Lily Allen: The Sound Of The (Garden) Suburbs

Lily Allen makes urban music with a difference — she’s had a life she can’t complain about. And via MySpace and a daily blog she’s built a global audience overnight

A TINY, PITCH-black basement club in West London is packed with artfully dishevelled girls and boys wearing trilbys. The soundsystem’s so loud it knocks the wind out of you. Wet heat drips off the walls. The place is rammed to the rafters, yet there’s still a huge queue up on the pavement outside.

It’s all a bit strange for the nervous, dark-eyed girl with the white dress and gold chains on stage. It’s only her second gig and her mum’s in the audience. Singing summery calypso-pop songs about muggings, crack whores and boys with small penises in front of our elders would be enough for most of us, but there’s more to factor in for Lily Allen. Expectations of her have gone from nought to 90 virtually overnight. The industry are sensing the Next Big Thing and, even though her record isn’t released for another month, the audience are singing every syllable and seem to relate to the girl in the spotlight like an old friend. Most of them have never met her. Some have even flown from Texas to get here tonight without even the guarantee of a ticket. She’s got every right to be nervous. I’d be bricking it too.

No one sums up the music industry in 2006 better than Lily Even five years ago, anyone young and ambitious would still have to endure the obligatory period of making demos, acquiring managers, hustling for supports slots on the club circuit and relying on word-of-mouth to eventually recruit a following — and, often, locate a record deal. Now virtually all you need is the internet — with the result that new artists are getting younger by the minute (Allen was 20 when she started, just turned 21 last week). Via the double-fronted assault of a MySpace site and a daily blog, she rapidly built a devoted audience. The details of her diary meant a global audience could discover more about her in two days than a year’s worth of printed interviews, and her music site offered the soundtrack. Lily only opened it last December. As of today (May 15), she already has 27,857 friends and her songs have been played a staggering 1,393,764 times.

“God, I sound like such a cunt when I talk about it,” she declares, through a fog of cigarette smoke, in the Jonathan Swift Room of Soho’s Hazlitt Hotel. She’s sitting with her legs tucked up inside another ’50s sundress and enormous gold triangles hang from her ears. She is brilliant company, witty and attractive, with a glint of devilment in her eyes that suggests she doesn’t suffer fools very gladly. She speaks — and swears — in a mix of well-to-do vowels and Cockney glottal-stops. Given she spent her childhood moving between houses in West and North London, and survived two terms at liberal public school Bedales — alma mater of Minnie Driver, Sophie Dahl and Daniel Day-Lewis — until she claims she was kicked out for selling weed, she’s very much a product of her roots.

Amazingly, Lily had already got a record deal when she started her blog and MySpace site. In a pop industry obsessed with “media-training”, their charges to reveal absolutely nothing in interviews, her diary lays every bit of her life before you on a plate. She wouldn’t have it any other way, she says, and she’s not going to change it for anyone. At you can read about her Sky box breaking and not recording The Apprentice, her brother Alfie breaking her laptop during a fight, and how she locked up her rehearsal room in case Babyshambles stole her equipment. “And if I become a big pop star and have a big drugs scandal, I swear it’ll go in too.”

“I never wrote a diary when I was younger ‘cos I didn’t see the point when no one would read it. With a blog, people reply and they tell you what they think. You get people all over the world saying, ‘Your music’s great’ or ‘Thanks for sharing your life with us’, and that’s fucking brilliant. I write back to all of them — apart from the ones who say, ‘Fuck off, you’re a slag.’ I want to delete those messages, but I leave them on, because it makes it more representative, doesn’t it?”

LILY’S POP career started, like most things in her life, unconventionally. She’d snuck away from a family holiday in Ibiza in 2001, got a part-time job in a record shop, and did some singing in clubs on the side. “I was a classic 16-year-old lost in Ibiza not knowing what to do with their life, gurning in a short skirt.” She was asked to do a vocal on a “cheesy house track” by club promoter George Lamb, who later found her selling — and taking — ecstasy and put her on a plane back home. But he called her up two years later, asked why she wasn’t doing anything with her singing, and offered to be her manager.

But Lily liked late-’70s bands like The Specials, Blondie and Squeeze and loved classic hip hop, rather than the “cheesy electro” fashionable in 2003. “I didn’t want to do music like that. I wanted to make music like Althea and Donna, but up-to-date, with modern beats.” She didn’t think she could do dub-influenced music until she heard The Streets’ tales of drinking beer, chasing skirt and smoking fags, which made her realise she could write lyrics about her own life too. And she’s a natural. On her MySpace site, you can hear her affectionately berating a granny on ‘Nan’s A Window Shopper’ (“buying the paper to cut out the coupons/You save 50p, but what do you want with tampons?”); talking about the murky world of prostitution and mugging in the bizarrely upbeat ‘LDN’ (“Sun is in the sky, oh why, oh why, would I want to be anywhere else?”), and giving us a lesson in how to shrug off cheesy chat-up lines in ‘Knock ‘Em Out’ (“I’ve got to go my house is on fire. No, I’ve got herpes. No, syphilis!“)

Lily’s music taste comes, she says, from her parents’ record collections and childhood summers spent at Glastonbury with her father — actor, Britpop hanger-on, Glastonbury mobile karaoke host and professional bon viveur Keith Allen. Some critics have cast her father, unfairly she says, as the chink in Lily’s armour. “I get all messages saying, ‘You slag, you only got where you are because of your dad.’ But if I asked him for anything, I promise you, he’d tell me to fuck off. I was always told as a kid by my dad and my mum” (film producer Alison Owen, who divorced Allen when Lily was four), “‘You’re your own business and you have to make it work. You’re not going to get any handouts. You have to make it your own way’.” They’re close now, despite him having “many, many, children by many different people,” Lily says, witheringly — Allen has seven children by four different mothers — and she has fond memories of the music he introduced her to. He would take her to see buskers in Covent Garden every weekend and family friends like Joe Strummer would play reggae, dub and lovers rock around their Glastonbury campfire. “Having that on loop for four bloody days must have made some kind of impression!”

Indeed it did. After Lily’s manager set her up with the production team Future Cut in Manchester — previously known for their jungle and techno tracks — they went through records she liked with sounds she wanted to sample, like Professor Longhair’s ‘Big Chief’, a New Orleans jazz instrumental, with a big rolling piano riff that she uses on ‘Knock ‘Em Out’. Later on, George Lamb set her up with producer Mark Ronson and Beck collaborator Greg Kirstin, who brought her their own records and ideas. Lily half-toasted, half-sang her own lyrics over the top. She makes the words up on the spot in the studio. “I’m not one of these people who carries a notebook around with me, writing down this and that. I’d never do that — it’s too much like homework. And why would I want to take a tape home from the studio and work on lyrics then? I’d rather be watching EastEnders.”

She’s at pains to make music that everyone will respond to, and that will make clear “just how much of celebrity culture is complete bollocks. Like in ‘Everything’s Just Wonderful’You always read things in magazines, like, ‘If I buy those jeans then I can look like Kate Moss.’ Eat your spaghetti bolognese, girls, fuck the salad. You don’t have to worry about it. I’ve got cellulite on my legs already and I’ll get them out, I don’t care.” She’s particularly sick of the bling mentality in hip hop and grime. “All these kids going, Yeah, you’re not ready for me and the rocks that I’ve got,’ and I’m like, ‘How did you afford those rocks, dickhead, you haven’t sold any records.’ That So Solid mentality of standing around a fucking Audi TT with some cheap girls from a model agency in Essex. It’s pretty sad. You know they’re all going back to their bedsits in Stockwell. Why don’t you write about that instead?”

Her mission is this. “First and foremost, I want to write music for young people, for young girls especially. All they have are indie bands that they just want to shag, and it’s pretty pathetic to just have that. And I want to write something that people who are older can listen to and find it quite reminiscent of their childhood or their adolescence. But also something for young kids to go, ‘Wow, that’s what it’s like! They do suck dicks and they do take drugs and it’s amazing!'”

© Jude RogersThe Word, July 2006

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