Chris Willman
December 01, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Dido’s breakthrough

And now, in the great tradition of such singularly named entertainers as Dion, Donovan, Deodato, and D’Angelo comes… ”DI-DO! DI-DO! DI-DO!”

Inside Atlanta’s sold-out Variety Playhouse, the South is rising again. A thousand foot soldiers are making a show of alliterative force in demanding an encore from Dido (rhymes with fido), an English singer-songwriter named after a mythological Carthaginian queen. Her majesty is happy to oblige. ”Don’t stop that DI-DO s—!” she chirps upon her return. ”That’s great! Made me feel like ‘N Sync for a minute.”

Dido wasn’t always so proud to hear herself called out by the crowd. ”I was cursed with the most embarrassing name through my childhood, and I couldn’t care less if she was from mythology,” says the 28-year-old Londoner (last name: Armstrong) in her hotel room the following morning, sipping what passes for tea in America. ”I had to lie about my name loads of places. My favorite was Chloe, or I’d use my mum’s name, Claire. Just to avoid getting completely punched up.” Nowadays, she’s grateful to her literarily inclined parents for giving her a name every bit as chantable as ”JO-EY!”

The Dido of myth threw herself onto a pyre, and for a while it looked like this Dido’s debut album, No Angel, might be destined for a toss into the cutout bin. The June 1999 Arista Records release took its sweet time taking off, but now, remarkably, it has SoundScanned an impressive 680,000 copies without ever cracking the top 30 (though, accelerating week by week, it looks like it’s about to). Old music-biz hands like this kind of slow-burner story; Arista’s perseverance reminds them of the days when labels didn’t give up on a record after three lackluster weeks. Their work may pay off even more now that the record’s got an unlikely superstar booster in the form of rapper Eminem.

Ironically, Dido got caught up in messy contractual limbo with her small European label, Cheeky Records, so the release of No Angel in her homeland was delayed by well over a year — a hang-up that freed Dido to stick around and conquer America. Slowly. ”I couldn’t possibly have predicted that spending a year and a half here would make all the difference,” she says. Her manager notes that this is the fourth time she’s played Atlanta on this 18-month U.S. tour. Correction: It’s her sixth gig here, she says. Crikey, even Ted Turner doesn’t come to town that often.

On stage at the Variety, the band comes out and gets underway with some ominous synth squiggles and mood lighting; you half expect to see one of Pink Floyd’s pigs. But all prog-rock pretenses are off once Dido emerges. If the music is on the ethereal, Euro side, her lyrics are open, direct emotional appeals to the heart. She’s also quite a chatty Cathy. ”A nice little burp for y’all,” she announces at one point, in case anyone missed it.

She may sound a bit like Sarah McLachlan, but there’ll be no building a mystery for Dido. ”I’m no good at writing weird stuff,” says the singer, whose dirty blond shag ‘do makes her look like a cross between Brit icons Patsy Kensit and Dusty Springfield. ”I’ve got to know what my song means, just for my own benefit, or it becomes very hollow when you actually sing it night after night. I’ll leave the more mysterious thing to other people.”

Any dancing she does is more along the lines of swaying, which points up the fact that she’s about the only female singer the Top 40 will accommodate these days who doesn’t have a choreographer or… ”What are you trying to say, that I dance like s—?” she interrupts. ”I’ve been to academies and it takes a lot of training to dance like that.” Well, uh, we… ”The whole show is choreographed! You’re now gonna go down as the journalist who accused me of not being able to dance worth s—.”

She’s just giving us a proper hard time. But Dido is taking dance lessons — just for fun. ”I write, I sing, I produce, I can mix. I think you have to sort of draw the line somewhere,” she laughs. ”But I’m never gonna start doing big dance routines to my songs…. I do sometimes think it would be really funny at some point halfway through the show just to get down and start break-dancing — do some amazing move, for like a minute — and then just get up and carry on dancing really badly.”

If Dido ever tries that stunt, it won’t go down as the oddest incongruity in her career. There’s the instance of her sublimely romantic ”Here With Me” (sample lyric: ”I won’t leave, I can’t hide, I cannot be, until you’re resting here with me”) being chosen as the theme for The WB series Roswell — which is, if we’re not mistaken, a show about space aliens. ”I think the reason they loved the track was all the slightly spacey noises in the beginning. All the producers came to a show and lined up in front of me in their suits, explaining to me why this song was just absolutely perfect, doing an impression of the beginning of the song, like, ‘Ping!… Pong!”’

The greater incongruity has been her odd coupling with Eminem. Her ”Thank You,” a tender expression of pure devotion, ended up on a mix tape one of the rapper’s producers put together. Soon after, Eminem wrote ”Stan” — a typically disturbing ditty about an obsessed fan who stuffs his pregnant girlfriend into his car trunk — around a sample of the first verse of ”Thank You.” She’s even sung it live with new pal ”Em” a few times on his recent Anger Management Tour and on Saturday Night Live in October. Some feminists might find that akin to sleeping with Hitler, but ”he’s totally charming,” she insists, ”and I get absolutely no misogynist vibe from him whatsoever. Whether you like Eminem or not, that song is a great story…. I certainly write songs about things that haven’t happened to me, and they’re just not quite as shocking. Like, ‘Isobel’ is about abortion. I’m not saying whether I think it’s right or not.” Queried about his thoughts on Dido, Eminem, that maestro of the nasty tongue twister, turns uncharacteristically courtly and prosaic: ”She has an unbelievable voice, and her success is long overdue,” he says.

In the Dr. Dre-codirected video for ”Stan,” Dido even took a costarring role, playing the title stalker’s doomed girlfriend. ”I just thought, what a laugh — how liberating. For the foreseeable future I’ll always be making glamorous videos where everything looks perfect. And it’s so great that I got to go and make what will probably be one of the biggest videos around where I’m wearing boxer shorts, a T-shirt, no makeup, and I’m completely pregnant and completely f—ed up.” (But not completely dead: MTV made the rapper’s label, Interscope/Aftermath, eliminate the grislier parts of the song and video’s murder/suicide climax, leaving Dido to disappear halfway through the clip.)

Arista is releasing ”Thank You” as Dido’s second single, and should get extra capital out of its familiarity from Eminem’s excerpting, though some listeners may be startled to hear the opening refrain in a downright non-homicidal context. No Angel was finally released in England last month, and BMG has bought tiny Cheeky Records (a label that’s also home to her older brother Rollo’s trip-hop group, Faithless), presumably primarily in order to get worldwide Dido rights.

Both ”Thank You” and the equally blissful ”Here With Me” were written about Dido’s boyfriend of five years, a London-based lawyer named Bob, whom the Stateside-bound singer hasn’t seen in… too long. ”Sometimes I tell Bob, ‘Perhaps you could just dump me for a week, so I could write some really heartfelt songs, and we’d get back together again.”’

Hey, there’s Bob on the cell phone now, calling to discuss their imminent reunion, since Dido is about to head back to England to start the star-making process all over again there. Her manager takes the call, but after listening to his end of the conversation Dido erupts, maybe only half in jest. ”Excuse me,” she yells toward the cell, ”but this’ll be the first weekend we’ve spent together in six months, and if you think you’re going to the f—ing football game…!” What the determinedly unethereal Dido really means to tell him, we’re sure, is: I won’t sleep, I can’t breathe, until you’re resting here with me…

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