Why Dua Lipa Challenged Herself to Write Positive Songs on New Album ‘Radical Optimism’: ‘It’s Probably the Most Daring Thing We Can Do’

Dua Lipa has much different expectations leading into her upcoming third album “Radical Optimism” than with her last, “Future Nostalgia.” “It was a record that I envisioned coming out at a time when people could have been out and dancing and in clubs and enjoying a disco record in that way. And it was the exact opposite,” says the 28-year old, who’s seated in a conference room at a West Hollywood hotel. “Nostalgia” came out at the start of the pandemic, and connected in ways she hadn’t anticipated. “It took on its own life. And that in itself showed me that everything is in its own way for its own specific purpose, for its own reason. As long as I’m being of service and the music is there and it’s a soundtrack for a moment in time, or in someone’s life, then I’ve done what I was supposed to do.”

“Future Nostalgia,” which was released in March 2020, resonated far and wide with listeners seeking escape from the gloom of quarantine and propelled singles like “Levitating” and “Don’t Start Now” up the charts. It was a watershed moment for Lipa, elevating her to the next tier of pop stardom. But for “Radical Optimism” (out May 3), she took a different approach. She began recording the album while on her 2022 “Future Nostalgia Tour,” bookending shows with studio sessions alongside Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Tobias Jesso Jr. and Danny L. Harle. She was largely inspired by the energy of Britpop (she names Oasis and Massive Attack as source material), and the idea that being radically optimistic can be a positive—maybe even “daring”—path forward.

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The resulting album is bright, energized and fresh—something you’d expect from Lipa, but expanding the margins on the disco-pop of “Nostalgia” into more experimental territory. Lead singles “Houdini” and “Training Season” set the table for “Optimism”; both are revved-up dance anthems in line with the pace and sound of the record at large. With a few months to go before its release, Lipa spoke with Variety about how she forged a path to “Optimism” and challenged herself to write from a place of conviction.

What was it about the idea of “radical optimism” that inspired you to use it as your album title?

Radical optimism, in itself, felt like something that really resonated with me over the past few years. It felt like even through my last record and into the new one, it was just so much about learning from every experience, taking everything as a lesson or seeing it as a gift in some way, whether it was good or whether it was bad, and just appreciating that even from some bad situations, something great can come of it, or I can grow to be a better or stronger person from all of it.

I think that was something that propelled me in so many different ways. I think being outside of your comfort zone is something I talk about a lot, because that’s where you do the most growing, which is in the most uncomfortable situations and in the most unexpected situations and in the moments where you don’t think… You go, “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” but it does. How do you adapt in those moments? How do you walk through the fire? How do you push through? And that is something that really resonated with me.

When you talk about uncomfortable moments, what are you referring to exactly?

Well it can be anything, from a breakup to a personal relationship, a work relationship, a friendship, something going wrong or all your stuff is missing from your freight cargo when you’re on tour and you don’t have any of your costumes, which has happened. It can be anything. At any moment, life is so unpredictable and people and things can surprise you all the time, and I think a quality of mine that I like, if I can say, is just remaining open-hearted even when things don’t go right and not shutting down and being like, this is something that really hurt me and I’m never going to trust anyone in my life ever again. You can’t go through life in that way. If someone is out there with any wrong or malicious intent or whatever and it happens to you, maybe it was there for a reason. You’re meant to see it, you’re meant to go through it. So for that, I’m grateful.

You’re coming off of “Future Nostalgia,” which was such a massive record for you. How did you get back into the creative space to begin this next chapter, and do you feel the weight of “Future Nostalgia” going into that?

For me, writing for my new album, for “Radical Optimism,” everything was delayed because I had been on tour, and during that tour, every break that I had in between, I went to the studio. So I was breaking away from the “Future Nostalgia” world and going into “Radical Optimism.” So for me, it was very important to have a sonic separation and to try to experiment with different sounds. And it took me a while, I started actually writing in 2021 but I didn’t really get anything until my very first session with Kevin Parker, Danny L. Harle, Tobias [Jesso Jr.] and Caroline [Ailin], which was in June 2022. So it was just a lot of writing and writing and figuring out where I was going and experimenting with different sounds until I was like, I’ve got it, I know where I’m headed. There’s always one song that’s that eureka moment that takes you into the next phase of the album. And I wanted a sonic departure. I also fell in love so much with the live versions of the songs, and so I loved having that organic musicality behind it, have that be really prevalent throughout the whole new album. So yeah, that’s what I aimed to do.

You talk about your eureka moment. What was that for you?

It was a song called “Illusion.” That was a song where I felt like lyrically, I got this radical optimism. I felt very strong in the moment when I was writing that song, because it was really seeing past someone’s bullshit, I guess, for lack of a better word. And understanding it for what it is and just entertaining it for the hell of it, even though you see what’s happening. But I felt in a stronger power of position, because I was like maybe before, I would have fallen for something like this and now I can dance with the illusion, and it’s something for me too, you know? I think musically also, when Kevin and Danny came together and it was the live drums and the synths and the big music breakdown, in my head the big dance moment, when all those came together it was just a feeling. I had a feeling and I was like, now I have something to bounce off of. And in that first week, even though sonically they’re in the same world but they’re very different, I wrote “Illusion” and then I wrote “Happy for You” and “Happy for You” is a much bigger ballad, in a way. Somewhat. I wouldn’t really classify it as a ballad. Because I don’t do songs that are slow and big and emotional, but I just put them in the ballad section, I’m like, I don’t do those. But this feels almost in a world where I can really have this epic singing record that I was able to be very vulnerable and open in. But still sonically, it has this tremolo sound that I’m really obsessed with and it’s Kevin’s voice replicated. We use it as a sample throughout. That was just a moment for me to be really vulnerable and open and honest in what was happening in my life at that point. But I feel overall, in this whole record, I just grew as I was writing. I feel like I matured throughout.

It feels like on this album, you sing a little differently, like from your diaphragm, putting a lot of raw emotion into it. Did you feel any difference singing and performing while recording this album, versus with previous records? 

Yeah, for sure. I think my voice has changed. Especially when I listened to my earlier records. I think being on tour for a whole year, in 2022, and then also recording the record, like it’s a muscle, so I was using it every night. I was getting stronger, I was able to run and sing and dance and do all of that at the same time. So I feel like my vocal capabilities just got better. And I have much more control over my own voice. And I think in the beginning, for sure, my first tour I was figuring that out. I was losing my voice all the time, I was really nervous about getting sick. All my fears were connected to my voice, my throat. Like, I’m not going to be able to do this today because I might lose my voice and then I can’t sing. And I’m also past that where every morning when I’d wake up, if I wasn’t feeling well, I’d be like, alright, hot shower, cup of tea. And I’ll be good to go. It’s so in your mind as well. I think I strained my voice because I was so nervous before of losing it that now I’m much freer and much more confident. I feel like I’ve just learned to use my voice and my body in a way that’s very strong.

You’ve said that this album is inspired by Britpop, but it still sounds like a hard-nosed pop record. How did Britpop inspire you and speak to how the songs were shaped?

Well, for me, I think the Britpop element that really came to me was the influences of Oasis and Massive Attack and Portishead and Primal Scream, and the freedom and the energy those records had. I love the experimentation behind it. And of course, it’s a pop record. I’m a pop artist, that’s what I do. But I think overall, the different sounds that are being used, the different breaks in the music, the use of musical samples, whether that’s with Kevin’s voice or with the different instruments that we used, overall it was me going completely out of what I knew, and exploring something different. And that’s what I got from my inspiration. I wasn’t going into Britpop and being like, I’m making this record that sounds exactly like… Because it doesn’t. But it’s a feeling that they portray that when I hear “Teardrop” by Massive Attack and I’m like, how did this song even come to be? It feels like it just happened in a moment of real freedom and writing and emotion, and I think that was just the feeling I was trying to convey more than anything.

The album cover is a stunning shot. What made you go in this artistic direction?

I feel like this screams radical optimism to me. Just being in this setting, being very calm in the moment… I’m in deep waters, I’m in with a shark and I’m remaining calm and collected throughout. That is radical optimism to me. I think everything about this record has been [about] being in the chaos and remaining grounded throughout. When I saw it, when all the pictures were printed out, this was it. This was my first instinct. This is radical optimism to me.

What’s the big statement that you are trying to make with this record, and how do you hope people receive that?

I think for me, the importance of understanding that when things are bad, there’s always some light at the end of the tunnel. I always think about it like, when I’m in the midst of a mess of turmoil or everything’s going wrong, I always tell myself, in a couple months, I’m gonna look back on that moment, and be like, thank God I walked through it. I didn’t decide to hide or not deal with the problem at hand, whatever it is, but actually choose to go through it. And that’s how I grew. And I feel like that just overall, especially in the world right now, I think it’s important that we just learn to walk through the fire and not hide away from it, or shy away from it. That’s just optimism. It’s probably the most daring thing we can do. Sometimes.

At least, for me, I used to say that I used to be able to write songs way easier when I was sad. Because that was more of a tangible emotion that you can hold on to, and you can write about. But to write about something when you’re happy without feeling like you’re compromising yourself or making this like cheesy pop song or whatever, and making it something that’s deep and emotional, but it is optimistic, is actually way harder. And so, sometimes being optimistic isn’t the easiest thing to do. But it’s the most important thing throughout because it’s the thing that’s going to carry us into the next stage.

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