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‘I Felt Like I Was Underwater’: Dua Lipa’s Road to ‘Radical Optimism’

The pop superstar on her new album’s artwork, her “full-circle” history with Katy Perry, and never beating the “mermaid allegations”

Dua Lipa

Tyrone Lebon*

Dua Lipa can’t stop staring at the giant printout of her Radical Optimism album cover art.

The red-haired pop star is sitting in a hotel conference room, getting glammed up before some interviews and a YouTube video with drag queen Trixie Mattel to promote the album. She starts to hum the Jaws intro as she stares at the image, before letting out a laugh.

The artwork for Radical Optimism sees Lipa looking serene as she wades next to the approaching fin of a great white. “When all the images got developed, this one was the one that jumped out. I was like, ‘This is what the album represents,’” she tells Rolling Stone. “It is that feeling of chaos and danger and unexpected things coming into your periphery and remaining calm in the face of it. It felt powerful to me.”

Lipa shared a few details about her third LP, which she officially announced last week, in a cover story with Rolling Stone earlier this year. (“I want to capture the essence of youth and freedom and having fun and just letting things happen, whether it’s good or bad. You can’t change it,” she said at the time.)

But she hadn’t yet gone into detail about the songs featured on the album or the creative process behind the album’s imagery. Now, she’s ready to (no pun intended) dive in.

How are you? How are you feeling now that the album has been announced?
I feel so good. It is actually a bit of a relief. Because up until this point, I was trying to talk about the album without talking about the album, which is difficult. Now that it’s out, I feel like I can breathe and really just talk freely.

You’ve given us hints here and there about the album, but haven’t been able to go into it deeply.
What’s carried me through in all my music is this hint of optimism at the end. Hopefully, I get to sing [these songs] for a very long time and people listen to them and sing them as well, so it almost becomes like a mantra. What you’re saying is very powerful, so I want there always to be a hint of optimism so that you always see the light at the end of the tunnel in some way, or you manifest something good in your life. That’s what I wanted from this record.

There is this Time essay by Guillermo Del Toro about optimism: “Optimism is the hard choice, the brave choice. And it is, it seems to me, most needed now, in the face of despair — just as a car is most useful when you have a distance to close. Otherwise, it is a large, unmovable object parked in the garage.”
That’s amazing. It’s true. It’s like optimism is radical. It is the hardest thing you can do: remaining positive, especially when everything around you is telling you “It’s not going to work out, or you’re not good enough, or this isn’t going to happen” — whether it’s at the hands of the internet or the way that you feel internally, whatever brings up those feelings. Remaining optimistic is so important. I think the more of that we can spread and put it into our relationships and the people around us and instill that, I think it’s really important.

I think your last album, Future Nostalgia, signified radical optimism for a lot of us listeners during the pandemic. 
To be honest, with the last album and the last tour, the term “radical optimism” came into my mind a lot because there were so many ups and downs. There were so many moments where things didn’t go the way that I had planned them to. There were moments where I felt like I was underwater, and you just have to keep going and you have to remain optimistic and things work out in the end one way or another. Whenever you feel like something is the worst thing that’s happening, there’s always some light at the end of the tunnel. I’m happy to have made an album that represents that for me.

Were you trying to channel that sonically on the new album as well?
Sonically on the album, yes, I wanted it to be fun, but also I think it was the theme for the record. Sonically, I wanted to live in this psychedelic, organic, Brit-pop world. It’s something that I’ve been influenced by. There was just so much freedom in that era in the way that people made music and in the experimentation of it. That’s just what I wanted to do. I just wanted to dive into a different place sonically and try out something new. I had the most fun making this record.

Tell me about this album cover.
Every photo [this era] looks like it was taken in a different scenario, but they all represent the same thing. The picture for “Houdini,” for example, was very self-reflective, looking at myself and appreciating where I am, who I am, and what my worth is.

And then “Training Season” is me on scaffolding in a very uncomfortable position, but looking very calm. I feel like that resonated with the song. It resonated also with the idea of this radical optimism while being in uncomfortable situations, but being graceful in the process. And this [cover image] shot in particular, remaining calm near a shark, is a massive juxtaposition.

Fans are going to ask if your role as Mermaid Barbie in Barbie had a part in some of the underwater aesthetics of the cover.
No, but I feel like I’m never going to let go of these mermaid allegations, it seems! I just love to be underwater. That wasn’t the inspo, but I love that it all trickled into it together, all these different parts of me and my journey that have brought me to this point. If that’s mermaid Barbie, then so be it!

I was snooping on Dua Lipa stan Twitter accounts, and some fans were talking about the fact that Harry Houdini seemingly had a moment fighting a shark. Was that intentional?
It actually wasn’t intentional. I do love the little connections that all the fans make because, to be honest, it sometimes surprises me. But I think for me it was just conveying the juxtaposition of light and dark, happy and sad, finding the gracefulness and the chaos, all those feelings connecting. I feel like you can’t have one without the other. This is obviously an overly dramatic way of explaining that, but that’s what the connection is.

I saw another tweet from a fan asking about the track list, and how maybe the deeper we go into the track list, the more personal the songs are. Is that a correct theory?
That’s interesting. They’re all pretty personal. I think, to be honest, “End of an Era,” which is the one that starts the record, is this hopeful, manifestation song. It is really fun and dance-y. It’s one of my favorites on the record. And “Happy for You,” which it ends on, is very self-reflective. [By the end], I’ve done a full 180. Throughout this whole record, I see myself grow so much — my perspective changes. There’s no leftover feeling of sadness or hurt. I’m grateful for every experience because it brought me to where I am today.

Is there one song on the album that you see yourself coming back to a ton?
So many. I feel like “These Walls” was one that I kept coming back to. “End of an Era” because it was just the maddest one when we were mixing it. I listened to that one over and over again. “Illusion” just puts me in a really good mood. “Maria,” it’s a fun one, but it feels very mature to me. See? Now that the title’s out, the songs aren’t, so I’m also trying to figure out how to talk about it. “Maria,” to me, feels very mature in the sense of growing and seeing relationships from a different perspective. I love that one. “Anything for Love” is a personality piece, just really letting you into a studio session.

I did an interview with Katy Perry last year, and she shared this anecdote of seeing you perform at the Hollywood Palladium and knowing you’d be the pop “It girl.” What do you think of that? Are you friends with Katy?
I love Katy! I am friends with Katy. I think she’s amazing. That was a full-circle moment for me when she came to see my show at the Palladium because when I was 15 years old, I went to go see her at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. It was her California Dreams Tour, and she was bringing fans onstage and I jumped onstage and I danced. There’s this embarrassing picture of me online, but I love her. To get the nod from someone like her, someone who I look up to, is really encouraging.

In our Rolling Stone cover story, one of the things that was talked about was the fact that you would go in and edit a lot of the songs. Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?
I think, in my eyes, I have to get it to a point where I feel like it’s close to perfect. I think that is important to me, but it’s also something that comes with confidence. Before, on my previous records, on Future Nostalgia, I did some tweaking of lyrics at the end when I went into the booth to finish it off. But I felt like whatever I wrote on the first day, that was it.

Whereas for Radical Optimism, I went in and tweaked every single song so many times because I felt confident enough that I could get better and change the story and see how it can progress. But also, I think it was just the idea that when you write something, how are you going to feel about it a week later? Or a month later? It was cool to just keep adding and changing it up. It reflected exactly where I am at this point in my life.

Are you feeling radically optimistic right now?
I’m feeling the most radically optimistic right now. I feel really, really good.

From Rolling Stone US