By Patrick Sisson
When Lily Allen steps onstage at Chicago’s Double Door, one of the year’s most talked about new singers suddenly becomes an enigma. Her face, framed in strands of jet-black hair and a jade headband, is greeted with applause as she strolls past a trio of horn players limply bobbing to the carnival-esque melody of her song “LDN.” And when she sings, the crowd reacts warmly to her sweet voice and wry lyrics about the dark side of London life-no surprise considering that only a few months ago, critics were tripping over each other to find new ways to praise her breezy debut album, Alright, Still.
But on this, the final stop of her first American tour, England’s Lily Allen is more than just hype generated by glowing reviews and MySpace downloads. She is a slightly nervous 21-year-old squarely in the spotlight. She sings softly but not quietly, bantering briefly with the crowd between songs and periodically borrowing a lighter from the front row to spark a cigarette. She is far from a seasoned vet, but she shows cheeky confidence. After she announces that the two new songs in her abbreviated set might sound terrible (they don’t), she plunges right in. Allen is just being herself, which, more than any buzz or online marketing, has made her a singer who is capable of more than a few hit singles.
“I’d tell you all to buy my album,” she deadpans, “but it won’t actually be out here until January.”
Allen’s emergence last year as the latest object of affection for England’s fawning music press was a phenomenon. In the space of a little over nine months, the demos she placed on her MySpace page in November 2005 became underground hits-one track, “Smile,” topped the charts upon its release the following July-and fodder for endless remixes. BBC1 DJ Jo Whiley, one of the first DJs to spin Allen’s songs on the air, was an early convert.
“I really believe in her because of a live session she did on my show,” Whiley says. “She sang like a choirgirl, with the sweetest, purest voice. From beginning to end it’s enchanting, nursery rhymes with pop sensibilities and acid lyrics.”
When Allen announced on her site last May that she would play her boyfriend’s club night at the Notting Hill Arts Club in London, 700 people lined up to see her. The hype forced her label to speed up her album’s UK release, originally scheduled for February, and spawned numerous features about the dress and sneaker-clad singer.
The tabloids even bit; one story taking Allen’s joking about cocaine out of context to make her into the next Kate Moss.
“I didn’t really notice it, to be honest,” says Allen of all the online attention. “You don’t notice the days getting shorter in the winter. It all happened gradually. When I got 10,000 friend requests in a week, then it was like, ‘OK, this is a bit crazy.’ The attention made the album sound like it does now. At the time, the label thought it sounded all right, but after all the attention, it was like, shit, this girl’s really good.”
It only took a few bloggers, Pitchfork plaudits and magazine write-ups to make Lily’s songs-especially “Smile,” an infectious ode celebrating the suffering of a cheating ex-boyfriend-indie summer anthems in the United States. And now that the album will finally be released in the States on Capitol, Allen just wants to relax. But that’s unlikely, with Japanese and Australian tours in the works.
“I really couldn’t tell you what I’m doing in the future, because I’m too scared to look at my schedule,” Allen says. “It’s been incredibly intense. It’s something I’m not used to and never expected. No one thought it would be as big as it has been.”
The well-earned joy she feels from her current success is comparable to the righteous delight she sings about in “Smile,” both examples of karma in action. Despite Allen’s young age, she’s worked for years to get her music released on her own terms. Most of her songs were written back in 2004, and she’s had her fair share of failed deals and former managers. It’s made fame all the more sweet.
“All those record label execs look pretty sheepish when I see them now,” she says. “They gave me the runaround, and now it’s like ‘ha ha.’ It feels pretty good.”