‘I sang Raglan Road to my father as he lay dying’
She’s one of the biggest- selling artists of the 21st century, but mansions, private planes and entourages are not Dido’s thing. Fourteen years since the singer shot to fame with the album No Angel, Dido — with 38 million album sales and a long-awaited Greatest Hits album just released — is still demure and softly spoken. She’s 41 but looks 10 years younger, more like a teenager in fact, as she fiddles with her necklace, her black nail polish chipped.
What’s changed is that she’s found peace of mind. She’s married to novelist Rohan Gavin, they have a two-year- old son, Stanley, and she’s determined to live an ordinary life. ‘Stanley loves shopping, going round the aisles, holding the bags of salad,’ she laughs. ‘I don’t want a life that’s so different from everybody else’s, where I don’t have all my friends and family around me.’
Stanley thinks Mummy only performs for him, and when her band comes over to rehearse he thinks he’s one of them. When she asked Stanley what his daddy does, earlier on the day we met, he replied, ‘He writes books’. ‘When I asked, “What does Mummy do when she’s working?” he looked a bit thoughtful as if to say, “She works?” Then he said, “Mummy eats books.” I thought, “Where are you even getting that? What have I been doing?”’
Dido has actually been devouring books all her life, coming from a literary family. Her late Irish father, William O’Malley Armstrong, was managing director of publishers Sidgwick & Jackson and her mother, Clare, is a poet. Christened Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong — though she became known by the family as Dido after the tragic Queen of Carthage — she understandably preferred to call herself the more commonplace Clare, after her mother. ‘I’m sure my mum feels quite proud of her name choice now, but it wasn’t fun as a kid. You don’t need more reason to feel a bit isolated. It’s hard enough being a kid.’
Her bohemian mother didn’t like Dido and her brother, Rollo (who went on to become one of the band Faithless), having friends around and there was no TV or stereo in the house, though plenty of books. They felt like outsiders growing up, but Dido feels this left them with a rich legacy. ‘What Rollo and I do have from our childhood is a real ability to be on our own, using our imaginations to create our own fun. We both love reading and creating things, so whatever our parents did, it worked, whether it was intentional or not. As a kid and a teenager, I desperately wanted to fit in, I never felt quite like I did. You have to be a rebel in some way growing up and I was quite a difficult teenager. In pictures of me then I’m a bit scowly, I had really dark gothy hair. It wasn’t about looking good — I did not look good — but I thought I was cool and kept it up the whole time. You couldn’t be all smiley and happy. But whatever got me here, I feel lucky to have had. I’ve always lived like that. I don’t ever look back and regret things because I think, “Am I happy now? Is it good now? Yes.”’
Dido’s background was in classical music. She went for lessons at London’s prest igious Guildhall School of Music, played violin and piano and toured Europe in a classical music ensemble. She dreamt of becoming a concert pianist until she realised she’d never be good enough. After leaving school, she worked at a leading literary agents while studying law at night. ‘I don’t know why I picked law,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to use my brain in some way. It didn’t last long. I was just trying to work out what I wanted to do. Music was a hobby and didn’t seem like a realistic thing. I was in a band and we did gigs. I’d do sessions that were advertised in the back of music magazines. Dreadful.’
She was emotionally fragile in those early days. She suffered panic attacks after signing with song publishers in October 1996. In her head, she thought she’d signed away the most personal part of herself, the solace that her songs brought her. ‘Music had been my only refuge, the one solid thing in my life that I would go to if I
‘I feel I’ve got it now. I don’t mind not being liked’
was happy or sad. It was the way I expressed myself. On signing a deal, most people would go out and party, but I thought, “Oh no!” I felt that I had given the one uncontaminated piece of my life away. But I got over it.’
Her music then came to the attention of the American hit maker Clive Davis, who nurtured Whitney Houston’s career, and later record executive LA Reid, who went on to become a judge on American X Factor. Despite both men’s reputations as tough operators, they were sensitive to her fragile talent and it took several years before she was ready to face the public.
The result was the 1999 album No Angel, which she took on a three-year tour around America and went on to sell 21 million copies. After its release she was surprised to receive
a letter from the notorious rapper Eminem requesting her permission to use part of her song Thank You in his song Stan. She agreed and the collaboration helped make her a star.
Having not seen Eminem for eight years, Dido got an unexpected call from his people earlier this year asking if she would like to perform Stan with him at the Reading and Leeds Festivals in England in the summer. ‘I kept it totally quiet and we just rocked up on the night. The crowds were unbelievable. They worked out who it was pretty quickly.’
Despite the trauma of signing that earlier publishing deal, she found fame to be quite a comfortable fit, largely because she couldn’t comprehend how famous she had become. ‘In a funny way it was less hard to get used to fame than signing the publishing deal because I wasn’t properly aware of it. By the time things kicked off with the record, I was on a tour that lasted three years, so you’re not aware of what’s going on in the real world. You’re in this pretty cool place where you get up, get on the bus and do your show. It wasn’t until I came home that I realised what had happened. There were little moments that made me realise it, like a journalist turning up at my mum’s house. I think I have been treated incredibly respectfully, which I’m thankful for. But I don’t have anything to hide; it’s all in my music anyway.’ She is still as passionate about her music and is working on new material, but everything is subservient to her role as a mother. Stanley — whose name, incidentally, has nothing to do with the Eminem song — has also helped her bond with her own mother.
When Dido was 15 or 16 — she can’t quite remember which — she moved away from home because of their difficult relationship. She once said, ‘ It was just hard for us to live in the same house as each other.’ She laughs, perhaps with a twinge of embarrassment, at the recollection and lays
‘Dad used to play Raglan Road when I was young’
the blame on herself. ‘I probably wasn’t the best company. But now we have wonderful chats. She’s one of my favourite people to talk to.’ They even live around the corner from each other. ‘She’s an amazing person, scarily intelligent, brilliant company and a revelation as a grandmother. The love and happiness on Stanley’s face when she comes around the corner — I wouldn’t lose that for the world.’
Half-Irish Dido feels a deep connection to her father’s native culture. She was very close to William — a first cousin of Progressive Democrats founder Des O’Malley — who died in 2006 after a long illness. Her debut 1999 single, Here With Me, from her huge-selling album, No Angel, was written during the night after she’d come home from the hospital where he’d been admitted seriously ill. ‘Dad had just gone into hospital for one of the first times,’ she recalls. ‘I was still in the throes of having panic attacks. I remember coming home from hospital not sure if I was having a panic attack, just not knowing what was going to happen to my family. Writing this song was the one thing that calmed me down. It’s always been thought of as a love song — which it definitely is — but it’s also about that emotion you feel when you’re about to lose something.’
She had just come from his bedside where she had been singing his favourite song, The Dubliners’ Raglan Road, as he lay dying. The lyrics, written by Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh, were about William’s aunt Hilda O’Malley, the sister of his mother, Maeve. ‘Dad played me that song when I was young,’ she says. ‘It was a song we both had a huge connection with, and I sang it to him all the time when he was ill.’ She wrote the song Grafton Street on her 2008 album Safe Trip Home, based on Raglan Road, as a tribute to her father. ‘My love I know we’re losing but I will stand here by you,’ she wrote.
‘Those songs were so personal, especially on the first record, and I hadn’t really thought through that suddenly I would be on stage singing them,’ she muses now. ‘I’m not a “Look at me! I want to be up here!” kind of person. I have been doing it for 20 years now and feel like it’s my natural place — but it’s taken me a while.’
Dido’s personality has been transformed over the years. She exudes contentment, but not smugness. She’s simply found her centre of gravity. ‘I was probably a lot more fragile when I started out in my career,’ she concedes. ‘I’m a way more confident person than I was. Part of that is getting older. Turning 40, you get this wave of acceptance... Having a kid changes everything because you can’t say yes to everything. I have had to stand here and say no to powerful people because I want to be with my kid.
‘I feel like I’ve got it now. I don’t mind not being liked — that’s what it is. It’s taken me a good 20 years to spot that. Half my career is based on wanting to be liked, but you get to the stage where you think, “I’m not going to be liked by everybody and I’m okay with it.” As long as the people I love want me back.’
Dido: Greatest Hits is out now
Thank you... Opposite page, from left: Dido performing the song Stan in 2000 with Eminem, who helped make her famous; with her elder brother, Rollo (later of the band
Faithless), in a childhood photo