Don't waste your time trying to peg Lily Allen. It's hard for her to explain what she does musically because it's always shifting. And besides, labels bore her.
When her cheeky debut, Alright, Still, landed in American stores three months ago, the buzz about the unassuming British chick with the affinity for girly dresses and sneakers was already strong. In the United Kingdom, where the CD was released last summer, Allen had instantly become a pop sensation, her name constantly in the British press. Her debut has since gone double-platinum there.
But before that success, the 21-year-old singer-songwriter had developed a growing worldwide fan base by posting her music on her MySpace page. Allen's neon-patchwork music and amusingly acidic lyrics have made her one of the most talked-about artists of the year.
"It's hard to describe my sound, really," says Allen, who headlines Washington's 9:30 Club on Sunday night. "It has different elements, a different sound on every track. I'm young, so it works on a lot of different levels."
Like a fellow British singer-songwriter, the much-hyped Amy Winehouse, Allen shines as she sings about love gone rotten. But whereas Winehouse's woozy croon and retro production style marry '60s soul and hip-hop attitude, Allen takes a modern, decidedly sunny pop direction, tossing in elements of punk, ska, rap and reggae.
"I listened to the music of my mom's generation: the Clash, the Smiths and later moved into Jay-Z and Bjork," Allen says. "I have quite an eclectic taste."
That taste is reflective of her artsy, bohemian childhood. Allen, the daughter of actor-comedian-musician Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen, was in and out of expensive private schools. Restless and headstrong, she was expelled from several.
But she found solace in music. Early on, Allen was drawn to performance, studying records by Ella Fitzgerald and Blossom Dearie. Allen says the styles of those jazz greats helped shape her melodic approach to singing.
In 2002, her demo caught the attention of Warner Music and Allen was signed to a deal, but it turned out to be a fruitless one. Three years later, the artist signed with Regal Records. When she and the label couldn't agree on a sound for her, Allen started posting her demos on her MySpace page, where she also wrote candid updates about developments in her life and career.
As her page became popular, U.K. music publications such as NME and the music blog Popjustice wrote positive reviews of Allen's songs, which were eventually played on BBC Radio One.
"Determination pushed me," says Allen, who last week was performing in Portland, Ore. "You have to do it yourself sometimes. I don't think music works when it fits into a box, where somebody at a record company tells you what to listen to. People want to choose for themselves."
With all the early buzz, the release date for Alright, Still was pushed up by Regal. Late last year, the album's first single, the deceptively evil "Smile," garnered a significant number of downloads on iTunes, and MTV featured Allen as the channel's Discover and Download artist for January, the same month her album was released in the U.S. by Capitol and entered Billboard's Top 20.
In February, Allen appeared on Saturday Night Live, her first performance on American TV, singing "Smile" and the lilting, brassy "LDN."
To achieve her bright, kaleidoscopic sound, Allen worked closely with her producers, Darren Lewis and Iyiola Babalola.
"You have to be lucky to work with people who understand you," Allen says. "I don't write outside the studio. It all happens in the studio. I have to be there to get into the production mentality. We listen to music together and come up with ideas."
As she crisscrosses the country promoting Alright, Still, Allen says she's not thinking about the next album. But she's confident that it will be an even bolder reflection of who she is.
"I've always been someone who does things for myself," she says. "You have to believe in yourself and what you do. I know it sounds corny, but it's true."
Lily Allen performs at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., Washington, on Sunday. The show is sold out.
To hear clips from Allen's CD, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.