A soulful synth-pop hit-maker turns up the electronic heat

Dido took her time making her latest album—five years, in fact. But the deliberate pace allowed her to develop a more ambitious sound for her fourth record, Girl Who Got Away. Although Dido has always favored acoustic backbones surrounded by delicate synths, Girl reflects a bold expansion into electronic production.

Since she first made waves with her 1999 debut No Angel, the 41-year-old singer-songwriter born Dido Armstong has sold nearly 30 million albums, propelled by hits “Thank You,” “Here With Me” and “White Flag.” She was also nominated for an Oscar for her collaboration with A.R. Rahman on the song “If I Rise” from the 2010 film 127 Hours.

Much of Dido’s new album was created with her brother, producer Rollo Armstrong of the electronica group Faithless. She also collaborated with songwriters and producers Brian Eno, Greg Kurstin, Rick Nowles and Jeff Bhasker. The lead single “Let Us Move On” features a verse written and performed by hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar. “I love collaborating with people because you learn so much,” she says. “You end up with songs that just completely surprise you.”

Not every song was a collaborative effort. “I was on a holiday where it was just too hot outside,” says Dido, “so I set up this little studio with a keyboard, computer and guitar, and wrote ‘Love to Blame’ and ‘End of Night’. I’m always writing on the go, and that was a fun new thing for me.”

Did you intend to make an electronic record from the beginning?

With every album, the sound is often dictated by the songs. Then you develop a bit of an intention with it. Some of the first songs I wrote for the record were “Blackbird,” “Go Dreaming” and “Loveless Hearts.” It felt like it was writing itself, and that was dictating the sound in a really nice way. It’s also circumstance. So much of it was done while I was on my own in hotel rooms or at home—on the computer playing around, making sounds. It just happened naturally and I got more confident in making that sort of music.

Did any songs come easier than others?

You have those songs that come so easily—“Thank You” was like that—and then you have a song like “White Flag,” on which I had the chorus for ages, and then it took me ages to get the verses. On this album, “Girl Who Got Away” came quite quickly, while “Loveless Hearts” was like “White Flag” in that I had the chorus for years, and then one day there’s suddenly a clear picture of what I’m writing about. I want to make every lyric count, so I can spend quite a lot of time on the lyrics. Some days they flow so easily. Other times there’s a point when the picture suddenly appears—like a camera coming into focus. You suddenly feel and see what you’re writing about. That’s the moment you finish the song.

How is it working with your brother?

Pretty amazing. He’s the missing half of my brain. He can do so many things that I can’t do. As a producer, he brings out the best in an artist. He’s supportive and encouraging. Some producers can be quite overpowering. Rollo has all the passion and potential to be overpowering, but he’s not. He’s also great at picking up the pieces. When I recorded “Girl Who Got Away,” for instance, I had the mic on a pile of books, the keyboard on my lap and the guitar on top of that. Then I played the whole thing in one go, and sent him this complete mess—but he totally got what I was trying to do. Then he helped me bring it to fruition. I feel very lucky; we were a real team.

Did you enjoy the scattered process?

It reminds me of No Angel in that way. Life for Rent was an album where we were in the same studio the whole time and made a record that held together very coherently, whereas No Angel was much more like this—it was like, “Oh, we’ve got a bit of studio time here,” and you do things as you go along.

Tell us how the Kendrick Lamar collaboration came about.

I knew his records and absolutely loved them. It was a long shot: “I’d love to have Kendrick on this track.” He loved it and he did the most brilliant rap on it. What I love about that is he’d taken the idea of the song, told a story, made it more visual. I just love what he’s done, I was so happy when I heard it.

What did Brian Eno bring to the new album?

The way he writes adds so much to the production. He’s a genius. Another Green World is one of my favorite albums. He’s inspiring—and brings such a different flavor to the record. And he was so nice about collaborating with all these different people on this record.

How did you meet Greg Kurstin?

Over the years, about 10 people have independently said, “You’d have a great time if you worked with Greg.” His name always stuck in my head. I was coming to America and was like, “You know, it would be great to work with him.” I haven’t done many things where the record company sets up working with someone. Usually it’s people I know or met. He’s super talented and it’s amazing to watch him build a track up from nothing. He’s just so quick. He layers everything and it all sounds so warm.

Are there any standouts on the album for you?

After writing “End of Night” with Greg, I remember getting in the car thinking, “This is so different from what I’ve done.” That track really surprised me. It’s as poppy as I’ve ever been. I remember playing it for my husband, and I said, “I’ve either gone mad, or this is really good!” I used to love Laura Branigan. She had this great track called “Self Control,” and it reminds me of that nostalgic period back then, but a modern version of it.

Do you think you’ll do more film work?

Love to. Making music to go with an actual visual—it’s challenging and a brilliant thing to do. I see music in such visual terms that it’s really exciting. It’s my dream to do music for film. I also really respect people who do it because it’s not easy. Working with A.R. Rahman was a revelation—he’s so talented. I’d love to work with him again. His sense of melody is incredible. The way the melody holds together, and the way he hears it—it’s amazing. Something I wouldn’t have done naturally. He was the one who pulled the work together. I happened to be working with him just because he happened to be in London, and I’ve always loved what he’s done. And then [director] Danny Boyle heard something I’d done, liked the way it worked with the track, blah blah blah, and then suddenly there’s an Oscar nomination.

How did that happen? It’s not like you go into a studio to record a film song that’s a contender for that sort of thing. It just doesn’t work like that. I nearly fell off my chair when I started getting emails:  “You’ve been nominated for an Oscar!” “I what?!”

–Amanda Farah

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