Dua Lipa: “Screw Plan B”With three hits in the UK singles charts at the same time, Dua Lipa is this year’s breakthrough act. The 21-year-old Anglo-Kosovan singer and model reveals why single-mindedness has been the key to her success, and explains how to turn disappointment into creativity
Hers is the very definition of the phrase ‘meteoric ascent’. In 2015, she was discovered by Lana Del Rey’s management. Last year, British media outlets such as NME and the BBC crowned her newcomer of 2016, and 12 months later she has had three singles in the UK top 15 simultaneously, each with more than 110 million YouTube views. For a firmly established star, these stats would be impressive, but for a newcomer such as Dua Lipa, who three years ago was still manning the front desk at a London restaurant, they’re nothing short of extraordinary.
Born in England in 1995, Lipa was 11 when her parents moved the family back to their native Kosovo. It was to be a surprisingly temporary repatriation. Aged just 15, she returned to London on her own, with one clear goal: a career in pop. But at a time when the music industry continues to grasp around desperately for a workable model, and in which record companies chase diminishing returns by flooding the charts with identikit acts, the air has got pretty thin at the top for genuine artists.
So, how did Lipa break through? The short answer is that she bypassed the model and rebelled against the old rules of what a pop star is meant to be. She’s approachable, insists on direct contact with her fans, and speaks a musical language they understand. Her songs aren’t cookie-cutter examples of radio-friendly politesse. The recipe for success is to stay focused and not to consider alternative options, as the 21-year-old explains…
THE RED BULLETIN: The music industry has been in crisis for years, reaching an audience is increasingly difficult, and pop stardom isn’t as glamorous as it once was. It’s a tricky landscape, so why target a career in music?
DUA LIPA: Music has always been my one and only goal.
I never had a plan B. If you believe in what you’re doing and you work really hard, things will work out. I’m a strong believer in that.
Isn’t that a bit careless, considering how tough the music business is currently?
You should always set your intentions on one goal. If you feel like you’ve got something to fall back on, you’ll always have that thing in your head. You can always be like, “Well, if this doesn’t work out, I can go and do something else.”
Many people would find that comforting…
Not for me. I’m the kind of person who needs to have one option and one option only. And I just go and I work really hard. I would recommend that attitude to anyone.
When did you figure out you wanted to become a pop star?
When I went to school in Kosovo. I would get up in front of my friends and teachers and do school concerts. The second I discovered this passion, I was like, “OK, I’m going back to London.”
How old were you when you had that realisation?
I was about 15.
And your parents were OK with you moving to London by yourself?
They were like, “Are you sure you don’t want to go to university first?” Luckily, there was another girl from Kosovo planning to do her masters in London, and my parents knew her parents. I said I would live with her, so it made the move much easier.
How do you resist the temptations London has to offer when you’re experiencing the city as an unsupervised teenager?
I feel that because my parents had given me the opportunity to have these experiences, I never had the urge to go against their word, or to do things I shouldn’t be doing.
Around that time, you did all sorts of jobs in order to earn money on the side. One of those gigs was with a modelling agency…
Yeah, but I was never cut out to be a model; I never got any real jobs. The agency was like, “If you lose a lot of weight, we’ll be able to put you out for more jobs.” That put me in a really bad mindset. At the same time, it inspired me to write [her 2016 single] Blow Your Mind (Mwah).
Disappointment inspired you to write one of your biggest hits?
All of my songs come from personal experience. Being able to take them and show other people that we are all going through the same thing in one way or another, and being able to empower them, that’s my main goal.
So, with your music you turn sorrow into creativity?
Most of my inspiration comes from sadness. From break-ups to arguments, homesickness to missing someone, a hangover… anything can be inspiring.
Most people try to avoid sadness. But you take that emotion and turn it into something positive?
Yeah, I write lyrics that are sad, but the music production has to be happy. A mixture of the two creates something completely on its own. Writing about these experiences helps you let go of those things. By taking sadness and being able to dance to it, I feel like it creates a whole other world.
Would you encourage people to embrace their sadness?
Absolutely. I think people should embrace all feelings. It’s important to express feelings and not be afraid to cry and let other people around you know how you feel. Confide in a good friend or write a song. Or just put your thoughts down on a piece of paper and never look at it again. It’s a good way of letting things out.
Is there a place for honest emotions in today’s pop industry?
I think pop music is really changing: artists now have more creative leeway and they’re able to expand and change who they are, which is just so much more empowering. Take Rihanna: she’s been able to make an album like Anti, which is not something people would have expected from her. But it is essentially pop, and it’s f–king cool to be able to reinvent yourself as an artist with every album you release.
Did that feeling of creative freedom give you the confidence to call one of the songs on your debut album IDGAF – short for I Don’t Give A F–k – which is probably too explicit to be played on mainstream radio?
If something is not really allowed to be heard on the radio, and someone wants to censor it, they can censor it. But right now, with the might of music-streaming services, the power is with the people and what they want to hear.
And that democratisation also allows you to connect with your fans directly via social networks, so you’re no longer reliant on mainstream media…
Exactly. I manage all my social media channels myself, and that’s really important to me. My fans have been with me on this journey from the very beginning. I feel very lucky to have their support.
Do they appreciate your commitment? Any examples?
When I was in Madrid recently, I was hanging outside with friends, and this fan came up to me and said, “You’ve helped me get over so many things, and I love listening to your music. I also got the same tattoo as you.” I’ve got the word ‘angel’ on my shoulder – I guess it’s a metaphorical way of having someone look over me – and he had the same on his shoulder. That was really touching and overwhelming. I was like, “I’m meant to be doing this.”
What advice would you, the pop star, give to your 14-year-old self on Twitter?
I would tell me to always believe in myself. I’d say, “If someone tells you that you can’t do something, you should prove them wrong. And, obviously, forget about plan B.”
Dua Lipa’s eponymous debut album is out now.