The world is her oyster.
“I guess I knew from an early age that I could never do a job where I’d have to sit in an office all day long,” says Lily Allen. It seems unlikely Allen will be confined to a cubicle any time soon. The 21-year-old artist, pronounced by NME as “the archetypal singer-songwriter for the iPod generation,” took Britain by storm this past summer with her debut album Alright, Still rocketing onto the U.K. Album chart at #2 and her first U.K. single, “Smile,” topping the U.K. Airplay chart for six weeks in a row.
Now she’s set her sights on America - and early reports indicate she won’t exactly be flying under the radar here, either. “She symbolizes a new blogging-age, middle-class girl: cockily ambitious, skeptical yet enthusiastic, technically savvy, musically open, obsessed with public expression and ready to fight back,” said The New York Times in a feature on Lily.
Allen was born in Hammersmith, a borough in Greater London, and grew up all over London - Shepherds Bush, Bloomsbury, Islington. “I went to 13 different schools so I never had time to make enduring friendships. Music became a lifeline to me. I listened to punk, ska and reggae, courtesy of my parents’ record collections,” she says, which explains why, in addition to numerous up-and-coming dance artists she counts The Specials, T. Rex, The Slits and Blondie as favorites.
“I got expelled from various schools and was sent to boarding school as they thought it would be a restraining influence, but I ran away when I was 14,” she recalls. “It was obvious I didn’t like authority.”
Although she dropped out of school, Allen continued to have a voracious appetite for books and music. “I always felt I couldn’t articulate my feelings as much as I wanted to. Books and music helped me do that,” she says. “I started to feel like I could have a voice.”
Lily’s incisive lyrical observations belie her years. “With the kind of music I do you have to be direct and quite literal,” she says. “I don’t play an instrument, which really makes me focus on the vocal melody, and the lyrics are incredibly important to me. I don’t want to be part of a scene - the whole idea of that makes me feel sick - and most of the music I listen to is by outsider figures, which is where I feel happiest.”
“There was a little old lady who was walking down the road
She was struggling with bags from Tesco
There were people in the city having lunch in the park
I believe that is called alfresco
Then a kid came along to offer a hand
But before she had time to accept it
Hits her over the head, doesn’t care if she’s dead
‘Cause he’s got all her jewelry and wallet” (from “LDN”)
In November of 2005, Allen started posting tracks on her MySpace site to see what fans thought of them. “Since then it’s gone mad,” she says. (Her songs have received over five million total plays to date.) “The online support I got for my music grew quickly, then the next thrill was hearing it on the radio. The reaction has been so positive it’s left me reeling a bit. But I’m happy and I know the songs can live up to people’s expectations.” And indeed they have. “Through and through, it sounds like part Millie Small, part Gwen Stefani, part Blondie, without ever really sounding much like anything other than Allen’s own mash-up of cool,” said Rolling Stone. The New Yorker has praised her “delightful, ska-inflected songs” and Pitchfork said “Alright, Still isn’t anything else but a fantastic success. Not only does Allen deliver on the musical promise hinted at in her MySpace demos, she also acquits herself as a genuine personality with wit and attitude to spare.”
Allen’s cheeky, street-smart observations imbue Alright, Still with an unerringly modern female point-of-view. On “Smile,” Lily admits to feeling guilty - but not that guilty - for feeling good when an ex-boyfriend cries because she won’t give it another go. Perhaps he shouldn’t have slept with her neighbor. On “Knock ‘Em Out,” a lame pick-up line is met with a litany of bogus reasons (ranging from various sexually transmitted diseases to a house fire) why “it’s not gonna happen/not in a million years.” And while the chorus of “LDN” brims with unabashed affection for London, the verses are a deft social commentary exposing the warts of a town intent on keeping up appearances. Cynicism and a sunny outlook aren’t mutually exclusive in Allen’s world, which goes a long way towards explaining her unbridled confidence and contagious joie de vivre. The world is still her oyster - even if it was dredged from murky waters.