Under normal circumstances, it’s not notable for a pop star to begin a livestream on one of their many social media channels. But when Dua Lipa hit the ‘live’ button on Instagram on March 23, we weren’t in regular times and her message was far from typical.
She fought back tears as she addressed her fans directly from an Airbnb in London (her own flat had flooded and her trip to New York to perform on Saturday Night Live was scuppered by the coronavirus travel ban). “I wanted to talk about my album and every time I talk it I get quite emotional,” she said, wiping away tears. “I feel like I have been welling up a lot over the past couple of weeks just because of the uncertainty over everything.”
Her voice cracked when she referenced her internal conflict at releasing music when “people are suffering”. Her news, she revealed, was that her second album was being brought forward by a week and would be released in just a few days’ time. It was hard to tell if she was OK with this.
“I was definitely having a testing day with corona and what was going on, whether I should be releasing – or even talking about – music,” she says two weeks later from that same Airbnb. “Trying to think of it as something to celebrate was quite difficult for me, especially on that day.”
Like most people, Lipa has found being in lockdown a trying time. “Some days you wanna sit down and just cry,” she sighs. Also like most people, she’s been spending her time (when she’s not on the pop star business of interviews and live-streams) binging Tiger King and testing her culinary skills. But when everyone else is making bread, she’s been making jerky.
So far, the ‘Future Nostalgia’ campaign has been quite unusual – and certainly at odds with the record’s fun, happy disposition. This is an album designed for screeching along to in the back of an Uber with your best friends, zooming off into the night and trying to dance along from behind seatbelts. From the ’80s-referencing workout pop of ‘Physical’ to enormo-banger ‘Don’t Start Now’, it’s a modern-day disco party trapped in a bottle – one you want to take shots from all night long.
It wasn’t made with the intention of soundtracking a time where it’s terrifying to set foot outside and the days and nights blur into one, when absolutely nothing happens and life is listless. “I wanted it to be something where we could go out and celebrate in clubs and bars, go dancing and go on tour,” Lipa says mournfully.
She had considered doing what a number of other artists – Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, Haim and more – have done: push back the release to a time when it’s hoped coronavirus might be out of our lives. Two days before she held that teary livestream, though, the decision was more or less taken out of her hands. The album leaked and delaying its release would mean risking sales and streams.
“We’re learning a lot about empathy right now”
Album leaks might not be quite as common as they were 20 years ago, but they still happen and can still hurt an artist. Ask Charli XCX, whose intended third album was scrapped in 2017 after it appeared online months before its release date. Lipa says she worries about having her work stolen from her like that, but tries to take a more pragmatic approach. “Sometimes leaks are just inevitable and they just happen anyway,” she explains. “In the back of my mind I’m just prepared for that and if it happens, it happens.”
Now that ‘Future Nostalgia’ is out in the world, she feels a lot more positive than she did towards the end of March.
“I’m super happy that everybody gets to have [the album],” she says. “The response has been really nice and I couldn’t have wanted it to go any other way.” She sees the album as something that can help in our dark times – a kind of distraction tactic when you need to check out of reality for a little while: “Music serves as an escape and I’m hoping that this music just brings some light and joy, and takes away from what’s going on outside.”
When it comes to what’s going on outside – right now and on any given day – Lipa isn’t afraid to speak up. Even as pop stars become more and more vocal about big issues in society, she stands as something of an outlier – a figure with incredibly mainstream commercial appeal who won’t back down from what they believe in.
Over the last few years, she has become a powerful advocate for women’s rights and equality. She was the young artist unafraid to get up on stage at the Grammys in 2019, accept a gleaming trophy and make a sarcastic quip about former Recording Academy chairman Neil Portnow’s comments that women needed to “step up” if they wanted to win more awards a year earlier.
She says it’s just the way she is. “I haven’t been told not to say stuff about things I feel passionate about and, if somebody did, I wouldn’t listen,” she says firmly. “I’ve always been this way and I feel like nothing can really change who I am as a person. It’s really important to talk about topics and normalise them.”
“I wanted the album to be something we could celebrate in bars and clubs”
Last year, she gave a speech at the Cambridge University Union, offering a five-point plan to increase the number of women in the music industry. On ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, the final song on ‘Future Nostalgia’, she details walking home from school with her keys between her knuckles.
“I feel like it’s always been something that you’ve been aware of as a girl,” she says of learning of the need for such self-defence techniques. “What we’ve done for so many years is learn to micromanage what gets thrown at you. You get tougher and stronger and you learn to walk away or stand your ground.”
She’s said in the past that she hasn’t experienced sexual harassment in the music industry. Today she explains that her female friends in the industry might have had different experiences, but she’s never heard of anything “too serious” and adds: “Every woman I know who experiences some form of sexual harassment in the studio, or from whoever they work with, is very good at standing their ground and calling them out between friends.”
Lipa shares her commentary on the world through her songs, interviews and social media, but you’ll no longer find her tweeting things like, “FUCK THE PATRIARCHY I AM DONE WITH THIS BULLSHIT HANDMAIDS TALE SHIT WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK”, as she did after the state of Alabama passed a bill to ban abortion last year.
She no longer goes on Twitter (her management runs her account) for the sake of her own mental health, although you will still find her on Instagram. “I feel like on Instagram, I post as if I’m on a blog and I can just separate myself from it whereas, on Twitter, after I tweet I try and check all the comments,” she says. “That was obviously getting quite unhealthy ’cause I would just get really upset about [the response].”
The 24-year-old is a big champion of the need for social networking spaces to be made safer for all and says it’s key for the companies behind them to realise the consequences of their platforms. “I know if there’s any abusive content or blah blah blah, they take it down,” Lipa says. “But I don’t think they see certain things or types of cyber bullying as seriously as they are. Those things need to be monitored a little closer.”
“Vote for the party that represents everyone, and not just the few”
She says that the anonymous nature of social media makes hurtful comments “a little more piercing”, adding: “You know they wouldn’t say the same thing to your face. It’s a mixture of confusion and upset that gets to people the most because one, it’s people that don’t know you and two, they’re essentially faceless offenders.”
Last year, from her safe haven of Instagram, Lipa urged fans to vote in the December general election. She is a staunch Labour supporter. It has been suggested that she’s not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn, though today she declines to give her opinion on him. She also rebuffs questions about newly elected Labour leader Keir Starmer – one time when she checks her outspoken nature. She says she feels that the paramount political goal should be to remove the Tories, and not obsess over the ‘likeability’ of the leader of the opposition.
“In an ideal world we’d have both – somebody that we really feel we can get behind, someone where we can stick by everything that they do,” she offers. “But with everything going on, we always need to take the one step in the right direction and vote for the party that represents everyone and not just the few. That’s how we’ll see a better future.”
Lipa has been working towards a better future on a personal level since her early teens. In 2006 her parents moved their family from London back to the Kosovar capital of Pristina. She dreamt of becoming a singer and slowly realised it would be difficult to achieve the success she desired if she stayed where she was. Somehow, at 15, she convinced her parents to let her move back to Britain alone.
She buttered them up with talk of wanting to get into a really good UK university that would require GCSEs and A Levels (she took a gap year when she left school and never looked back). “I’m so fortunate – well, fortunate and unfortunate, I suppose – that my parents moved to London from Kosovo and allowed me to be here and pursue a career I could only dream of,” she says. “I feel like a lot more kids need to have that same opportunity.”
She found a new home in north London with a family friend’s daughter, and got down to the business of becoming a star. She did the very 2010s thing of uploading covers onto YouTube between writing her own songs and handing out demo CDs at any opportunity. In 2013 she was introduced to her current managers and, two years later, signed a deal with Warner Records.
Lipa would have to wait another two years for a bona fide chart smash that would take her from pop’s middle ground to superstar territory. She had released six singles before that song, the sassy break-up anthem ‘New Rules’, went stratospheric.
Her self-titled debut album was released one month before ‘New Rules’, a hodgepodge of ballads, potent pop kiss-offs and a handful of big-name duets (with Miguel on ‘Lost In Your Light’ and Coldplay’s Chris Martin on ‘Homesick’). She now says that she’s “really grateful” for everything that record brought her but she felt far more self-assured working on its follow-up, even as she exposed more of herself in its contents.
“I felt really confident in my lyrical language and I worked with close friends [this time around] so I wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable in the studio,” the 24-year-old explains. “I knew exactly what I wanted and how to assert myself in a studio and around people.”
She’s not wrong. Not many people would have had the confidence to turn down an icon, after all. In April 2019 she shared photos of herself in the studio with disco legend Nile Rodgers. “I was on the brink of tears as I saw more life being brought into these records!” she gushed. But when the ‘Future Nostalgia’ tracklist was unveiled, the Chic guitarist’s contributions were nowhere to be seen.
“I think I just needed a bit more of a future element in terms of production,” Lipa reasons now, suggesting that their collaborations had strayed further towards ‘nostalgia’ than she saw fit. “The production we did together was amazing, but took it into beautiful disco and Chic. It needed to be more current.” Instead, the album takes inspiration from her childhood faves Jamiroquai, Prince, Blondie, Gwen Stefani and Outkast, but reframes them in the sounds of now.
Since ‘New Rules’ catapulted her to global fame, the pop star has levelled up on her live performance, too. She might have had to postpone her ‘Future Nostalgia’ arena tour until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but she’s used recent awards appearances and one-off events to offer glimpses as to what we should expect.
She gave an early performance of the new track ‘Don’t Start Now’ at the 2019 MTV EMAs in Seville in October. It was much more complex in its choreography than her past live appearances. Where she’d once indulged us in bursts of synchronised steps with her backing dancers, here she was grooving with them from start to finish. She looked to be having far more fun than usual, too. At one point she handed the mic to a yellow-clad dancer and let herself fully commit to the moves, tongue cheekily flashing out of her mouth every few seconds.
This was, she says, the first time she came off stage feeling proud of what she’d just done: “I was always really concerned with how it sounded or how it looked, or whether it was the right way or if I sang properly. There were too many things I was thinking about whereas, with the EMAs performance, I was very present in the moment and really just got to enjoy it for what it was.”
“As a woman you get tougher and learn to stand your ground”
Upping her game doesn’t just help her maintain her status as one of the most successful female artists in the world right now; it will also help her put that fame to good use, particularly when it comes to galvanising future generations. She sees her position as a world-renowned pop star representing both Britain and Kosovo as “a big deal” and says: “I hope I inspire some more kids in Kosovo to know they can do whatever they set their mind to – anything is possible, no matter where you’re from.”
The Sunny Hill Foundation, which she formed with her family in Pristina in 2016, aims to give young people that leg up. The charity works to improve the quality of life for Kosovans, with a focus on expanding the country’s opportunities in arts and culture. Last year the organisation teamed up with a school in Los Angeles to provide a month-long scholarship for three students.
In her own future, Lipa wants to use her privilege to help others. The pop star might be reluctant to share her views on political leaders, but she’s putting her money where her mouth is when it comes to bringing about social change.
She plans to develop the Sunny Hill Foundation by opening an arts and innovation centre in Pristina (though plans have been delayed by the current pandemic) and by continuing to hold its annual festival in the city (Miley Cyrus headlined last year). She also wants to work with different charities – “especially on the refugee crisis” – and aims to start her own label “to help new artists”. She sees this as part of how the world will change when the coronavirus nightmare is over.
“We’re learning a lot about empathy,” she says, “and that patience is important. It’s about learning to not take things for granted, and to make the moments you have with your family and friends really count; making sure you have meaningful conversations and that everything you do has purpose. You wanna make sure what you say is good and that you spread kindness and empathise with people’s different situations.”
In the face of the current turmoil, Lipa is staying true to herself – determined and hopeful. “I really think this is gonna change people,” she says. “We’re definitely gonna learn a big lesson.”
Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ album is out now.