How Dua Lipa Defied The Sophomore Slump To Create A Retro-Pop Classic

"I wanted it to have a theme, I wanted it to be concise, I wanted it to feel like a proper body of work."

dua lipa interview photo

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“I felt like I was tied to a rocket at times, I had no idea what was going on,” Dua Lipa says, sitting in a quiet room in the Sydney office of her record label, a day before she’ll take to the stage at the city’s Mardi Gras afterparty.

She’s referring, of course, to her rapid rise to fame following the release of her first album, Dua Lipa, back in 2017, which spawned the chart-conquering single ‘New Rules’, went gold and platinum around the world, and earned her a couple of BRIT Awards for good measure.

The album — and in particular, ‘New Rules’ — launched the Kosovar-English singer from talented upstart to certified pop superstar. No wonder she feels a little taken aback.

“It did feel overwhelming,” she laughs, absentmindedly twisting the rings on her hand. “But when I look back on it I’m so proud of the album and the experiences it gave me…all those things helped me get to where I am now. I’m so, so grateful for it.”

So where exactly is Dua Lipa now? Well, given the success of dancefloor disco thumpers like ‘Don’t Start Now’ and ‘Physical’, and with a new record Future Nostalgia just released into the world, it looks as if she’s about to be tied to another rocket.

Pivot To The Past

If ‘New Rules’ was Lipa stepping through the door of pop stardom, then ‘Electricity’ and ‘One Kiss’ was her moving into the house for good.

The collaborations — with Mark Ronson and Diplo, and Calvin Harris, respectively — pushed her out of by-the-numbers pop and onto the dancefloor, her low and melancholy vocals finding a perfect bed in house-inflected beats. Without them, the leap from ‘New Rules’ to ‘Don’t Start Now’ would have felt dislocating — with them, it felt like a natural progression.

Lipa “absolutely” agrees that the two tracks pushed her in that direction, but equally it was the desire to connect with the music she adored as a kid.

“A lot of this came from artists like Jamiroquai and Moloko and Prince and Blondie,” she says. “Those are artists that my parents really loved, so I see them as my childhood influences. I wanted to touch on them…but then bring in a future element to it – something that’s modern, and me, and feels current.”

Future Nostalgia, then, might be about as subtle an album title as being hit in the head with a disco ball, but Lipa definitely hit the bullseye with the musical themes. The album is slick and polished — a sophisticated melding of 1980s synth-pop, ’70s disco, ’90s dance, and modern pop.

Unlike Dua Lipa, which took a kitchen sink approach to genres and production, Future Nostalgia is (mostly) coherent and determined, the result of a singular vision. The critical touchstones — Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Giorgio Moroder — are clear.

“I wanted it to have a theme, I wanted it to be concise, I wanted it to feel like a proper body of work.”

“I wanted it to have a theme, I wanted it to be concise, I wanted it to feel like a proper body of work,” she says, leaning forward, animated. “Especially as my first record… I was exploring so much with that record there are so many different sounds and so many different genres — and I feel like the only thing that really tied it together was my voice.

“Whereas with this record, especially after touring for three years, I wanted the music to really be at the forefront, I wanted it to be very organic and instrumental. I felt like I learned so much during the process of the first album that I was like ‘Okay I want to sing everything on the same mic and I want to have the same kind of strings across different songs’, in that way I wanted it to be very cohesive.”

She enlisted a crew of super-producers to help craft her vision, including Stephen ‘Koz’ Kozmeniuk, Ian Kirkpatrick, and Jeff Bhasker.

“When I did ‘Future Nostalgia’ with Jeff it was my second session with him,” Lipa says. “I went down to the studio to play him some of the stuff and hang out with him, and we just got on really well. And then I was like ‘Okay let’s try and write a song’, so when we got into writing ‘Future Nostalgia’ it was so in your face and silly and fun.

“Jeff would get on all the different instruments in his studio and, like, grab a vocoder, and we would just have a blast. All I wanted with this record, especially because everyone is like ‘Oh the second record there’s so much pressure’, I wanted to bypass the pressure and just have fun.”

“It’s very hard for me to change my mind.”

Initially, Lipa’s team were a little hesitant with the change in direction — after all, what label wants to give up a highly successful formula?

“It was the first question that I got asked from everyone, because obviously when an album goes well everyone says ‘Okay well are you sure this is the way you wanna go?’,” she says. “But I think I’ve always known what I wanted to do and I’m also maybe stubborn in the way that I’m like ‘Well this is what I’ve set my heart on and this is what I want to do’…it’s very hard for me to change my mind.

“Also once I got the songs that I wanted to present to people everyone really understood it, and saw what I wanted to do.”

Let’s Get Physical

There are a few missteps, of course — ‘Good In Bed’ sounds like a Lily Allen offcut that should have been left on the cutting room floor — but overall, Future Nostalgia is assertive and confident. It’s also fun: an energetic, dancefloor-ready salve that the world desperately needs at the moment.

The release of the album was brought forward at the last minute — perhaps because of the global confusion and anxiety surrounding coronavirus, but also, and probably more correctly, because it was leaked.

“I hope it makes you smile and I hope it makes you dance and I hope I make you proud.”

“I’ve been a little bit conflicted about whether it’s the right thing to do during this time because lots of people are suffering,” she said in an Instagram live-stream last week, visibly tearing up. “I’m not sure if I’m even doing the right thing. But I think the thing we need the most at the moment is music, and we need joy and we need to be trying to see the light.

“I hope it makes you smile and I hope it makes you dance and I hope I make you proud.”

It was, of course, impossible to predict what would happen barely a month after she sat in Sydney chatting to me — but regardless, Lipa’s dedication to her fans is palpable, as is her determination to use her platform and wield her fame for the greater good.

Her foundation, Sunny Hill, was set up in 2017, aiming to “reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement” in Prishtina-Kosovo, where Lipa’s parents grew up.

“As I get older and I get given this platform from my fans and my listeners I not only want to be a voice for myself and my friends and my family, I want to make sure everybody is heard and everyone is seen,” she says. “I want to make sure I use my platform to the best of my ability, and honour the fact that people have given me this opportunity.

“Women’s rights, and equality for women in every field, is very important to me, and to be able to talk about growing pains and our reality is important.”

While the album addresses these pains head on in the closer ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ (unfortunately, one of the album’s more blatant missteps), it’s Lipa’s strutting exploration of female power and sexuality that is most impactful.

From the thudding kiss-off of ‘Don’t Start Now’, to the sly and teasing title track (“No matter what you do, I’m gonna get it without ya/I know you ain’t used to a female alpha”), to the sexual plead of ‘Pretty Please’ (“I need your hands on me/Sweet relief”), she’s at her most powerful when laying on the braggadocio.

dua lipa hugo comte photo

Photo Credit: Hugo Comte/Warner Music

Lipa’s promo schedule is predictably crammed, and barely nine minutes after we first sat down, we’re being told to wrap it up. She stands politely, and tells me she was sorry to hear of the closure of Newtown Social Club, where she performed way back in 2016, to a crowd of about 30 people (which included me).

“I think I nearly tripped onto the stage, it was only about 10 centimetres high,” she laughs. “That seems so long ago now.”

Future Nostalgia is out now through Warner Music.

Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. Follow her on Twitter