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Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007

Lily in bloom as the opinionated princess of pop

British singer Lily Allen inhabits the center of attention, both for her music and her blunt musings

Special to The Japan Times

'I've never really looked up to people in music," says Lily Allen, London's rising pop star. In fact, "rising" may be too subtle a word -- "soaring" would be more accurate. Right now in Britain she adorns several magazine covers, blasts from radio stations across all demographics, and even played just after midnight on Jools Holland's prestigious "Hootenanny" television show on New Year's Eve, ushering in a year that for her will likely be a prosperous one.

News photo
News photo Lily Allen, on her bike in London (above) and on stage at Club Asia in Shibuya last November (left). The outspoken star says that social-networking Web sites like MySpace, which is credited with helping propel her to fame, convey "a sense of how bored young people are with manufactured pop music." KAZUAKI SEKI PHOTO (left)

A bundle of contradictions, the 21-year-old is at once disarmingly truthful and painfully funny. And better still, her music is the stuff that pop dreams are made of: Simple but deep, honest but infectious, instantly lovable and hard to forget. She's the icon that Britain didn't even know it needed. And it is ironic that someone with no idols has become an idol herself -- or then again, that might explain things entirely.

"I've never really had posters of people on my wall," she continues during a recent interview with The Japan Times. "I think that role models should be close to home, rather than people you don't know at all. That's why I'm so honest about everything that goes on in my life, 'cos I understand that there are young kids who look up to singers and people in the media as role models. But you don't really know anything about their lives. They don't talk about their weird sex habits and drug habits (laughs). Yet you idolize them. And when it eventually gets printed all over the papers, people become very disappointed."

Instead, Lily takes her inspiration from family friend Oona King, one of the first black female politicians in Britain, as well as her own mother, film producer Alison Owen.

More well-known is Lily's dad, Keith Allen, a comedian and actor with a small role in Brit-flick "Shallow Grave," as well as commercials and television series, including the new "Robin Hood" drama, and songwriting credits on New Order's "World In Motion" and a few humorous football songs.

With her parents immersed in the media, it seemed inevitable that Lily would follow suit. And that she did, signing a deal with Warner Music in 2002 at the age of 16 -- a year after dropping out of school. But the deal turned sour, and Lily fought aggressively for her freedom before quitting the music scene altogether.

"I got out of that deal just before I turned 18, and I sued them for a lot of money," she grins. "I kind of gave up on music at that point, so I just packed my bags and went traveling around the world on my own. It was great. I did a lot of traveling around Asia, like India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and stuff, and I came to Japan three years ago for the Fuji Rock Festival. I was working there [she helped set-up in the Palace of Wonder area], but it was still highly enjoyable."

Eventually the time came to return to reality. Still disillusioned with the music industry, Lily embarked upon a new career -- in floristry.

"I came back from traveling and then I went to floristry college," she giggles, "I learned all about horticulture and flowers; I did that for a while. My top tip is not to mix different groups of flowers. Lots of people mix roses with exotic flowers and exotic foliage, but I think things should be grouped how they were meant to be grouped. Anyway, I didn't really like the early mornings so I went back into music! I get a lot more out of music than I did out of floristry, although I'm discovering that the mornings can be even earlier . . ."

After signing a small development deal with Parlophone imprint Regal in September 2005, Lily began honing her craft in earnest, ruthlessly mixing genres with various producers, including Mark Ronson of Robbie Williams and Kaiser Chiefs fame, until she found a sound all of her own. Taking in ska, dub, indie, grime, electro-pop and more, and brimming with hooks catchier than a cold, her songs are effortlessly cool slices of summery pop music.

"I've always been into a lot of different types of music, from one end of the spectrum to the other," she says. "I grew up on ska and reggae music, and lived in West London where the Notting Hill Carnival is held every year, so that's always been a really big element of my life. But then also, I did go out and take loads of ecstasy and MDMA and rave to drum 'n' bass and jungle music for a few years, and then after that period I got really, really into hip hop, so I had to find a way to pull all those things together."

A portion of Lily's success can be attributed to her use of the social- networking Web site MySpace. Using her page as a way to preview material and write funny, confessional blogs, she built a huge fanbase before releasing a note.

"Sites like MySpace give you a sense of how bored young people are with manufactured pop music," she says. "Suddenly they've got this tool of the Internet and they're like, 'F**k! There's all this other s**t out there that I can listen to.' Which is why you've got young artists who are speaking their minds coming through."

As the buzz reached fever pitch in April 2006, Regal hastily released a 7-inch-only debut single. Easily her best song to date, "LDN" was a breezy, brassy affair; its fanfare chorus, uptempo dub-rhythm backing and sweet sunshine vocals melted like butter in the ears of an unsuspecting public. The track was received to huge acclaim, gracing clubs, radio and television alike. It was closely followed by the soulful, spiteful "Smile" in June and debut album "Alright, Still" in July, which reached No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the U.K. charts.

The album was a breath of fresh air; 11 tracks of quality, grownup pop. Lily's knack for brash comments permeates the lyrics. "Everything's Just Wonderful" pleads for a rethink in societal values, away from money and vanity that make life so stressful.

"All the magazines, they talk about weight loss/If I buy those jeans, I can look like Kate Moss," she sings, adding, "It's not the life that I chose." Despite the depth of this and other tracks, the sound is never morbid; rather, the album is deliciously compelling from start to finish.

"The stories behind most of the songs are true, but there are tracks which are fictional to a certain extent," she says, referring to the farcical boyfriend- basher "Not Big." "That song's kind of like an amalgamation of all three of my relationships. Not all of them had small dicks, but one of them had a small dick, and the other one left me and I slept with all his friends, and the other one left me after I'd been getting really high and sleeping in his bed the whole time. I understand the song but they wouldn't (laughs). They might think, 'That bit could be about me, but that other bit doesn't make sense . . .' "

In Britain's "tabloid shocker!!!" media climate, Lily's outspoken opinions have caused quite a stir. When asked by U.K. music magazine NME how she would celebrate the success of "Smile," she joked, "Gak" (slang for cocaine). She was forced to retract the comment when it was quoted as a serious response. And the number of artists with whom she has feuded runs into double figures already. But Lily insists that she is not willfully rude, just honest. She joins a pantheon of gobby young Brits, including Amy Winehouse, Lady Sovereign and Plan B, not to mention old-guard favorite Liam Gallagher, who make pop journalism that little bit more interesting.

"What I would like is for people, especially women artists, to look at someone like me and think, 'Well actually, I can say what I want and get away with it,' " she says. "Maybe people are a little bit shocked by it now, but I hope that they'll get used to it and it won't be such a big issue anymore. In music, men have always been quite outspoken, and people haven't really batted an eyelid at it. But women are meant to sit there and look pretty. I haven't got a petite figure or massive boobs, so I can't really do that (laughs). My personality is my weapon."

But despite this, the world's media has been largely unanimous in one thing: that Lily Allen's music is fantastic. In the months following her album release, she's visited countless countries, including a sold-out show at Tokyo's Club Asia last November, graced magazine and newspaper covers across the globe, sang on Robbie Williams' latest album, and even did a soundtrack for a Nike TV commercial aired around Southeast Asia starring 16-year-old Korean-American pro-golfer Michelle Wie. She's refreshingly frank about such signposts, or some might say pitfalls, of commercial success.

"Um, I'm quite torn about it. I feel kind of hypocritical in a lot of senses because I disagree with a lot of things that go on with major companies like that -- the way they kind of exploit other people, maybe -- but at the same time I love wearing Nike trainers (laughs), and they're the only trainers that I wear. . . . But you know, I'm not going to authorize my songs to be played at an arms fair in America (laughs). I do have certain limits!"

Nevertheless, Lily's worldwide acclaim continues to grow. As fans fall besotted around the globe, so too does the press, and it's rare to see a negative review of pop's newest heroine.

"I feel pretty good about having my praises sung around the world," she admits with a wry smile. "It's better than not having your praises sung, hey? But there's such hype surrounding everything that there's just so much to do and so many people to please. I don't really read my own press. I read stuff on my MySpace and on my Web site, but in those other countries I can't understand the newspapers anyway [laughs]."

Lily says she's not tied to making music forever, thinking that she may move elsewhere in the industry. She's already proven her knack for spotting trends by recommending that her A&R boyfriend Seb Chew sign British day-glo electro band The Klaxons, whom she herself discovered through MySpace, and she feels an affinity for self-made hip-hop kingpin Jay-Z. But in the here and now, she's planning a followup album that will surprise listeners yet again.

"My next album will be a different mix of different types of music," she says. "Not reggae, ska and hip hop again; it'll go somewhere else. But to be honest, I don't really want a career that I'll do for the rest of my life. I was doing floristry before this and I was happy with that, and I'm sure that I'll become unhappy with this at some point too. And then maybe I'll go and work for a record company doing something else, or get married and have children and live in the countryside and grow vegetables and die!"

See related link:
Big mouth strikes again ... and again

Lily Allen performs Jan. 11, 7 p.m. at Shibuya Club Quattro; Jan. 12, 7 p.m. at Liquid Room Ebisu; Jan. 15, 7 p.m. at Nagoya Club Quattro; Jan 16, 7 p.m. at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro; tickets 6,000 yen. For more information call (03) 3444-6751 or visit www.smash-jpn.com

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