Hitmaker of the Month: Caroline Ailin on Writing Dua Lipa’s Grammy-Nominated ‘Don’t Start Now’

Ellise Shafer
·4 min read

The inspiration for Dua Lipa’s Grammy-nominated hit “Don’t Start Now” struck songwriter Caroline Ailin during a night out with co-writers Ian Kirkpatrick and Emily Warren at a bar in Wyoming. The theme for the night? Disco, of course.

“We went to a Jackson Hole cowboy bar and had this wild night out and it was really fun, but we also got really inspired,” Ailin, who was born and raised in Norway, tells Variety. “They were playing ‘I Will Survive’ and all those songs that night.”

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The three brought back the idea for the song and wrote it with Lipa, who Ailin says “took it and just really brought it to life.” “We were like, ‘Okay, oh shit. This is really good now,'” Ailin says.

Sure enough, the world agreed. “Don’t Start Now,” which became the lead single from Lipa’s most recent album, “Future Nostalgia,” is up for three Grammys: song of the year, record of the year and pop solo performance. Ailin also co-wrote “Pretty Please” off of “Future Nostalgia,” which is nominated for album of the year and pop vocal album of the year.

Ailin’s reaction to the Grammy news was overwhelming excitement with a dose of humility.

“It was crazy surreal because it’s so hard for writers to get nominated; you only get nominated for song of the year unless you have a big share of the record so it’s really the only one where you can get acknowledged,” Ailin says. “I know amazing, talented writers who go their whole lives without being lucky enough to get it.”

But 31-year-old Ailin isn’t just lucky — she has the skills and the work ethic to back it up. She attended the prestigious Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, founded by none other than Paul McCartney, graduating in 2012 and signing a publishing contract with Oslo-based Waterfall Music soon after. However, Ailin was working as a waitress to make ends meet until she struck gold with Lipa’s breakout hit “New Rules” in 2017.

“That song is forever going to be the most special song of my career because it changed my life. That’s the one that changed everything for me — I was still a waitress, so for me it has meaning beyond just the song,” Ailin says.

Though she had worked with Lipa before, writing “New Rules” was Ailin’s first time meeting and collaborating with Kirkpatrick and Warren.

Of that first session, Ailin says: “I was definitely the underdog trying to prove myself, but they’re just the best. They’ve just always been like the most welcoming and supportive.”

But Lipa isn’t the only artist in Ailin’s arsenal — this year alone, she has credits on songs by Selena Gomez, JoJo, Lauv, Fletcher and Sofia Carson, to name a few. As becomes evident when listening to any of her songs, Ailin’s lyrical trademark is authentic, raw honesty, accompanied by poppy choruses that stick.

Ailin seeks that same honesty when collaborating with artists. Of collaborating with Gomez on her first album since 2015, “Rare,” she says, “Lyrically, it just felt really personalized. I think that’s the best thing you could dream of in other writers: somebody who’s not scared to be honest.”

Part of that honesty is opening up about vulnerable experiences, whether that be heartbreak, loss or an unspoken truth — but Ailin says she’s learned that pouring those emotions into her songwriting doesn’t mean she has to dwell on them.

“It’s so funny, I used to have a fear that if I would ever be in a happy relationship, I just wouldn’t be successful,” Ailin says. “But actually, that’s not the truth at all. It can be easier, of course, when you’re in turmoil, because you have 400 things to write about. But it’s also really hard to keep perspective and have energy. Writing is such a big, creative pouring out, and to do that you have to be in a good space.”

Although 2020 was certainly a landmark year for Ailin, she has no plans of slowing down. If all goes well, Ailin hopes to return to the U.S. and get back to an “active life” of songwriting in 2021 — no Zoom calls required.

“I feel like that’s what’s so sick about my job is just, it never stays the same, it just keeps changing and you meet new people,” Ailin says. “It always surprises me [and] keeps me invigorated when things get hard.”

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