It’s early May and Dua Lipa is curled up in a booth at New York City’s Soho House, hurriedly downing a salad. The 20-year-old singer has just four properly released songs under her belt (though the recorded demo for another, “Genesis,” sounds like it could be her next hit), but she’s already commanding major festival stages in the U.K. and Europe. Back in March, she scorched Austin’s South by Southwest festival, drawing the unfamiliar into the FADER Fort with her smoky cover of Jamie xx and Young Thug’s sensuous 2015 single, “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).”
“God, that show was terrible,” Lipa says of her mesmerizing SXSW set. “My voice was so shot.” Maybe so, but it didn’t stop her from performing at Glastonbury in June. And, later this month, she hopes to earn some name recognition in the U.S. with an early slot at Chicago’s Lollapalooza in advance of her forthcoming debut album, expected September 30 via Warner Bros.
Citing early Pink (“Family Portrait”) and Nelly Furtado (“I’m Like A Bird”) as influences, Lipa says she grew up in a musical household, leading her to always believe she’d one day become a singer. “My father’s a musician, and I don’t play an instrument anymore, but I used to play the cello,” she says. “But then I just kind of fell out of love with it. I also used to carry it on my back on the way to school, and I was very short, so it’d either hit me on the top of the head or the back of the legs. It became a bit of a health hazard.”
Lipa was born in London, and after living with her parents in their native Kosovo for a time, she moved back to England on her own at age 15 to pursue her schooling. “I felt more independent, and I felt like I knew what I wanted to do,” she says of deciding to go it alone at an early age. “That’s when I really started taking music seriously… Because I don’t have my parents around, and I don’t have anyone to rely on, I might as well do what I love, and hope for the best, really. It made me more independent and confident.”
Back in her hometown, Lipa worked on songwriting and prioritized networking. “I used to write a lot of essays and poetry, but I never knew how to write a song,” she says. “So after making covers and going up to people like, ‘Hi, you should check out my song, we should work together,’ I actually got some responses.”
She wrote her first song that year, “Lions & Tigers & Bears.” It’s still active on her SoundCloud, an anomaly in a world where demos and practice-runs are scrubbed clean from social-media profiles once artists make the jump to the majors. “That was the very first thing I wrote, and it’s pretty much a freestyle,” she says with a laugh. “We were just playing around with some chords, and then it was just the first thing that came into my mind. In the end, the producer decided that he didn’t need a pop act to develop, and he didn’t want to work with me.” A less self-assured artist might’ve let such a blow set her back for months, but Lipa saw the upside: She had new material to show to the next producer.
Since then, Lipa’s taken pride in co-writing the majority of her own music. A notable exception: the synth-glazed “Be the One,” which, with more than 60 million YouTube views, is currently her biggest hit by a factor of ten. “As much as I love that song, I was like… ‘Yeah, but my song was better,'” she says, a grin spreading across her face. “I get more excited when the songs that I have written are coming out. I’m more proud of them.”
Two years’ worth of sessions went into making Lipa’s upcoming album. At her last count, they’d yielded exactly 160 songs. “I’ve done the rounds,” Lipa says of the songwriter/producer studio system. “I’ve worked with everyone. And I try not to Google people I go in with beforehand, before I fangirl over their stuff.” To date, she’s already collaborated with a handful of heavyweights on soulful dance-pop sparklers like “New Love” (Emile Haynie and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt), “Last Dance” (Talay Riley, who co-penned Nick Jonas’ “Levels”), and “Be the One” (Digital Farm Animals’ Nick Gale, who’s worked with Rudimental and Chromeo). Noonie Bao and BloodPop have also reportedly contributed to the LP.
It’s her wide-eyed enthusiasm for mainstream pop — she says she wishes she’d written Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and confesses that seeing Katy Perry’s California Dreams tour made her want to be the one onstage — that makes Lipa so easy to root for. It’s not hard to imagine a few 15-year-olds feeling the same way about her.