It wasn’t so long ago that 23-year-old British-Kosovan singer Dua Lipa, whose songs have been streamed more than 2.7 billion times on Spotify alone, was a starry-eyed fan. “I went to see Katy Perry’s California Dreams tour in London” in 2011, she recalls. “I queued up for, like, half the day so I could get close to the front of the stage.
“While Katy was singing Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ she invited fans up onstage. I was like, ‘Oh, my God! I have to make this happen!’ So I climbed the barrier, and they pulled me up onstage.” A video of the moment can be found online, and there’s Lipa, baby-faced and utterly blissed out.
In February, Perry attended Lipa’s show at the Palladium in Los Angeles. “We got to hang out a bit, and she was so nice, so sweet and lovely,” Lipa recalls. “It was surreal.”
The kind of fearlessness that brought her to the stage as a fan has defined Lipa’s professional success. “Confident” and “the coolest” are among the many flattering terms that have been used to describe the London-based singer, who doesn’t succumb to affectation.
Call her a fighter, however, and she lights up. Her songs, such as “Hotter Than Hell” and “IDGAF” — both of which are intoxicating middle fingers to romantic clichés — live the world of female empowerment. “In the music industry, it takes a lot of hard work to get to where you are. Women have to fight a lot more for it than men,” says Lipa, who co-writes the bulk of her material. “I’m definitely a feminist — and anybody who’s not a feminist is a sexist.”
Critics have rhapsodized over her smoky voice and rhythmic cadences that define the distinctive role she inhabits in the dance-pop genre: a singer whose songs are at once badass and cathartic. But it’s also true that the genre currently has few dedicated practitioners.
“Outside of Ariana Grande, it doesn’t feel like a lot of the established A-list pop stars want to make pure pop/dance music at the moment,” says Chris Booker of KAMP-FM in Los Angeles. Lipa is “doing the right collaborations [Silk City, Calvin Harris] and filling an obvious void.”
Lipa takes themes of emotional conflict and makes them accessible. “I love songs that aren’t necessarily the happiest and putting them to the happiest beat ever so you can actually dance to it,” she says. “‘Dance-crying’ is a term I’ve been using.”
Her lyrics are filled with stories from her life. In fact, she famously wrote “No Goodbyes” while still in the relationship she was chronicling. “I wouldn’t tell my ex-boyfriends which songs are about them. But my boyfriend would know,” she says slyly, referring to her current beau, model-chef Isaac Carew.
Her crowning achievement, the playful “New Rules,” about summoning the will to leave a thoughtless lover, was one of the two tracks on her self-titled debut she didn’t co-write. But Lipa made it her own, imbuing it with take-no-crap ethos. The track went platinum in 17 countries, with its video clocking more than 1.5 billion YouTube views. All told, the album, which won her a Brit Award for best female solo artist, yielded a staggering eight singles — and that’s not even counting her hit house-music collaborations with Calvin Harris (“One Kiss”) and Diplo and Mark Ronson’s Silk City (“Electricity”), which were later added to the album’s “Complete Edition.”
Lipa feels that a Taylor Swiftian right to self-confession is important. “Misogyny can run so deep,” she says. “The second a guy sings, ‘I’m heartbroken,’ everyone is like, ‘Poor him!’ The second a girl says something empowering or ‘I don’t even care about this person anymore,’ it’s ‘You’re a bitch!’ Hopefully that will change.” Lipa notes that she has gotten her fair share of haters. “I was like, ‘You don’t even know the real story.’ But you just can’t win, so that’s not gonna stop me from being honest in my music.”
Dua Lipa was born and raised in London to Albanian parents, who moved the family back to their native Kosovo when she was 11. “I didn’t have the same opportunities I had in the U.K. — that’s what really pushed me. When you’re in a place where you don’t have what you want, you want it even more,” says Lipa, who, with her parents’ blessing, moved back to London at age 15 to live with a family friend. There, she began posting cover songs on YouTube, then original songs on SoundCloud, hoping to get noticed. She also modeled a bit, although agencies told her that at 5’8” , she “wasn’t the right size” for the fashion business. Regardless, she managed to get cast in a spot for an “X Factor” commercial that required her to sing. It was enough to kick off her career: It grabbed the attention of Tap Management, which also handles Lana Del Rey, and landed her in the studio, where she recorded demos.
“Dua has always been very firm about what she wants musically — unwilling to compromise on her sonics and lyrics in particular, and her choice of collaborations and features,” says Tap Management co-founder Ben Mawson. “Authenticity is what gives artists a long-term career, and Dua has that in abundance.”
Lipa was determined to make the most of her opportunity. “I’ve watched my parents work very hard for what they have. I never felt like I’d ever be given anything,” she says.
There were plenty of dues to pay: One of her first shows was in Nottingham, England, performing for an audience of 10. “They were all there because my manager offered them a drink,” she remembers, laughing.
A turning point finally came after she released “Hotter Than Hell” and went to Sweden for a TV performance. A fan there told the singer-songwriter that the song made her feel empowered. “It meant a lot,” says Lipa, “because I was in a really vulnerable position when I wrote that song.” After that, the rooms she played multiplied in capacity quickly — from 1,000 to 4,000 to 8,000 — as her album gained momentum. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s happening.’”
On Feb. 2, “absolutely petrified and really excited at the same time,” she appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” known for being an acoustically challenging gig. The performance received mixed reviews, particularly for the difficult register shifts in “New Rules.” “Homesick” was judged to be a more successful encore.
Enabling Lipa’s risk-taking is her legion of admirers, including 21.4 million Instagram followers spread across the globe, from Europe and North America to Ecuador, Turkey and India. “My fans have really given me the confidence to speak about things that are personal to me,” she says. “They allow me to not be afraid, because they also relate to the music that way.”
What seems like a meteoric rise has actually been more systematic: Vigilant touring won her that loyal following, and it grew more gradually than it might seem. “For the past three years, I’ve never really spent more than a couple of days in one place. This year alone my photographer counted that we’ve only spent something like 22 days in London, where we all live.” But she’s quick to profess her love of performing. “You might go out onstage one night absolutely exhausted,” she says, “but then the crowd lifts you up so much.”
“I love to work with artists who people don’t necessarily expect me to work with.”
18 months after the initial release of the debut album, Lipa is deep into the challenge of writing a follow-up — and she’s characteristically pragmatic about it. “Sometimes people get stuck in the wave of ‘If I tried to make a “New Rules” again, I wouldn’t get anything good,’” says the singer, who’s currently working alongside producer Stephen “Koz” Kozmeniuk (Madonna, Kendrick Lamar).
Kozmeniuk was immediately impressed with his collaborator’s sound. “With Dua it was apparent from the moment she stepped up to the microphone that her voice was quite unique,” he tells Variety. “As a producer you’re always searching for a voice that has a distinct sonic fingerprint: When you hear Drake you know it’s Drake; when you hear Rihanna you know it’s Rihanna. I feel Dua has that same kind of voice and presence.”
The admiration is mutual. “We have a really good thing going,” Lipa says of Kozmeniuk. “He’s not afraid to take risks.” Such statements tend to produce a look of terror on the faces of record executives and managers, who pale at the thought of fixing something they don’t consider broken. But Lipa says she wants to push boundaries and try different things and particularly avoid the sameness of what’s on the radio. “I know the kind of songs that I want,” she explains. “That’s something I left in the hands of the producer before. Now, I have a lot more creative control.”
The sessions have yielded a “fun, nostalgic feel” across eras, Lipa says, who adds that she’s been listening to albums by Prince and OutKast. In fact, André 3000 is on her wish list of collaborators, as are Frank Ocean and Rosalía, the 25-year-old Spanish singer reinventing the pop-flamenco genre. “I love to work with artists who people don’t necessarily expect me to work with,” says Lipa, who’s joined forces with everyone from Harris and Diplo to K-pop phenoms BlackPink (“Kiss and Make Up”) and opera legend Andrea Bocelli (“If Only”).
She reveals that the new album is conceptual, but she’s cagey about specifics. “I want a bit more depth,” she says, “but if I told you how, I’d have to tell you the album title.” That’s a secret she wants to keep under wraps, she explains. At least “for a little bit, until I put it out into the world. Then it belongs to everyone.”
Additional reporting by Karen Bliss