How Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia was born – and what it means for Warner Records

Credit: Nos
Joe Kentish

The biggest winner at last night’s BRIT Awards was life itself.  The second biggest winner was Dua Lipa.

The ceremony, which took place at the O2 Arena, won UK government approval as a pilot live event, as Britain looks to haul itself into a post-pandemic world. Some 4,000 people attended – in person! maskless! – including 2,500 frontline workers who were gifted tickets by organizers.

As expected, Dua Lipa collected the British Female prize, but she also triumphed in the Best Album category for her disco-tinged Future Nostalgia, which also recently picked up a Grammy – the artist’s third – for Best Pop Vocal Album.

When Future Nostalgia was released, on March 27 last year, such triumphant outcomes were by no means a sure thing.

You’d have been forgiven for betting that an upbeat electro-pop record would have met a tough commercial reaction as the ghoulish turmoil of Covid-19’s effects began to be understood by the wider world.

Joe Kentish, Head of A&R at Warner Records UK, and the man who signed Dua Lipa to the label (then Warner Bros) in 2014, admits he had to steel his nerves.

“From the start, the whole idea of this record was to take it live,” he tells MBW. “Dua’s catchphrase had become, ‘This is going to sound great at Glastonbury!’ Suddenly that all got taken away from us, aside from everything else going on in the world.

“We knew we had an artist who’d made something special. But we were at this point of, ‘Oh, actually, this might just not happen.’ But Dua was like, ‘Nah, we can’t keep this in anymore.’ So we went with it.”

The decision not to delay has paid off, with Future Nostalgia now cemented in history as one of the few things that put smiles on faces and movement in hips during the more miserable pockets of the past year. (For the music biz, it also put cash in coffers: Future Nostalgia has sold 3.8 million equivalent albums worldwide to date, with over 4.5 billion streams on Spotify alone.)

“Dua was like, ‘Nah, we can’t keep this in anymore.’ So we went with it.”

Tellingly, Kentish’s name was the first amongst those from Warner that Dua Lipa thanked from the BRITs stage – others included Max Lousada and Warner Records UK boss, Phil Christie. (She also thanked her team at Tap Management… and demanded British PM Boris Johnson pay NHS nurses more money.)

Lipa’s victory capped a golden period for Warner Records UK and Kentish, who also signed – and is now developing – Griff, who performed and collected the coveted Rising Star award at the BRITs yesterday.

Here, Kentish talks us through the unorthodox making of Future Nostalgia, his own approach to A&R, and what the flurry of recent successes means for his label…

Last time MBW spoke to you, in March 2019, Dua had just won her first Grammy – two, in fact. What’s been the story from then to now?

That story is really the story of Future Nostalgia. Even at that point, Dua had the idea of it was going to be: big, live, and referencing her icons.

At the time, there were no disco records in the chart; there were no records doing what she did. Things have taken a very different turn.

We were in the thick of it for about a year, trying things out, but we didn’t really have a record. It’s a testament to Dua, her manager and the kind of culture that Phil [Christie], Max [Lousada] and now Tony [Harlow] have allowed at the label that we were given time to figure it out, and protected from a lot of eyes.

“We made a deliberate choice not to do that.”

After about a year we got this record, Levitating [released in October 2020, a Top 5 in the US and UK]. That was a record Dua wrote. She invited me down to the studio, and said, ‘What do you reckon about this?’ And it was like, ‘Play it again! Play it again!’

It was a Eureka! moment – a contemporary lyric, but with this old school thing, and still feeling modern. And that set the tone for the rest of the album.

By the end of it, we had the album ready quite far up front [ahead of release], which is not usual these days – usually the way of making a big pop record is you’re always chasing the hit, you’re always following [trends], sort of slightly catching up with yourself.

We made a deliberate choice not to do that.

We started to get quite confident when the first [single] took off, and then Covid hit.

Dua has taken a lot of lessons from this experience – we all have – the main one being to trust your gut.

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The UK industry can get a bit down on itself these days about its artists’ chances of breaking the US. what would your message be to A&Rs in Britain now you’ve gone through two successful albums with Dua that are global successes?

I’ve spent my career talking to artists and executives who want to break America. But it’s been my observation over that time that the UK artists who’ve actually done well in America have never been the obvious ones – they’ve always had something uniquely British about them.

We have a completely unique cultural mix in this country. We speak the same language, obviously, as people in the States, but we’ve got a really unique, amazing culture that’s very fast-moving and vibrant.

“The UK artists who’ve actually done well in America have never been the obvious ones.”

I believe that if you lean into that, you’ll come up with music that [other markets] don’t – and the best of that music has the potential to travel.

I also believe in the process of getting down to what an artist’s essence is. If you succeed at that, you’ll come up with something unique. That might make people stop for a second and lean in. And that’s often all you need.

Obviously it’s hard to break [UK] artists when so many important broadcasting and playlisting decisions are made in America. For that you have to work really closely with your partners in the US, getting them on board at the right time.

Are there any strategies in the a&r process that can help UK artists trying to break the US?

No, I think all of that is an absolute red herring.

Every time I hear an A&R person talk about making a record for America I roll my eyes. I can’t think of a recipe to make a worse record than to approach [A&R] like that.

“I can’t think of a recipe to make a worse record than to approach [A&R] like that.”

It’s like, don’t make records that other people might like – make records that you think are great.

It’s so patronising to [the fans] that someone might make music that way: ‘I’m not really into this, but I’m making it for this audience over there.’

You have to try to make brilliant records that really expand on what the artist’s vision is. That way you’re going to come up with something unique.

And if you come up with something unique, people might stop for just a second and lean in. Often that’s all you need.

Last time we interviewed you, you jokingly acknowledged the self-doubt of the A&R executive was a driving force in your own career success. Surely you’re less doubtful of your abilities now?

Yeah, it’s all gone – I’ve got it sussed now [laughs]!

No, obviously not. I come to this job on quite a human level – the way I try and understand artists, colleagues, music. I try to think about the challenges that artists and their support team around them have.

One of the things that means making records is such a unique and fraught process is because it’s completely subjective, yet we put those records out into a commercial world that is completely objective.

“You should doubt yourself now and again when you’re helping great people make records…”

The self-doubt is a very necessary part of that process. You should doubt yourself now and again when you’re helping great people make records, because if you don’t question yourself, you’re going to make serious mistakes and lead people down the wrong path.

At the same time, your job is to keep as much of that [doubt] as possible away from the artists, shelter them from it, so they are on a forward trajectory and feel free to create.

How good a writer is Dua?

I don’t think you put together a record like Future Nostalgia as an artist unless you’re an excellent writer yourself. I don’t think it happens.

She’d tell you herself that when she started going into writing studios it was intimidating. That was something I tried to be aware of and responsible about – a young girl, 17 or 18, going into those environments, often with guys who were older; she wasn’t in control of the surroundings. Regardless of anything else, you’re the rookie in the room.

People often don’t realize that there are easier ways out than learning to be a great writer as an artist, because it’s a slog writing songs. Future Nostalgia is only 11 tracks long; I would say Dua comfortably wrote at least 150 songs [for the record], ideas, jotting things down.

“People often don’t realize that there are easier ways out than learning to be a great writer as an artist.”

And every one of those songs is one or two days of your life.

If you’re not passionate about becoming a great writer, that process is going to become really boring. Especially for someone like [Dua] who has so many other options to do so many other great things – getting invited to the sort of parties you or I are not!

But instead of all that, she stayed in the studio and slogged it out. That’s a testament to her ambition.

You’re not getting to a record like this unless you have a strong narrative. And that narrative comes from her.

Following the success of Dua and Griff, how do you hope to differentiate Warner Records UK from any other label?

This label is absolutely the sum of the relationships we have with our artists.

I feel it’s a mistake to put yourself at the center of it all, like: ‘What is the character of our label?’ That’s putting the cart before the horse.

We don’t have a set character as a label. We try to create amazing, nourishing, challenging, inspiring environments for these young creative people, and see what they come up with.

“A&R to me isn’t just about finding songs.”

With Griff, I’m really proud of her and what we’re doing to support this super-empowered person. The production talent and writing talent she possesses – often writing 100%, or at least 50% of her singles… again, we’re being thoughtful and guarded about making sure her unique voice can come through, rather than just putting her in with the next big [songwriter or producer]. That’s how we’ll get really original records.

A&R to me isn’t just about finding songs. It’s about finding someone you really believe has talent, then making them feel great – like they can achieve anything. But it’s also about challenging artists, mentoring them, calling them out when the work’s not as good as I know it can be, and encouraging them when the work’s great.

The product of all of that will define this label.Music Business Worldwide