‘I haven’t spoken to Dad…’
Following on from her explosive bestselling autobiography, Lily Allen opens up to Craig Mclean about family disputes, career plans and continuing to crave the simple life
Drink, drugs, divorce, family feuds – as Lily Allen’s frank new autobiography reveals, her rock’n’roll life has taken a heavy toll. Here, she talks to Craig Mclean about past mistakes, paying off the mortgage and leaving the old Lily behind. Photographs by Trevor Brady
In a freezing car park in downtown Seattle, Lily Allen is giving me the tour of her bedroom-on-wheels. There’s a fullsized bed, which has a tendency to come away from the wall, ‘so sometimes I wake up over here,’ she says, standing by a large wallmounted screen with Netflix and Amazon Prime.
‘Super-nice,’ the singer-songwriter smiles, acknowledging a binge-watching addiction to Homecoming, the new podcastturned-thriller series starring Julia Roberts. Next to the bed, at pillow-level, is pinned a drawing of a heart. ‘I love you mummy,’ it says, a note from Ethel, seven, big sister of Marnie, five.
The bed itself is covered by an open suitcase, full of shoes and shoes alone. Allen – who’s been touring the world on and off since the release of her landmark, voice-of-the-west-londonstreets debut album, 2006’s Alright, Still – also has a dozen pairs of trainers spread over the eight items of luggage she’s brought with her. ‘But I haven’t really brought that much,’ she insists.
‘Not too shabby, is it?’ Allen concludes brightly of her tour bus, the facilities rounded out by coffin-like bunks for five other members of her touring team, a lounge and even a small bar area. This bedroom has been Allen’s home away from home for the past five weeks. The 33-year-old, her twopiece band and a travelling party numbering 20 in total have been driven up and down, back and forth, across North America. Welcome to the No Shame tour, titled after her well-reviewed and Mercury Music Prize-nominated fourth album.
This is how one of the UK’S most distinctive – and controversial – musical voices rolls, 13 years into her music career. After launching her songs via the then-groundbreaking route of sharing them freely on early social network Myspace, Allen hit number one with her first proper single, 2006’s Smile. She topped the charts again in 2013 with her cover of Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know, the song for that year’s John Lewis Christmas advert. And throughout her rise, Allen, a brave and opinionated speaker, has never been afraid to engage with the issues that fire her up, especially on Twitter – whether it’s media phone-hacking, her support for Jeremy Corbyn, her shame over the UK’S role in the Syrian refugee crisis or the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Still, it’s a calmer, wiser, considerably more family-oriented Allen that I meet in Seattle. The 21 shows on this tour were scheduled around her children’s half-term, the better to allow the musician to respect as much as possible the joint custody arrangements for her two daughters with ex-husband Sam Cooper, owner of a building company.
She is, then, in a good place, albeit desperate to return home. Only two sleeps and two concerts to go, Seattle tonight and Vancouver tomorrow. Allen is counting down the hours – 72 of them – until she will touch down at Heathrow and head straight home to her flat in north-west London for a family Sunday lunch with her daughters and boyfriend of three years, Tottenham grime MC Meridian Dan, whom she met at Notting Hill Carnival.
Still, all that organising, all that travelling, has come at a cost. ‘I’ve got so fat on this tour,’ she says, swaddled against the Pacific Northwest cold in a Maharishi sweatshirt and scarf. She appears a little tired, but is otherwise glowing and healthy-looking,
The cause of her weight gain is not bad diet or drinking – the latter the curse of her last American run, in support of her misfiring 2014 album Sheezus. That tour was a catastrophe of indulgence (alcohol and drugs), partying (morning, noon and night) and sexual misadventure (boys and girls, dancers and prostitutes). Her life spiralling out of control, Allen was serially unfaithful – not least with female sex workers – to her husband while on the road.
Allen lays bare that intensely troubled period in eye-watering detail in her recently published autobiography, the bestselling My Thoughts Exactly. Indeed, it’s so wide-ranging and near-theknuckle honest that her mother, the film producer Alison Owen, told me that she was worried less about how she would emerge, more how others would respond. Her father, the actor Keith Allen, meanwhile, hasn’t spoken to her since publication. As for the fallout from Allen’s forthe-record admission that she had sex with then-married Liam Gallagher aboard a flight to Tokyo – well, more on her exact thoughts, and exact deeds, later.
The reason for Allen’s weight gain is steroids. The week before I met her she’d had to cancel three shows due to ‘inflamed everything’ around her vocal chords. She’s been prescribed elephantstrength medication.
‘They shoved a camera up my nose and had a look at my vocal chords,’ she explains in her straight-up (not posh, not ‘street’) London accent. ‘My whole face was just f—ed and my eardrums were a bit swollen, so my in-ear monitors weren’t fitting properly. It wasn’t painful, it was just like running out of petrol. So the notes I was hitting in my head and what were coming out of my mouth were completely different. And it’s scary because, as much as I want to give everyone the best show I possibly can, my voice is my livelihood, so I can’t push it. Because once it’s f—ed, it’s f—ed for ever.’
Onstage in Detroit, she was 50 minutes into her 90-minute set and trying to sing an acoustic version of Family Man, a heartbreaking song about her split from Cooper. ‘And I burst into tears and had to walk off!’ she laughs. ‘I’ve never done that before.’ Really? Not even on the round-the-clock chaos that was the Sheezus tour?
‘Well, I don’t think I cared about the sound, I was so f—ed up.’ She laughs again. ‘What’s been really striking on this tour is that we’ve played a lot of the same venues, and I haven’t recognised them. That’s how much of a mess I was. I’ve gone into dressing rooms and [venue staff ] have come in saying, “Oh my God, so good to see you again!” I’m like, “I don’t know what
‘I was so f—ed up on the 2014 tour. We’ve played a lot of the same venues, and I haven’t recognised them’
you’re talking about.”’ Another burst of near-manic laughter. ‘So, yeah, that was worrying.’
For sure, Allen has cleaned up her act since she last toured. A break-up, a breakdown and then a divorce can have that effect. This time there has been no serial infidelity, and no classas. Not that she’s gone super-healthy. ‘I’d like to say I was going to the gym but I’m just terrible.’ But while she used to fill her time on the road with ‘drugs or shopping… now I do neither. I spend a lot of time reading the news, getting irate.
‘I’m not sober, by any stretch of the word,’ she clarifies, and nor has she completely forsworn cigarettes. ‘But I’m also not completely hammered from nine in the morning onwards. And I really care about the gigs this time round and want them to be as good as they can be. Whereas I didn’t really care before!’ she admits with another peal of laughter.
It was a period during which, at her lowest ebb, she drunkenly tried to seduce Orlando Bloom while at Kate Hudson’s Hollywood Hallowe’en party, knocked herself out after lunging at the actor while straddling him, and was rescued by Coldplay’s Chris Martin who, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, then tried to stage an intervention at their Malibu home. Martin, one of myriad musician acquaintances, said he wanted to help her, and he and Paltrow put her in contact with their marriage counsellor. Allen didn’t attend a meeting, ‘but it was the wake-up call I needed,’ she writes.
She concedes that her lack of care wasn’t just a hallmark of the Sheezus era. In fact, even on her first two albums (her second, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You was another number one, as was lead single The Fear), fun was Lily Allen’s priority. I remember seeing her at the Coachella festival in the Californian desert, in 2007. It was certainly a lively performance, not least because ‘I forgot every single word to every single song. Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan gave me a spliff just before I went on and I forgot everything,’ she explains. ‘I got stage fright after that, thinking that I’d forget the words again. Ever since then I have to have autocue.’
Was she concerned that another US tour would be a trigger for her, tipping her back into bad behaviour?
‘Yeah, for sure. Funnily enough, I went to see A Star Is Born two nights before I came out here. And I had to walk out halfway through because I was, like, “Triggers!”’ she exclaims of the Bradley Cooper/lady Gaga movie about the intoxicating effects, good and bad, of a career in music. ‘So, yeah, I was definitely really nervous about it. But, pat on the back, I’ve made it this far without losing my mind.’
Last time, she toured lengthily to escape a private life that was in meltdown. She and Cooper, who married in 2011, endured the stillbirth of their first child George, a difficult second pregnancy and postnatal depression. Allen was also stalked – for seven years. At one point a mentally ill man, Alex Gray, burst into her bedroom in the middle of the night. Allen’s own detective work finally compelled the police to take action (in 2016, he was sentenced to an indeterminate hospital order). No wonder she wanted to run away.
This time, though, she’s touring for the right reasons: to make money as a single parent. The irony, though, doesn’t escape her. ‘I have a job to pay for a house that I can only afford if I’m not living in it!’ she hoots again. ‘So weird. But, I guess, I am providing a roof for my kids, which is… good?’ she says, raising her voice, tentatively, questioningly.
Lily Allen grew up in chaotic circumstances all over London. Her father walked out on her, her mother and her little brother, actor Alfie (Game of Thrones), when she was four. For a while comedian Harry Enfield was her de facto stepfather, but only for a while. She attended multiple schools, comprehensive and private, including a brief stint at progressive Hampshire private school Bedales, and left education at 15 without a single qualification. During her childhood, the Groucho Club in Soho, her hell-raising father’s preferred watering hole, was her original home away from home.
Money, care and attention were in short supply. As Allen tells it, as her mother rose through the ranks of the movie industry, she spent more time away on film sets, while her father pursued a life of carousing. In My Thoughts Exactly Allen talks openly of feelings of abandonment and neglect – and, as a result, of her numerous ill-starred romantic and sexual relationships that followed. The book is never less than emotionally bracing, and as Allen says on more than one occasion, it was important to put ‘my truth’ out there. But her mum had a point: you do worry about others’ reactions. For example: Allen writes about being sexually assaulted by someone she calls ‘Record Industry Executive’. She wanted to name the man, but lawyers counselled against it.
‘I can’t be too specific, but he works with a lot of acts that are very prominent acts at my record label,’ she tells me. ‘And I think you can pinpoint when that happened and when investment stopped happening into my career, from them. And I would have liked somebody else to draw those parallels…’ Allen coughs. ‘But, yeah, sad,’ she shrugs.
Then there’s her account of her and Liam Gallagher’s boozy sky-high congress en route to performing at a Japanese rock festival. Does she regret the upset that revelation might have caused to, notably, his then-wife Nicole Appleton of All Saints?
‘It was never about getting back at [Liam]. And I’m sorry that it might have upset people, but it was upsetting to me as well,’ she notes, writing in the book of how Gallagher later called her
and asked her to deny to Appleton that anything had happened between them. ‘And you have to be selfish, I think, sometimes.’
Among various other depictions of woeful paternal parenting, Allen wrote that her father had suffered a drug-induced heart attack while, aged 13, she was with him at Glastonbury – and that he then immediately went back to taking cocaine the same weekend. Keith Allen texted to inform her that he’d actually had acute food poisoning. The story will duly be amended in the next reprint.
Beyond that, ‘I haven’t spoken to him since it came out.’ Is she sad about that? Uncharacteristically, Allen pauses. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I am. But it was my truth,’ she repeats. ‘I wouldn’t have put it in there if I didn’t think it was significant, and if I didn’t feel it served to draw a picture of how I ended up the way I did. As difficult as it’s going to be for him to read, and as difficult as it was for me to say those things, they were really significant, watershed moments in my life. And had a lot to do with my selfconfidence and self-esteem.’
Or lack thereof. ‘Exactly. So if he’s upset – which I think he is – it’s because they’re not nice things. But it’s me that had to deal with them. And now he’s having to deal with them. It’s interesting that the thing he contacted me about was the cocaine thing,’ she muses. ‘What about all the other stuff?’ A burst of manic laughter. ‘Do you want to talk about the Record Industry Executive? Or anything else? Nothing,’ she says with a sad shake of her head. ‘All he cared about was… him.’
On stage that night at Seattle’s 1,100-capacity Showbox club, Lily Allen is in great form, inflamed ‘everything’ notwithstanding. In a fluorescent lime-green-tinged blonde wig and sparkly emerald frock-come-pantaloons, she entertains the rapturous, heavily female audience with a set largely drawn from the spartan, lyrically pointed electro pop of No Shame – and with a story about how, the last time she performed here, her encore was delayed by a bad case of diarrhoea.
She is, brilliantly, that kind of pop star: one with no shame. As is evident a couple of hours later, around midnight. Toting a Bluetooth speaker broadcasting reggae playlists from her iphone, a cheerfully refreshed Allen dances with a couple of fans in the freezing car park in which her tour buses are parked.
The rest of her tour party head off to a bar, determined to make the most of Seattle until the buses’ 3am departure. But not Allen. Sensible rather than insensible, she climbs aboard her bus, pausing only to remove her wig before falling asleep.
As she’d indicated earlier, it’s a quieter life these days.
‘What do I spend my money on now? My kids. I’m also really bad at keeping track of stuff. Moving from venue to venue, hotel to hotel, small things get lost. There’s no point in buying jewellery, it just gets nicked or lost. And I don’t go out, so there’s no point on spending money on clothes or handbags. Even the live show – everything is stripped back, less distraction. With me at the centre of it, with my truth. That’s what I feel like is my currency.’
Ask her if she’s happy, and she’s initially, unusually stumped. ‘It’s difficult question to answer,’ she ponders. ‘My kids are thriving and they’re happy. And me and my ex-husband are communicating well. And, um, I like living in the present. So, yeah, I feel good in those respects.
‘But I can’t say I’m on top the world. Because the world is a daunting prospect,’ she sighs.
Where does she see herself in 10 years? ‘I don’t,’ she replies quickly. ‘Don’t think about that, I’m just riding a wave and floating. I’d like to pay off my mortgage, not be in debt, and people to still want to come see my shows – and turn up!’
For Lily Allen, it is, finally, about the simpler things.
My Thoughts Exactly (£20, Blink Publishing) is available now. Lily Allen tours the UK this month; see lilyallenmusic.com
Allen at the BRIT Awards 2007; the launch show for Sheezus, 2014
Clockwise from top left Allen with her father, Keith; her mother, Alison Owen; her boyfriend, Meridian Dan; now ex-husband Sam Cooper