— by James Montgomery, with reporting by Daniel Montalto
In the U.S., we generally like our pop stars saccharine sweet, overtly sexual and lyrically inconsequential — all of which presents a bit of a problem for Lily Allen, the 21-year-old Brit who's about to make her play at Stateside success.
With her sharp tongue, brutally funny (and sometimes brutally honest) lyrics and cool, kid-sister demeanor, she's sort of like Pop Star, Version 2.0. And whether we here in the States — with our penchant for Jessicas, Ashlees and Britneys — are ready for all that remains to be seen. But Allen isn't exactly losing sleep over it.
"I'm going to take over big-time here in the States," she laughed. "Well, I'm probably not, but you know, I'll give it a try. [Pop music] is just like 'driving music.' People listen to it while they're driving. And that's boring. It's something I don't want to listen to or make."
It's safe to say she's held that opinion for a long time, because if there's one term to describe her, it's iconoclastic. The daughter of noted Welsh comedian Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen, she dropped out of school at 15 because she "didn't want to sit behind a desk all day," then trained to become a professional florist, but gave it up because of all the early mornings. Eventually, she decided to take a prolonged holiday on the noted Mediterranean party island of Ibiza, where she basically stumbled into a professional singing gig.
"I worked at this record shop in Ibiza, and these two producers came into the shop when I was working and said, 'Oh, we need a vocalist to come in and lay down some vocals for a song,' and I was like, 'How much you paying?' " she said. "They said, '50 Euros,' so I took the job and I went to sing. And one of the guys in the studio must've remembered me, because about a year and a half later, he was managing this other band and he wanted another artist. So he called me up and was like, 'Would you be interested in becoming a singer?' and I said, 'OK, I don't want to be florist anymore. That's great.' "
So she returned home to the U.K. and began working on demos. But since she was signed to, as she puts it, "a really, really tiny development deal," she found that her label was too busy looking after acts like Coldplay and Kylie Minogue to pay much attention to her. So, as is the case with most You Hear It First artists, Allen turned to MySpace, where, within months, she could count legions of fans as her own. She pressed 500 copies of a portion of her song "LDN," which earned her airplay and sold out within a day and a half. And so clearly, Allen knew she was on to something.
"I had 70,000 people saying they were my friends, willing to buy my records, and I never really had to play one gig. I didn't have to spend that time to get a fanbase," she said. "At my first gig, there were 500 people queuing around the block to come and see me, purely because they heard my demos. It was big pressure, but it worked."
So building on that momentum, Allen released a second single, "Smile," a deceptively poppy tune that's really about wishing nothing but suffering on your ex (the hook: "At first, when I see you cry/ It makes me smile"). The song quickly rose to #1 on the British singles charts, and the public began to clamor for a proper album.
But just as she was topping the charts, Allen began to be known for something else: her willingness to talk smack about a host of her fellow musicians, including fellow YHIF artists the Kooks and former Libertine Carl Barat. And though she's since pledged to put all the beef to bed, Allen is, of course, unapologetic about her opinions.
"If I was really concerned about being a celebrity and the longevity of my career, then I would probably shut my mouth, but I think about all those pop stars that go, 'Hee-hee, oh my God, I just love shopping, pink and rabbits and guys!' and it makes me crazy. Like, what are you talking about?" she said. "What's the problem with having an opinion? Guys bad-mouth people, and no one makes a big deal out of it. But when a woman says the same thing, people go nuts. My job is not just to sit there and look really pretty and not really talk. That's not me."
And it's that kind of, well, old-fashioned moxie that makes Allen's debut, Alright, Still, such an enjoyable ride. Whether she's skewering would-be suitors ("Knock 'Em Out"), chastising her weed-smoking little brother ("Alfie") or poking fun at herself ("LDN"), she still aims for effervescently refreshing and sweetly honest. The LP debuted at #2 on the British albums charts when it was released there in July, and it will hit stores on our shores in January.
And if you think Allen's got high expectations for her U.S. debut, well, then perhaps you haven't been paying attention. But she's willing to be happily surprised.
"I heard that Beyoncé made her last album in three weeks and that she just rented out a studio and had four different production teams working on it in shifts. And I'm obviously not like that. I'm not too worried about my career," she said. "But I'd like for people here to check out my album, because it's amazing and I write my own songs, and I am a pretty good singer, which is more than you can say for a lot of people. Also it's really interesting to listen to, and it's very colorful and danceable. Plus, I am nice, so buy it."
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