Dido – circa 2004
“I just want to feel / Safe in my own skin / I just want to be / Happy again / I just want to feel / Deep in my own world” – ‘Honestly OK’ (Dido Armstrong, Matty Benbrook, Rollo Armstrong)
“You know”, confesses Dido, “One teeny little thing can change the whole course of your life. That’s a constant source of fascination for me.” There are many such moments in the life of the British singer.
‘Dido’ is pronounced like a combination of ‘die’ and ‘dough’. It rhymes with Fido. It may sound unlikely, but it’s not an invented stage-name.
Florian Cloud De Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong is born in Kensington, London, England on 25 December 1971. She grows up in an unusual household. Her father, William O’Malley Armstrong, is a publisher and her mother, Clare Collins, is a poet. Their elder child, Rowland Armstrong, also has an unusual name. The kids are known as Dido and Rollo. The Armstrong girl subsequently legally changes her first name to ‘Dido’. The appellation ‘Dido’ is also the name of the mythical queen of Carthage. Their parents allow the youngsters no television or visitors. Dido and Rollo both turn to music to pass the time and exercise their creativity. When she is 9 years old, Dido tours Yugoslavia in a recorder orchestra. The recorder is a wind instrument somewhere between a flute and a whistle. Dido spends her teenage years listening to Rollo’s music collection and touring with a classical ensemble.
There are childhood photos of Dido included in the lyric booklet accompanying her first album. It is difficult to see that dark-haired, rather unremarkable little girl is the same person as the blonde, slim, adult Dido also pictured. But perhaps that little girl sometimes peeks out via the singer’s lyrics? Whatever outward changes occur, she remains the same person inside.
Rollo Armstrong follows a somewhat different path. Instead of playing the recorder like his sister, he works with a style of dance music known as ‘house’ and frequents the club scene. House is a ‘minimal electronic club music nurtured in Chicago during the 1980s and subsequently a Europe-wide phenomenon.’ Rollo Armstrong becomes part of a recording project called Faithless, though he is not the visible star of the show. On their debut album, ‘Reverence’ (1996) (UK no. 26), Rollo gets his kid sister to sing lead vocals on one track and backing vocals on several others. This does not come out of the blue. Dido has been singing with various London-based bands and ‘pestering’ Rollo for a spot in Faithless.
Dido becomes part of the touring group for Faithless and contributes to their second album, ‘Sunday 8PM’ (1998) (UK no. 10, AUS no. 41). She also makes some demos of her own songs and these demos earn her a recording contract as a solo act with Arista / BMG Records.
Dido has a hand in writing every song she records on her own albums, but she is rarely the only author. Her most frequent collaborator is, as may be expected, her brother, Rollo Armstrong. Dido describes Rollo as “the other half of my brain, my best friend, still my biggest inspiration, still my big brother.” The most common songwriting credit is the two Armstrong siblings and a third party, but the identity of those extra contributors is varied and changes from album to album. “I am not one of those people who only write when I’m traumatised or miserable”, Dido says. “I write every day…every time I sit at the piano or play guitar, I want to write a better song.”
As a vocalist, Dido is very subtle. She does not exhibit fantastic power or range. Instead, she relies on a kind of hushed intimacy. The effect is similar to a lover whispering in your ear. Despite her voice being a delicate instrument, it is always mixed to the forefront for clarity. Dido also provides the lion’s share of her own backing vocals (thanks to overdubs).
Though she is not usually featured, Dido contributes to all her albums as a musician as well as a vocalist. And not just one instrument; she is multi-skilled. On different tracks, Dido plays guitar, keyboards, drums, bass programming, recorder, omnichord and bells.
How to describe Dido’s music? “There’s a little of everything I like to listen to thrown into the mix, including folk, rock, pop, dance and hip hop”, claims Dido. There is a suspicion that the folk elements most often come from Dido, the dance and hip hop from Rollo, and the rock and pop from their multiple co-conspirators. Dido seems most comfortable with a simple voice and acoustic guitar arrangement, or voice and piano arrangement. There is a surprising dynamic gained when Rollo subverts his sister’s work with electronic textures or a skipping beat – and, to her credit, Dido accepts and values this nudging out of her comfort zone. The Armstrong siblings may struggle a bit with writing commercial fare, so it seems likely that is what their extra songwriting allies bring to the table.
Dido’s first album is ‘No Angel’ (1999) (UK no. 1, US no. 4, AUS no. 1). The album is put together from five different sets of sessions with a total of seven people credited as producers, including Dido and Rollo. The title track, ‘No Angel’, tries (not completely successfully) to establish Dido as something other than a ‘good girl’: “And if I say I’m coming home, I’ll probably be out all night…I’m no angel, but does that mean that I can’t live my life? / I’m no angel, but please don’t think that I can’t cry / I’m no angel, but does that mean that I won’t fly?” ‘Here With Me’ (UK no. 4, US no. 108, AUS no. 52) features a choir of overdubbed Didos harmonising across banks of electronic keyboards: “Oh, I am what I am, I’ll do what I want, but I can’t hide / I won’t go, I won’t sleep, I can’t breathe, until you’re resting here with me.” This song is a good example of the power in Dido’s approach to singing. It can only be described as soft, yet the rawness of the emotion would wring tears from the hardest heart. ‘Thank You’ (UK no. 3, US no. 3) contrasts everyday minutiae (“My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why I got out of bed at all / The morning rain clouds up my window and I can’t see at all”) with a simple acknowledgement of the value of a lover: “And then you call me and it’s not so bad, it’s not so bad and I / Want to thank you / For giving me the best day of my life.” Eminem samples this piece for his song, ‘Stan’, and the impact of the rapper’s interest ‘opens the door to the masses’. ‘No Angel’ encompasses a variety of other tones. There is the aggressive electronica of ‘Hunter’ (UK no. 17, AUS no. 50), the chilly folk of ‘My Lover’s Gone’, the oddball ‘Honestly OK’, the grandeur of ‘All You Want’ and the disco song ‘Take My Hand’. ‘No Angel’ combines ‘electronic and acoustic elements to create a lush, down tempo setting for Dido’s lovelorn vocals’.
Between Dido’s first and second albums, she splits with Bob Page, her fiancé of seven years. This heartbreak informs ‘Life For Rent’ (2003) (UK no. 1, US no. 4, AUS no. 1), her finest album. It is a more cohesive work with the Armstrong siblings co-producing, with only Mike Hedges providing additional production on two songs. Leading off the disc is ‘White Flag’ (UK no. 2, US no. 18, AUS no. 1). Dido’s greatest song is co-written by Dido, Rollo and Rick Nowels. A miasma of electronic keyboards is discomfited by an unusual beat. Dido pours her heart out: “I know you think that I shouldn’t still love you or tell you that / But if I didn’t say it, well I’d still have felt it, where’s the sense in that? / I promise that I’m not trying to make your life harder or return to where we were”. Gathering strength with a “but” for the chorus, Dido continues: “I will go down with this ship / And I won’t put my hand up and surrender / There will be no white flag above my door / I’m in love / And always will be.” A great many listeners recognise the emotion from their own lives. “I think it’s because I keep it so personal that it almost becomes universal the more personal the song is”, says Dido. The rather glum title track, ‘Life For Rent’ (UK no. 8, AUS no. 28) testifies “But if my life is for rent and I don’t learn to buy / Well I deserve nothing more than I get / ‘Cos nothing I have is truly mine”. Dido tries to explain in an interview: “The title represents how I feel about my life right now and how I want to live it in the future. It’s about not being afraid to take chances, or to live life to the full.” ‘Don’t Leave Home’ (UK no. 25) and ‘Who Makes You Feel’ both struggle to provide some emotional reassurance. The acoustic guitar strums of ‘Sand In My Shoes’ (UK no. 29, AUS no. 37) return to the love-lost theme: “I’ve still got sand in my shoes / And I can’t shake the thought of you / I should get on, forget you but why would I want to / I know we said goodbye / Anything else would have been confused / But I want to see you again.” The album’s closer, ‘See The Sun’, is a bit of friendly advice (to herself?) after a break-up. Dido warns “You can wear anything as long as it’s not black” and to see the daily sunrise as a symbol that life goes on. The ‘album packs messier emotional complications than its predecessor’ and is richer for it.
Between albums Dido’s father passes away. Although ‘Life For Rent’ alchemically transformed heartbreak into art, grief proves more resistant to the process. Three songs, ‘Grafton Street’, ‘The Day Before The Day’ and ‘Let’s Do The Things We Normally Do’, seem to be about Dido’s loss. ‘Safe Trip Home’ (2008) (UK no. 2, US no. 13, AUS no. 6), the album that includes these songs, is divided almost equally between songs produced by The Ark and Dido, and another group of sessions produced by Jon Brion. The latter bunch includes the single ‘Don’t Believe In Love’ (UK no. 54). “I want to go to bed with arms around me / But wake up on my own”, sings Dido. Perhaps understandably, the emotions she shares on this album are more cold and brittle, concluding “If I don’t believe in love / You’re too good for me.” The pattern recurs on ‘Never Want To Say It’s Love’: “I felt the same today / As I was feeling yesterday / It’ll be the same tomorrow / From then on, it won’t change.”
In February 2011 Dido announces she is pregnant by her (previously unmentioned) husband, Rohan Gavin. Their son, Stanley, is born in July 2011.
A new single, the chanting, percussive ‘Let Us Move On’ (AUS no. 84) in 2012 presages Dido’s fourth album, ‘The Girl Who Got Away’ (2013) (UK no. 5, US no. 32, AUS no. 12). The acoustic sing-along ‘No Freedom’ (UK no. 51) (co-written with Rick Nowels and Rollo) finds the singer uttering, “No love without freedom / No freedom without love.” However, Dido serves up these sentiments in a reassuring and gentle tone. Greg Kurstin co-writes the nightclub electropop of ‘End Of Night’. ‘Blackbird’ toys with darker themes. The album receives ‘mixed to average’ reviews.
At her best, Dido’s work was emotionally perceptive and compelling. Blending together diverse elements like folk, pop and electronica into an accessible whole was a noteworthy achievement. “One teeny little thing can change the course of your life”, Dido claimed. Her career may not have existed without ‘little things’ like (i) her unusual childhood; (ii) her elder brother’s assistance; or (iii) Eminem’s patronage, but, ultimately, it was built on her own talent. Dido was ‘one of the most distinctive female voices in pop’. She ‘proved how pop with a little depth could outsell cookie cutter crap if people got the chance to hear it’.
- ‘Weekend’ liftout, ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) (19 November 2004) p. 11
- wikipedia.org as at 7 January 2013, 1 January 2014
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 214
- ‘The History Of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 317
- ‘Life For Rent’ – Sleeve notes by Dido (Arista/BMG Records, 2003) p. 9
- ‘i.e’ liftout, ‘Sunday Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) (7 November 2004) p. 7
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (December 2003)
- ‘Greatest Hits’ – Sleeve notes by Dido (Sony Music Entertainment, 2013) p. 5
- metrolyrics.com as at 12 August 2014
Song lyrics copyright as follows: ‘Honestly OK’ (Warner Chappell Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP) / Cheeky Music Ltd., adm. by EMI-Blackwood Music Inc. (BMI) / BMG Music Publishing Ltd., adm. by BMG Songs Inc. (ASCAP)); ‘I’m No Angel’ (Warner Chappell Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP)); ‘Here With Me’ (TCF Music Publishing / New Regency Music. (ASCAP)); ‘Thank You’ (Warner Chappell Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP) / Cheeky Music Ltd., adm. by EMI-Blackwood Music Inc. (BMI)); ‘White Flag’ (Warner Chappell Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP) / Future Furniture Music / EMI April Music (ASCAP) / BMG Music Publishing Ltd. (ASCAP) administered by BMG Songs, Inc.); ‘Life For Rent’ (Warner Chappell Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP) / BMG Music Publishing Ltd. (ASCAP) / Administered by BMG Songs Inc.); ‘Sand In My Shoes’ (Warner Chappell Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP) / Future Furniture Music / EMI April Music (ASCAP)); ‘See The Sun’ (Warner Chappell Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP)); ‘Don’t Believe In Love’ (Warner Chappell Music Ltd. (PRS), adm. by WB Music Corp. (ASCAP) / Universal Music Publishing / You Can’t Take It With You Music (ASCAP); ‘Never Want To Say It’s Love’ (Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner Chappell Music, Inc.); ‘No Freedom’ (Warner Chappell Music / EMI April Music, Inc. o/b/o R-Rated Music (ASCAP)).
Last revised 12 August 2014