A few weeks ago, some friends and I were in the midst of a now-weekly ritual: sitting down over Zoom to do the weekly general knowledge quiz in the newspaper. The questions range from blatantly unfair – Who won the first ever ISF World Surfing Championship in 1964? – to, sometimes, stupidly easy. That day, we got a quick win on the board: What is the real name of pop star Dua Lipa? Duh. Of course, her real name is Dua Lipa: a pop music entity so singular (and now, so omnipresent) that seems too good to be real – so perfectly catchy that it must have been manufactured. But, it wasn’t.
Like most of us, 2020 was meant to take a vastly different shape for Lipa. Future Nostalgia – her sophomore pop album that’s at once both retro and futurist – had been polished to perfection…polished to the point that she had the album’s name tattooed on her arm prior to its release. What’s more, the first single that teased the album’s release, “Don’t Stop Now” did something that none of Lipa’s other monster hits (read: “New Rules”, “Electricity”, “Be The One) had done yet: it hit the top two on the Billboard Hot 100.
So, all on track then: critically-acclaimed, commercially electric follow-up to your critically-acclaimed, commercially electric debut. Mega 14-country-plus world tour announced. And then, Lipa – like the rest of us – had to pivot. All around, world-conquering artists had to train in a brand new art: the art of promoting an album from your sofa, in self-isolation.
It took Lipa and her team a few weeks to hit their stride, but before you knew it – bang – a video call rendition of “Don’t Start Now” on James Corden, an equal-parts cheesy and mesmerising green screen performance on Jimmy Fallon, and Future Nostalgia had become a giddy, disco-drenched beam of light in a time of utter hopelessness.
I caught Lipa for 20-minutes of so as part of One Humanity Live, a livestreamed charity event raising funds for global COVID-19 Relief. She delved into her career journey to date, the curveballs thrown at her album release, and why self-care can help entire communities.
How are you hanging in right now?
I'm really…I'm good. You know, I guess now because we've been in lockdown for so long, I’m really trying to get creative. It's been fun – challenging at times – but I’m making the most of it.
It's a seriously long, grind-filled journey to hit the kind of success you’re enjoying right now. Was there a distinct fork in the road moment in your career? A day where you made a distinct choice to pursue this as more than a hobby?
When I moved to Kosovo about the age of eleven, I was very, very excited. I went there with my family. I started going to school there. My parents were working. And I kind of slipped into a whole new life. But when I came to the realisation that, I couldn’t do music on a global scale, how I'd imagined being able to so from London, that's when I really started wanting to pursue it on an even more serious level. And so at the age of 15, I decided to leave Kosovo and live in London on my own, go to school and pursue music. That's when that's when I was like, “OK, I'm really going to try and do this.”
Do you have a favourite failure on your road to success? Something unpleasant or challenging that you look back on weirdly fondly?
There have been so many ups and downs throughout the whole process. Before I met my manager, I got offered a publishing deal for…not very good terms. Next to no money. At the time, it seemed like a lot of money. I was very lucky to have been told not to sign that deal early on. But I was quite upset because I was like, “Oh my God, this is my big break.” Later down the line, I was so fortunate to have found my manager and to have found such an amazing team and record label that really do just support me and my dreams.
My first record, I postponed it twice – I felt like that was a little bit of a setback for me personally. I was like, “I don't know if this album is ever going to come out, if anyone's going to hear it.” But I really had to just be patient and just keep writing. That taught me so much for my second record: that when it feels finished, it's finished. You should be patient and you should allow yourself that process. You’re lucky enough to have all the time in the world to work on your first record. There's no pressure. And then everything after that, you have to work quite quickly. I took that lesson and that became very important: that everything takes patience, that no matter how much people online were like, “Release some music!” it was like, OK, I just need to take it easy and be patient and wait for when the time is right.
It looks like you exercised just the right amount of patience with Future Nostalgia. It's phenomenal. It's performed phenomenally, too. It's obvious to say is that it's got such a distinct sound: those four-on-the-floor beats and big Juno synths that feel distinctly of another era. What attracted you to those sounds in 2018, 2019, 2020? Why did you want to go in that direction?
I wanted to play on an emotion and a feeling that resonated with me, which I really picked up from my early childhood. That was through my parents and the music that they listened to, which then inevitably became my own childhood influences. Although, I probably wouldn't have chosen artists like Jamiroquai, Moloko and Blondie at such a young age.
I wanted to create something that felt fresh and new but held that energy. Hence the Future Nostalgia. And I wanted to make something that I wasn't hearing on the radio as much. I wanted to try something a little bit different, something that definitely was out of my comfort zone and scared me a little bit – it's something people hadn't heard from me before. That also pushed me to grow as an artist and mature at the same time. I didn't stray too far from pop and what I do. But the sound changed quite a lot. And I'm grateful for the response. It has given me the confidence to see that as an artist, I can grow and change and learn.
What was 2020 going to mean for you before all this happened around the world?
Oh, goodness me. Well, I'm very much a planner – even in school, and when I was a kid, I wrote down to-do lists and thought about what's next. It's quite interesting having a plan and it pretty much going out the window…and still seeing that it's okay. That's a big lesson that I've also learned: things don't have to be so planned out. And you can roll with the punches.
I was initially planning on traveling around the world and promoting this record, and doing interviews face-to-face and TV performances in the TV studios, and being with my band and starting my tour, and things changed quite drastically. And so, it's been interesting to promote my record from my sofa – and alongside that, be creative and come up with ideas to try and make it seem like we're all together [despite being] so far away. That's been that's been challenging at times, but really rewarding. It has been a little bit of a wake-up call. It has been nice to slow down a bit.
I feel like so much of my life has been. What's next? Where am I off to? And what flight do I have to catch and what TV show are we doing next and when do we start rehearsals? It’s been quite interesting to do things differently. I never thought I would ever have to promote a record like this, but I am grateful for this experience. It has made me very grateful for all the work that we do abroad, and how all the teams come together. It's been quite an eye-opening experience.
You guys haven't wasted any time kind of finding clever and creative and really fun solutions to the dilemma of how to promote an album from your sofa. What inspired the green screen treatment on Jimmy Fallon?
We did James Corden to begin with – that was inspired by Zoom calls – and then when it came to doing Jimmy Fallon, it was like, “OK, now we really have to get creative and think of what can we do next.”
The inspiration came from one of [music journalist] Zane Lowe's very early MTV shows where he would host a bunch of artists and musicians on a sofa with a green screen in the background. There's this one interview with the White Stripes where they're just sitting and there's this constant moving background. I thought it'd be quite cool to travel from my living room all the way to New York to Fallon's studio.
It still takes an army, but I'm grateful that we get to do it remotely and from home and are still able to create something that shows movement and togetherness.
Have any of the challenges or frustrations you've experienced over the past few months changed your vision of how you might run your career after this pandemic? Any realisation that you would kind of take into your career moving forward?
I think it’s the patience and the urgency – and also treading differently with Mother Earth, and maybe not traveling as much. But I mean, I don't know. I love to work and I love to be able to tour and be in as many places as possible. Finding a more sustainable way to do that I think will be quite important. But it’s also seeing that some things can just be done as emails and some, you know, you have to actually get up and do the face-to-face. It shows that nothing is impossible and everything can be done in whatever way you choose to do it. I think that was good to see. Somehow, you're still able to work and promote a record and put music out and do videos – even from home. If you want to make it work, you can.
We're all living through a difficult time in different ways. What do you say to those who really have their backs against the wall right now?
It's very, very difficult times for everyone. Of course, for some people, it's a lot harder. I think, during this time, it's good to be kind to yourself to ask for support from the people around you.
For the frontline workers, all their work is not going unnoticed, they're putting themselves on the line to look after other people and to sacrifice their time, away from their families and their loved ones to keep other people safe. It is incredibly noble and their hard work really doesn't go unnoticed. We're so grateful and so lucky to have people supporting us. And we'll try and do our best in whatever way we can to support them and look after them, the way that they have looked after us.
For the people who are struggling with their mental health a bit more during this time – because they feel like maybe they're not doing enough, or they've got nothing to do when they're at home – what we're going through is collectively quite an interesting experience. It can be very anxiety inducing, but again, you're also playing a part and looking after the people around you and what you were doing doesn't go unnoticed. I think there's so much pressure to come out of this with a new skill, a new hobby or something. Maybe we're feeling outside pressures. But already what you're doing is so much. Staying at home and looking after the people around you and trying not to get other people sick…that in itself is very important.
I hope that soon, we can flatten this curve and slowly we can go back to back to normal life. What's really important right now is that the lives of the people in our communities. That's our number one priority. And hopefully when this is all over – slowly and as a community – we can help rebuild the economy in whatever way that is and look after the people around us. Support the charities that are close to you. Support charities that also support refugees and people that really don't have the opportunity to self-isolate – people that do live in overcrowded areas that don't have access to basic needs like water and soap. Those people really do need it the most.
If you have the opportunity to donate to charities and help people out, to call your friends and reach out to them and see how they're doing – all those things are extremely important during this time. That way, we can look after each other collectively and support each other. It is very hard times, but I think together we can get through anything. If you're ever feeling low, there are lots of help lines as well, that can really help if you feel like you don't have a family member or friend to reach out to – although I'm sure that everybody would be more than happy to be there to support you and look after you.
One thing that I've seen during this time is there's a lot of love and empathy being shared between people, between loved ones and between strangers. It’s something that's been very uniting and beautiful during this time, and it’s important that we keep that energy even after this.
You touched on self-care. Have there been any hobbies or habits you’ve found particularly helpful in keeping your spirits up, or diffusing anxiety?
Every day is different. When you get in the same cycle of doing the same thing every day, of course, you get anxiety and you get stressed out. So for me, it's about making it really exciting and coming up with a different recipe every day, or trying to cook something different so the day doesn't get as monotonous.
I bought a bunch of beads and started making necklaces – it was something to do with my hands, something to take my mind off, something that's quite therapeutic. I tried my hand at painting…really bad at that. So, I'm not gonna go with that. And reading a good book. I feel like literature and music and art is something that serves as an escape when you need it. And I find reading books or listening to music transports me to a different place and that that helps. Also, you know, doing FaceTimes with my friends, FaceTime workouts, you know, you're all in the same thing. You pull up the laptop and you find a workout you do together, and that makes you feel like you're together in the same room, just talking, being vulnerable and opening up about your feelings. I think that not only helps you, but also helps people around you.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.