New York resident and West End/TV actor, Lily Allen, is appearing on our (pay/cable TV) screens right now in a new show produced by the brilliant writer/actor Sharon Horgan, called Dreamland. But once she was a pop star.
Indeed, once she was a big pop star, but one who wasn’t sure if it had been the right call. Even when she returned to the fray, children and marriage under one arm, a bundle of tabloids ready to be used as parrot cage liners under the other.
Wind Back Wednesday finds her in 2014, an Australian tour coming: in the glare and, maybe, in the game.
AS METAPHORS GO it doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity from someone who has mostly spent the past five years away from the public eye, marrying and being at home raising two children.
In the opening song on her third album, Sheezus, Lily Allen likens preparing for a return to recording, touring and, perhaps most dangerous of all, the attention of the tabloids, to a boxer gearing up for more hard smacks around the chops.
“Been here before, so I’m prepared/Not gonna lie though, I’m kinda scared/Lace up my gloves, I’m going in/Don’t let my kids watch me when I get in the ring,” she sings over a rickety drum beat and light chanting backing voices. “I’ll take the hits, roll with the punches/ I’ll get back up it’s not at as I’ve never done this.”
So, do we imagine Allen, who has just turned 29 but has sales of more than four million albums and a raft of hit singles such as Smile, LDN and The Fear behind her, doing the musical equivalent of pounding the streets in sweat gear and hitting large slabs of meat?
"I've been in training and stuff but that's more to prepare myself for this tour, the physical aspect of it," she says, looking to a series of shows including an Australian tour with an appearance at Splendour In The Grass. "I don't think anyone can prepare you for criticism unless I sat in a room and had someone just tell me really bad things about myself all day.”
"That wouldn't be very nice," she adds with a giggle.
No, indeed, that's what you have teenage children for. "I look forward to that,” she chirps.
Jokes aside, when the internet does its regular exploding in outrage at her supposedly mocking Beyonce in a performance at a London gay club or when the Mail Online has a headline like “Lily Allen suffers nip-slip in crop top at new album Sheezus launch”, she must wonder why she bothers.
"Not really. The thing about the Mail Online is I go on there myself and I'm not really reading what they say, I'm looking at the pictures. That's what they're good for,” Allen says. “Some of those things get me down but just behind the photographer that caught the nip slip were several thousand people absolutely loving it and enjoying themselves. That's what I do it for."
It's not even clear that the term nip slip even existed outside the sweaty palm men's magazines until a few years ago. But then having been a tabloid target since her first singles – “helped”, if that’s the right word by being the daughter of another of their targets, the roistering comedian/actor Keith Allen – she’d know more about their fascinations than the rest of us.
"That used to happen to me a lot when I was being chased by paparazzi. I think probably women must suffer nip slips a lot of the time because I seem to be in the papers having them forever,” a semi serious, semi jovial Allen says. “But most people aren't followed around with every single move documented by strange men with long lens cameras.
“I'm sure if you followed your mum around all day with a camera she might even nip slip a couple of times by accident [she laughs]. It's just one of those things."
The thing that is clear on the album, from its Kanye-teasing title and its sexism-in-the-music-industry poking first single, Hard Out Here, to its tender moments singing about being genuinely happy with husband Sam Cooper and two daughters, Ethel and Marnie, is that what Allen blithely calls her “mass of contradictions” is both very true and hardly unique.
What Sheezus points out, as would already be known by anyone with half a brain or a year sharing the world with a partner and children, is it is possible to love being at home and to want to do something else; to hate some parts of your job but still want to do it. The idea that you can only be one at a time or that to choose one is to trash the other is a particularly stupid approach, albeit all too common in the culture/mummy wars across all media.
"I believe that. I'm just a very honest person and I say exactly what I feel and the reason I say those things is in a way I want some validation. I want people to tell me that I'm not an arsehole for thinking that and it is difficult to be at home all day with your children," Allen says. "Maybe if I say it then some mothers might say, thank God you said that I feel exactly the same way. Not only does it help me but it helps them.
"I think that we can begin to get over our feelings of shame and guilt about the way we live our lives as we talked openly about them. Otherwise, we just become convinced that we are awful people and that's how you get alcoholics and drug addicts and depression. It's all about being open, that's the key to happiness I think."
Speaking of openness, some of best moments on the album are the open-hearted songs to and about her husband. It's not unusual for her to write about what goes on inside the house or inside the bedroom. But it's still reasonably rare to have someone be so straightforward about the domestic happiness that somebody else brings them.
"I find it much easier to write songs that are unhappy and lambasting people about the injustices going on in everyday life. But I'm also aware that if I did a 15-track album of me just moaning at the world that people would write me off as a grumpy bitch,” Allen says. “I try to actively chuck in a few things that I'm really happy about and one of the things that I'm really happy about is my children and my husband.”
She says that before her 2010 marriage she’d always felt unsettled in relationships and so found it easy to write about them going wrong. These days though there’s little to complain about there.
"So now when I am I moaning it's more at the world,” she says before breaking into laughter. “Before when I was nasty I was nasty to individuals, now I am just nasty to everyone.”
IT’S NOT FUNNY COZ IT’S TRUE
There’s some history to Take My Place, one of the toughest moments to listen to on the record because it feels raw even as it is so pretty and catchy.
"That song is about losing my baby. I had a stillborn in October 2010 and when I started going back into the studio and writing, writing is a catharsis for me and this was something that was occupying 95 per cent of my waking day,” Lily Allen says. “It would have felt wrong for me not to have written a song about it because I needed to write a song about it. I needed to express that emotion somehow and that was the song that came out.
“Also, Holding On To Nothing is about the same subject, in a way, although it's about my second child. I write songs about my life and that's something that unfortunately happened to me and yes, the feeling is raw because it's a raw subject."