“I’ve always wanted to be a singer,” laughs Dua Lipa. A fascination, it’s safe to say, that’s not unusual in most teenage girls, and one that usually goes unrealised. In primary school, Dua’s music teacher wouldn’t even let her do any solos because she couldn’t hit the falsettos. Now, at the age of nineteen, her deep, smoky voice and rhythmic flow has taken her into studios in London, LA, Stockholm, New York and Toronto, and into sessions with Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, FKA Twigs) and Andrew Wyatt (Miike Snow, Charli XCX). Maybe, just maybe, that teacher had it all wrong.
Dua was born in London, and with her Kosovar father – also a musician – as primary influence, her musical upbringing was one of wild contrasts. “I’d be listening to Destiny’s Child, loads of hip-hop, Tupac and Biggie, while my dad would be nurturing me with Dylan and Bowie. It was such a mix up of genres, and I never knew exactly what type of music I liked, but I learned to be open to anything, as long as it was good.” The hefty presence of rock, r’n’b, pop and rap quickly became telling factors, and a young Dua set her rose-coloured sights on becoming a singer, or at least trying. The problem, in her words, was that “nobody ever really knows how you get there. You either have to have the connections or you’ve got to go out there and fight for it.” So, she decided to knuckle down for the fight.
Dua found herself at the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School in the West End. Here, the teachers thought a little differently about her voice than her first school did, and before long she was singing in classes with students twice her age. But at the age of thirteen, her entire family decided to move back to Kosovo. “It just wasn’t for me. All I wanted was to sing, and be in an environment with people that wanted to do the same as me. I needed to be back.” And come back she did. Somehow, at fifteen, Dua convinced her parents to let her return to London, alone. Young, independent, and maturing fast, she shacked up at a friend’s and headed straight back to Sylvia Young.
As her music developed, she became more determined to get her music outside of the four walls of theatre school. She started recording covers for YouTube and Soundcloud, continuing those early rap and r’n’b influences by tackling tracks from artists like Chance The Rapper or Mila J, all done in her own style: stripped back production and burning, buttery vocals.
“I decided to try and get to know more people,” explains Dua. “I was telling people to check out my covers, and I ended up working with a songwriter called Marlon Roudette. He was the first guy who sat down with me with a piano and was just like ‘lets write a song together.’ That inspired me to start getting some demos.”
The craziness of trying to make music work at the same time as leading an anarchic, independent adolescent life ended up becoming both a gift and a burden for her writing sessions. “I worked everywhere. From shops to restaurant hostessing to nightclub doors to modelling. On the doors, I was on from 6pm to 4am, then I’d go home, sleep, get up, and go straight into the studio. I guess that also helped me write a lot, because I had so many things happen and my mind was on the go constantly. The dramas every night, the dark side of nightlife, they became something I wanted to write about. Like they say, no good stories started with a salad.”
Garnering a following online, Dua’s tireless endeavour didn’t go unnoticed, and soon writing and recording could become her sole focus. Quickly, entire songs began to birth from her sessions; starting with “Hotter Than Hell”. To date, it’s her most thumping track; a clarion floor-filler built around a hard, pulsating beat, vivid piano chords and lyrics that come thundering through in her powerful and emotional charged vocal hooks. It’s a song, according to Dua, that’s gleaned from those sleepless party nights: “That was one of the first songs I wrote that I really believed in. I made it sound cocky. It presents itself as ‘you know you want me,’ but deep down it’s troubled. Not all is what it seems. It’s about wanting to be wanted.”
“Last Dance” – written with Talay Riley (Usher, Timbaland) – is a candid pop firebolt. Dua’s rolling flow style of singing switches from entrancing and emulsified to sudden vocal snaps and punches, all layered over subtle, blissful pop production. “That day was like every other studio session, except I felt really damn moody that day. In a sense, it’s about being away from your loved ones, but it’s also about realising that and totally dealing with it. I was out of my comfort zone and as I look back on it I see how important it was to push through it.”
Every facet of Dua’s music – the way she pulls from contemporary hip-hop, classic soul and pop and reshapes them into her own crimson sound – accentuates the visual world that’s naturally building around her. Planet Dua is a mosaic of styles, guided by her magnetic tendency to pull in eclectic influences around her and sculpt them into her own creations. It’s reflected in her fashion and visuals, a haute gipsy amalgam of studded custom leather jackets, dazzling lens flare, long pale dresses, dusky florals, and dreamlike aesthetics. It’s a picture of thrifted youth.
Writing over these last two years, Dua has seemingly looped the world: a month in LA, a night in Sweden, back to London, then out to New York, and the rest. And when you’re travelling like this for long periods of time, there comes a point when the adventure itself becomes an inspiration. Her sound has become the pure, impressionable and passionate sound of a London-raised girl consuming the world first hand and then expressing it in her own flavour – a young wanderer. “It’s insane. I had never been to New York before. It was surreal. Going there and being able to work. Every single place I went to had a different effect on me. They became the things I would write about. After writing five days per week, you become jaded and you don’t know what you’re going to sing about or write about. You’re at home writing. But when you go away, so many different things start happening to you and you discover this voice. You want to say things.”
Now, the honey-voiced songstress is set to release her debut album, her opening collection. This is an arsenal of songs rooted in pop but gilded by hip-hop and soul affectations; these are urbane musings on being young and mad; sharp and soulful pop parables about hustling for what you believe in.