‘I sang Raglan Road to my fa­ther as he lay dy­ing’

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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