LILY ALLEN is the kind of rising star everybody knows, but not too well. Music snobs have been alternately fawning over and dismissing the 21-year-old singer since last summer, when she hit No. 1 on the British pop charts with the lilting kiss-off ballad "Smile" after posting it on her MySpace page.
Her celebrity lineage (her parents are comedian Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen) and unchecked mouthiness have made her a tabloid baby in England, the subject of stories like "LILY ALLEN: I DEALT DRUGS IN IBIZA" or "LILY ALLEN BLASTS MADONNA AGAIN." In the States, she's viewed, so far, as a perfect specimen of Internet success, her music a nice accompaniment to her blog.
Luckily for Allen, her songs are too infectious to stay buried by her back story. She likes to say her art is based in contradiction, starting with her music, which blends street sounds with the sunny observations of an ingenue, and extending to her image -- she's a girlie girl in frills who won't wear anything on her feet but basketball trainers. Allen has thought all this out -- she's no accidental talent but a smart social observer and precociously gifted melodist whose relaxed, responsive vocals show evidence of her youthful study of jazz.
"When I was about 13, at school, I started doing jazz improvisation," she said recently over lunch at the Mondrian Hotel, where she'd camped before launching a brief U.S. tour in celebration of the American release of her debut album, "Alright, Still," on Capitol Records. "I was listening to Blossom Dearie and Ella Fitzgerald. I guess that's where a lot of my melody writing comes from."
Allen's jazz leanings showed late that night at the Kodak Theatre, when she covered "Naive," a jangly rock hit by fellow Brits the Kooks, in a manner Madeleine Peyroux would have endorsed. But "Alright, Still," with its hip-hop beats and Jamaican samples, has forever linked Allen with the English hip-hop movement that has also produced M.I.A., Lady Sovereign and Mike Skinner of the Streets.
Allen has some trouble with the association. "People always describe my music as a hip-hop/rap/ska fusion, and I think that's really wrong," she said, expressing a stronger affinity for the 1980s pop of Squeeze and the Specials than the two stars her record company had most recently hooked her up with -- Kanye West and Common.
With its blend of music hall and Jamaican dancehall, "Alright, Still" does hark back to the halcyon days of British New Wave. But it was created in an atmosphere more akin to hip-hop. Though Allen's semiautobiographical lyrics (and, let's be honest, white skin and girlish demeanor) get her labeled a singer-songwriter, she doesn't write like one, instead working almost entirely in collaboration. "Alright, Still" emerged in the studio as Allen worked with producers including Future Cut, Greg Kurstin and Mark Ronson.
"I rely heavily on my producers," she said. "We all go into the studio and listen to a bunch of 7-inches; either they'll write something from scratch or we'll just sample a record straight away. While they're doing that I'll come up with an idea for the song, a word will come out, and I'll write either a verse or a chorus, whatever comes first. Then I'll figure out the flow of how it's gonna work. And then I ad lib."
Kurstin, who worked with Allen on several standout tracks on "Alright, Still," calls her an easy collaborator. "Lily definitely knew what she wanted to hear in a track," he wrote in an e-mail. (The Bird and the Bee, Kurstin's duo with singer Inara George, is currently opening for Allen in England and on a North American tour that begins Friday.) "She was also open to hearing stuff I had brought in. On some songs, I brought in tracks, and we ended up cutting them up when we were in the room together. We didn't overthink anything. Just finished it in a day and moved on."
Those Jamaican sounds
MANY hip-hop classics originated in similar brainstorming sessions. Yet Allen's refusal to embrace the category makes sense. She's willful about presenting her music in a way that, as she puts it, "doesn't compromise any of my morals," and that means not trying to pass as something she's not. Allen is a complex character -- a child of artistic parents who grew up in West London, privy to that strange mix of privilege and economic challenge that characterizes bohemian life. She learned about music from her mom's New Wave and glam rock albums as well as reggae that played on her block; as much as she loved Jamaica's ragamuffin sound and style, she knew her fate was different.
"As a teenager, I got into hip-hop and jungle and ragga," she said. "I desperately wanted to be a dancehall queen. I was so jealous of M.I.A. when she came out [with her dancehall-influenced sound]. That was what I wanted to do! But I couldn't, being a middle-class white chick. So it was about finding what was acceptable, but still staying true to what I believed in. With ska, and bands like the Specials, there were always white people attached to it."
Allen's sound is both based in the Jamaican music that inspired English ska, and distinctively, almost defiantly, unlike it. Singing in a tone both ladylike and youthful, Allen never even comes close to minstrelsy; nor does she push into rock-style rawness, even though her lyrics can often be salty. Her sweet-and-sour personality connects more to the grace of screwballs like Lucille Ball and Tracey Ullman (and Gwen Stefani at her hollaback best) than to the chest-thumping that afflicts many current pop idols. Allen understands that the best jokes are serious at heart; her songs center on that dichotomy.
"The first song I wrote was 'Smile,' " she said. "What came into my head was 'Smile, smile,' and I thought, well I like that but it's too happy, it's too nice. Darren [Lewis, one half of the Future Cut production team] said, twist the lyrics a bit. So I thought, how can I make 'smile' sound horrible? And then I thought -- 'When I see you cry it makes me smile!' That set the tone for everything."
As befitting a funnyman's daughter, Allen's style is essentially comic, playing on paradoxes so painful they become ridiculous. In her songs, ribaldry and sarcasm replace the yearning emotiveness of many a female pop star.
"I never used to get on with women before I made this album," said Allen, who now takes pride in young women identifying with her songs. "I'd always been a boys' girl. It probably has to do with my father; the only way we could interact was for him to take me to watch football every weekend, basically for me to pretend to be his son. I latched onto that. All my friends would be groups of boys, and it would be very much like the situation with my dad -- all of us shouting and chanting at the football matches."
A tomboy disguised as a girlie girl, Allen sees the awkwardness that incongruities generate as key to her art. "Sometimes, I'll look at the crowd and laugh because I find it so ridiculous that all these people are there to watch me," she said. "Yes, sometimes I do look uncomfortable. But that's because I'm human." And at that thought, Lily Allen had a giggle.