How Lily Allen 'f—ed up,' cut deep, and bared her soul on No Shame, her best album yet
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Written by a self-described over-sharer, Lily Allen’s music has long given fans an up-close look at the U.K. songstress’ youthful woes. But on her fourth LP No Shame (out Friday), the single mother-of-two tones down her approach and poignantly comes face-to-face with her personal demons alongside collaborators Mark Ronson, BloodPop, and Ezra Koenig on her most soulful, satisfying work to date. Read on for EW’s full preview of the forthcoming studio set, during which Allen discusses her divorce’s impact on her creative spirit, reuniting with Ronson for the first time in over a decade, and why the problematic rollout for her last album, Sheezus, informed No Shame‘s existence.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had concerns about the way your last album, Sheezus, came together sonically. What didn’t click?
LILY ALLEN: It was more that with the first two albums, I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to be executed and how things should look, feel, and sound, and I never really needed anybody else’s opinion in order to do it, and on Sheezus I felt like I kind of shopped it out a little bit. I listened to people in a way that I hadn’t before. And it kind of meant that I couldn’t own it, you know? It wasn’t 100 percent me. It was about 60 percent me and 40 percent other people’s ideas of what I should be.
Is No Shame its antithesis, then, because it’s so personal?
There wasn’t any intention behind this record other than to do something truthful that I could get up on stage every night and sing with conviction… With this album, I was sad, going through a divorce, and battling problems with alcohol. I wrote truthfully about it, so there wasn’t any intention other than to own what I do. I’m not actually particularly happy with how things have been rolled out with this record so far, with the single choices and stuff, but I knew that going into this that I actually have no control over it. The only thing I have control over is my creative output. As long as I can do that to the best of my abilities, that’s all I can do. That’s the only bit that I have control over. I just wanted to make a “me” record.
Now that you mention it, judging by the singles so far, it doesn’t sound like radio is a priority with this album.
I didn’t want to do any singles, I just wanted to put the whole album out and drop it at once. I don’t think this album has hits on it, to be honest. Not radio hits, anyway. It’s an honest record that’s sad. It’s not EDM, it’s not trying to be a club record. It just is what it is.
How did you arrive on the sonic direction you wanted the album to take, namely the interplay between light, island-influenced sounds and darker lyrics?
I wrote the ballads, and the more up-tempo songs that are there, the happier sounding ones, they were just inspired by the people I was working with. And there wasn’t really intentions, sonically, to go in that direction. It’s just the music that I like and it’s not unusual for me to use those influences. My earlier records like “Smile” and “LDN” are both reggae samples. I grew up in West London, which has a huge Caribbean population and the genre I grew up listening to it.
Did you struggle to get back into the groove of making music after what you went through with Sheezus?
No, I think that I just wanted to take my time. I wanted it to feel 100 percent like myself. That took a while, balancing motherhood and writing… That was time-consuming in itself, and I had to figure out my boundaries with that stuff, which I definitely got wrong in the Sheezus era. I realized that I have two jobs: one is to be a mum, and the other one is to be an artist. I can’t do either job unless I’m doing the other job well… It’s been about finding the balance between the two.
Is that what inspired a song like “Three,” because that song is not written from your perspective.
When I sit down to write music for the day, all I do is put my thoughts into a song… When I wrote “Three” I was obviously feeling like I wanted to write a song about my kids! That was something that was on my mind that day, and that’s always been the case. Music is always cathartic in that sense, because that’s how I get through stuff.
Did it take a while to get into the headspace of a child for the song and talk about yourself from your kids’ point of view?
Not really, it actually just fell out of me… It was really quick and easy to write… It was half of me trying to put myself in their place and what they think, and also using my own experiences as a child with a working single mum and projecting it onto them as well.
Was there anything that was too difficult to revisit for this album, whether it be your divorce or personal vices?
No, I’m an over-sharer! I don’t have a problem with sharing these things. Sometimes I have a problem with finding the right words. That’s why music is such a great outlet for me because I can do it in a succinct way. A song like “Apples” is such an accomplishment, to be able to sum up the dissolution of my marriage and relate it back to my own experience with my parents, all in under three-and-a-half minutes.
Before, on Alright, Still and even at some points on Sheezus, there’s an element of frustration or angst and ferocity that, while it’s playful, feels like it’s from a younger mindset, whereas I think “Apples” shows your emotional maturity. It’s a pensive song where you take responsibility for breaking someone’s heart and your part in the dissolution of a relationship.
I had an experience with a stalker in the U.K. He was stalking me for seven years and it culminated with him breaking into my house and there was a big court case and at that time, that happened just after me and my ex-husband broke up. The way me and Sam broke up, he took a lot of our friends with him. And when the stalker thing happened I just shut down and I couldn’t socialize anymore. I was incredibly isolated and I think that’s what sounds different about this record: The first two records are a lot more free-spirited and carefree because that’s where I was at that time. I was more observational about the world and where I existed in it, whereas this album is observational, but about myself since I was by myself. I was at home being a mum and not really going out and not really talking to anybody and just trying to process my own thoughts and emotions, and that’s reflected on the record. It’s inward rather than an outward record, but it’s honestly observational, just a different perspective.
How did you pull “Apples” out of yourself?
I wrote it just before we started going through serious divorce negotiations, and the effect on me felt real. Whereas I think before I’d written that song, I still thought maybe there was a chance we’d work things out, but “Apples” was the point I realized it was done.
And that line about becoming like your parents killed me. It comes at a very specific point in the song. Why did you choose to place it where you did?
Our parents are a point of reference for our relationships. At least they are for me. When I was growing up and witnessing my parents’ relationship, it was pretty sad… I wanted exactly the opposite of what they were. I wanted the dream life in the countryside and kids. I thought I had it. The fact that I lost it was devastating. That was my one goal, before wanting to be a musician [I thought], I’m going to get married and have kids and be happy, and I failed.
There’s still hope obviously, there’s hope for everybody. I think this album shows that.
When I say I failed, what I mean is I wanted to provide a perfect life for my kids, and that’s what I feel like I failed at. I f—ked it up and I f—ked it up for them. I didn’t want that for them, I wanted something else. It will be fine. Their dad and me are really good friends and we talk every day and we have a good relationship with no hard feelings. But I wanted us to be a unit, and we’re not.
Have you let him listen to these songs?
Yeah, he’s heard them.
What does he think?
He thinks they’re great. It’s not easy to listen to for anybody, let alone him. But he also knew what he was getting into when we got married. He knew I was a songwriter and I write about my experiences. That was always going to happen.
How long did it take you to speak from that place of purity on this album?
It was my intention to create an environment where the best work could come, and that always happens when it doesn’t feel forced. As soon as you’re getting on planes and paying massive amounts of money for expensive studios, the record labels want to see something in return. This time, I wanted to make a good, natural record not be about the business, but about the music — especially in this age where music has lost its value financially… it’s certainly not paying the bills. In order to square it off in my head, it had to be worthy and mean something.
You reunited with Mark Ronson on “Family Man,” which is one of my favorite songs on the album. You haven’t worked with him since Alright, Still, so how did he come back into the picture?
Mark’s like a brother to me. Even though we never worked on the other albums, we’ve always been in close contact… I wasn’t feeling 100 percent myself when I first sat down to make this record, and I wanted to make an environment of people I trusted, and he was one of those people.
It was already written before he came aboard?
It was already written… we were in L.A. and Mark came over to see me because he wanted to hear what I’d been doing. Actually, it was the same day he played me “Uptown Funk,” and I was like, yeah, that’s going to be a hit, and he came in and listened to “Family Man” and was like, “I want to produce that,” so it worked out.
I remember reading something where you said he ditched the sessions for this album to work on Joanne?
Well yeah, kind of. I wouldn’t say that he “ditched” it. But, he was committed to doing stuff and then Gaga came along and he took the job. It didn’t get in the way, because I just got on with writing with other people until he was ready. But, yeah, he definitely did ditch me for Gaga. [Laughs] It would be a pretty dumb business move of his to be like, “You know what, Gaga? I’m just going to concentrate on this one Lily Allen track.”