Dua Lipa: A pop star in waiting

  • Published
Dua Lipa
Image caption,
Dua Lipa was born in London to Kosovar-Albanian parents

Smoky of voice and sultry of photo, Dua Lipa looks and sounds like a pop star in waiting.

Born in London to Kosovar-Albanian parents, she was raised on Bowie and Dylan - but the first album she bought was by Canadian pop magpie Nelly Furtado.

"I remember knowing every single one of the lyrics on that album before I hit year one at school," she recalls. "I was obsessed."

As a child, Lipa attended the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School until, aged 13, her father's job took the family back to Kosovo.

She lasted two years before persuading her parents to let her leave home to pursue a singing career in London. Living with friends, she worked in restaurants and clubs to make ends meet - the darker side of London's nightlife inspiring her early lyrics.

Her first original songs were uploaded to SoundCloud in 2012, drawing the attention of Lana Del Rey's managers, who signed her up and sent her for two years of intensive recording sessions.

The result is an off-kilter, it-girl sound, powered by Lipa's deep, resonant voice. It won her a place on the BBC's Sound of 2016 longlist; while her recent single Be The One crept into iTunes charts around the world.

The 20-year-old's new single, Last Dance, premiered on BBC Radio 1 on Monday night, accompanied by a surreal, magical video filmed in California's rainforests.

Lipa talked to the BBC about the "terror" of making the video, her unusual upbringing, and a disappointing encounter with movie star Channing Tatum.

Image caption,
Dua Lipa's unusual style of music earned her a place on the BBC Sound of 2016 longlist

What was the first instrument you picked up?

Right, well... I decided, crazily, to take up the cello when I was in primary school. I really enjoyed it but I used to be really small. I would be carrying this massive cello on my back and it would either whack me on the top of my head or the backs of my legs. It was a real health hazard. So I gave it up.

And you were doing stage school at the weekend. Is it more like Glee or Whiplash?

You've got so many people with their script in their hand, warming up or running around practising tap in the hallways. There's a whole energy about it, but I couldn't imagine going to the full-time school.

Did you fit in?

When I was in primary school I was told I couldn't sing because I couldn't reach the high notes. That put me down a bit - but when my parents took me to Sylvia Young and I was told I could sing, it helped my confidence. But I could still never get to the top group because I wasn't musical theatre enough. Which I am really grateful for - because I've been able to keep my own voice rather than becoming very Broadway and jazz hands.

Your dad sent a tweet on your 20th birthday that read: "You've been a roller coaster of a teenager. Glad it's over." Were you a troublemaker?

I guess it was scary for them when I moved out of home at 15. But for me, it was the best time of my life!

I could barely make a Pot Noodle at that age. How did you look after yourself?

Cooking wasn't really an issue. It was cleaning and tidying my room. I'd take my clothes, stuff them in a cupboard and buy new ones until my mum came over. The day before I'd be doing six washes in one day.

How did you support yourself?

When I was 15, my parents gave me an allowance, but when I was 16 I started working as a nightclub hostess, then in a restaurant. I walked Channing Tatum and his wife to a table once. Good times!

Did you try to "accidentally" lose Mrs Tatum?

No! It was a bit of a let-down anyway. He's way hotter in the films.

Your first demo, Lions and Tigers and Bears, is still up on Soundcloud. Why do you keep it there?

Oh God! I don't know. I don't think much of it really makes sense. But that was my first piece of original work.

It's clear from the songs we've heard so far that you have two loves - hip-hop and pop.

I always wanted to combine them - I just didn't know how. I didn't want to rap in any of my songs but the beats are bass heavy like you would find in hip-hop, and I have that rapper's flow in the verses, singing the rap, then you've got the big pop chorus.

It is very noticeable that you sing in a lower register than most pop singers. Did you find producers and writers tried to push you towards those higher notes?

Sometimes but, for me, it's more interesting in the lower range. It sounds more conversational.

Image caption,
Dua Lipa performed in the Radio 1 Live Lounge last month

How did Last Dance come about?

I wrote that in Toronto. It was the third session of the day and I was like, "I'm so tired, I'm homesick and I miss my bed" and that's what I wrote about.

When I left I was like, "I don't know how I feel about this song". Then I had the finished version sent over to me and I was like, "Oh my God, I love it!"

It was the song where we figured out what my sound was going to be - the beat, the darkness, the lyrics, the pop chorus. It's the one I would take to new producers and say: "Right, this my sound."

When did this happen?

This was October 2014.

Really? You've been waiting a year and a half? Didn't that drive you crazy?

Yes! But we wanted to have the album ready before we put anything out, so we could plan and film the videos. It's been a long time.

I believe you've got the next single ready, too.

Yes! My whole life is planned for me! It's called Hotter Than Hell, which is about a really horrible relationship - one that went off the rails. It was really bruising my ego, and making me feel like I wasn't worth it. I was heartbroken, but I started to write about that time and I felt I had a lot to say.

How many songs did you record altogether?

Recorded and written? About 130 songs over a year and a half, but only about 25 we were really excited about, and 12 on the album.

I read an interview last summer where you said Be The One was "going to be an internet-only thing" but it's charted all over the world.

It's number three in Germany! It's crazy! It was supposed to be an introductory thing but it just got such a great response. I didn't expect it.

The video is just you goofing around in LA. You even get tattoos in one shot. Was that for real?

Yeah, it's a design by [US graffiti artist] Keith Haring. I paid for it myself. My parents went a bit crazy because it's on my thumbs. But I don't plan on getting a job at the bank.

The Last Dance video is a much bigger affair, though...

Yeah, we shot it in the rainforests in California. It starts off with me going into this crazy weird bath and ending coming out of a lake. We filmed it in December and I had to fall backwards into this lake in the tiniest dress. It was absolutely freezing.

[She pulls out her phone and plays rushes from the video shoot]

You look really scared.

I was terrified. I couldn't breathe!

How long did it take you to warm up afterwards?

The second I came out there were people with blankets carrying me, and we had loads of heaters all around. It was about 20 minutes until I got into proper clothes.

Whisky or Hot Chocolate?