Younger generations tend to forget that the golden age of analogue media consumption happened not that long ago. Back in 2004, getting played on the radio and on MTV was as essentially for your music career as having a record deal. And one of those things wasn’t really thinkable without the other. It was the final days of a traditional and simpler media landscape, before Netflix, Spotify, YouTube and Facebook. I mean, people were still buying Maxi CDs (a single CD with only 3, 4 tracks). And during those times there was no escape from Dido Armstrong. White Flag, Thank You, Here With Me – there was a time when her songs were pretty much everywhere. Her first two records – No Angel and Life For Rent – are still among the best sold records of all time in the UK. Literally everybody appeared to own at least one of them. And of course, cool kids would never admit that. But I wasn’t a cool kid back then and probably aren’t today, so I happily confirm that I still really like No Angel by Dido along with lots of her later work. And you should be totally okay to feel the same way by now.
Despite being already released in 1999 Dido‘s debut LP No Angel wasn’t an initial success. It didn’t do that well before Eminem somehow got hold of it and used the opening lines of Thank You as chorus for his stalker-themed hit single Stan. That happened during a time when Eminem was literally the biggest pop star of the planet so it’s no surprise that this publicity really helped Dido and made No Angel a late bloomer in 2001. The story of it and Dido’s career can’t be told without her brother Rollo and his band Faithless (you know, the iconic ‘I can’t get no sleep’ 1990s dance act) who supported the singer from very early on, produced her records and always featured on her on their own records. The Faithless track North Star is a critically underrated collaboration between them and so is their single One Step Too Far. Rollo and Dido – two musical siblings that still support each other. ‘When I started my career music was just a bi-product of hanging around with my friends and my brother,’ Dido explains to me when we briefly meet-up at a fancy hotel in Berlin. The artist is about to return with her fifth studio album called Still On My Mind this spring, her first one in six years. Arriving twenty years after her debut there are plenty of similarities between both records as she confirms to me:
‘It felt similar to the times we recorded ‘No Angel’. There was no record company. It was just me and my brother again, joined by friends like Sister Bliss (of Faithless). It felt very relaxed and very instinctive.’
With a big and friendly smile she sums up: ‘Not that much as changed.’ Still, everything changed during these high times nearly two decades ago. No Angel was a surprise success and to this day I really like the relaxed and intimate late night vibe it spreads. Leaving the obvious hit singles aside you get fascinating songs like the sad My Lover’s Gone, the melancholic Isobel and the trippy Honestly OK which feels like a missing link between trip-hop and pop. If Faithless created the music for the big 90s dance extravaganza little sister Dido was responsible for the gentle moments on the morning after. When it blew up it changed the status for Dido and the even more successful follow-up Life For Rent went even further. ‘We recorded Life For Rent we booked a studio and it was a pretty stressful everyday affair,’ she remember the time. White Flag and the album’s title-track became massive global hit singles and suddenly Dido was one of the biggest female pop stars of the world. And that also made Life For Rent a solid yet not nearly as natural listening experience as No Angel because you suddenly felt the pressure from well… pretty much everybody. Any advice she would give her younger self? ‘Practice the guitar a bit more so you’re not that rubbish when you are on stage.’
Fighting for independency
Fifteen years later there’s no such thing as pressure for Dido anymore. The whole global stardom phase between 2001 and 2004 might have been pretty intense in retrospect but it also earned her the creative (and probably also financial) freedom to not make any compromises anymore. ‘There’s now a history of ‘letting her do her thing”, she explains that stubbornness to me. ‘It never felt like a hard fight for me as I was always quite sure about what I wanted. And it partly has to do with the way No Angel got made back then.’ By doing her thing AND being successful music industry authorities simply stopped questioning her methods, it appears and that’s what allowed her to record Still On My Mind in total independency.
‘Nobody was expecting this album, nobody was waiting for it. I kept it pretty secret till the end. I decided to make this record for and by myself and then decide afterwards whether I would put it out in some form. And then I ended up being really proud of it and I wanted people to hear it.’
Like her debut album back then this new record was a very easy one to make as she explains. ‘We didn’t think about it too much. It was a pretty on and off affair.’ And that’s something you definitely sense when you listen to it. It might not have the same tender late-night vibe like No Angel but the electronic notion and certain tracks definitely recall that intimate vibe and follow her unconventional understanding of pop music. Because despite the fact that I partly also lost track of her releases over the past years that’s something I always respected about her: The whole pop star thing happed quite naturally and wasn’t forced. She also made lots of bold decisions over the years. The multi-platinum success of Life For Rent was followed by the quite introverted and mellow Safe Trip Home record in 2008 which saw Dido reflecting about the death of father and was anything but a commercial LP. Of course, it was a flop compared to its two predecessors but she just didn’t care. ‘It was my learning record, although it was quite an unconventional thing to do.’ She never worked with hip producers to get the next big Top 40 smasher so thank god there never was a Timbaland or David Guetta collaboration. Her forthcoming tour will also be her first one in fifteen years and that also was her own decision. ‘I didn’t intend to have such a long break between tours,’ she says with a friendly smile. ‘The third album was quite personal and raw and I found it quite tough to perform it live. With the fourth album I just had a baby and it also didn’t work.’ But while recording Still On My Mind she suddenly realized that these new songs might work pretty good live so now feels like the right time to enter the stage again. She’s ‘more excited than nervous’ as she confirms.
Look, I get it. Dido has never been the coolest artist around. She’s not nearly as arty as a Kate Bush and you can indeed consider her music as ‘soft and redundant radio pop’ if you just stay on the surface. White Flag and Thank You might technically still be great songs but pop culture really destroyed them. But there’s a lot of other greatness if you look beyond that. ‘Quiet Times from my third LP is an underrated favourite which a lot of other people seem to like as well,’ Dido says. She worked pretty hard to get in this quite independent decision to do exactly the music she wants to do. There are two essential lessons she learned over the past twenty years as she tells me:
‘1. Surround yourself with good people
2. Do the music you really want to do’
She adds: ‘I’m really firm on the second point here because a lot of other things might no matter that much but this one’s crucial. The sound, the song and the emotional core I want to deliver are very important.’ And despite being a platinum-selling mega star, still releasing via major labels and all that there is an undeniable independent stubbornness that really shines above all the clichés one might have when it comes to Dido‘s pop. And here I am, almost twenty years later, still rooting for her against all the cool kids. No matter it it’s No Angel, Still On My Mind or the records in-between: there are really great songs with substance hidden in her catalogue and you are all happily invited to discover some of thanks to the possibilities of the modern day media landscape. That paradigm shift is overdue and I heavily invite you to take a closer look.
Dido’s fifth album Still On My Mind is out now via Sony BMG.