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Here with Dido (Exclusive Interview)

Photo credit : Sony Music
Here with Dido (Exclusive Interview)

It was Dido's first performance in five years. The crowd was small, a few dozen guests tucked into cabaret tables at a cozy London lounge, a basement venue in a Mayfair private members’ club. Many in the audience were from her record company, Sony Music. All were there for a listening session from her upcoming album, Girl Who Got Away, out March 4. (Also: Free booze and sliders.) But before someone pressed play on six tracks from the record, and before Dido could quietly and confidently appear to perform a few more on acoustic guitar -- tunes she would normally play to her one-year-old son -- there was a brief introduction from RCA UK president Colin Barlow.

2013, as many pop fans know, will feature many big comebacks. Dido, he said, will be one of them.

According to The Sun, one in five British households has a Dido record in their collection. Her debut, No Angel, is the third best-selling UK album of the 2000s, only bested by Amy Winehouse (Back to Black) and James Blunt (Back to Bedlam). Nearly 40 million records sold worldwide, a certain career-making Eminem single (1999’s Stan), a Wikipedia page dedicated to her haircut: The pop-cultural achievements of Dido O’Malley Armstrong are not to be questioned.

But staging a comeback isn’t as easy as, say, Madonna would make it seem. And even the Queen of Pop has her trip-ups. You can find her biggest hits -- Thank You, White Flag -- on Canadian radio, though the “next Didos,” as David Corey, the Program Director for Toronto’s CHUM FM puts it, are all candy-pop belters, acts of a bolder style than the demure singer: “Pink and Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry and Adele.” Says Corey: “A lot has changed since she’s been away.”

And in that time away, she hasn’t built her profile launching movie careers or clothing lines, and she hasn’t gone into a decade-long exile that’s built up mystery (her last album was 2008’s Safe Trip Home).

Instead, her downtime is usually spent on ordinary terms: she’ll take music classes at UCLA (as she did before releasing Safe Trip Home), or decamp to Canada, road-tripping between Montreal, Mont Tremblant and Moncton (as she did before 2003’s Life For Rent). When she’s at home in London, her ideal day is simple: A walk along the Thames capped with dinner -- organic, please -- at her local pub. Or maybe just 10 minutes of me-time. “Since Stanley came along,” she says of her 18-month-old -- and no, he’s not named after the Eminem song – “I barely get time to take a bath.”

“I’m like any other mum now,” she explains, and since marrying novelist Rohan Gavin in 2010, she describes hers as a “pretty normal family life” -- the quiet irony being that she’s saying this from a corner table at London’s The Ivy, the club’s famous stained-glass windows serving as backdrop, while a queue of international journalists await their 10 allotted minutes of conversation. (Canada.com was among them, the guest of Sony Music.)

Still, most of her life is spent out of the spotlight, and away from promo days like this. And that’s what gives her something to sing about. “There was a bit of a flurry of attention, ‘round the whole Eminem time,” she tells Canada.com. “But I do really get left alone.

“I guess I don't really make albums for the sake of making a record. You know, for me, you live life, you write songs and they build up into something that’s an album,” she says, casually cozied into her banquette seat, explaining how she’s one of those people who’s always writing. “That’s how I see the world. I write songs about it,” a detail that’s apparent in the observational narrative style of both her old, familiar hits (think of the famous opening to Thank You, “the tea’s gone cold…”) and the new material on Girl Who Got Away.

The creation of the new record, as she recounts it, was organic and casual. She writes on her own time, she records on her own time -- primarily in home studios, and most frequently with her brother Rollo, the co-founder of the influential electronica act Faithless. It’s a partnership that’s endured since the days she sang back-up on his records, and through all four of her solo releases.

And though the record features work by major, and diverse, names including Brian Eno, Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, fun.), Greg Kurstin (Kylie Minogue, Kelly Clarkson), she describes their involvement as happy accidents. “You might meet someone, be in a country, and be like ‘I’d really like to work with that person. It just sort of evolves pretty naturally.”

Kendrick Lamar, the in-demand Compton rapper who provides a verse on promo single, Let Us Move On -- cutting through the song’s stoic ambience with just the right measure of ferocity -- agreed to the gig when her team reached out. As he explained to Rap-Up in December, he couldn’t say no. “It’s Dido.”

As a record, Girl Who Got Away is, in turn, a diverse, but uniformly gentle compilation of trippy pop and folk and hip-hop flavoured tunes.

“It’s similar to No Angel in a way,” she says of the new record, comparing it to her hushed, best-selling debut. “Essentially I just write songs and that’s always been the core of everything, and then it’s produced in a way that’s music that I love.”

The record opens with first single, No Freedom, a folky, loved-up kumbaya, but dips into moments of heavenly disco (album stand-out The End of Night), and Annie Lennox-reminiscent groove (Love to Blame).

Curiously, it all could have arrived much sooner. The album was written and recorded by mid-2011, before she gave birth to her son, Dido reveals.

“If somebody had put a gun to my head, and said ‘you need to put a record out,’ it was almost ready then,” she says.

But when her baby arrived she opted to halt production. “I didn't feel ready to leave him for a second and, you know, we were definitely surgically attached,” she laughs quietly. Preserving an ordinary life took precedence once more. “Now he's old enough and he's got other stuff going on.”

There’s an undercurrent of longing to protect her private life in the album’s lyrics. One song, the acoustic Sitting on the Roof of the World, finds Dido pondering what it is to be a star, plaintively wishing “I don’t want to be different/I want to fit in” over a plucked guitar.

“Ironically, my brother wrote most of those lyrics,” she says. “I’m presuming they’re about me,” she continues, “but actually, I love it. Because it is that thing of why would you want to be sat up there on your own, in a bubble, which no one else can share in. You want to be found having a life. And to me, that’s what so much of the time in between records is spent doing. I wouldn’t want to be in a touring bubble for years and years and I think you tend to feel very sort of protected and cut off if you’re only writing records and touring and stuff.

“It’s fun putting an album out,” she says, “but it’s nice not having that attention all the time.”

At the moment, she’s excited for all the attention and buzz promoting an album brings. She’s re-energized about performing, especially after her return to the stage. And people were paying notice to that showcase, however brief it was. Guests from 16 different countries were brought in to see it, including Australia, the United States, Norway, France, Spain. Touring is expected, though it’s still too early to talk plans.

What reaction awaits the album, is just as exciting -- and unpredictable. Again: Pop has changed since White Flag won an Ivor Novello Award in 2004. Julie James, who's the Assistant Program Director and Music Director of Toronto's CHFI, contributes to finalizing her station's playlist. This week, their team will decide whether a new Dido single, No Freedom, will be added. (For perspective, "maybe half a dozen" new tunes make the cut each month.) Selections are made considering audience testing, and their “eyes and ears and stomachs as well.” But when an artist has been away for a certain amount of time, James says, their chance of a comeback comes down to one thing: "It's all about the quality of the product that they release. It has to be good. Well, actually, it has to be great," she says. "It's got to be true to Dido, so that her fans love it -- which I think that song is -- and it has to find a place in and amongst everything else that's hot on the charts."

Whatever happens, Dido aims to take it in stride. The flurry of attention that comes with an album release? “I’ve always kept life pretty simple around it,” she says. “I think I’ve never got too carried away with the whole thing.”

It gives her something to write about, I offer.

“Well, that’s the thing,” she replies. “If I don’t have what I consider ‘my normal life,’ I would have nothing to write about.”

The Girl Who Got Away arrives March 4.