Joe Kentish on the evolution of Dua Lipa

Joe Kentish on the evolution of Dua Lipa

Joe Kentish has opened up about the evolution of Dua Lipa, the artist he signed just a matter of months into his tenure at Warner Records 10 years ago.

Then aged 18, Lipa had many big ambitions, one of which was to headline Glastonbury, while another was to one day work with Tame Impala. A decade on, both of those (along with many others) have come to fruition, and with Radical Optimism set to land Lipa her first UK No.1 on debut, the milestones will keep coming.

Music Week met Lipa in London for our brand new cover story, which also includes Warner Records president Kentish, who spoke candidly about the A&R process behind both her third album and their entire 10-year relationship.

He remembered Lipa’s response the first time he asked, ‘What would success mean to you?’.

“You can tell quite a lot from how artists respond to that, whether it’s selling a load of records, doing a deal with a brand…’ Kentish told Music Week. “And Dua has been pretty consistent in saying, ‘I want to headline Glastonbury,’ and that’s great. For a lot of people that work in the UK music industry that’s a seminal moment, so this is going to be huge for her and for everyone who works on the project.”

So far, Lipa, Kentish and the rest of the team can count seven BRITs, three Grammys, four UK No.1 singles and a No.1 album among a long list of highlights. And with Lipa now in control of her rights, management and publishing via her own Radical22 company, another new chapter is beginning.

Here, Kentish sheds further light on the Radical Optimism era and talks artist development, record making and the key to an enduring artist/label boss relationship…

When you first heard the finished album, how did you feel?

“Over the moon. Dua had an incredible first two records really, she made mincemeat of her difficult second album. I think she was in the weirdly unenviable position of having to follow up two 10 million-plus selling records. So, creatively, being able to do something that she was happy with and felt new in some respects was going to be a challenge. So when we were able to sit down and listen to the record in its entirety, we were very, very happy and there was also a sense of relief.”

What are the aspects of Radical Optimism that move you the most?

“I think it's a more complete album than the previous two in the way it came together. It happened very naturally, when the environment was right, it came together quite quickly. And it had a creative flow, the handful of people that were involved seemed to get in the zone and lock in and make it very quickly and I think you can hear that in the record in terms of the sound, it hangs together more than the things she has done before. In terms of the record reflecting her and where she's at personally, it does that more than the previous ones have. There's something heartfelt about what she's singing on lots of the songs, which is something that she gets deeper into that she has previously. It’s a lot more her in terms of personality.”

Can you let us in on the process of how she came to work with Kevin Parker, Danny L Harle, Tobias Jesso Jr and Caroline Ailin?

“I knew that Tame Impala was such a huge reference point for her. And actually, my boss Tony Harlow had mentioned by chance that he was speaking to Kevin’s manager and I said, ‘Oh, I think Dua would like to work with him.’ I just got the connection and it was a shot to nothing. I wasn't sure what would come of it, but I knew it would be a fun thing for Dua to do and I thought she was ready for it and could really hold her own in the room. And then it was a mixture of people she'd run into along the way, or worked with on previous records. We coordinated a room we thought would work. They all got together and it was on from the first moment. They wrote Illusion on the first day, everyone went together in a way that you hope they will, but most of the time doesn't work out.”

Dua was in the unenviable position of having to follow up two 10 million-plus selling records, but she made mincemeat of her difficult second album

Joe Kentish

In some ways, it’s an unlikely mix of creative talent in terms of the genres the core team tend to operate in…

“Maybe it was the right answer for the wrong reasons. Danny had made some really credible club music and not just pop music, he was an incredible programmer. And my main interaction with Tame Impala was watching them live and from that point of view, it's a very band-driven thing. And I thought Danny would be able to combine that with a bit of programming... But we walked in and Kevin had been listening to techno for the last few months, so he was really in his programming bag. Then Danny, who can play lots of instruments and is classically trained, came in with all these instrumental licks. Caroline we knew was always an amazing lyricist and she and Dua can really get inside each other's heads. And Tobias offered this off the wall energy which ended up often giving these fantastical notes to some of the lyric writing and songwriting and stopped anything getting too serious. And so musically, it all gelled together in this way which was a little bit unexpected. But personality-wise, they all seem to be able to hang and gel together in a way that wasn't necessarily obvious on paper.”

Where do you feel this album sits among what is already a busy year for releases?

“Obviously we want massive records, but the first thing isn't asking, ‘Could Dua  possibly have commercial success with this record? Is this a hit?’ It’s, ‘Does this feel different?’ We often talk about the kind of reaction we want when people first listen to a Dua record. And it's to be a little bit off balance when you first hear it and wonder what she's done or how she's done it. It shouldn't just be a straightforward, ‘Oh, that's a banger,’ it shouldn’t just be a straightforward listen, it should be pushing things somewhere. I'm glad if people hear it and they think this is a little bit unexpected or a bit different from her peers because there's a lot of really different and great music coming out, especially from her female contemporaries at the moment. So I think that approach will steer her well. The record is a really deep one with lots of singles, so we're set up for long term success, the records always have a really long burn time and that speaks to the fact that they're very interesting, complex records that give more the more you listen to them. That is something deliberate in our music making.”

How does Radical22 change things for Dua, now that she owns her own rights?

“As she would say herself, her number one job is to be one of the best artists in the world. And that is a full-time job. It's a massive undertaking, emotionally, mentally, physically. And putting yourself in the centre of your business in the way she had with owning rights, deciding how to administer them might be a distraction or too much for some artists. I think, if anyone could be the middle of all of that it's Dua. Her approach to her career is so methodical and she takes it so seriously that I think if anyone could do it, she can and I think it’s brilliant for her to be taking a more central role. She makes the best decisions, she's great to work with and has a really positive effect on people around her. I'm really excited to see what comes of that in the future, it’s a super positive move.”

What’s it like working with Dua's dad Dukagjin on the management side?

“I’m trying to work out the first time I met him and I think it would be the night we signed Dua and we went out and had way too many drinks on her signing dinner. We've stayed friends ever since then. It's been really great, he's come into music management at absolutely the top level and considering that it has been really quite seamless. Dua seems very happy and seems to have a real central place in that company in decision making and makes decisions with her dad. It seems like a very harmonious set-up, which is always great for us as a label. Radical22 have very definite ideas about how they want to run her campaign and how it should be done and they seem completely aligned. So for us it can only be a good thing.”

You’re 10 years into life at Warner this year and you signed Dua a few months into the job. How has your relationship developed since then?

“You can do really well at this job without ever having a relationship like the one that I’ve got with Dua. I feel very, very lucky to not just have enjoyed the success, but to have been part of the creative journey with her and to have a relationship that's so strong and that I get so much out of. It's very hard to keep a creative relationship with a friendship going on at the same time, so I feel super privileged in that regard. And then just watching someone evolve so much as a person is a real privilege. To say that she's exceeded any expectation I might have had is an understatement. And you know, we had high expectations when she came in, not just commercially, but just who she has become, all the other stuff she’s able to do, the work she does around Service 95, and stuff like that is really inspirational for me to watch. So I'm super proud and grateful for the relationship that we've got.”

You can do really well at this job without ever having a relationship like the one that I’ve got with Dua

Joe Kentish

Have you seen an evolution in Dua’s confidence from the start to now?

“I think she had confidence at the start, she had chutzpah, moxie, but I would say it’s less bravado now and it’s more steely confidence and she knows herself. She’s definitely got confidence as a performer and the more obvious things, but for me it’s the recording and the writing process. She holds her own in situations, she will go back, examine her own work and change it, and she doesn’t find that a challenge any more. She has that confidence that she can critique herself and be critiqued in a way that doesn’t harm who she is as a writer, and that comes with experience. In making this record, I think she’d say this herself, she was way more able to go in and refine things than she has been previously.”

Isn’t it a lot of responsibility for you, being in a position where it’s necessary to offer support and guidance for an artist at the start of their career? Are there any particular things you’ve helped with or taught her?

“I don't know if I could claim to have taught her anything. I definitely listen a lot and try to use my experience to respond to the things that I think she needs and wants, whether that be co-writers, finishing off records and stuff like that. It's to listen. And with the music, it's honesty. People talk about honesty, it needs to be delivered in a certain way. It's empathetic, or sympathetic honesty around her music, and I think I'm able to do that. When I come into a studio I will be honest with her about my thoughts and she knows that is not always easy to do in the environments we listen to music in, with who else might be there in the room. But I think I offer her that honesty which, as you become a bigger artist, is more difficult to get in certain parts of your career.”

Danny L Harle has suggested that Dua might be the last pop superstar. Is that what she is? 

“I think getting to a level like Madonna, for example, is always difficult no matter what era you come from. That sort of media ubiquity is really hard to get to at the moment, but you look at Taylor Swift and think that she has got to something like that. I’ve worked around a lot of pop music and the problem with pop is that you immediately go to legacy, right? And you cannot judge anyone in the moment in terms of legacy, especially someone two albums in. What I will say is that Dua has got as good a chance as anyone of joining that group of people, but you’re only ever going to be able to judge that in the rear view mirror. If it’s about ambition, talent, I don’t think there’s any reason why she can’t get there. One of the hardest things is for artists to have the real ambition and fearlessness to get to these top levels, that’s what it comes down to. And I think that, mentally, she’s absolutely able to hit those levels.” 

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