Backstage at Bonnaroo, Dua Lipa has a hard time believing what just happened. Two hours ago, she took the stage in the 90-degree Tennessee heat to an overflow crowd full of fans who sang along to every word of her moody pop songs, even though most of them have been out only a week. Stalking the stage in a white tank top and a choker, Lipa seized on the energy, firing off acrobatic kicks and punches, urging everyone to “Make some fucking noise!”
“There are some moments where I just stop dancing and stare because I’m trying to take it in,” says Lipa, 21, in a thick London accent. She recalls playing for a small crowd at Lollapalooza only a year ago, when she was little more than a curiosity to bloggers. But in the past few months, she’s dominated U.S. festivals like Governors Ball and Coachella, while her jittery heartbreak ballad “Scared to Be Lonely” has surpassed 300 million Spotify streams. In June, her first LP debuted in the Top 10 in several countries. “It’s overwhelming and really exciting,” she says. Lipa likes to classify her music as “dance-crying”: “It’s a thing!” she says. “Lyrically, it’s really sad and upsetting, but then you want to dance to it.”
Lipa grew up the daughter of Albanian immigrants who had left Kosovo during the politically tumultuous Nineties. (When he wasn’t working in marketing, her dad sang in a Police-influenced rock band.) But her parents always dreamed of returning to Kosovo, and around the time it declared independence from Serbia, they did. Lipa was 11, and struggled with the adjustment. At 15, she managed to convince her parents to let her return to London and live on her own.
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She became obsessed with pop music and enrolled in the famous Sylvia Young Theatre School, where Rita Ora and Amy Winehouse are alumnae. Lipa started posting YouTube covers, mainly to get the attention of classmates. But she also got the attention of Ben Mawson, Lana Del Rey’s manager. He organized an intense period of artist development for her: five days a week in the studio, working with different writers until something clicked. “Sometimes it’d be really scary for me to open up in a room with co-writers,” she says. She got over it. Lipa said she wrote “Hotter Than Hell” about “a relationship that really fucked me over.” “Blow Your Mind (Mwah)” is a bitter anthem aimed at a modeling agent who once told her to lose weight.
For the album, Lipa enlisted big-name collaborators like Nineteen85 (who has produced Drake and Nicki Minaj) and Emile Haynie (Del Rey, Eminem). She also recruited Chris Martin, of her favorite band, Coldplay, after sending him an email. He invited Lipa to L.A. to write (their duet, “Homesick,” closes the album).
By getting past her nerves and pitching Martin, Lipa
proved she’s getting closer to becoming the confident character she is in her
songs. “I’d pretend that I was really cocky and actually didn’t give a
fuck,” she says of being in the studio. “It was therapeutic. I’d
listen back and be like, ‘Yeah! I’m a badass!'”