Sydney Morning Herald NOVEMBER 15, 2008 - by Sheryl Garratt


Dido is releasing only her third album in ten years. She tells Sheryl Garratt about the physical and emotional journeys that have brought her this far.

It's 6.30pm on an autumn evening in Los Angeles and Dido is driving down Santa Monica Boulevard facing into the setting sun. The glare is blinding and she cheerfully admits she can barely see, which is worrying because when he said goodbye earlier, her manager, Peter Leak, had made some pointed quips about her eccentric "jazz driving".

"It's always like this when the sun is going down," she says, squinting through the windscreen. "Earlier this year I got a bicycle. What I was thinking, I have no idea. I'd cycle along the road parallel to this and no one could see me coming. It was like being on a roller-coaster!"

She has lived in LA, on and off, since coming to do some writing with the producer Jon Brion in 2005 and this is where she has ended up writing and recording most of her long-awaited third album, Safe Trip Home. It turns out that the Lexus utility vehicle she is driving is a rental, as is her house in West Hollywood. Her roots are still in Islington where she grew up.

"London is still where all my stuff is, where I feel at home," she explains. "I'm just really enjoying working here. Los Angeles is a city built on storytelling, on imagination and ideas. And after a while you start soaking that up. It's very easy to get into a headspace that's good for writing. There's a lot to look at, a lot of emotional stuff going on. I've felt so creative and so confident here but this isn't somewhere I would set up shop permanently. It's a great city but you need to be able to leave it."

She's on a creative roll at the moment, writing so prolifically that she's reluctant to stop. The album was originally due to come out at the start of this year but she ended up delaying it to add new tracks. Now she is collecting songs for the follow-up before the ideas get lost in the whirlwind of promotion and touring. "I know that if I break this run, it's not going to happen like this again," she says. "I just became oblivious to the outside world and got into writing."

One of her great strengths as a songwriter and as a performer is her ability to make what feels like a direct, emotional connection with the listener. Sales of her first two albums total twenty-two million, making her the most successful female artist to come out of Britain. Which is surprising, since all she set out to do, in the beginning, was record a low-key chill-out album.

Dido recorded No Angel for her older brother Rollo's independent dance label, Cheeky, signing with him in Britain and with Arista for the rest of the world. When Rollo decided he wasn't cut out to be a record executive - he is primarily a producer, as well as being a key member of the dance group Faithless - and began negotiations to sell out to Arista, Dido's album was delayed. Released in the United States in the summer of 1999, it didn't come out in Britain until early 2001. With little else to do, she went to the US and did the kind of promotion few British acts are willing to do, criss-crossing the country to do radio interviews, meet-and-greets of sales teams and gigs in tiny venues for eighteen exhausting months.

There was never any grand plan, she says. "I sort of set off and just kept going. It was always, 'Well, just do this one thing more,' and then this one other thing more."

Each week, the album sold a little more than the week before and when one of the tracks was chosen as the theme music for the sci-fi television series Roswell, sales finally passed the million mark. Shortly afterwards, Eminem sampled her sweet love song Thank You and twisted it into a tale of warped obsession on his single Stan towards the end of 2000 and Dido became a worldwide phenomenon.

With her sometimes deceptively gentle, beautifully crafted songs, Dido is now one of the few British acts - Coldplay being the other big one - to make a big impact on the US charts. Yet when we sit down in a busy health-food restaurant to talk after her rehearsal, no one appears to recognise her. Wearing her blonde hair scraped back into a ponytail, ripped jeans and an off-the-shoulder white T-shirt shirt, she looks younger than her thirty-six years and not at all conspicuous. Only the rather lovely Miu Miu handbag at her feet hints at what must, by now, be a very healthy bank balance. But some time ago Dido worked out what makes her happy and it isn't buying lots of stuff, or surrounding herself with too much clutter or complication. It is, simply, making and playing music. "I love what I do, and I feel very confident as a songwriter," she says. "In so many other things in life I'm just so awkward and clumsy."

Success came late for Dido. She was almost thirty when the big cheques began to come in from No Angel and, as a result, she perhaps has a more balanced approach to it all. "God knows what would have happened if all this had happened to me when I was nineteen," she laughs. "I was an absolute mess!"

So although her place in London is lovely, it is not palatial. One of the great pleasures of success is being able to look after people close to her and it has also enabled her to quietly put money behind one of her passions: education, especially for girls, funding schools in the developing world via Oxfam. When I ask what her indulgences are, she says buying musical instruments, mainly.

Fame seems of no interest to her, either. She is rarely seen at awards ceremonies, premieres or industry back-slapping events and, with just a few exceptions - such as the paparazzi trying to get into the hospital when her father was ill - she has sidestepped becoming yet another character in the tabloids' celebrity soap opera. So when I later ask if she is still single, she just smiles and says she has strict boundaries and avoids talking about her personal life. "But... I'm very happy."

Dido's background is often described as privileged. She grew up in a big, book-filled house in north London and her early aptitude for music was encouraged with lessons at the Guildhall School of Music. Her father, William Armstrong, headed the publishing house Sidgwick & Jackson for twenty-five years until illness forced an early retirement in 1995, building up an extraordinarily varied list from serious history tomes to early bonkbusters and memoirs from the likes of Reg and Ron Kray, Bob Geldof and Boy George. Her mother, Clare, is a somewhat eccentric poet who often acted more like a friend than a parent.

Dido and Rollo, now forty-two, grew up without the kind of consistent boundaries and routines children often need. There were rules but they tended to be arbitrary. They could come and go as they pleased and in her teens Dido would disappear for days on end without comment, only to be shouted at for not wearing her slippers in the house. Everything about her family seemed different: they had no TV, no stereo and no visitors. Clare shared her daughter's aversion to shopping, so the children's clothes were always oddly mismatched, while their packed lunches at school would be dried banana chips or leftover ratatouille rather than the nice white-bread sandwiches and biscuits everyone else seemed to have.

Then, of course, there were their names. Dido was named after the Queen of Carthage mentioned in Virgil's Aeneid, which you would think would be burden enough. But her birth certificate, famously, lists her glorious full name as Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O'Malley Armstrong. Now, both siblings can see that there were advantages to their unorthodox upbringing and they wonder if either of them would be as creative without it. But when they were younger and desperate to fit in, it must have been tough.

An intense, self-contained child who often practised on her recorder, piano and violin for six or seven hours a day, she went off the rails as a teenager. She became a goth, got into fights and scraped through her A-levels with such a lack of commitment that her parents refused to fund her through university. So she left home and got a job as a waitress, then followed the advice of one of her father's authors, Shirley Conran, and went to secretarial school. Afterwards she worked in publishing and by the mid-1990s she was studying for a law degree at night but also hanging round the studio while Faithless made their first album, Reverence.

Rollo, who had already enjoyed a string of one-off dance hits at this point, discouraged her musical ambitions, feeling luck could not hit the same family twice but she persisted and was finally allowed to sing on a couple of tracks. She has contributed a guest vocal on every Faithless album since, while Rollo has helped out on hers.

Although just over half of Safe Trip Home was recorded with Jon Brion (a producer and multiinstrumentalist who has worked with left-field artists such as Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann), her brother came out to LA this summer with his partner and their two young sons. Dido says it was almost like the old days: Faithless worked on their new album in the studio while she worked on songs in the programming room, then Rollo and Sister Bliss, the main musician in Faithless, pitched in on her tracks.

Dido rarely talks about her lyrics.

She does, however, say that her father's death, at the age of sixty-eight, after a long struggle with the autoimmune disease lupus, has influenced some of the new songs, especially Grafton Street, on which Dido plays the first instrument she ever learnt, the recorder.

"I'm proud that Rollo and I managed to do something that is a really lovely tribute to Dad," she says quietly. "Dad is so much responsible for the way I am, and for me being creative. His way of telling us bedtime stories was to sing all his Irish songs and you could hear him coming a mile off in the car with his overly loud Irish music. I loved it and I know that was instilled into me."

Before finishing her second album, Life For Rent, in 2003, Dido separated from her partner of seven years, Bob Page, a lawyer. At the time she talked about having adventures, of trying new things such as snowboarding and parachuting but when her father's health deteriorated she headed back home.

I wonder if she went back to the adventures afterwards but she says she feels less restless, immersed in her work. She never did go skydiving.

"A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to learn to fly. Because you can do it here and I just thought it would be amazing. And everyone was just like, 'No! Not with your driving skills!'"

She's not that bad a driver, she huffs, saying that it's hard to avoid accidents in LA. "People just come bumping into you. You'll be sitting at a traffic light and 'bang!' It's extraordinary here, there's a lot of people in their cars multi-tasking - putting lipstick on while talking on the phone."

When she first came to the city, she would drive around at night, listening to Turin Brakes and Citizen Cope, or the string arrangements on Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. Later, she would go on longer road trips to Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada mountains, to the Yosemite National Park, driving alone across the desert for hours on end playing Brian Eno's pioneering ambient exploration Another Green World.

"Eno definitely works in the desert, at sunset," she says. "Music is an emotional thing for me - I'm not someone who has it on in the background. That's why I like listening when I'm driving. Because I want to listen. It transports you."

She ended up working with Eno and Cope on the new album, which also boasts some gorgeously lush string arrangements. But mainly, on these trips, she's catching up on music she missed growing up without a stereo. From classic disco to singer-songwriters such as James Taylor and Carole King, there's always something else to discover. "The thing I love about music is I'm never going to have to stop learning. There's just so much," she enthuses.

Talk to Dido for long and you will notice that the word "learning" comes up a lot. Last year she started taking English classes at UCLA.

"It was really fun," she says of the night classes she took while making her album. "I'd leave the studio early evening, go off and do this quite intense class, and I'd come back and I'd just be on fire! I did it purely to enjoy it and learn. We were doing mythology - I even had to read most of the Bible, which was bizarre. But it was fascinating, and I'd like to do more. Do that, do gigs, write songs and record... that's my ideal life, and that's what I'm heading for."