Interview: Lily Allen

2009-02-24 10:07
Lily Allen (photo: Simon Emmet)

So, here we are with your 2nd album, It's Not You, It's Me. (Any clue to the songs there, I wonder?) They always call it the 'difficult second album'. Was it?
Er, it was quite difficult, not too difficult. I don't know how difficult it was. I suppose the most difficult thing about it was, the first album, I didn't really expect anyone to listen to it, whereas this time people are going to listen to it and want to have an opinion about it, which, that was the only thing I found difficult about it, not the actual writing of songs.

The album has been produced by Greg Kurstin , who has worked with the likes of All Saints, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Inara George etc. How did you hook up with him?
I think, I was working in a studio in North London and he was working on a wonderful band that you might have heard of called All Saints who used to be on my record label, and they were in the studio next door to me and so I kind of got introduced to him through them and we hit it off and we just decided to work on some stuff and we did three songs on my last record together and, yeah, I decided I wanted to make this record with one person really so that it felt like it was one body of work the whole way through and it didn’t feel like it was, you know, me working with, you know, lots of sort of different pop producers and thrown together.

So how did you work out a system? He normally lives in the USA, of course
Well, I went over there a couple of times for short amounts of time. We'd swap it because, you know, Greg's married and he has got a wife and I think it was a bit mean to ask him to come over here for long periods of time and I wanted to take it slowly because I think, with the way that I write songs it's so much in the moment, about, you know, what I'm thinking about at that particular time, I can't really keep coming up with stuff just like one after another, one after another, so I have to kind of do a week, or a week and a half and then have, you know, three or four weeks off and then go back in again and try it again once I've, you know, experienced some more life. He came over to England for the first session that we did and we hired out this tiny little cottage in, I can't remember, what was it, Moreton-In-Marsh it was called, and we just sat there for a week and a half and we, you know, banged out five or six of the songs and I think they are all on the record. It was quite weird, you know, the way me and Greg work is, the first couple of days we listened to other people’s stuff and try to get inspired and we listened to lots of Keane (laughter) who I love and some Coldplay stuff and then we listened to lots of like sort of happy, hardcore dance music and, you know, ragga, and jungle, and stuff that I used to be influenced by when I was a teenager and the dance music that I really, really like so we tried to mix the two basically and have that sort of ethereal, big-sounding, you know, chord progressions, and then, mixed with the, you know, more modern beats.

OK, so the two of you are in the studio. Who does what?
We both do it all together really. We kind of, there's not really a routine. It just happens how it happens and sometimes, you know, he'll just be playing the piano and I'll just be sitting there scribbling on my notepad, not really writing words, but more doodling and he'll suddenly play some chords that I like and I'll go, 'Oh, that was really nice,' and, you know, then he'll kind of make that into a verse and I'll put some words to go over it and then he'll come up with some more chords that go for a chorus and we just kind of build things and sometimes we’ll get a verse and we won't get a chorus. We'll leave it and come back to it in a couple of months and it will work and sometimes, I'm quite impatient so and if I feel something isn't working straight away I don’t want to carry on with it. Sometimes I'll really tear my hair out and go, 'Oh, I can't think of anything today. I'm really driving myself insane,' and that is when Greg will go, 'Why don’t we have a go at some of the stuff that we gave up on last time?' And usually because I'm familiar with that track I'll be able to come up with something, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

One of the most noticeable things about this CD is that, although the subjects are often quite dark and serious, the musical treatment is often quite bouncy and jolly. Greg's musical ideas presumably make you laugh sometimes?
Yeah, really a lot. That’s why I work with Greg because he makes me laugh so much and he’s such a funny character to work with and at the end of it we are really, really good friends, but he’s mad. He’s constantly playing really weird things and, you know, and we’re always kind of thinking, you know, I think one day we might even write a musical because I think that's, you know, we love just writing silly things, and things with a lot of character. I think he’s, he definitely finds my lyrics, you know, if I’ve got like a sort of one-liner, he’ll laugh at that if it’s really kind of staring at you, but I don’t think he listens to the lyrics of the song from start to finish at the beginning. When he’s in the studio he’s thinking about his part and I’m thinking about my part. I think he saves his reflections for later.

So, as part of the process of writing songs, you make notes of things that you observe and things that happen to you. Those notebooks are really important. Ever lost one?
Yeah, find whole books. I never keep any of my books. In the back of cars, people are, I'll go to a studio I haven’t been to in six months, are like, 'Oh, you left all your books,' with all my songs. I don't know where any of them are. They're all in somewhere. I don’t throw them away. I just misplace them. They're not like the things that I hold on to, that’s what, you know, I'm trying to say. You know, I'll write, if I'm in a studio, sometimes I won't even take a book, I won't even take a pen. I'll write it on the back of a receipt if I don't have anything to write on.

So, track by track through the album. The first song is called "Everybody’s At It" that is, taking drugs. Do you feel moved to want to change society, through music?
No, I think I’m just an observer of things and I get annoyed about sort of hypocrisy within our society and within the press and the government and that’s more what the song is about. It’s more of, it’s more about the hypocrisy of it all, really. It’s such a big thing, isn’t it, drugs? It’s such a sort of taboo subject. Maybe it is just me and the environment that I’ve grown up in, but literally everyone I know is on drugs or has been. It’s just saying, you know, everyone’s at it. (Laughter) I don’t know what it means. I do know what it means. It’s just sort of saying, you know, I haven't got a right to tell people to ease off on their views of it all or that taking drugs is a good thing, or a bad thing, or any of those things, you know. I haven’t got a right, I’m not well educated enough to be able to talk on the subject but I can observe what I see and that’s what I’ve done.

"The Fear" is about pursuit of fame and celebrity today. Is this from your point of view, or somebody on the outside?
Well, actually it's not. It's more just about, actually it was never written about me, although, in retrospect, listening to it I could see how people could put the two together and assume that it was, but actually it was just written for young, you know, it makes me sad just to think of young kids just reading Heat magazine and being on gossip websites and thinking that that’s what, what they should be aspiring to be like and it's more just sort of, it’s not even saying, 'Take it from me,' but I know from being on this side that it isn't all as fun as it looks. We all hide it a million times. People don’t want to hear it, but that’s the case and it makes me sad to think that’s what our society is becoming. Listen, I’m not going to sit here and complain about my life because I feel really happy for the things that I do have. There aren’t many twenty-three year-olds, especially in today’s financial climate, that, you know, have got their own house and can pay off the mortgage and, you know, get sent nice clothes all the time and I do have that, but that doesn’t mean that I have to enjoy, you know, ten middle-aged men standing outside my house with cameras all day, and I don’t like them following me in their cars when I'm on my own, and I don’t like people writing about my personality when they don't know me.

I find, I think, if people stuck to facts, you know, I wouldn’t get so upset, but, I think, when people make judgement on my character, you know, from sources that don’t actually exist, that’s what upsets me because I feel like the general public are getting some idea of who I am and actually it’s not true at all. No, I hold back on that now really. I don't blog so much. I don’t kind of give so much of myself away, and now it’s got to the point where I don’t even let myself be photographed with a drink, even if it’s water, in my hand just because I don’t like giving people ammunition any more because it’s just too upsetting for me, and not only me but for my widowed grandfather who has nothing better to do than sit in his house reading The Sun and The Mirror and comes across all these horrible stories about his grand-daughter and he doesn’t know any better than to believe them and that’s what upsets me, is those people that get affected. I think it's kind of like, lines have got blurred because I think now everyone feels that they have access to you as a human being so I get annoyed with people that when you’re just walking down the street, they take out their camera phones and start filming you as if, because I just start feeling like, 'Oh, I don’t even have a right to walk down the street any more. I'm not a human being, like you own me.' It’s kind of like the only thing I can sort of compare it to would be being in a zoo and people sort of pointing and looking.

The 3rd song is called "22". The female at the heart of the story is now nearly 30, but behaving as though she was still early 20s. But the 'rules' say her life is already over….
Yeah, well, it’s more about being a young female, I think, because I think that men can get away with, being a thirty year-old young man, I think you can get away with more than being a thirty year-old young woman within sort of professional, I can’t think of the word that I’m looking for, environment. Yeah, so within a professional environment I don’t think that you can get away with as much being a woman as you can being a man. That’s what it’s about, really. Well, I think that people assume that with people like Duffy and Adele and me and Amy that we are puppets being run by some men and some big, more powerful men in the background, whereas I don’t think people would think the same about Paolo Nutini and James Morrison, you know, quite frankly, you know. The sort of legalities and stuff have come a long way in that sense but I think, you know, there’s definitely an undertone of sexism that exists everywhere.

More humour, on the Johnny Cash type intro and backing track of "Not Fair", but he song is about a subject that obviously matters to you. The business of your man not, er, staying the course in the bedroom department. Is that funny?
Erm, well, I just think generally for me in life it is. I don’t like baring my soul without a boom-tish! at the end. (Laughter) So, yeah, I think that’s probably a character trait of mine. I don’t think that necessarily humour in music is important. I think it’s just something that I do in order to not take myself too seriously. I think it helps, you know, I find it very difficult to communicate my feelings to people seriously so I think it helped me to be able to put it down in a song and give it to them, tell them, 'You go and listen to that.' Which I think probably brings us back to the sex thing. You know, I can get on with someone really, really, really well and if they're no good at having sex with me it really upsets me because I think, 'Oh, God, this is someone I’d really like to spend the rest of my life with but I cannot face having bad sex for the rest of my life.' You know, it’s just like, 'Come on. You’ve either got it or you don't.' (Laughter) I’m sure that many a men, not that many a men, a very small amount of men, have said the same about me, have said they don’t think I’m very good. Why are we talking about how good I am in bed? (Laughter) Because I like it and I think some people are really rubbish at it and it’s not fair.

Track 5, "I Could Say", is about someone growing, after the end of a relationship. You?
Er, it’s about a relationship that I had with someone and when I left that person everything felt, I’d never been in a relationship before where it had ended and I’d felt O.K. and that was the first time it had happened really. You know, I felt like that person was sort of holding me back a bit and, you know, the arguments that we had were almost quite childish, I suppose, and maybe without that person in my life I felt like I wasn’t having those childish thoughts and like ‘ning, ning’. I wrote that pretty much three weeks after I’d broken up with that person.

Track 6, "Go Back to the Start", is 140 bpm. That’s miles faster than we've been sued to with your songs…
You know, I felt one of the things that I definitely wanted to confront with this record was, I wanted some of the songs to be a lot faster because I felt with doing the last album live I felt like the show only kind of worked in a very daytime, kind of afternoon setting and it was all like (sings) ‘Dee, dee, dee, ooh, the sun is shining. Let's put Lily on at two in the afternoon and she'll stay there for ever,' and so I wanted to kind of go a bit darker and faster on this record to try and, not get myself headline slots at festivals, but to just try and be a bit more dancier and have a bit more of a sort of party atmosphere at the gigs. So I don't get bored as well. So I can dance on stage and jump around and get into it and, you know, that’s the music I like. Not my most comfortable place but a place I hope I will learn to exist in.
Is the song, "Go Back to the Start", about a personal relationship?
It's actually about my sister, that song. We have a very tumultuous relationship, you know. Is that the right word, tumultuous? Yeah, stormy, there you go. I’ve just like heard it in the movies. (Laughter) We had a very, you know, rocky relationship for years and years and years and I think we’re both getting to the, you know, she’s nearly thirty and I’m twenty-three, and I think it’s got to the point where we know we can’t argue like teenagers any more and I think that was sort of my olive branch really to her. I played it to her a long time ago and it’s kind of worked, you know. We’ve sorted a lot of things out.

Track 7. "Never Gonna Happen", is another serious look at a relationship. As a writer, you sit around watching people, often at 5 in the morning, when they’re not at their best. Is there a point where you think, ‘I could be doing something much better, like going to bed’?
Yes, there is indeed. Yeah, What am I doing up? You lot are idiots. I’m going to bed. I can’t bear watching the sun come up I’ve never been one, right, even when in my Ibiza days when I was raving, just nothing makes me feel more sick than knowing the sun’s coming up and it’s going to get warm, ugh! (Laughter) I’m always trying to do it as if, trying to put it into a way where it’s like, ‘Hey, this is how I’m seeing things. Do you see it like this as well?’ It’s kind of like trying to find a common ground between me and the listener, really.

Track 8 is called "Fuck You", the iron fist in the velvet glove again, because it has a lovely tender opening.
Yeah, I know, it’s good isn’t it? (sings) Yeah, that’s good. I like it. It’s about sort of Fascist, horrible, nasty people really, not about one particular person although it became about one particular person. No, it was actually, I’m not going to talk about who the specific person is because that would create a lot of unwanted publicity, but at first it was about, yeah, the BNP and stuff and then it became more of a world-wide thing. It was definitely deliberate to do that and I think it was something that is almost a trade-mark of mine really. It’s something you saw on Smile, something you saw on LDN, it’s that thing of having such sort of positive, bouncy music and trying to counteract that with something dark and real and scary and hurtful and upsetting and unjustified or any of those things. That’s a lot of what making music is about for me. It’s about listening to it, I want people to just kind of hear it as if it’s almost like, you know, elevator music, like lift music and then suddenly be like double-take, like, 'What? Did she just say that?' I think you're more likely to get people to listen to those things if you disguise it within that kind of music than you are if you’re really hammering those points home because then it just becomes preachy, you know, rather than enjoyable and thought-provoking.

The two lead characters in this next song, "Who'd Have Known", seem strangely separate. Why is there distance between them?
You know, it's because they haven’t even ever kissed yet, before they, I, (laughter). That song was about getting together with somebody, and, I mean, actually that’s always been my tactic. I've never been very good at like kissing people in public, you know, like the first kiss thing. It would always be me going back to somebody's house, orchestrating going back to someone’s house, and then literally taking my clothes off and then jumping in their bed and pretending to be asleep. (Laughter) That's the only way I've ever been able to pull. (Laughter) I don't know. I think you always think that. Maybe people don’t. I don’t ever see the point of getting into a relationship with somebody unless you think it’s going to last forever. I think it's pretty pointless, whereas I've got lots of friends that are completely the opposite.

Track 10 is "Chinese", as in 'Let's get a Chinese and watch TV’. This is about you and your mum. (And that’s your sister done, your mum and your dad still to come.) Why write a song about your mum?
It’s important this song, I think, on this record and it was the only way that I could really write about my mum without it being really, really nauseating, and I guess that’s why you don’t really know it's about her, but it’s, you know, that’s what I do love about my mum the most, it’s her ability to make me feel like I’m at home and she does that, and that’s what the song is about. It's about literally flying over London and me being able to see my mum’s house and going, 'Oh, gaw, I’ve still got about four hours till I get there,' which is something I get every time I fly into London, which is about twice a week, and it does get quite repetitive and it's just, 'I just want a cup of tea and I want beans on toast,' and, you know, my mum's good at knowing what’s going to make me happy.

"Hymn", the next song, is about God. But God seen from an unusual point of view. Well, the LA point of view, I guess.
You know, I always had this thing of, like, when I first got my car when I was young-ger I used to have this thing of, 'I don't understand why I can't park my car wherever I want.' Double yellow lines meant nothing to me. I was like, 'God did not make the world so that I could not park my car on there.' I suppose that’s what the song is about really. It's like, O.K., if God really did exist on this earth, you know, would he be really ashamed of the people that did petty crimes like driving their car without insurance or evading their tax or, you know, which political party would he vote for? These are all questions that we’re confronted with every day, you know, moral questions, and I just wonder. I don’t know, whether he would or not.

The lyric says God's favourite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival. Bit out of your time, isn’t it?
Actually, I'll tell you how I first got into them. It was on someone's All Back To Mine album and I listened to that and Lee Dorsey Get Out Of My Life Woman was the two people I took off and thought that's my record. I can't remember whose it was now but I loved it, both those songs. And Aphrodite's Child, another song, (sings) such a bad tune but I love it. (Laughter)

And finally, on this new CD, "He Wasn’t There". Who on earth, I wonder, could this be about?
Errm, it’s just a song about my dad, (laughter). Yeah, I suppose it just explains a lot about my dad and how he wasn't there a lot. It’s quite simple really. He wasn’t there a lot and, you know, I think that it would have been very easy to have given up on our relationship. I know a lot of people in my position probably would have done throughout my childhood and I think holding on to anger against people is quite a detrimental thing and I think, you know, I was angry with my dad for a long time and I kind of let go of that anger and we’re now very, very close and very good friends and that’s what the song is about.

Interview courtesy of Parlophone Records

The sassy Brit pop siren chats about tabloid culture, bad sex and Creedence Clearwater Revival while taking us on a track-by-track tour through her new album, It's Not Me, It's You.
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