Journalism can be a varied profession, but one skillset that isn’t listed on most job descriptions is having enough muscle power to push a 200-kilogram motorbike up a flight of steps. Which is the situation I find myself in on shoot day. I check Twitter. “Slept with my hair wet… Woke up lookin like Hagrid,” Dua Lipa posted earlier. Great, so we have a Ducati that won’t budge and a Robbie Coltrane lookalike on the way. Luckily, the superbike eases into the studio - a six-man job - and when Dua arrives she bears absolutely zero resemblance to the fictional half-giant wizard.
It’s pretty clear from her appearance that the singer-songwriter is a ’90s baby. Wearing a leather choker and cow-print boots, she has the cast of Clueless stamped across her T-shirt (“It’s Urban Outfitters,” she points out helpfully). After all, the world is knee-deep into a ’90s revival at the minute, and naturally our conversation rolls around to the likes of Nelly Furtado, Toni Braxton and Christina Aguilera, who Dua idolised as a girl, paving the way for her own assault on the charts.
In little over a year, Dua’s gone from gracing every ‘One To Watch’ list to polishing off her first album and making her American TV debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “In every dressing room they had a TV so you could watch what was happening, and just the thought of Jonah Hill and Jaden Smith watching me right there was so weird!” she recalls.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so the saying goes. Which is very much the case for the 21-year-old popstar, whose Kosovar-Albanian father is rock singer-turned-marketing CEO Dukagjin Lipa. The London household in which she was raised would spin David Bowie, Sting and Bob Dylan on the regular, but it was a different artist that made an indelible impression on her young mind. “[Nelly Furtado’s] ‘Woah, Nelly!’ changed my life,” she says, also citing P!nk’s 2001 ‘Missundaztood’ as a firm favourite. “I kept on listening to it before I could even understand the lyrics. And I feel like it’s followed me through life - I keep going back and using it as a reference point for my music now.”
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At primary school, Dua’s musical ambitions took a turn for the worse after a teacher told her she couldn’t sing in front of her entire assembly. “He played this really high note and nothing came out, just like a squeak. The whole assembly giggled...” she groans, still mortified. Enrolling at the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School part-time, a teacher put her nine-year-old self with the 12/13-year-old kids to build up her confidence. She loved it. “But it could be bitchy. There were also the full-timers who’d be a bit like, singing and tap-dancing in the corridors. You didn’t wanna tread on their toes!”
When her family returned to their war-torn hometown of Pristina in Kosovo, Dua (which means ‘love’ in Albanian) could speak the language, but couldn’t read or write well. “Starting school was tough,” she nods. “Being the new girl is also quite a hard thing. I feel like I’ve been the new girl quite often!” So, aged 15, she did what most teenagers would struggle to do and convinced her parents to let her move back to London on her own.
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I find a lot of inspiration from the sad times...
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“One of the reasons they said it was okay was because I moved in with a girl who was doing a masters in London and my parents knew her parents,” she explains. “They were like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of like having a guardian.’ But she didn’t give a fuck about what I was doing; she was just having arguments with her boyfriend! I had friends over all the time to fill the void, I guess. But what was crazy was when I started realising that no-one’s going to pick stuff up after me, I have to actually be an adult and do my dishes, clean my clothes!”
In-between hostessing at Mexican restaurants, working nightclubs and modelling (before deciding she liked pizza too much), Dua would post covers of songs on YouTube, crossing her fingers for a social media explosion. But for her, “the whole viral effect thing didn’t happen like it did with Justin Bieber!” Instead the videos acted as a portfolio for Dua to source a manager, which they did, snapping her up a deal with Lana Del Rey’s representation, TAP. Flitting from producer to producer to flesh out her deep, husky vocal, Dua found a kindred spirit in Stephen ‘Koz’ Kozmeniuk. “I just loved everything he was doing, and he really understood what I wanted - he understood this whole dark pop thing…”
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That phrase is how Dua labels her own sound, which is guided by a love of boom-bap as much as chart-toppers. “I remember going into sessions being like, ‘I want it to sound like Nelly Furtado mixed with J. Cole!’ People would be like, ‘This girl’s crazy; she has no idea what she wants to do!’” The first song Dua wrote that helped make sense of this recipe was the tropical house-tinged belter ‘Hotter Than Hell’, inspired by a toxic relationship that made her feel worthless. “At the time it was just piano and a kick drum, it wasn’t even the production that it has now. But like, lyrically, it had the flow-iness and the rap-iness and the verses, and then it went into a more simple pop chorus.” The hip-hop influence, born from an obsession with ScHoolboy Q, Chance The Rapper and Kendrick, is ever-present in the confessional, storytelling nature of her songs.
Her forthcoming album, she promises, takes the personal to a whole new level. “As every song comes out people will learn a tiny bit more about me. In-between all the pop moments on the album there’s also slow and dark songs that are just stories. It’s everything - relationships that have already happened, current relationships, being homesick. A lot of it is me just growing in this industry.” The saccharine highs are interspersed with more realistic lows, and she names Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ as one example of this feeling. “I find a lot of inspiration from the sad times; I try and make a whole dance-crying kind of thing, where you can, like, listen to a song and cry about it.”
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It’s important to remember where you’re from; to do your part to try and give back...
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‘Be The One’, co-written by Lucy ‘Pawws’ Taylor and with Digital Farm Animals on production, has now racked up over 84 million views, and with that Dua’s earned herself a fiercely loyal fanbase. They call each other ‘Stans’ (a reference to the iconic Eminem track) and meet up at her shows. “My favorite time ever
Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Jonathan Baron
Fashion: Lorenzo Posocco