Dua Lipa

Dua Lipa: How the rising star put herself on the path to pop’s premier league

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Dua Lipa’s determination took her from YouTube stardom to the charts – and now she counts Coldplay’s Chris Martin among her collaborators. Nick Levine hears how tough choices as a teenager put her on the path to pop’s premier league

Dua Lipa first realised she was a legitimately massive pop star when she found herself sat in the studio with Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. “I had this realisation, ‘This is the guy you hear on the radio, this is
the guy you went to see at Glastonbury.’ And at that point I was like, ‘Oh my God. What’s happening to me? This is just crazy.’”

The resulting heartfelt song ‘Homesick’ appears on the 21-year-old’s self-titled debut album, which arrives two years after buzzy debut track ‘New Love’. Since that first step, she’s had three singles in the UK Top 15, been named Best New Artist at the VO5 NME Awards, collaborated with Sean Paul and Miguel, and sold out the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. So far, Lipa’s rise looks pretty smooth – she hasn’t even had her first Twitter spat – but this doesn’t mean it happened by accident.

“When people used to ask what I wanted to be I’d always say a singer, but I never thought it was a real job. I thought it was as far-fetched as cartoon characters on TV,” she says. Born in London to Albanian parents who left Kosovo in the ’90s, Lipa can remember making up dance routines in the playground to Jamelia’s ‘Superstar’ and Ciara’s ‘1, 2 Step’. Her dream seemed even more unlikely after her family returned to Kosovo when she was 11, calling time on Saturday classes at Sylvia Young Theatre School, where Amy Winehouse and Rita Ora – herself an immigrant from Kosovo – also started out. “Music there was so different,” Lipa says. “It just didn’t compare to the pop stars I’d see on TV, like Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child.”

Because Kosovo felt so constraining, a 15-year-old Lipa persuaded her parents she should return to London alone, so she could study full-time at Sylvia Young. “There was an older girl from Kosovo moving to London at the same time and my parents knew her parents, so they said I could live with her. Like a kind of guardian.” The two girls ended up sharing a flat in Kilburn, but the guardian thing never happened – Lipa had to go at it alone. “She was super-busy with her boyfriend and stressed with her studies. So I’d have lots of friends over all the time and I’d always be on FaceTime with my parents.”

At 15, music was Lipa’s biggest focus, and she was already learning life skills most of us don’t think about until university. “The cooking and the cleaning… that was tough,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. “I mean, the realisation that no one was going to clean up after me was tough! But stuff like that really made me grow up before my time. It helped me mature, I guess, and made me who I am today. I’m really grateful for it, but I do remember it being a struggle. My mum came to visit once, opened my wardrobe and said, ‘What are all these clothes?’ I was like, ‘Those are all the dirty clothes that I’ve never washed!’”

Dua Lipa

The hustle paid off and at 18 she signed a record deal. But that wasn’t the end goal. Since then, she’s stayed in firm control of how she’s portrayed, who she works with and how she manages her ascent to stardom. She’s scored big hits with Sean Paul (‘No Lie’) and EDM star Martin Garrix (‘Scared To Be Lonely’), but she’s rejected other features because they didn’t feel right. “I knew there was a possibility they could push me to a larger audience, but I think when features aren’t done correctly they don’t represent who you are as an artist and you get a bit lost.”

Lipa co-wrote most of her album, but breakthrough banger ‘Be The One’ was given to her by songwriters Lucy Taylor and Nicholas James Gale. “As much as I loved the song, at first I wasn’t sure I wanted to record it because I hadn’t written it,” she recalls. “It was a pride thing, but it was also like, ‘I can’t take a song I haven’t written because then no one will believe I write any of my own stuff.’ But I just had to get over it. And now that song has helped me to get the stuff that I did write out there.”

NME suggests it’s sexist to presume female pop artists lack talent if they don’t write their songs. “That’s so true,” Lipa says. “You’re never going to get very far if you don’t have influence on your own music – look at Rihanna. I’m sure she single-handedly picks every one of her songs, then makes them her own. And I still think she tells her own story through those songs. You can tell they’re the songs she really feels deep down.”

As for the Chris Martin collaboration, it was a last-minute addition that at one point didn’t look like happening. “I get this email saying, ‘Why don’t you meet Chris at this studio in Malibu and play him your stuff?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’” she begins. No time like the present, she took the trip to meet him. “He’s listening attentively and wants to know the meaning behind the songs,” she says. “Then he’s like, ‘OK, why don’t we try something for your album?’ He sets up the mics and we’re just humming ideas, making up melodies and recording it all. It was already quite late, so he gave me what we’d recorded and said, ‘Have a listen back. If you think there’s something good there, we’ll come back to it.’ I just thought, ‘He’s sending me on my way now, we’re never gonna see each other again.’”

Dua Lipa

But Lipa listened back, picked out one of the melodies they’d written and arranged a second session. “At first, it was just meant to be me [singing], but then I begged him to sing too. I was like, ‘You have to be on this song!’ And he agreed. It’s the most beautiful song on the album. I think it really brings everyone in for a little cry.”

The hard work doesn’t stop with a hit-packed, chart-ready debut album. She’s now preparing for a massive Glastonbury performance of her own and a whole summer of festivals. Everything revolves around building brand Lipa. “It’s like when you hear a voice on the radio and think, ‘Well, that’s Ed Sheeran.’ I want people to hear my voice, or my name, and think, ‘That’s the girl who sings ‘Hotter Than Hell’. That’s the girl who sings ‘Be The One’.’”