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After a decade of being a pop star, with two number one albums, three number one singles and over five million records sold, Lily Allen is back with No Shame, her most personal, insightful and fully-formed record to date. No Shame marks a kind of rebirth for Lily, who went back to the drawing board after several tumultuous years, eventually producing a beautifully raw and truthful set of classic pop songs that take her right back to the DIY spirit of her first two albums, Alright, Still (2006) and It’s Not Me, It’s You (2011).
“On album one and two, I had finally found an outlet in which to express who I was, and who I thought I was,” Lily explains. “And then I had children and I got married, and I didn’t know any more.” In the confusing period that followed the release of her third album, Sheezus, in 2014, Lily jokes that she had her midlife crisis. “When people say I grew up too quickly, I definitely did. Life begins at 40 – but at 32, for me.”
After she’d finished a global tour for Sheezus, Lily realised that something had been lost along the way. “It all just got a bit confused and out of control. With Alright, Still and It’s Not Me, It’s You, I didn’t have that pressure. I wasn’t inhibited in that way. I signed a tiny deal. I wanted to be in Thamesbeat. I thought, one day, I might support Jamie T, or the Mystery Jets,” she laughs.
For No Shame, she knew it was time to take it back to basics. The record has been four years in the making, beginning life in 2015 in a rented house in Los Angeles, where she and long-time collaborator and friend Fryars focused purely on writing songs, before bringing what they’d done back to London, where Lily set up her own studio space. “It was good to start with Fryars, then bring it here and sit with them on my own, and not feel the pressure of someone else in the room, thinking, ‘When’s she going to write something?’ I wanted to think about it, and I want to make it sound as real as possible. That stuff takes time to figure out.”
Having worked with Mark Ronson and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend on the heartfelt love letter My One in Los Angeles, it was in London that the majority of the record was made. People were passing through the studio anyway, thanks to Lily’s record label Bank Holiday, so it made sense for them to jump on the record. “P2J, Fryars, Sam from Get Cape, Cass Lowe, who was lovely, Show and Prove… We just created a little environment here. All of the experiences, all of the writing, everybody that’s been involved, the stuff that’s made it, has been the stuff that’s relatively easy and bullshit-free.”
The same applied to the album’s carefully curated guest spots. Lily and Giggs had been fans of each other’s work for a long time before they met, and she credits the rapper with more than some verses on Trigger Bang. “He spoke to me with an honesty that other people don’t. In the midst of this identity crisis that I was having, that was happening musically as well, he was a vital cog in making that work. He gave me a big confidence boost. He made me think, just get a studio and write some great songs.” She hooked up with the Nigerian dancehall star Burna Boy, who appears on No Choice, through Twitter. And London MC Lady Chann appears on Waste, a bouncy dancehall-flecked track that recalls the sweet but cutting wit of LDN-era Lily as she waves away her enemies: “Who the fuck are you though? I should have never ever ever let you get too close…”
Having the luxury of time and her own space uncovered a new emotional honesty in Lily. “I can write half a great song then finish it off with some bullshit,” she laughs, “and I’ve done that, a lot of times. But I’ve been able to sit here and get the bullshit away and make it as truthful as possible. That was my goal.” No Shame, then, is a frank and confessional album filled with songs that address the end of her marriage, her feelings about being a mother, stories of partying too hard, making friends, losing friends, and, crucially, ultimately, a sense of catharsis, that she’s coming out on the other side. “There’s no shame in anything I’m saying,” she explains, of the candour that led to the title.
“I believe that we as humans work through things by talking about them, and that’s what making music is, for me. It’s sharing things that you hope are going to connect with people, not that are going to connect with algorithms. I think we are so led by outside forces in terms of the way we express ourselves nowadays, because we’re so scared of what comes back. It’s something I’ve always wanted to explore. It’s why I went into it at the beginning, when it felt a lot more free.”
As a result, many of the songs on No Shame speak for themselves. There’s opener Come On Then, a fierce riposte to the insults thrown at Lily over the years. “What exactly are you trying to prove when what you say’s so far away from the truth?” she sings, her tough exterior crumbling to isolation. “If you go on record saying that you know me, then why am I so lonely, cos nobody fucking phones me?”
The hazy, stripped-back Higher, meanwhile, finds Lily at her most vulnerable. “I cut away at the dressing up, she explains, of the track’s stark simplicity. “My approach to everything was: why is that there, doesn’t need to be there. It doesn’t do its job.” Like Apples, Higher is as simple as it is fragile. “It was one of those ones where I just stood in front of the microphone and little key words came out.”
Family Man, a gorgeous, piano-led epic, is the album’s most traditional big-ballad moment, was one of the first songs Lily wrote for No Shame. She’d come straight off the Sheezus tour and started writing in LA, when really, what she wanted was to be at home with her two kids. “It was so glaringly obvious that I wrote a song about it on the first day,” she smiles. Whether she’s the family man is deliberately obtuse. “There are layers to that song. Is it that she’s taken on the male role of the family? I definitely had that ‘what happens on tour stays on tour ‘mentality, but struggled with that, then I thought, why would you, when men have been getting away with that forever… Lots of questions.”
The similarly heartwrenching Three takes another look at the same situation, switching her own viewpoint “I’d never written from another person’s perspective before, so it was an interesting task. I don’t really know where it came from,” says Lily. “It’s self-explanatory, I think.”
While the first half of the album deals with loss and heartbreak, the second half lifts up towards optimism and transformation, both sonically and lyrically. “When I started writing the record I was in a sad, dark place, and this record could almost be starting at midnight, and getting through to the end of the day. It’s been cathartic for me. There’s no two ways about it. It starts in a dark place, for a reason, then ends up in a more optimistic place, for a reason.”
As night turns to day, and darkness to light, the album ends on upbeat tales of love, reconciliation and empowerment: My One and Pushing Up Daisies are joyful, romantic tributes to her boyfriend, while closer Cake, which harks back to Smile, sets out a kind of manifesto for grabbing back control in the face of obstructions and roadblocks. “Eventually you’ll get a piece of that patriarchy pie,” she sings. “I can’t see no reason you can’t have your cake and eat it.” It provides a deliberately strong and emboldened finish to the album, where there’s no doubts left-over who’s in charge again. “I thought it would be nice to end on something unrestricted and positive,” she says.
Ultimately, No Shame is bringing Lily back to where she started – to openness, to a love for music, and to a means of expression untainted by expectations of what she’s supposed to be. “The music-making process of this has undoubtedly been really fun,” she says, happily. “I’ve surrounded myself with people I respect, and people I think respect me. It’s felt like a process of finding what it I want to do, and why I want to do it. It’s been four years, but I’ve got there in the end.”