Lily Allen and Dolly Parton talk fame, sexism and Miley Cyrus
Lily Allen and her heroine Dolly Parton take to the stage at Glasto this weekend – but that’s not the only thing they have in common...
Lily Allen is waiting patiently in a nondescript corridor, in gravity-defying heels, holding her 17-month-old daughter Marnie Rose and asking her: “Are you excited about meeting the magic fairy?”
As Lily stands in calm anticipation of her encounter with her avowed heroine, Dolly Parton is in make-up, “spending a fortune to look this cheap”, as she always says. The immovable object of country and the unstoppable force of pop are about to meet for the first time.
When the super-petite figure of the Nashville legend appears, it’s the presence of Marnie and her sister Ethel Mary, two and a half, that breaks the ice. “Who are these pretty girls? I’m Dolly, how are you?” she says in her best little-girl voice. As ever, it’s impossible to believe that the 68-year-old never had kids of her own.
“They’re so cute. Look at that red hair! We have red hair on my mother’s side. And the little blonde! We got blondes in my family. Especially in my wig trunk.”
These mistresses of their respective musical domains may seem to come from entirely different worlds. Parton raised dirt-poor and humble, one of 11 surviving children in an east Tennessee one-room mountain cabin; Lily from showbiz stock, steeped in metropolitan ways thanks to her London upbringing.
What brings them together now, of course, is this year’s Glastonbury festival. It’s Parton’s first time, and, by my rudimentary maths, Allen’s 30th. “I’ve been every year since I was six weeks old,” she tells me, between mouthfuls of popcorn. “It really is my spiritual home. I’d probably trade Christmas for Glastonbury.”
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She first performed there in 2006 when her debut album, Alright, Still, was on its way to worldwide sales of 2.5 million. But Allen’s second Glasto performance in 2009 is significant in her memory for other reasons. “It holds a special place in my heart, because it was the day that me and my husband [Sam Cooper, a builder] got together,” she says. “He was there on the side of the stage and I remember looking at him thinking, ‘I quite fancy you.’ Then sure enough, that night, midway through Bruce Springsteen’s set, we went back to my tent, and the rest is history.” They wed in 2011. “So this year, it’s five years later, I’m married and I have two children, and they’re all going to be there.”
Parton, for her part, betrays a little nervousness about her Sunday afternoon slot. “What should I expect? Mud?” She laughs. “I’ll be wearing my high heels, even if I’m up to my knees in mud. I’m a little bit apprehensive. I’m excited, I just want to make sure I do the right show. I’ve heard of Glastonbury because it’s one of the biggest in the world, right? For years, everybody’s asked me why I’ve never done it, and I guess it’s never worked out where I could, and so now I am.
“I’ve been trying to write up a good set list, I wouldn’t probably do all the slow stuff I’d do in my full show, or some of the more serious things, but I want to be able to have heart and soul and tell some stories. So they’re attentive when you talk?” They’ll be attentive when you talk, I say. “Oh, well, that’s great.”
Parton is one of the smartest business brains in music, but her sense of whatever-floats-your-boat fun overrides all that. “I’ve heard that people from all walks of life come to Glastonbury,” she says. “I guess they smoke a lot of dope and drink a lot of booze, like most festivals, right? But then there’s a lot of people that don’t, they just come to listen to the music. Who cares, as long as they’re having a good time?”
When Allen finishes her set on Friday evening she’ll stay on as a punter, as usual. She’ll give Arcade Fire a look, she says, and maybe even Metallica. But what if the chance of a duet with Dolly Parton came up?
“Oh God, I’d do it in a second. But I couldn’t promise that I’d be on my best form. I’ll have been there for three days. Last year, Kenny Rogers asked me to do Islands in the Stream with him. I couldn’t do it, because it was on a Sunday and I thought I’d be too out of it, in a ditch somewhere,” she laughs.
Lily and Dolly may not have met before, but there’s a connection between them that goes back to Allen’s 2011 wedding day. “I think Dolly had just announced some shows at the O2, and I was on Twitter saying ‘Oh my God, Dolly’s coming to London.’ Her publicist messaged me and said ‘Let me know if you want tickets.’ Then I couldn’t make it because I was getting married. He said ‘What’s the date of your wedding, and your fiancé’s name?’ I told him, and Dolly sent a box of goodies, CDs, a card for us both, and a signed picture saying ‘Dear Sam and Lily, I hope you have the most wonderful day.’ It takes pride of place, it sits above his record deck in the bedroom. She’s magic.
“I can’t really think of a time when I haven’t known who she was. My mum probably played me Dolly for the first time – a compilation that had 9 to 5 on. It was the only song on it that I wanted to listen to. My favourite song of hers, I think, is Here You Come Again.”
Their songwriting styles seem worlds apart, one reminiscing about her Tennessee Mountain Home, the other playfully calling herself Sheezus on her recent number-one album. But Allen identifies a common trait.
“What makes Dolly an amazing songwriter is that she has a genuine fascination with people. I don’t think you can write observant lyrics like hers unless you’re genuinely interested in the world, and relationships. I have a fascination with those things as well.”
In the creation of an enduring pop image, some compromise is a given, but neither artist feels they’ve had to sacrifice who they are.
“I don’t feel like I’m two different Dollys,” says Parton. “I’m always Dolly, because my heart is always the same, my head is always the same. And my look came from a very serious place. I wouldn’t dream of going out like some of the artists do, come into a meet-and-greet with hair rollers and Clearasil on my face.
“But even when I’m home with my husband [the rarely-seen Carl Dean, whom she married 48 years ago], I always get up in the morning and put on a little make-up and a few hot rollers in my hair, because I don’t want to look like a slouch with him. I’m not two different people, but I am responsible for the persona of the person that you know as Dolly Parton. I know what people expect me to look like. But I can also go home, take off all this junk, and still be the same person.
“If somebody says, ‘What do you look like without that make-up?’, I say, ‘I look like hell!’ But that’s OK, who doesn’t? I’m not a natural beauty, that’s one of the reasons I’m over-exaggerated.
“I feel better when I put on a little make-up – I don’t like looking in the mirror and thinking ‘Who the hell’s that old ugly woman?’”
As for Allen, her songs leave the listener in no doubt that they’re being invited into her world, often with a sense of humour that is misjudged by her detractors. “In my music and the way I present myself, it’s unashamedly honest,” she says. “It’s the real me.
“Obviously, if someone says, ‘What did you do last night?,’ I’m not going to say ‘Well, me and my husband had a really massive argument.’ There’s a time and a place, but when it’s time to share, which I try to do creatively, what’s the point in not being honest?
“When I signed my record deal, I knew that I was essentially taking a mortgage out on myself,” says Allen. But she doesn’t remember any particularly tawdry demands. “Nothing really stands out, because if I didn’t do it, it means it’s gone. If someone said, ‘Can you get your t**s out for our magazine?’ and I said no, then it didn’t happen.
“Back in the day, certain tabloid journalists would write really horrible things about me and then the next day I’d be at an awards ceremony and they’d ask for a picture! They’d say, ‘We’re just doing our job.’ Well – get a better job! It’s not a nice world, that world. It’s just a really nasty by-product of the world we live in.”
The release of Allen’s album Sheezus earlier this year marked her return to the pop fold after the self-imposed hiatus she announced in 2009. “To be honest, it wasn’t really about coming back, it was more about just writing again,” she says. “I didn’t have any intention of putting an album out, it was just a catharsis. I’d had my eldest, and when she was eight months old she was sick for a long time. Once she got better, I needed to take a few hours a day for myself and started writing.
“I’d kind of forgotten what putting a record out entailed – the video shoots and six months of promo.” That seems more intense than ever, I say. “Yeah, because you sell half the music you used to. The music industry thinks you combat that by just doing double the promo. Actually I think it just saturates the market, there are too many quotes flying around, and people just get sick of you quicker.”
Allen and Parton are united in their respect for pop’s current controversial figurehead, Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus. “I love her, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about that girl,” says Allen. “I think Miley’s fantastic,” agrees Parton. “Women are taking their power and using it, and it’s great. I’ve always used mine.”
But deeper down, their takes on sexism and misogyny do reflect a cultural divide. “Personally I think women have been accepted a lot over the years,” says Parton. “It has more to do with your attitude, your personality and your talent. I never had those problems. It served me well, being a girl, and being brought up in a family of men. Six brothers, my dad, close to all my uncles. So I know men, I love men, I understand men.
“Women have got a long way to go, but I really think we’ve made a lot of great strides since Jane Fonda starred in 9 to 5. I felt I was part of a whole new movement, especially in the work-place. Women still don’t get as much credit, or equal pay, but there are a lot of wonderful women out there doing a lot of wonderful things.”
Unsurprisingly Allen is fiercer on the subject: “If you go on Mail Online and look at the ‘sidebar of shame,’ it’s about 90 per cent female. It’s this shaming culture – ‘Aha, we caught you.’ I think it’s sad; a lot of young people probably do look at that and think that’s how the world works. Imagine the equivalents of me and Dolly in 2050, they’re probably going to be horrible, acerbic, vile creatures, because they’ll have grown up in a world where we’ve taught them that it’s OK to talk about each other like that. And that’s not cool.
“I speak out against it, and I get a real beating for it, but unless more people start screaming and shouting about it, I don’t really know how it’s going to change. I definitely know I can’t do it on my own.”
With new albums out both women are busier than ever, but Parton doesn’t mind admitting that she pushes herself to the limit. “I’ve worked my ass off in the last year, I’ve almost worked too hard,” she says. “I’ve had so many things going, with the tour and the album, all the promotion, Dollywood...” She doesn’t even mention her Imagination Library reading scheme for children, for which she presented the one millionth book in person, to a Liverpool lad before her UK tour opener there.
“I’ve worked harder this past year than I have since the early days. I love it, but you’ve got to push it. That’s why I say I’ve dreamed myself into a corner. But after we’ve done our press, I can sleep all day long, read, and do the show at night. The show’s the fun part.”