Before she became a fierce, fabulous singer of dance-pop smashes, Dua Lipa worked on the door of a nightclub in London. You know the type: imperious, judgmental, clipboard in hand, looking you up and down as a snarling bouncer lurks, ready to eject you for “not looking right”.
“I hated it,” the 21-year-old says quickly, lest I think that being imperious and judgmental comes naturally to her. “I didn’t have much control over who I let in. I had an earpiece and a camera and the manager inside would go ‘Yes, no, yes, no’ to the point where I had to turn down my own friends for wearing trainers. I never felt really comfortable doing it.” Which club was it? “I don’t want to say.” Why, is it a cheesy one? “Yeah, it’s cheesy now. It wasn’t when I was 18.”
Where working in a club came in handy was in her other job, as a budding pop star. After clocking off at 3am, Lipa would go home and write songs. “It definitely put me in the right frame for writing,” she says. “You’ve always got so many stories to tell.” She co-wrote all but one of the songs on her forthcoming self-titled debut album, ranging from Hotter Than Hell, in which she gives both barrels to a rubbish ex-boyfriend, to Blow Your Mind, in which she rails against being commodified when she was a model in her teens.
The daughter of Kosovan Albanians who left Kosovo before the war, Lipa (it’s her real Albanian name) was born in London, moved with her family to Pristina at 11 and returned at 15 to London, where she began to pursue music. She had released only two singles when she was nominated for the BBC Sound of 2016 poll, although one of those songs, Be The One, had been No 1 in 15 countries.
Since then her profile has soared: her songs have racked up more than 250 million streams on Spotify, she has three tracks in the iTunes Top 20, including collaborations with the Jamaican dancehall star Sean Paul and the Dutch EDM whizzkid Martin Garrix, she’s been compared to Lana Del Rey and she counts Harry Styles as a friend (but not, despite rumours, boyfriend — that honour goes to Isaac Carew, a British model and chef).
Today, in the office of her publicist, just off Piccadilly Circus, Lipa is every inch the confident, chart-crushing dominatrix, in towering scarlet stiletto boots, skinny jeans and a Mariah Carey T-shirt, her arms covered in tattoos. One reads “Sunny Hill”, which is the neighbourhood in Pristina where her father, a former musician who now does marketing, and her mother, who works in tourism, grew up. Two small ones on her knuckles re-create paintings by the Eighties American street artist Keith Haring (“I would have loved to have gone to New York when Madonna was hanging out at Studio 54”).
Not that she misses being at the throbbing centre of London nightlife. “It wasn’t really my kind of scene,” Lipa says in polished stage-school tones (she studied at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London). “I prefer to be at home with friends.” Really? Surely she should be out every night, raising all kinds of hell. “I really do prefer staying at home,” she says. “I appreciate it more so now. When you’re younger it’s the novelty of going to a club.” Lipa, let me remind you, is 21. If anyone needs a spokeswoman for the sensible millennial generation, here she is. “I have house parties,” she says, slightly defensively. “Well, dinner parties turned house parties. It’s great when everyone’s in one place at the same time instead of screaming at each other over loud music.” Dua Lipa: 21 going on 51.
She certainly has a precocious world-weariness, which is probably why she’s been compared to Del Rey, with whom she shares a management company. “I don’t mind the comparison, cos I love her,” she says, although she doesn’t think they sound that similar. They do have, she concedes, a common love for the melancholic and melodramatic. “When you do a lucky dip in the memory box it always seems to be the sad ones that come out first,” she says. “Like if someone tells you you’re beautiful you remember it momentarily but if someone tells you you don’t look nice you remember it for ever.”
Hotter Than Hell, for example, is about “an ex who constantly made me feel like I wasn’t good enough — always making me feel like I was saying the wrong thing. I broke up with him and was feeling really sorry for myself but when I went to the studio and started working on the song I hated that I sounded weak. I didn’t wanna be that person, the girl that I’d always told my friends not to be, so I kind of flipped the script. I wanted it to be more empowering, therapeutic.” Hence lines such as “He calls me the devil/ I make him wanna sin/ Every time I knock, he can’t help but let me in.”
Meanwhile, Blow Your Mind has a chorus that goes: “Tonight I’m alive, ain’t a dollar sign/ Guaranteed, I can blow your mind.” The dollar-sign bit refers to how she felt when she worked in the fashion industry. “I only modelled for a year when I was 15 until I was told I had to lose weight.” How depressing, I say (she’s as slim as you like). “Yeah it is. I struggled a lot with body confidence and even now it’s still at the back of my mind.” Did it colour her opinion of fashion? “Absolutely.” Would she ever model again? Perhaps, she says, “but I’d do it as an artist”, on her terms.
Blow Your Mind — in which Lipa leavens the chorus with a theatrical air-kiss, “mwa!” — was the song that alerted Sean Paul to her talents. When she heard that she would be working with the Jamaican rapper, on the current hit No Lie, all she could think about was Baby Boy, Paul’s 2003 duet with Beyoncé. “That was a really big song for me when I was in year three,” she says. “It was crazy for him to know who I was. He said: ‘I love your song, Blow Your Mind — mwa!’ ”
The potency of Lipa’s music is aided in no small part by her gorgeous growl of a voice. “I’ve always had a really low register,” she says, smiling. “I was on the phone once, trying to book a haircut, and someone called me ‘sir’.” Many of her idols are women who sing in lower keys: “I love Sade and the person who really kills the low register is Toni Braxton.”
Another hero was her father, Dukagjin Lipa, who was a rock star in Kosovo. Would he appear on TV? “Music in Kosovo is so different — you’d make a CD and give it to your friends and do gigs in little clubs around Kosovo,” she says. “There’s clips of my dad on YouTube with really long hair and my mum in the corner, rooting for him.”
There’s also a clip of Dukagjin joining his daughter for a duet at a concert last year in Pristina, as the crowd of 20,000 go berserk. “Because Kosovo is so small, everyone knows everyone,” she says. “We’re really proud of where we’re from; we always tell everyone we’re from Kosovo.”
Her national pride only got stronger when in the Noughties she moved to Pristina to go to secondary school. Lipa was only three when the Kosovo War started in 1998 and it didn’t affect any of her family but her new classmates had lost uncles and grandfathers. “I was really, really young during the war and, being in London, sheltered, but going there I really understood it.“ She had always spoken Albanian at home so the language wasn’t a problem, but being the new girl was, at first: “It’s a weird feeling, you don’t know quite where you belong.”
Soon, though, she was making friends, who taught her all the naughty slang. Now she speaks Albanian without an accent and Kosovo is as proud of her as she is of it. She’s hot on the heels of the Pristina-born, London-based singer Rita Ora, who is probably the country’s most famous international celebrity. Lipa has not met her but Ora is a big role model for her: “To see her get to where she is. Rita was the first one to have made it big.” Could Lipa be the one to make it even bigger?
Dua Lipa features on Martin Garrix’s Scared to Be Lonely, out now. Lipa plays UK dates in April and her self-titled album is out in June.