The big winner of the BRIT Awards last night was life itself. The second biggest winner was Dua Lipa.
The ceremony, which took place at the O2 Arena, was recognized by the UK government as a live pilot event as the UK seeks to immerse itself in a post-pandemic world. Around 4,000 people were present – in person! maskless! – Including 2,500 frontline workers who were given tickets by the organizers.
As expected, Dua Lipa won the British Woman Award, but she also triumphed in the Best Album category for her disco-toned Future Nostalgia, which recently received a Grammy – the artist’s third – for best pop vocal album .
When Future Nostalgia was released on March 27th last year, such triumphant results were by no means certain.
You would have been forgiven for having an upbeat electro-pop record met a harsh commercial reaction when the creepy turmoil of the effects of Covid-19 was understood by the world.
Joe Kentish, director of A&R at Warner Records, and the man who signed Dua Lipa to the label (then Warner Bros) in 2014, admits he needed to strengthen his nerves.
“From the beginning the whole idea of this album was to get it live,” he tells MBW. “Dua’s catchphrase was ‘This will sound great at Glastonbury!’ Suddenly everything has been taken away from us except for everything else that is going on in the world.
“We knew we had an artist who had done something special. But we were at that point, “Oh, actually that just couldn’t happen.” But Dua said, “No, we can’t keep that anymore.” So we took part. “
The decision not to delay paid off. Future Nostalgia is now anchored in history as one of the few things that put a smile on faces and the movement in the hips in the wretched pockets of the past year. (Money was also put into the coffers for the music business: To date, Future Nostalgia has sold 3.8 million albums of the same value worldwide, with over 4.5 billion streams on Spotify alone.)
“Dua said, ‘No, we can’t keep that anymore.’ So we took part. “
It is significant that Kentish’s name was the first of Warner’s to thank Dua Lipa of the BRIT stage – others were Max Lousada and Warner Records UK boss Phil Christie. (She also thanked her team at Tap Management … and urged UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to pay the NHS nurses more money.)
The victory of Lipa was a golden period for Warner Records UK and Kentish, who have also signed and are now developing, who performed and garnered the coveted Rising Star Award at the BRITs yesterday.
Here Kentish tells us about the unorthodox genesis of Future Nostalgia, his own approach to A&R and what the tide of recent successes mean for his label …
The last time MBW spoke to you in March 2019, Dua had just won her first Grammy – two in fact. What was the story from then to now?
This story is really the story of future nostalgia. Even at that point, Dua had the idea that it would grow up, live and refer to their icons.
At the time there were no disco records in the table; There was no record of what she was doing. Things have taken a very different turn.
We’d been in the middle of it for about a year trying things, but we didn’t really have a record. It’s a testament to Dua, her manager, and the kind of culture Phil has [Christie], Max [Lousada] and now Tony [Harlow] I let the label give us time to find out and kept it safe from many eyes.
“We made a conscious decision 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 that Dua wrote. She invited me into the studio and said, “What do you think of that?” And it was like, ‘Play it all over again! Play it again! ‘
It was a eureka! Wait a minute – contemporary lyric, but with that old school thing and still modern. And that set the tone for the rest of the album.
In the end, we had the album done pretty well in advance [ahead of release]which is not common these days – usually the way to make a big pop record is to always chase the hit that you always follow [trends]to catch up a bit with yourself somehow.
We made a conscious choice not to do this.
The first time we got pretty confident [single] started and then hit Covid.
Dua has learned many lessons from this experience – we all have – the most important one is to trust your gut.
British industry these days can get a little into its artists’ chances of breaking the US. What would your message be to A&Rs in the UK after going through two hit albums with Dua that are global hits?
I’ve spent my career talking to artists and executives who want to break America. But it was my observation at the time that the British artists who did really well in America were never the obvious ones – there was always something uniquely British about them.
We have a completely unique cultural mix in this country. We speak the same language as the people in the US of course, but we have a really unique, amazing culture that is very fast moving and alive.
“The British artists who did really well in America were never the obvious ones.”
I think if you lean on it you will come up with music [other markets] not – and the best of this music has the potential to travel.
I also believe in the process of getting back to the essence of an artist. If you can do that, you will come up with something unique. That could make people stop and lean for a second. And that’s often all you need.
Obviously it’s hard to break [UK] Artist when America is making so many major broadcast and playlist decisions. To do this, you need to work very closely with your partners in the US to get them on board at the right time.
Are there strategies in the A&R process that can help UK artists break the US?
No, I think all of this is an absolute red herring.
Every time I hear an A&R person talk about making a record for America, I roll my eyes. Can’t think of a recipe for making a worse record than approaching [A&R] like that.
“I can’t think of a recipe for making a worse record than approaching [A&R] like that. “
It’s like you’re not making records that other people might like – keep records that you think are great.
It’s so patronizing [the fans] for someone to make music like that, “I don’t really like that, but I do it for that audience over there.”
You have to try to get brilliant shots that really expand the artist’s vision. That way you come up with something unique.
And when you come up with something unique, people may pause for a second and lean back. Often that’s all you need.
The last time we interviewed you, you jokingly acknowledged that the A&R executive’s self-doubt was a driving force behind your own career success. Surely you have less doubts about your abilities now?
Yes, it’s all gone – I understand now [laughs]!
No, obviously not. I get into this job on a fairly human level – the way I try to understand artists, colleagues, and music. I try to think about the challenges that artists and their support team have around them.
One of the things that mean that making records is such a unique and arduous process is that it is completely subjective, but we publish these records in a business world that is completely objective.
“You should have doubts every now and then when you are helping great people make records …”
Self-doubt is a very necessary part of this process. You should doubt yourself every now and then when you are helping great people keep records because if you don’t question yourself, you will make serious mistakes and lead people the wrong way.
At the same time, it’s your job to keep that much of it [doubt] Protect them from the artists as much as possible so that they are on a forward path and feel free to create something.
How good is Dua as a writer?
I don’t think that as an artist you would have put together a record like Future Nostalgia unless you are an excellent writer yourself. I don’t think it will happen.
She would tell yourself that it was intimidating when she started writing studios. That was something I wanted to be aware of and responsible for – a young girl, 17 or 18, who went into these environments, often with older men; She had no control over the environment. Regardless of everything else, you are the newcomer to the room.
People often fail to realize that there are easier ways out than learning to be a great writer as an artist because writing songs is a slogan. Future Nostalgia is only 11 tracks long; I would say Dua comfortably wrote at least 150 songs [for the record], Ideas, things to write down.
“People often don’t realize that there are easier ways out than learning to be a great writer as an artist.”
And each of these songs is a day or two of your life.
Unless you’re passionate about becoming a great writer, the process becomes really boring. Especially for someone like [Dua] Who has so many other opportunities to do so many other great things – get invited to parties that you or I aren’t!
But instead she stayed in the studio and knocked it out. That is proof of their ambition.
You won’t get to such a record unless you have a strong narrative. And this story comes from her.
How do you want to distinguish Warner Records UK from other labels after the success of Dua and Griff?
This label is absolutely the sum of the relationships we have with our artists.
I think it is a mistake to put yourself in the center, such as: “What is the character of our label?” That puts the cart in front of the horse.
We don’t have a fixed character as a label. We try to create amazing, nutritious, challenging and inspiring environments for these young creative people and see what they come up with.
“At A&R, it’s not just about finding songs.”
At Griff, I am really proud of her and of what we do to support this overpowering person. The production talent and writing talent she possesses – often they write 100% or at least 50% of their singles … Again, we are thoughtful and careful to make sure her unique voice comes through rather than just associating it with the next big one [songwriter or producer]. This is how we get really original records.
At A&R, it’s not just about finding songs. It’s about finding someone who you really believe has talent and then making them feel great – as if they could achieve anything. But it’s also about challenging artists, mentoring them, calling them up when the work isn’t as good as I know it, and encouraging them when the work is great.
The product of all of this will define this label.Music business worldwide