Friday, February 6, 2009

Lily Allen returns with a new album and she is not rowdy

LILY ALLEN is in her bed, under the covers, fully dressed. It’s a temporary pose; Ms. Allen, the British pop star, is known for an exhibitionist streak in her lyrics and her lifestyle. Soon enough she will be up, disrobing and divulging, in preparation for a gossipy, and probably gossiped about, night out.

But first there is the matter of an interview in her modest flat here. Munching chips, she eagerly gives a tour. It’s a three-bedroom, but the smallest serves as a closet; her room is slate blue with a claw-foot tub not far from the bed. Like the rest of the place it is filled with art and mementoes: paintings by Saatchi artists, badges from her concerts, a cartoony cutout of herself (“It’s fatter than me,” she trilled), a mash note from Elton John and David Furnish (“big year for you in 2009”) and a framed blowup of her citation for assaulting a photographer. (“He was taking a picture up my skirt at the time, so I kicked him,” she said.) She slips on beat-up Chanel flats to show off the garden; before she was a singer, she briefly studied to be a florist.

Ms. Allen, 23, bought the apartment, her first, a year and a half ago, after the success of her debut album, “Alright, Still,” released in 2006. A raunchy ska- and reggae-inflected alt-pop hit that sold more than 500,000 copies in the United States and 2.5 million worldwide, it earned her MTV and Grammy nominations and a reputation as a MySpace and blog-era star. In vintage-style dresses, door-knocker earrings and sneakers, she sang bluntly about boyfriends, lousy sex, good drugs and nights out somewhere in between. The hedonism extended offstage as well; Ms. Allen went on a bender of bad behavior, with photographs of her stumbling — or being carried — out of clubs as a paparazzi staple.

Lately, though, she has been taking pains to proclaim her homebody-ness. Inside her apartment, wrapped in a gray blanket and drinking milky tea, she talks quietly, curled up in a blue chair in the living room. “We sit around this table and play Scrabble,” she said of evenings with her friends. On her new album, “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” which will be released on Tuesday by Capitol/EMI, she extols the pleasures of eating takeout Chinese, watching TV and taking her dog — a mutt, Mabel — for a walk. The sound is less Ibiza party girl, and in addition to the usual topics (love, drugs, fornication) she tackles more grown-up subjects: family tension, politics, religion. Mature is the word her label has tacked onto it.

“We really think that there’s an opportunity for her to take a big, big step forward,” said Howard Handler, the executive vice president for marketing at EMI. “There’s a real opportunity to connect her to a much bigger audience here in America. She’s also grown quite a bit as an artist.”

But the album, her first since “Alright, Still” made her an international symbol of girlish rebellion, also cheekily showcases her desire for the trappings of celebrity. “I want to be rich and I want lots of money,” she sings on the new single “The Fear.” “I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless/because everyone knows that’s how you get famous.” Her openness has always served her; Ms. Allen was one of the first artists to mine MySpace successfully for a fan base, posting demos before her debut and gaining attention with frank blog posts that highlighted her average-girl insecurities, about her looks and weight, and her pop star-in-the-making bravado, when she dissed better-known performers.

Now she is dealing with the aftermath of all that accessibility. “I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore,” she sings later in “The Fear,” which is rising on the radio charts. In Britain especially Ms. Allen is, in her view, a target of the tabloids. She no longer prizes the attention, least of all after a tumultuous year when she suffered a miscarriage, lost her grandmother and developed a talk show. Balancing her public persona with her private life, as she says she wants to, could make her a more serious international artist — or it could alienate the fans used to her openness.

Though she Twitters, she has cut down on blogging. “I just can’t be on there, defending myself the whole time,” she said. “Who am I defending myself to anyway?”

Her Wikipedia entry, she complained, is riddled with lies. Like what? She hopped up to her computer. “Claims to have grown up with her mother” — Alison Owen, a film producer; her father, the actor Keith Allen, left when she was 4 — “in a working-class environment,” she read. “That’s true. And attended 13 schools, that’s true.” Embarrassing and alcohol-fueled behavior? “O.K., kind of true, I guess.” She had to drill down nearly to the bottom to find misinformation: she did not have Kawasaki disease as an infant, doesn’t have Damien Hirst paintings in her bedroom and has “never been a size 12.”

Ms. Allen’s reality, it turns out, is largely of her own making. And that is both her appeal and her challenge. “Her voice, it’s very personal, which makes her very different from a lot of pop artists, like Nelly Furtado or Britney,” said Greg Kurstin — of the retro pop duo the Bird and the Bee — co-writer and producer of “It’s Not Me, It’s You.” “People like to know what’s going on with her. But there’s definitely a downside to that.”

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