When the planet started shutting down just before Dua Lipa was due to release Future Nostalgia, most people expected her to delay the album until the coronavirus crisis had eased. But the star held her nerve, became the queen of lockdown and never looked back. Now, our 2020 Artist Of The Year and her team at Warner Records, Tap Music and beyond tell the story of a campaign, and a year, like no other…
Dua Lipa looks into the camera and starts to well up.
It’s March 23, one week after the UK was plunged into a full lockdown as the coronavirus outbreak gripped the nation, and the singer-songwriter has gone on to Instagram Live to talk to her fans about her imminent album.
Future Nostalgia had been due to be released on April 3 but, with the world seemingly falling apart, every artist on earth was scrambling to put their releases back. However, prompted by an online leak, physical copies already being in the supply chain and a burning desire for the world to hear the music she’d been working so hard on for almost two years, Lipa and her team made the bold decision to bring the release forward by a week.
“I’m really happy it’s coming out,” she sniffled, looking anything but. “I hope it brings you some happiness, I hope it makes you smile and I hope it makes you proud.”
Almost nine months on and Future Nostalgia has delivered on all that and more. After a sticky start – it was narrowly beaten to No.1 on debut by 5 Seconds Of Summer’s CALM – it has since spent four non-consecutive weeks at the top of the UK Albums Chart, selling 239,186 copies, according to the Official Charts Company.
The album has spun off five monster hit singles, been nominated for six Grammys and she’s delivered her record-breaking Studio 2054 livestream, attracting over five million viewers worldwide. And now she’s picking up perhaps the ultimate accolade: Music Week’s Artist Of The Year for 2020.
Suffice to say, those tears have turned to smiles as Lipa calls in from rainy Pennsylvania via Zoom to accept the latest prize in an all-conquering year.
“It was scary for sure,” she grins of that release decision. “But now, when I look back on it, I really wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I’m really happy that I went with my gut and said, ‘OK, let’s just do it’. I’d been holding on to these songs for a while and they needed to come out.”
And, as it turned out, the world needed them to come out too. As the planet got used to staying indoors, Future Nostalgia – despite being a record precision-tooled for dancefloors, arenas and festivals – became the soundtrack to every home workout, impromptu kitchen disco and late-night sad-banger wallowing session, providing some much-needed glimmers of joy amidst the new normal of despair.
“It could have gone one of two ways,” laughs Lipa. “And I’m glad it went that way! I’m glad people responded to it.”
Lipa describes her Artist Of The Year award as “crazy” and “surreal”, adding: “It’s all I could ever ask for to have my music be heard and for people to have responded and reacted to it the way that they have. To be lucky enough to receive this accolade, it’s really cool.”
Lipa might seem bemused, but none of her team are surprised. Joe Kentish, head of A&R at her label, Warner Records says, “It’s exactly the type of accolade that she and the campaign have been going for”, while Ben Mawson, co-founder of her management company Tap Music, says it’s, “Much deserved – it’s been a busy year in strange circumstances and she’s achieved a lot”.
Indeed, the word most used around the Future Nostalgia campaign by Team Dua is “ambition”. After all, she finished the campaign for her 2017 self-titled debut in about as strong a position as any new artist could be. The album has sold 684,721 copies to date, powered by a string of hits that started off small and then hit the stratosphere when New Rules went to No.1 all around the world. Another massive hit, IDGAF, followed before the campaign finally ground to a halt, over four million global album sales to the good.
But if there were plenty of laurels to rest on, Lipa wasn’t interested. Instead she enjoyed further smashes with Calvin Harris (One Kiss, 2,367,027 sales) and Silk City (Electricity, 840,665) before embarking on album No.2. And this time, hit singles would not be enough…
It was scary releasing this album – but I wouldn't change it for the world
"I felt like that was the only way I could grow and mature as an artist,” she says. “The way the first album did completely took me by surprise, in the best way possible. I knew that, if I stopped and tried to recreate New Rules or IDGAF or any of the success of the first album, I’d get caught in a vicious cycle of just doing absolutely nothing. So I had to be out of my comfort zone and push myself in a direction that did scare me a little bit. But only then are you able to get something you really love.”
Lipa was aided in this mission by her trusted team: Mawson and his co-founder Ed Millett, Kentish and Warner Records president Phil Christie, and key songwriters/producers such as Sarah Hudson, Stephen “Koz” Kozmeniuk and Clarence Coffee Jr, aka Coffee.
“The A&R job has been immense,” says Christie. “I put it up there as one of the best A&R jobs I’ve ever seen. Joe’s relationship with Dua is incredible, he’s worked it very well and the records speak for themselves, they’re absolutely stellar.”
Kentish in turn defers to Lipa’s collaborators.
“When you’re an artist where Dua is, you have access to almost everybody,” he laughs. “The difficulty as an artist is learning when to say no. Because, if you’re going to write a record with a really tight concept and sound, it’s really important that you have a tight group of collaborators working on the record to provide it with a spine.
“That was the battle on the second record, but what makes it easier is when you’ve got an artist who really knows what she wants to do and is also very quick to pick up on the energies she wants to be around and the people she wants to collaborate with,” he adds. “Dua was clear from the outset that there was a small group of people she wanted to concentrate on. It was important she surrounded herself with people who brought the best out of her. It wasn’t necessarily the writers who’d had the biggest hits, it was those who created the environment she could do her best work in. The results weren’t instant, but she really stuck with it and got the records she wanted.”
Kozmeniuk co-produced four of those records and co-wrote two, including Levitating (with Lipa, Coffee and Hudson), the track which provided the album’s retro-futuristic sonic template.
“We were in Jamaica trying different stuff and the one thing we really took coming out of Jamaica was it needed to be a fun project,” says Kozmeniuk. “She was coming out off her first record blowing up, and this record she was happy, everything was exciting, there was a lot of joy and a lot of laughs. That kind of energy prevailed coming into the next round of sessions and eventually we got Levitating and kept going from there.
“She’s great because she always wants to push for something new and put herself in her own lane,” he adds. “It’s the most exciting pop project you can work on.”
“Levitating was the first song that I could present to my A&R and manager and be like, ‘This is the world I’m going into’,” remembers Lipa. “After Levitating, people started to understand it more.”
“We go off instinct,” adds Coffee, who also co-wrote the title track, Love Again and perhaps the year’s ultimate banger, Physical. “It’s a bunch of friends who are like family members getting together, talking about their lives and being able to put it into a song. The process is very easy, because we’re not trying to do anything other than express and give something good to people. So it’s very easy to write with her.”
Meanwhile, Lipa’s own writing has also come on in leaps and bounds. She hadn’t been involved with every song on Dua Lipa – New Rules, for example, was written by Caroline Ailin, Emily Warren and Ian Kirkpatrick, who also worked with Dua on Future Nostalgia’s lead single Don’t Start Now – but this time her credit is on every track.
Lipa was the first artist Tap signed for publishing as well as management (Tap Publishing is a JV with UMPG), and Millett hails her writing as “a great success for us as a publishing company; it shows this kind of relationship can work”.
“She’s gained in confidence so much as a writer, which is reflected in her percentages across this record,” says Millett. “She wanted an album full of singles. ‘No ballads, only bangers’ was the brief from the start. As a writer, she’s very much driving what’s happening in the room and she’s great at corralling personalities and getting the best out of people. People love working with her.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Future Nostalgia campaign has been the way it has continued to spin off hits long after the album release – something that, in recent years, has only been possible if your name rhymes with Ted Cheeran. That’s been due to the sheer strength of the songs – but also Warner/Tap’s willingness to go the extra mile with special videos, new features, extra tracks and a non-stop cavalcade of stunning TV and awards show performances. They even commissioned Club Future Nostalgia, a remix project curated by DJ The Blessed Madonna, which attracted some stellar remixers and A-list collaborators, including Gwen Stefani, Mark Ronson, Missy Elliott and the actual, Dua-Lipa’s-childhood-inspiration Madonna.
“It was terrifying!” chuckles the Madonna of the Blessed variety, aka Marea Stamper. “There are pop stars and then there is Madonna. She is a continent unto herself in the pop universe. It was scary, thrilling and ultimately rewarding.”
For some, remixing Future Nostalgia would have resembled trying to improve on perfection, but Stamper saw it as merely enlarging what she refers to as “the Duaverse”.
“The idea was to expand the territory, have it be more of a fever dream of a thing that already existed,” says Stamper. “I would never dare to think of improving on that record, all I could do was reimagine it as a fictional universe.”
'No ballads, only bangers was the brief from the start'
Ed Millett, Tap Music
The end result is that, as Christmas looms, Future Nostalgia has already lived several lives: as a pop album so irresistibly classic it’s up there with True Blue or Love Angel Music Baby; as a fantasy nightclub concept for a world without real nightclubs; and as a star-studded theatrical live show that might just make sure livestreams outlive the pandemic as a new entertainment format. And she hasn’t even taken it on the road yet!
No wonder Phil Christie describes that huge call to release the album back in the dark days of March as, “Probably the best decision we collectively made on the campaign”.
“It gave the album the opportunity to exist in isolation,” he grins. “It got more coverage and consumption as a result and that really got it going. I haven’t checked in on 5 Seconds Of Summer’s Grammy nominations but I think week one might have been their peak week…”
They who laugh last, laugh longest and all that. Not that the end of the Future Nostalgia campaign is in sight just yet. Mawson teases more new music at the start of next year – Lipa herself describes it as “a B-side” to the album – and there are still Grammys, BRITs, festivals and the long-awaited world tour to come.
But for now, it’s time to ask our Artist Of The Year to get her barking dog to chill out and sit down with us to discuss an unprecedented year in the life of an unprecedented artist…
With everything happening in the world this year, have you managed to enjoy your success?
“Actually, I have. I’ve been almost more present given the state of the world, because normally I’m back-to-back and it’s all ‘What’s next?’, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘What’s happening?’ But when everything is happening from your sofa, you see things in a different way. There’s a silver lining in all of this, which I’m grateful for. I never in a million years thought I’d be doing it this way. I’d always imagined that I’d be in the club or going to radio stations and doing live shows. When I was creating this record, that was all I was thinking about. But life throws different things your way and you have to roll with the punches. It’s been really rewarding.”
Did it help that your breakthrough took a while?
“Absolutely. It’s no longer how it used to be where you have one big song that goes to radio and skyrockets your career, it’s a very different process in terms of the way it grows. So, after the first record and the success of New Rules and IDGAF, I did One Kiss and Electricity and those all went so well. And then after the Grammys [where she won the New Artist award in 2019], almost immediately I had people saying, ‘Time to buckle up!’ In my head I was like, ‘OK, now I need to prove to people that this isn’t just a one-off thing’. I don’t want to be forgotten, I want longevity in this industry and to be able to go for as long as possible. Do what I love but make it really good, exciting and fun. After working with so many different people, I found the core group I love to work with. I get the best out of myself when I’m around them. It was a lot easier to make this record than it was my first.”
Were you concerned that you’d made a dance album for a world in which dancing was effectively outlawed?
“I’d be lying if I said no! I was definitely scared. I put it out just as lockdown was happening in the UK and there was so much uncertainty and suffering, it was a very confusing time. We didn’t know how long we’d be in this, some people were saying two weeks, some were saying six months and I literally had no idea! But the thing that made me want to put it out is that I made this record as a form of escapism, to get away from any pressures or words from other people. It was the reason why this album was created so, if there was any time to put it out, it should be now.”
When did you realise it was going your way?
“On release day. Regardless that I didn’t get my No.1 first week, that was fine. But on release day, people’s response made it feel like it was Christmas morning. Honestly, I was just so happy and excited. Everybody had a different favourite and everybody was sending such nice messages. Everything happened the way it was meant to happen. Then, once things started opening up again, I would bump into people and they’d say your music was soundtracking all my workouts at home – all of that was amazing. That’s all I could ever hope for.”
Ben Mawson told us that you said you wanted to be Madonna the first time you met him…
“[Laughs] Yeah, that’s true. He said, ‘What are your ambitions?’ ‘I want to be as big as Madonna’. I was only a kid then, but Ben is also very ambitious. I didn’t know then, but our birthdays are a day apart so we have this Leo energy between us. I think he thought I was really funny and ballsy because I said that, so he was like, ‘OK, get in the studio tomorrow…’”
So how did it feel to have the actual Madonna feature on Levitating?
“It was bonkers! I couldn’t believe it. We were texting back and forth about the song and sending ideas to each other, talking about stuff. Then she called me and we had a 20-minute conversation and the whole time I was turning round to my boyfriend going, [whispers] ‘It’s Madonna!’ It was exciting, a very surreal experience but she was very chill. She’s everything you’d expect her to be.”
Did you ask for any advice on how to be her?
“No! I don’t think she knew I’d said I wanted to be her. If she knew, she probably wouldn’t have wanted to work with me!”
So, do you still aspire to be her?
“Yeah! But I’m not going to say anything. Whatever’s meant to be will be!”
Is it weird to find yourself working with people like Madonna, Kylie and Elton John?
“I definitely don’t see myself as on the same level as them. But it feels very exciting to have their support and their approval, almost, as an artist that they’re down to be associated with and take part in the livestream and work with me on a song. That means a lot to me. I’m really grateful for that, but I’ve got a shit ton more work to do to even get close to someone like Elton John.”
They’re all known for being business-savvy artists. Do you take an interest in the industry?
“I know my statistics. But I try not to get too caught up in stuff like that. It’s not something I measure success with.”
Have you been following the Fix Streaming and Broken Record debates where artists demand more money from streaming?
“Yeah, absolutely. And I do feel that’s rightly so. Streaming has given a massive opportunity to so many artists all over the world to have their music heard but, at the end of the day, the artists and songwriters are the creators and those are the people who should be getting the main merit. Streaming services have the opportunity to make money off hundreds of thousands of artists, it’s only fair if the creators get the funds, get treated equally and they should be getting what they deserve for the work they put in.”
You’re one of the most successful streaming artists in the world. Do you make enough money from the format?
“It’s difficult for me to talk about this because I never want to come across as ungrateful. But the people I work with, especially the songwriters, everybody needs to make a lot more money than they do, even when you do have a hit song. For me, as an artist, I do get money from other things as well. So it’s for the songwriters, producers and the people that I work with, they need better rights.”
How damaging has it been for the world not having live music?
“Our society and the culture in the UK is suffering a lot. People forget how important live music and the creative arts are, not just for our economy, but for our well-being. They support lots of people but they can also be a safe space for a lot of people. It’s where people find themselves and can be themselves. It’s a very difficult time in the music industry for an awful lot of people.”
Is the government doing enough to protect the grassroots circuit?
“Everything started for me doing small club shows, which eventually grew over time. Telling people that they have to retrain to get a different set of skills – one thing people need to remember about artists is, we don’t give up easily, let alone give up the thing we love the most to retrain and learn cyber or whatever. It couldn’t be further from who we are. We’re going to lose a lot of smaller venues and there are a lot of people who have found it quite difficult. I’m dying to go on the road.”
How do you think you’ll look back on this year in the future?
“This is the record that really helped me find my confidence and helped me grow into the artist and performer I want to be. It’s taught me so much. So I’ll always look back on this time, and this record in particular fondly, it was the album that taught me the ropes. But it also pushes me to work really hard. I’m like, ‘I have to back up this album and what I’m doing’. These are very much personal goals I set myself in order to do the best at the thing I love so much.”
Imagine what you might be able to achieve without a global pandemic getting in the way…
“World domination? [Laughs] It sounds a bit scary, but maybe. If everything else still stays the same in my home life, why not? World domination sounds fun if everything else feels normal…”