It’s been over ten years since British pop star Lily Allen made her cheeky U.S. debut with 2006’s Alright, Still. Since then, she’s faded out of the national spotlight. Back in the U.K., however, she’s still incessantly under the tabloids’ microscope, scrutinized for her outspokenness on politics and the working class, and still making enemies. On her emotionally naked fourth album No Shame — out June 8, her first since 2014’s disastrous Sheezus — she speaks about the dissolution of her marriage, the guilt of being a working mother, and her troubles with alcohol, cocaine, and men. In person, the 32-year-old is conscious that she’s not out of the woods yet with many of those old demons.
On the roof of L.A’.s Soho House after two U.S. gigs, she looks as candid as she speaks, in crumpled leisurewear with faded dyed pink hair and manicured talons. For the first time, she reveals why she hasn’t been able to return to the U.S. until recently. “Without blowing my own trumpet,” she says. “If I had been able to perform in America on my second album I would have done really well here. But I was just too honest.”
In America, you’ve never eclipsed the success you had with Alright, Still. Your second record, It’s Not Me It’s You, reached No. 5 on the charts but your star power had waned.
Well, my visa got taken away from me so I couldn’t come here to promote. I had a massive tour booked here that I had to cancel. It was my problem.
What happened with the visa? Can you talk about it?
Maybe not … but they asked me had I ever taken drugs? And I said, “Yeah, obviously.” So they said, “Okay, denied!” I had to do a year of pissing in a cup at the U.S. Embassy to prove that I was clean. Which I did. By that time there was no album or tour. Then I had two kids. Then Sheezus. [Awkward laugh.] You know, I signed a small deal with EMI when I was 19 years old. I’m still in that deal. Everything that’s happened has been beyond my expectations. I’m amazed that people come to my gigs. I would love to be able to do America properly again. Because I have kids, I can’t. In order to be the best for both jobs — being a mum and being a musician — I can’t do the other without doing the other.
What do you mean?
If I’m failing them I can’t concentrate on my music, and if I’m not happy and creatively content then I can’t mother properly. I have to have that balance. Of course the commercial side of things will take a hit, but that’s something I knew when I decided to have kids.
You’re taking a lot of responsibility for your pitfalls. But it must be challenging being under the label’s thumb?
Being on a major is definitely frustrating. I wish they would listen to my ideas more, even with MySpace in the beginning [Allen built her fan base there after she was signed]. I put the music up there before it was on the label’s radar. The idea of giving music away for free — they hated it. They said, “No! You’re mad! Pirates!” Flash-forward to now, they give everything away. With Sheezus, I was trying to do behind-the-scenes, two-and-a-half-minute movies for YouTube before you could load videos to Instagram. They’d be like, “Oh god Lily, demanding money [from the marketing budget] and being all diva-ish.” [Social media] is how Dua Lipa is marketed now. I’ve always been one step ahead. I wish they would say, “Lily knows about the internet, let’s listen to her.” But no. The information has to come from some digital marketing male.
So they won’t listen to you because you’re a woman?
Literally, I’ll say something to them and they’ll say,“No.” Then they’ll hire someone else who’ll say exactly the same thing and they’ll be like, “Great idea!”
Do you see your own market research?
I don’t. Well, I did on Sheezus. That’s why I had a breakdown. I can’t talk about myself as a product. It makes me feel ill. If it had been my intention to have massive commercial success, I wouldn’t have signed a five-album deal for £25,000. I wanna make good shit and have enough money to support my kids. I don’t live in a castle. I don’t have a driver. Just ‘cause I’m in the Daily Mail all the time doesn’t mean I’m a multibillionaire.
I wouldn’t assume you’re a multibillionaire.
But people do. I love people enjoying my music. I love success. That’s not the success I’m after. If the music is good and people react to that — great. If it’s not and people don’t, that pushes me to do better.
Do you think that your idea of success was different before? You did once sing about wanting money and seeking fame on 2009’s “The Fear.”
In those days I was young, high, and drunk, living the high life. The tabloids got to me. They were gunning for me to fail. I wanted success ‘cause I didn’t want horrible journalists to write, “Ha-ha, her album’s a flop.”
Success meant proving people wrong?
Do you feel less motivated by that now?
Yeah. I had to gather myself before this record. I haven’t been going to high-profile events and doing fashion stuff. That stuff’s lovely, but it’s the icing on the cake once the music’s good. With Sheezus, I didn’t give enough respect to it. I was having an identity crisis. I was listening to everybody else for the first time. Maybe I had postnatal depression. All I wanted was to get on the radio. I wanted magazine covers. When those things didn’t go to plan, my world collapsed. Going into this album, I wanted to make the music the best. The goal had to be validation, not expectation.
Would you say you don’t like Sheezus now?
No I do, but it was all confused. I was writing while thinking about radio, hooks, being “Lily Allen” — bolshy, confident, snarky. I was writing music for people’s expectations rather than for me.
Jessie Ware spoke recently about initially making her record too quickly because of the pressure of being a new mother. Was motherhood similarly impacting your creativity negatively?
Yeah, hormones. I didn’t just have one baby. I had a baby that died [Allen suffered a stillbirth with a son in 2010]. Then I was pregnant with Ethel three months later. Three months after her, I was pregnant with Marnie. I did two and a half years pregnant, which was fucking insane. When I think back to how quickly I went in to write Sheezus after Marnie, no wonder it was a mess. My hormones were all over the shop. It was only after the tour that I started to come back down to earth.
Last night at the gig, you said you didn’t want to go home when the Sheezus tour finished. Were you uncomfortable only at the end of the Sheezus era?
No, it was everything. First of all, what fucked me off was being bullied into doing “Somewhere Only We Know” for the John Lewis advert [her cover of the Keane song was her 2013 comeback single after a four-year hiatus].
They made me do it. I said, “I don’t wanna be in a John Lewis advert.” And they said, “If you don’t, the morale’s gonna be low at the label.”
By placing you in the U.K.’s biggest Christmas TV advert singing a rock ballad, were they attempting to make you vanilla?
No. It was money. It’s free. John Lewis payed for studio costs, promo, everything. It was No. 1 for four weeks, got 250 million plays on Spotify. I don’t see any of it, ‘cause it’s not my song. I didn’t write it. The label owns copyright of me.
How did that make you feel?
Betrayed. Also, I was 14 stone and I had to lose all that weight. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. I’d always been in control of my image, but I’d been a mum in slippers and a dressing gown for two years. I hired a team to dress me up with slick hair, nails, makeup; all harsh and pop star-y. I felt like I was in Alice in Wonderland. “Who am I? What is all this? What are these songs? Why am I nowhere near my children?” Heh. “Where’s the vodka?”
You lost your anchor.
I lost my sense of self. I lost my identity. I was being a bad mum. I was being bad at my job. I’d wake up on a tour bus in the middle of Wisconsin and be so hung-over. I cheated on my husband. All I wanted to do was be with my kids. I wasn’t even making any money.
How did you come back from that?
Well, I lost my marriage, I lost my house, I lost my mind. I literally had to hit rock bottom and build myself back up. Then I had my stalker [in 2016 Allen revealed that a stalker had broken into her home]. I couldn’t have been more isolated. I lost all of my friends. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I was on my own.
The songs “Apples,” “Family Man,” and “What You Waiting For?” are about the divorce. You put the blame on yourself. Why?
I blame myself. There are things that Sam [her ex] could have done to protect me, but that’s not a particularly feminist outlook. I’m a big girl. I should be able to look after myself, and I couldn’t.
You mentioned alcohol consumption on tour. What have you done to stop reaching for the bottle?
I don’t think I’m an alcoholic or a drug addict. I don’t take drugs any more. I do drink occasionally. I’m a self-medicator. If I’m feeling at my wits end, I’ll reach for whatever’s around me: alcohol, sex, drugs, Twitter. I need boundaries. I need to not let the tabloids knock me for six when they say something horrible. I need to not take it personally if BBC Radio 1 put me on the B-list. If someone says I’m ugly I need to not let it in. I need to do the jobs that I want to do as best I can: writing good music, being a great mum. If I can do those things and feel no shame, then I don’t have to use drugs or alcohol.
Is validation your main trigger?
How has motherhood changed that, if at all?
As a mother of girls I worry about them inheriting my insecurities and bad habits. I had a heartbreaker the other day. I did [U.K. TV show] Sounds Like Friday Night. I sang a song, then James Bay sang a song. Then something Seconds of Summer.
Five Seconds Of Summer.
I’m such a gran now. So I brought the kids. Ella Eyre came on to do a song and Marnie went, “Is she better than you, mummy?” And I went, “No!” She didn’t say that with James Bay or Five Seconds of Summer. Ethel said, “Is this a competition? Is there a prize?” They’re 5 and 6. It’s sad. I don’t know how you protect them from that. I’m strict. I don’t let them watch TV on their own. They’re not on their iPads unsupervised. The fact they’ve managed to pick that up is mind-blowing.
You’re very vocal on Twitter. Other pop stars aren’t. Do you think they’re too scared?
It goes back to people’s idea of success. Most people have a goal to be really famous and play massive venues. In order to do that you have to please everybody. My goal has always been to have a laugh and not compromise my sense of self. Social media is there for people to converse. I’m not in it for fake engagement. I’m not in it for that game. I’m a disruptor.
What is your read on Kanye’s Twitter? Is that a game?
It reminds me of when he used to wax lyrical about Louis Vuitton bags. He’s trying to find meaning in this stuff. I find him fascinating. He exists in another dimension.
Everyone is talking about his tweets. Do you think being disruptive is his goal?
Who knows what his goal is. He’s a people person. He’s married into a family that have the biggest social-media spread. He’s fascinated by what that means. Maybe this Donald Trump stuff is an experiment. Who knows? Who fucking knows what’s going on in his head.
What do you think of people prescribing him with mental-health problems?
Unless he comes out and says, “I’ve got mental-health issues,” it’s not anyone’s business. It’s also crazy that people say that just because he’s supporting Donald Trump, he’s clinically insane. If that’s true, half of the country is clinically insane because he is president. He got voted in.
Some people think his tweets are a cry for help. Have you ever used Twitter for that?
No. People always say I do things for attention. I’m a pop star. I like attention. It’s what we’re all doing, isn’t it? That’s what Instagram is. Everyone is attention-seeking all the time. But it’s okay to attention seek if you’re doing it about your body. It’s not okay to attention seek if you want to talk about the state of the world.
The British public said you were attention-seeking when you appeared on Channel 4 news after the Grenfell fire in London. Critics inferred this was a chance for you to make a splash before your comeback.
Mmm. Grenfell was June 14 [of last year], and my album’s out June 8 so that’s a pretty long-term promo plan. Heh! No. People spin things. They use me to ward off other people in similar positions. There’s a reason people don’t talk about these things. I’m an example of why you wouldn’t.
Can you explain that to me?
I read an article with M.I.A. She says the media make an example of her to tell other pop stars not to follow suit. Musicians have way more power than mainstream media want them to realize. MySpace was amazing for that. You got to know artists. Spotify doesn’t enable artists to have more of a direct line to their fans. In this age of fake news where people aren’t able to trust the media or politicians, people trust musicians. They hear their opinion, they get a sense of who they are, they pledge allegiance to that. The Rupert Murdochs and Paul Dacres of this world are terrified of that power. They want to control the narrative.
When you appear on the news, whose voice are you representing?
Well, with Grenfell, I was there with a friend whose family was in the building. We’d been speaking to a fireman and the information out there didn’t match the information we were getting. I didn’t call up Channel 4 news and say, “Can I be on the news?” I was there because I’m part of the community. Jon Snow [news anchor] saw me and said, “Do you fancy coming on?”
To be a voice for the people?
Not a voice for the people. But, you know, to put some “alternative facts” out there.
When the #MeToo movement kicked off, you raised an incident with James Corden. He flirted with you on your TV show in the late 2000s. Do you think conversations around #MeToo have created a more supportive environment in the music industry for you to discuss that?
I don’t hang out in the music industry so I can’t say. But I am a follower of pop culture, and I’m not seeing much change. I don’t think James Corden was doing anything bad. He’s a sweet guy. But my reaction to his advances was the bit that was under scrutiny, not his advances. That’s the world that we live in.
On this album, you talk about you being taken advantage of. “Higher” sounds like it’s about a business relationship. [Lyrics: “Why did you do it? Why would you choose to use and abuse me?”]
It is 100 percent. Everyone thinks I’m talking about an ex lover. I’m not.
Can you reveal more specifically what you’re getting at?
I don’t know how to talk about it. I don’t know the legalities. It’s insane that I don’t know what the legal repercussions of me talking about my experiences are. That’s not a nice position to be in.
I imagine that’s very isolating, too.
You described yourself as a disruptor. Is that how you view your role in 2018?
I think of myself as a nonconformist. I’m not going to censor myself to be more brand-friendly. That’s not a world I want my daughters to grow up in. It’s sterile nothingness. If someone asks me a question I’m not gonna say, “I won’t answer that because it might affect my career.” That’s how Donald Trump got into power. I don’t set out to annoy people or grab headlines. I say the truth because that’s all I have.
What about pop excites you right now?
Not a lot. I love Charli XCX, Marina [and the Diamonds], Beyoncé, Rihanna. The girls. I’m not into Spotify stuff that’s constructed for the market. I listen to it and think about all those annoying writers in one room congratulating themselves on their vanilla shit. It makes me feel sick.
There’s a perception of you as a bratty troublemaker who hasn’t grown up. Do you feel grown up?
No. I feel like a child. I always think that people are older than me and now they’re not.
You won’t remember this, but at the Q Awards in 2009 I approached you because I worked at the magazine, and before I even spoke, you told me to ‘”fuck off.”
I do remember that. Didn’t we have a thing on Twitter after? Soz. I’d have been high on cocaine.
It’s okay, it was a very on-brand Lily Allen experience. Is it more or less likely that you’d act that way now?
Less. I don’t go to those awards ceremonies now. I feel anxious. I don’t like being at self-congratulatory popularity contests. That’s when I start to reach for alcohol and drugs. It never ends well because I tell perfectly nice people to fuck off.
Why do you think you do that?
Because I’m showing off. I’m deflecting. Because all I wanna do is go home.
This interview has been edited and condensed.