Los Angeles Times NOVEMBER 18, 2008 - by Ann Powers


In learning to play the drums, the British singer delves into her music's rhythmic core.

Talking about her new album at a Hollywood rehearsal studio last month, Dido Armstrong used one word more than any other - fourteen times, in fact, over the course of an hour. The word was "emotion." This was a bit surprising, since Dido is pretty much the living picture of musical reserve.

"I pull emotion into these songs," said the English singer-songwriter, whose third studio album, Safe Trip Home, will be released today in the U.S. "Sometimes it's my emotions, sometimes it's something I've picked up. But then it becomes yours when you take it on."

Dido is contemporary pop's most resolute plain Jane, even more firmly undramatic than her American counterpart, Norah Jones. Her two multi-platinum albums and her sampled vocal on Eminem's 2000 hit Stan made her a single-named pop star, but she truly wouldn't cause a stir at the grocery store. She's sensible-ponytail pretty, embodying that pre-feminist term for self-possession, "demureness."

Another word Dido often uses is "insular" - that one describes not her music but herself.

"I will just say things how they are," she said of her songs, which are considered by admiring fellow songwriters to be models of unfussy introspection. "I always want to bring emotion across in a straightforward way. I don't want to get histrionic when I'm singing. For me that's just not interesting; it goes too far down one road."

The delicate strength of Dido's music has made her an unexpected critical favorite. She's the kind of artist who's often dismissed by taste-makers as too bland, yet many find themselves drawn into her songs despite themselves. "It has its own kind of integrity," wrote Barry Walters in Rolling Stone, reviewing 2003's Life For Rent. Similar, somewhat startled praise is now filtering in fo Safe Trip Home.

"She's much maligned as hitting that place on the first album where every twenty-five- to thirty-five-year-old woman owned her record," said Nic Harcourt, the outgoing music director of KCRW, who claims first rights on playing Dido in the U.S. "Then it sort of becomes, 'Oh my God, she's everywhere.' But if you take a listen to the songs, she's just a really good songwriter. At the end of the day, that's what comes through."


Dido is a careful miniaturist in a field in which bold strokes are more rewarded, especially from women. Emerging from England's down-tempo electronic music scene in collaboration with her brother, Rollo Armstrong of the band Faithless, her style stood out in contrast to more picturesque divas like Portishead's Beth Gibbons or Tricky's partner, Martina Topley-Bird.

But she was also upholding the legacy of reserved feminine voices that extends throughout European pop from Françoise Hardy to early Marianne Faithfull to Linda Thompson to Sade, Tracey Thorn and Beth Orton.

"She's one of the most naturally gifted singers I've witnessed," said Jon Brion, who produced much of Safe Trip Home, in a phone interview. "Her sense of time, her sense of musicality is huge. Partly because she's had success, and partly because the pure electronic quality of her earlier records, and the subtlety of this kind of singing, I don't think people realize how deeply musical and flowing it is - and how it influences the musicians around her."

Enlisting Brion on Safe Trip Home brought the kind of drama Dido welcomes. As a producer, the Los Angeles-based Brion is best known for spinning gold from unruly souls like Kanye West, Rufus Wainwright and Fiona Apple. He and Dido first connected as writing partners, but a studio collaboration soon evolved.

"I was actually a fan of her writing," Brion said. "With a lot of people who are making things, you feel like it's running through a borrowed filter. It's their idea of what it means to be an artist. Whereas, there's a point in which you realize somebody's intelligent and self-aware enough to take the time to run things through their filter. That's the attraction for me."

Brion encouraged Dido to try new things, starting with an unexpected basic: playing the drums. Sitting behind the kit, as well as working with the top-notch drummers Brion recruited, including Mick Fleetwood, Jim Keltner, Questlove and Matt Chamberlain, prompted Dido to delve deeper into the rhythmic core of her sound.

"I come from a dance music background, and I went through all the phases when I was young of loving dub and reggae, and then into hip-hop," she said. "Learning to play the drums as well really opened up my brain. I'll be writing a song on the guitar, and maybe a little stuck on that, and I'll move to the piano, and now it's this really liberating thing that I can go to the drums. Because to me a song is just about the flow of it, it just has to flow and me to never notice in a way, it has to feel whole and real."

Brion marvelled at Dido's instinctive feel for percussion. "I found a drum kit I thought would be appropriate for her," he said. "She said, 'What's a basic beat?' I told her and started playing along with her on guitar. She immediately got it. I swear to God, in thirty seconds it was her groove. Playing a lot of instruments, I've discovered that eventually your personality comes out. But I am not kidding, in a minute and a half she was playing this beautiful mid-tempo groove that was the essence of her."

Jumping from guitar to piano to drums and working with live players instead of loops and samples, Dido found herself renewed.

"I gained this huge confidence in my feel," she said. "Before I would pick up a guitar and say, 'I can't play like so and so, why can't I do what Eric Clapton can do?' And I'd just sort of beat [myself] up a bit. And then I'd be playing piano or guitar when I first met Jon, and he gave me so much confidence in what I did, that it just sort of built up into something. And it became the fundamental."

After her sessions with Brion, Dido returned to London, thinking that Safe Trip Home was done. But she couldn't stop writing.

"I went home, and I had all my instruments around, and I now knew how to record and work all the computer programs and everything, and how to engineer it, and ended up basically doing a whole album's worth of stuff on my own at home, from what I'd learned," she recalled.

At first she thought she'd keep these new efforts to herself, but soon she shared them with her brother. He encouraged her to complete the songs, and several appear on the new collection.


Her expanded sense of self also helped Dido take new thematic risks. At the album's core is a confrontation with stasis and mortality, spurred by the death of Dido's father from lupus in 2006. Songs such as the album's centerpiece, Grafton Street, capture the complexity of a family member's lingering departure. Others consider how even the happiest circumstances - like settling down in a relationship (Look No Further) or having a child (Us 2 Little Gods) - contain their own small deaths, as other possibilities are put aside.

"Look No Further is a prime example of something where I want to express something really simple and pure and beautiful, but I also can't help myself having a little bit of doubt," Dido said. "And a song about something absolutely devastating can be uplifting and hopeful as well. Grafton Street is an example of that. It's definitely a sad song, but there's something in there for me which is talking in such a loving way about something devastating because that's how I felt. There's always a bit of both for me, and that's what I find exciting about the world."

Grafton Street is a masterstroke, and it even risks not being subtle - its climax comes via a near-psychedelic multi-tracked recorder solo. Dido learned the unfashionable instrument as a child and playing it "felt like home," she said. She wrote the song with another inspirational friend - veteran producer and artist Brian Eno, whose 1975 album Another Green World offered solace during her father's last days.

"You know how you get those albums that are so emotional but comforting?" she said. "Almost like a safe place to be, you know? Around the time that Dad was dying, that's what I was listening to. And I thought, God, I'd love to do some writing with Brian Eno."

The sessions with Eno, whom Dido had known casually for years, yielded several songs. She's keeping them, with many others, in a stash for future release. Meanwhile, she's planning to tour small spaces with her band, and even to get behind the drum kit once in a while.

"I'd actually love to be in a band at some point," she said. "The thing that would excite me next, to learn more, would be to play for someone else while they're singing. That would be a whole other step. It would be really interesting."