“In my head, on my 23rd birthday, I was like: ‘Am I turning 30 yet?’” Dua Lipa laughs with her distinctive husk.
Right now, make-up free, sleepy-voiced and barefoot next to the pool in her Beverly Hills Airbnb (even stars are skipping hotels these days), she looks her young age, complete with a sprinkling of delicate tattoos and lethal lime-green acrylic nails.
But you can understand how she might feel older, given all she’s packed into the last two years: a platinum-selling debut album, constant touring, collaborations with Calvin Harris, Mark Ronson and Diplo, three BRITs, two Grammys, and streaming figures so massive they simply don’t sound like real numbers.
Back in 2015, she released the breezy and blog-friendly debut track New Love, but it wasn’t until 2017’s instructive anti-fuckboy single New Rules and its pastel-hued video that Lipa truly blew up. It was a perfect storm of self-empowering affirmation, meme and pop chorus, and it gave her a first UK number one and US top ten that summer. Then with One Kiss and the MNEK-co-written IDGAF climbing the Billboard charts in its wake, Lipa was suddenly inescapable.
With the craziness that ensued, spending two weeks in one place is considered “down time” for Lipa (even if she’s technically still working out here in Los Angeles, writing and recording her second album). “I was writing so much on the road for the first one,” she remembers. “I got thrown into this crazy promo schedule, and then I ended up touring for three years.” Does she ever get burnt out? “It’s very hard for me to get tired doing things that I love,” she insists. “I’m the kind of person that, if I love something, I’ll say yes, even when I have no time, and the darkest eye bags!” She’s tried meditating, she says, but whenever she attempts to clear her mind, she just ends up falling asleep.
It’s hard to imagine most people being able to cope with her schedule, but Lipa gives off an almost preternaturally calm vibe. She’s just bought a house in London, but has barely spent any time there yet. Instead, she’s been in New York, and before that, Glastonbury, where she donned wigs and an enormous black PVC hat to allow her to roll through the Rabbit Hole, Block 9 and South East Corner unhindered.
Her Instagram from the time was full of loved-up photos of her skipping through the festival fields, accompanied by semi-cryptic messages like “away with the fairies”, “survived another year…” and talk of “glasto ptsd”. There are nods to hard partying (“me pointing at my sanity that decided to leave my side at approximately yesterday afternoon. If found…BIG REWARD!”), there are loved-up rainbow, heart and butterfly emojis and a knowing, knitted “Ecstasy” jumper. There’s even the appearance of a party alter-ego, “Valentina Vicious” who “loves mum-dancing to electricity wbu?” If Insta is a window into the soul (she has 32.7 million people peering in), then Lipa’s soul is in good shape. She’s having the time of her life.
But isn’t partying with the festival masses and doing everyday things tricky when you’re famous? Lipa shrugs. “I just do it,” she says, adding that she thinks it’s important to “defeat the idea” that, as a celebrity, she can’t go out and do normal things. She considers fame to be something that she can simply relax her way out of. “In the beginning, I did find it a bit weird [being recognised]. I wouldn’t know how to act or what to say. Now I’m more chilled with it, it’s easier.”
Even though she’s a mainstay of pop, only now does it feel like Lipa is unleashing the full force of her personality on the public. Beyond her engaging socials, compare her 2018 Billboard Music Awards and 2019 American Music Awards performances on YouTube and they seem worlds apart. A stiffer, more self-conscious performer has transformed into a fist-pumping powerhouse. More dramatic yet was her show-stopping, sapphic duet with St Vincent at this year’s Grammys, described as “really fucked up and sexy” by the American musician.
Since the release of her self-titled debut album in 2017, Lipa has settled into her groove, becoming the go-to voice for a new wave of house-driven pop. However, the “fifty or sixty” songs she’s already recorded for the next album promise to take her in a new disco-heavy direction. “It would probably be risky if I wasn’t risky with the next record,” she says, suggesting a change of musical direction. “I don’t think it would be as fun if I tried to recreate the first record. As an artist, you constantly want to grow and change your perspective and try something new.”
She plays me two 30-second snippets of demos for her second album, which perfectly suit being blasted from a poolside speaker in the 29-degree Californian heat. Like some of the best Dua Lipa songs – New Rules, and even the original New Love – the verses build to the point of ecstasy, before pulling a 180 into a simple, yet super memorable chorus.
Both are strutting anthems that showcase her vocals. One captures the heady days of a new relationship, but the best is a smouldering kiss-off informing an ex to move the hell on already (in the vein of Mariah Carey’s Obsessed). It comes complete with audacious piano stabs and funk bassline.
Back in April, she told her Insta followers that after a predominantly electronic first album, the follow-up is going to have a lot more live instrumentation.
“I feel like you could dance through the whole record,” she says. “There’s lots of nostalgic elements to it. There’s a sample in there from the 1930s. It’s just a party.”
While Dua Lipa was a patchwork process that came together as she discovered who she was as an artist, this album had a definite shape from the outset. “Before I started, I knew my album title. I knew exactly what I was going to be making.” When it comes to discussing what the title is – which, she revealed to fans on Twitter, is also the record’s theme – she’s keeping her cards close to her chest. “There are some songs that are happy, some about heartbreak, some about dealing with your life in public.”
Lipa’s career arc is indicative of what it takes to really break through in the modern pop world. Back in the ’90s, labels could nurture stars like the Spice Girls in secret, before unleashing them on an unsuspecting world, fully-formed. Today, the making of a star requires more of a gradual introduction and then a relentless grind to stay relevant, dropping singles and collaborations consistently enough to keep yourself at the forefront of playlists.
You have to be hyper-engaged on social media to boot: and Lipa, a digital native pop star who got her start on YouTube, knows how to cultivate a non-stop Insta presence that makes you feel like you really know her (though she keeps her finsta for those who really do).
“I remember when Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl came out, it was like, where did this person even come from?” Lipa remembers. “All of a sudden, it was just a massive smash all over the world and everybody knew who Katy Perry was. Things were so different back then, you just had to have one big song, and people would play it on the radio, and that’s it. Whereas now, you really have to nurture every little part of it.” Today, Perry could be counted as one of Lipa’s fans: she came to one of her shows in LA last year, and sent the British singer a long text full of health tips about how to preserve her voice.
Lipa is something of a rarity right now as a British woman making global pop moves. She won a BRIT award earlier this year with Calvin Harris, for their summer banger One Kiss. Many singers in today’s charts only get a featuring on a producer’s track, but on One Kiss (as well as on the piano house single Electricity with Ronson and Diplo), Lipa isn’t a featured artist: she shares top billing with the producers. “As a featured artist, I’m there to add something to someone else’s sound, whereas I prefer to be able to create something with someone,” she says firmly.
Women in pop, unless they’re literally sitting at a piano – and often even then – are rarely given the credit they deserve as songwriters. “For so many years, people have claimed that pop is manufactured,” Lipa says, taking on a fighting tone of voice that indicates this is an axe she’s regularly been grinding. “But there have also been so many incredible pop artists. Gwen Stefani, P!nk, Alicia Keys – all these artists that were the it-girls of pop in the ’90s and ’00s, but were very much writing themselves. I would have hoped that the whole stigma of manufactured pop would have disappeared a long time ago, but it still exists. As women, I do feel like we always need to prove ourselves a little bit more, to earn our place.”
Recording this second album, Lipa was determined to be even more hands-on than she was the first time around, “especially because I didn’t write New Rules”. She says it’s “a pride thing”. (New Rules was originally written for Little Mix, and was one of only two songs on her debut that Lipa didn’t co-write.) “It’s very important for me to get out that these are my stories.”
Reflecting on her early studio sessions – as a 19 and 20-year-old woman working with seasoned industry professionals like songwriters Rick Nowels (Celine Dion, Lana Del Rey) and Sarah Hudson (Katy Perry, Justin Bieber), she remembers having total impostor syndrome.
“I was surrounded by people that had done this longer than me – I always felt like I wasn’t good enough. I’d go into the studio, the producer would already have a beat or a track or something we could write to, because I was still in the process of really finding my sound. I would say [ideas], and when we didn’t end up using those, I would kind of go back into my shell. It wasn’t until I did Hotter than Hell and Last Dance that I started figuring it out, and things started sounding a bit more cohesive. Now I’m not scared. As a writer, sometimes you’ve got to be OK with saying some shit, you know? There’s no wrong answer. Something could be amazing, it could sound ridiculous, it could really work.”
With a life increasingly led in the spotlight, and obsessive dissections of recent photos of her with model Anwar Hadid in gossip magazines (anything linked to LA’s Kardashian-Jenner-Hadid dynasty will always make the headlines), does the attention never piss her off?
“The most shocking part to me is the really untrue things… but I’ve learned to make peace [with the fact] that everyone needs a job, and some people get paid to make shit up about other people. That’s sad, but that’s for them, and it’s for me to turn a blind eye.”
She’s had to learn how to draw boundaries for herself when it comes to looking at social media and often deletes the apps and takes a break.
“Sometimes it is a bit too much. You just go into a hole of reading stuff that I don’t have time [to read] and shouldn’t be reading.” When she does tweet, she’s often hilariously acerbic and unfiltered. Back in May, after Alabama passed a bill making abortion illegal, she sent a string of tweets that culminated in “FUCK THE PATRIARCHY I AM DONE WITH THIS BULLSHIT HANDMAIDS TALE SHIT WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK”.
She laughs when I bring it up now. “It’s so fucked-up. I laugh about it because sometimes it’s easier than crying over things. When I do tweet, it’s only really about things that I feel like I need to say something about,” she says. “For me, it’s almost my duty to talk about those things. What’s most important to me is Kosovo, and my charity Sunny Hill and children, and women’s rights, and being an ally, showing support to the LGBT [community].”
Since her parents are originally from Kosovo, Lipa and her dad launched Sunny Hill to provide opportunities for Kosovans in the arts, hosting an annual festival in the capital Prishtina and providing scholarships to American music schools for aspiring musicians. This year, Lipa called on Miley Cyrus to headline the festival, proving the A-list pulling power she has. “If I didn’t use my platform for things like that, what am I really doing?”
When I meet Lipa again later in the day in LA, she’s in full pop star mode: “tarted up” for dinner with friends in a boxy black shirt, black jeans, and bright red heels. She’s dripping in gold jewellery and fearsomely tall, and in the seven hours or so between our first and second meeting, she’s written another new song.
Before dinner she wants to get a tattoo touched up by her regular artist Sean from Texas who works from a private studio in the Arts District. While she’s dressed like a celebrity, I’m surprised by how low-key it is to move through LA with her, no entourage in tow. We enter the tattoo studio – a cosy, sparse space with traditional artwork and prints that announce “LIFE SUCKS THEN YOU DIE” on the walls – and within seconds she’s on the floor, cooing and greeting the artist’s two dogs with a loud, London-y “Alright, mate?”.
The tattoo Lipa is having touched up is one of 13 mostly small black linework designs on her arms and hands. She has them done impulsively on most of her trips to LA, and is obviously unfazed by the process. They seem to reflect different aspects of her: there’s the youthful, sweet word “ANGEL”, the intimidating thorny rose, the chilled-out palm tree. Then, across her wrist, a sardonic and self-aware warning to anyone trying to read into her tattoos: “THIS MEANS NOTHING”.
Lipa seems to be in a transitional space right now: famous enough that trolls and celebrity gossip columnists are factors in her life, but still anonymous enough that she can stride into a tattoo parlour in the States and hang out like any other customer. On her debut LP Lipa sounded like a pop star breezing her way confidently but chameleonically through different genres as though trying them on for size. Her second album – coming from a slightly older, wiser and more confident Lipa – will see her take an even more self-determined path. She’s got to make it work.
“Music is the only thing I can see myself doing,” she says, bold and immovable. “I never really gave myself a Plan B.”