Talking about her new album at a Hollywood rehearsal studio last month, Dido Armstrong used one word more than any other -- 14 times, in fact, over the course of an hour. The word was "emotion." This was a bit surprising, since Dido is pretty much the living picture of musical reserve.
"I pull emotion into these songs," said the English singer-songwriter, whose third studio album, "Safe Trip Home," will be released today in the U.S. "Sometimes it's my emotions, sometimes it's something I've picked up. But then it becomes yours when you take it on."
Dido is contemporary pop's most resolute plain Jane, even more firmly undramatic than her American counterpart, Norah Jones. Her two multi-platinum albums and her sampled vocal on Eminem's 2000 hit "Stan" made her a single-named pop star, but she truly wouldn't cause a stir at the grocery store. She's sensible-ponytail pretty, embodying that pre-feminist term for self-possession, "demureness."
Another word Dido often uses is "insular" -- that one describes not her music but herself.
"I will just say things how they are," she said of her songs, which are considered by admiring fellow songwriters to be models of unfussy introspection. "I always want to bring emotion across in a straightforward way. I don't want to get histrionic when I'm singing. For me that's just not interesting; it goes too far down one road."
The delicate strength of Dido's music has made her an unexpected critical favorite. She's the kind of artist who's often dismissed by tastemakers as too bland, yet many find themselves drawn into her songs despite themselves. "It has its own kind of integrity," wrote Barry Walters in Rolling Stone, reviewing 2003's "Life for Rent." Similar, somewhat startled praise is now filtering in for "Safe Trip Home."
"She's much maligned as hitting that place on the first album where every 25- to 35-year-old woman owned her record," said Nic Harcourt, the outgoing music director of KCRW, who claims first rights on playing Dido in the U.S. "Then it sort of becomes, 'Oh my God, she's everywhere.' But if you take a listen to the songs, she's just a really good songwriter. At the end of the day, that's what comes through."
Legacy of vocalists
Dido is a careful miniaturist in a field in which bold strokes are more rewarded, especially from women. Emerging from England's down-tempo electronic music scene in collaboration with her brother, Rollo Armstrong of the band Faithless, her style stood out in contrast to more picturesque divas like Portishead's Beth Gibbons or Tricky's partner, Martina Topley-Bird.
But she was also upholding the legacy of reserved feminine voices that extends throughout European pop from Francoise Hardy to early Marianne Faithfull to Linda Thompson to Sade, Tracey Thorn and Beth Orton.
"She's one of the most naturally gifted singers I've witnessed," said Jon Brion, who produced much of "Safe Trip Home," in a phone interview. "Her sense of time, her sense of musicality is huge. Partly because she's had success, and partly because the pure electronic quality of her earlier records, and the subtlety of this kind of singing, I don't think people realize how deeply musical and flowing it is -- and how it influences the musicians around her."
Enlisting Brion on "Safe Trip Home" brought the kind of drama Dido welcomes. As a producer, the Los Angeles-based Brion is best known for spinning gold from unruly souls like Kanye West, Rufus Wainwright and Fiona Apple. He and Dido first connected as writing partners, but a studio collaboration soon evolved.
"I was actually a fan of her writing," Brion said. "With a lot of people who are making things, you feel like it's running through a borrowed filter. It's their idea of what it means to be an artist. Whereas, there's a point in which you realize somebody's intelligent and self-aware enough to take the time to run things through their filter. That's the attraction for me."
Brion encouraged Dido to try new things, starting with an unexpected basic: playing the drums. Sitting behind the kit, as well as working with the top-notch drummers Brion recruited, including Mick Fleetwood, Jim Keltner, Questlove and Matt Chamberlain, prompted Dido to delve deeper into the rhythmic core of her sound.
"I come from a dance music background, and I went through all the phases when I was young of loving dub and reggae, and then into hip-hop," she said. "Learning to play the drums as well really opened up my brain. I'll be writing a song on the guitar, and maybe a little stuck on that, and I'll move to the piano, and now it's this really liberating thing that I can go to the drums. Because to me a song is just about the flow of it, it just has to flow and me to never notice in a way, it has to feel whole and real."