Dido interview: 'I am the sound of conflict'
- 26 February 2013
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Dido has taken five years off between albums, but she hasn't been wasting her time. With a new baby and a fresh batch of heartfelt ballads, she's re-energised and ready for the limelight, she tells the BBC.
"I am the sound of modern conflict."
Not words you'd expect to hear from Dido, purveyor of wistful balladry and Queen bee of adult pop.
But apparently the singer frequently gets "letters from people who are in the middle of a war" telling her they've been listening to her music.
She's touched, if somewhat confused, by the response.
"The whole thing sounds quite unreal to me," she laughs. "Is that going to make you fight properly?
"Maybe you want something else. Like AC/DC."
Dido's latest single, No Freedom, is one song that's affected people on the frontline. Although it's a painful story of heartbreak, the refrain: "No freedom without love", has been adopted by rebel groups in Syria.
"There's even videos now from Syria," she marvels. "It's pretty amazing, I certainly wasn't writing about that.
"But when you write an intensely personal lyric, the thing that often surprises you is that it's about most things for other people."
Like the majority of Dido's forthcoming album, Girl Who Got Away, No Freedom was actually written before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
She was pregnant at the time with her first son, Stanley, and recorded her vocals right up until the day he was born.
"There's nothing nicer than singing and having a little dancing friend inside," she says.
"Certain songs he really wriggled around for, and certain songs he wouldn't - it was quite a good test of what should go on the record."
Once Stanley arrived, recording was put on hold. Dido spent the next 18 months going through the same things as every other parent - sleepless nights, acid reflux, and a thorough grounding in CBeebies.
"My IQ definitely dropped," she says. "I know it's a cliche but your brain just goes, sort of pffftlbt.
"I'm glad that I'd written the record before my brain fizzled out."
Showcasing the new songs at a low-key London gig last month, Dido apologised to her record label for "taking so long" - but the truth is that she needs time away from the limelight to develop and nurture her ideas.
Instinctively cautious, she frets over lyrics and arrangements, her instinct for simplicity a counterbalance to the kitchen sink approach of her producer (and brother), Rollo.
"He'll put a tonne of stuff in, and I'll get really angsty and confused because there's too much," she says.
"So he'll go off and make a cup of tea, and I'll pull all the faders down and start pulling up what I actually remember wanting in there.
"But having said that, I like to put enough in a song that you want to listen to it again and again. So if you're listening to it on headphones, or in your car, suddenly you'll hear something different."
In other words, Dido is playing a sneaky game of deception with her listeners.
When you first hear Blackbird, a standout track on the new album, its a pretty, playful song - almost a nursery rhyme. But beneath the surface, its structurally complex and lyrically dark, relaying the story of a man walking out on his family.
"If I've got a really dark lyric, it's probably disguised in a chirpy song," says the singer. "There's usually a conflict somewhere.
"To me, that's what makes life interesting - nothing is ever completely as it seems."
She breaks her rule just once, on Loveless Hearts - which is as desolate as its chorus: "Did loveless hearts build the world, only to tear it apart?"
Dido calls it "my bleakest song ever", written about "a really bad" experience that she couldn't "make sense of".
Politely, she declines to explain any further. She "might tell a fan later down the road", but first wants people to relate the story to their own lives.
"I don't like stifling people's imaginations," she explains. "If I explained everything from the word go, and all the songs related to me - how interesting is that?"
Part of her skill is this ability to blend into the background. Critics say it robs her albums of personality - one reviewer likened the last one to "a warm cup of milk" - but fans connect to the songs precisely because they don't have to negotiate the shameless bravado of Lady Gaga or Rihanna.
She is that rare thing: An unassuming megastar, selling more than 29m records, but able to walk down the high street unmolested when she's off duty.
"It's weird, the public consciousness," she says, "it just snapped again."
"Literally in the last week, I've had a few people coming up and say, 'I really like your new single'. Just out of the blue, and I've not had it for years.
"I get that thing where people do a double-take because they think I'm an old mate, and then they're mortified."
The attention is not unwelcome... unless she's in a department store.
"Once, I was trying on bikinis, which is the most traumatic thing ever, but once every three years you have to go in and find a new one.
"The big video screens in the shop went dead and then they started playing my video. I was on every screen on the shop.
"It was like someone had come along and taken all my clothes off and run away with them."
Humiliating changing room nightmares aside, is Dido ready to put family life to one side and step back into the limelight?
"I love singing, and I love singing live," she says.
"It's always better than rehearsing or singing at home. It's a shot of adrenalin that you just can't recreate anywhere else.
"But there's nothing better for me than the life I've got now. I do music in quite a quiet way. I get to be with my family, with this thing on the side that is exceptional and is amazing."
No Freedom is out this week. Girl Who Got Away follows on 4 March.