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In tune with Dido


VINOD ADVANI

Breakfasting healthily on fruit, cereal and herb tea, 28-year-old Dido Armstrong is warm and self-possessed. She delivers cool beauty when required, looks inconspicuous otherwise. Her father, William, is in book publishing. Her mother, Claire, a poet. But growing up in North London Dido acquired a perfect glottal stop to adorn her favourite exclamations. "Yeah, comple'ly!" she enthuses. "To'ally!"

Dido (pronounced Dydoe) was five when she stole her first recorder. This didn't lead to prison, but rather to her entrance one year later to the Guildhall School of Music in London. A bit of a child prodigy, by the time she was 10 she played the piano, violin, and the aforementioned recorder.

Then, in her mid-teens, she got lured away into reggae music at the Brixton Academy, pop at Wembley Arena ( following groups like Wham! and Duran Duran) and, eventually, hip hop at the Mud Club every Friday, the Wag every Saturday. However, it was an album by venerable jazz chanteuse Ella Fitzgerald that got her singing: "It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. I copied every little thing she did."

So began a passion that eventually led Dido from listener to participant. She started singing with various bands in and around London. Despite the fact that her brother, Rollo, told her not to give up her day job, she eventually appeared on the debut album of a band that Rollo formed in 1995. This band was Faithless, and they went on to sell five million records.

It all went rather rollercoaster for a while. Her average 24 hours comprised working long, enjoyable hours for a literary agent, rivetting evenings at Birkbeck College studying for a law degree, and heady nights immured in various studios. The missing item, though, was sleep. After a bit, she fell apart.

Reflecting on those manic years, she says, "I thought, instead of wasting time doing one thing for five years then another for five years, do them all at once. But I burned out. So I had to make a decision. Once I realised that music's the thing I love, music is what makes me happy, I knew where to go with my life."

Then, out of the blue, a call came from Arista music label. She was summoned to the Dorchester Hotel to audition for mogul Clive Davis, who had a reputation for being a formidable man. But rather than being critical or dismissive, Dido found him singing along to her auditioning . Did he sing in tune? "He could carry a tune," she says, diplomatically.

She got the deal, cleverly licensed through her brother's label, and signed in January 1998. For 18 months she wrote songs and re- recorded others. The music executives at Arista kept a close watch , examined the goods more closely, seeking the zing behind the quality.

"I'm not into the harder dance music," she says, explaining the crafted style of her first solo album "No Angel". "My writing is traditional. Totally. Although I never realised it until I came here and saw that it fits in perfectly with the singer-songwriter tradition." Leading to people comparing her style with successful singers like Beth Orton and Sarah McLachlan.Which hardly bothers Dido , who looks upon such opinions as being flattering. "Yeah, and I'm proud of that. It's time-honoured."

"I tell tiny little stories," she says. "I'm only good at writing about a five-minute space of time."

From June last year she took Arista's advice and committed herself to cracking America. Or, rather, persuading it. Very slowly. With her sleek six-piece band she played over 100 gigs. Far tougher, with guitarist Vinnie Miranda she hit the radio circuit, visiting every major city eight or nine times. At first, there was no question of getting on air. She and Miranda played in foyers and basement cafes, while customers elbowed them aside en route to the lunch counter.

Slowly, very slowly, encouraging signs began to appear. "Thank You" got early soundtrack airings in the hit film Sliding Doors. Then came Eminem and wild-dream fulfilment. This white misogynist, homophobic rapper is not whom you want your kids to listen to. But he is wildly successful. And when he took a portion from Dido's song "Thank You", into his number one single "Stan", audiences round the world discovered her too.

"I think there's peace in finding what I want to do, totally," she says. "I'm happy now. No frustration. Nothing more I want than this. For instance, on the business side I know I gave a lot away, I know I signed some stupid bits of paper early on. But when I get asked if I've got any advice for other young artists I say the most terrible thing: Give it away, it's OK, don't worry, it works out. I sang for free on the Faithless albums you know." She laughs quite convincingly. "For Salva Mea I got paid a curry."

It sold a million. "Yeah, but that's alright. Totally. I was hungry at the time."

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