A month ago, Lily Allen showed some of the wear and tear from her yearlong pursuit of pop fame—a flirtation that blossomed into a love/hate relationship in her native England but remains somewhat unrequited in America.
“It turns out this really is a job, and sometimes it can even be a hard one,” said Allen, 21, in an interview during the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas.
The candid, mouthy, fun-loving pop singer went to the SXSW fest—as many British acts do—to launch her American tour. Her album, “Alright, Still,” reached No. 2 on the U.K. charts last year, and hopes were high that its success would be repeated stateside when the disc was released here in February. She got off to a running start, too, with a performance of her ex-boyfriend-dissing single “Smile” on “Saturday Night Live.”
Two weeks ago, however, she abruptly pulled the plug on most of her U.S. tour dates. The only shows Allen kept are biggies such as the Coachella Music Festival and June’s Bonnaroo fest. No makeup gigs are expected soon.
On her popular but notorious MySpace.com blog—her chief marketing instrument so far—Allen coyly apologized for the cancellations with comments that included a reference to her parents, comedian/actor Keith Allen and movie producer Alison Owen.
“My mummy and daddy are very rich, and I have never been in a position where I have actually had to do any hard work before,” she joked (or half-joked?) in the posting.
Allen went on to write about how she has been drinking heavily and giving subpar performances on tour. Her publicist later painted a softer picture in a press release, which said the singer is eager to start working on her new album.
Whatever the reasons, the tour cancellation was hardly a surprise after a sit-down with Allen in Austin.
“It’d be nice to do really, really well here (in America), but you have to work really (expletive) hard to do that,” she said at the time, seated in the lobby of her Austin hotel.
Allen arrived wearing the same fun attire she wore for her SXSW showcase that night: a billowy turquoise sundress over leggings, unzipped sweatshirt hoodie, Converse-style sneakers and lots of gold jewelry, including a sparkly necklace shaped like a machine gun. She was polite and downright smiley, as she laughed off many of the toughest questions but laughed hardest while poking fun at herself.
“I’m not the type of person that likes to be on the treadmill at 6 in the morning and doing endorsements for Coca-Cola or whatever,” she said, adding with another slight laugh, “I want to make money here, but I don’t need America to like me.”
Cheeky, blunt comments like these made Allen both a darling and punching bag in the controversy-loving British tabloids and music press over the past year. The press has eaten up her blog postings and other comments ranging from a bashing of Madonna to her tales of being a teenage Ecstasy dealer. But writers also have lambasted her affluent upbringing and tried to turn her into a wittier, thinking-man’s Britney Spears.
“There was an incident where I was with my boyfriend just going out, and there were like 70 photographers and I couldn’t see and it was crazy, so I started kicking at them,” Allen recalled, with an eye roll. “And the next day, it was, `Lily Allen’s just trying to get in the headlines again.’ No, I’m not, I was just trying to be a human being.”
Still, she doesn’t deny seeking the headlines.
“Oh, yeah, I’m definitely savvy when it comes to the press, I think,” she said. “When things seem like they’re dying down and they’re not really writing about me, I’ll put something back on my blog that’ll grab their attention and get me back in the papers. I’m not ashamed of it, either. I probably wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do that.”
What often gets lost in all the gossipy hubbub is the quality of Allen’s music. “Alright, Still”—currently No. 41 on the Billboard charts after a No. 20 debut—is a fun, infectious, ska-tinged dance-pop album that sounds a bit breezy at first. But you’ll find plenty of examples of Allen’s sharp wit underneath the music.
“Smile,” which was a hit on MySpace before Allen landed her record deal, has a congenial-sounding chorus hiding the hard-jabbing hook, “At first when I see you cry/Yeah, it makes me smile.” That’s nothing compared with “Not Big,” which lambasts a guy (same one?) for being lousy in bed. And the bright-sounding “`Everything’s Just Wonderful” is actually full of angst: “I wanna be able to eat spaghetti bolognese/And not feel bad about it for days and days and days/In the magazines they talk about weight loss/If I buy those jeans I can look like Kate Moss.”
Said Allen, “A lot of the album—especially `Smile’—is about me tapping into real, oh-woe-is-me feelings and trying to look at them in more of a funny light. I can’t express emotions very well, so I try to do it in a funny way.”
Thus, maybe Allen’s humorous explanation for canceling her tour also hid some weightier circumstances. Either way, though, she promised last month that her music will always have a sarcastic edge.
“There is a more serious side to me, but that’s for my therapist—not my albums,” she said, all smiles.
// Notes from the Road
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