?

Alison Jolsen
None. To be honest, I don’t think social services would let me take in any refugees with my reputation. If I had a really big house I would, but all my bedrooms are occupied with children.

Is it true that after Harry Enfield met you, he wrote his character Kevin the Teenager?

No, it was my sister [Sarah]! But me and Alfie are Lulu and Harry.

What do you consider to be the best thing you’ve done?

Conrad, Kent
Well, I’m pretty good at making children. And Victoria sponges. I came second in the local village cake-baking competition on the weekend of William and Kate’s wedding. Mine wasn’t marriage-themed, that’s why I only came second. It was a far superior cake to what came first, but theirs had little toy soldiers and royal icing. Meh.

Sophie Walker


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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