The 4 o'clock sun is slanting outside West Hollywood's London Hotel, but inside, Dido's mind is on another day in another place. "I remember I was walking. I was quite a ways away from home, and I thought, 'When you're loved at home and you're away on your own, it feels like freedom. It feels like you can do anything.' It's the most amazing feeling." She takes a breath and hesitates slightly. "If there's no one at home loving you...it just feels lonely. And I know it's the most obvious thing in the world, but that's what sparked off that song."
That song is "No Freedom," the first single off "Girl Who Got Away," her first album in five years, and what RCA VP Nick Pirovano calls "a return to form" for the artist. An up-to-date evolution of the sound that made her a pop juggernaut in the late '90s, it's an evocatively produced album of beats and emotionally complex lyrics and that voice--a cooler variant of Sarah McLachlan's that somehow summons up harshness as easily as love and joy.
"When all these amazing things were happening in my career," Dido continues, "I'd be doing these incredible shows, and I'd get such a sense of, 'But who's sharing this with me?' The memory is gone if it's only with you. But if you're sharing it with somebody, the memory is kept alive forever. And that was a huge realization for me, because I'd drifted for such a long time."
With a new husband and a new baby, Dido has made an almost 180-degree turn from her last album, 2008's downbeat, loss-infused "Safe Trip Home." Recorded in the wake of her father's death, the album hit No. 13 on the Billboard 200. "You can't help your world coming into your music," she reflects. "That was a much darker time in my life. On this new album, even though it has moments of darkness and heartbreak, it just has this underlying optimism."
Although a notoriously private, ruminative lyric writer, she's become unusually open to collaboration outside her circle, most notably on the new album's "Let Us Move On," featuring hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar. "When you collaborate with someone, the world expands," she says. "Kendrick had obviously really listened to the song, and then he told a story in the middle of it that just brought a whole new meaning to the song. That's the fun for me with collaboration: It brings something back to the song that you hadn't put in there."
It can also attract new audiences. "We premiered it on NPR," Pirovano says, "and the purpose of doing that was, first, to reinvigorate her core base, but also to reach a younger element that has begun using NPR for music discovery. A lot of younger artists are breaking now through NPR. And by releasing a collaboration with an artist like Kendrick--who's unbelievably current--that helped introduce her to a whole new generation." While social media lit up in Dido's existing fan base, he notes that the early look "immediately got picked up on all the blogs and went to No. 4 on Hype Machine--and Hype Machine is not something you would associate with an older audience."
Not that "The Girl Who Got Away" is exactly breaking the mold in an attempt to cash in with a younger demographic. Rather, the richly layered album strikes a familiar balance of comforting melodies, acoustic strums and gentle beats from a process she's honed during her career, collaborating with her brother Rollo Armstrong, her longtime producer.
"Rollo likes to load things up and I like taking things out--that's how we worked," Dido says. "I'd go to the bathroom and I'd come back and he's filled the track up. Then he goes to the bathroom and I've taken everything back out. And there's this to-ing and fro-ing and somewhere in the middle you get the simplest form with enough in there that, on repeat listens, you start hearing more and more stuff.
"I've always been into the conflict and contradiction of things. Like 'End of Night': It's a pretty pointed song disguised as a big happy pop song, and it's actually a direct hit on someone who really pissed me off."
"The things that excite me are things rubbing against each other--not quite black or white," she says. "I see the world like that."
Apparently, so do her fans. In preparation for Dido's relaunch into a radically altered music industry, her manager Craig Logan says, "We completed extensive market research. And it turns out her lyrics really matter to her fans. They brought it up over and over again. They respond strongly to the way she mixes light and dark." More unexpectedly, he says, they discovered that "her audience is a lot more male than we thought."
This may be attributable to the fact that, however emotional her songs may get, she conveys feelings without any of the dramatics of female-skewing artists like Tori Amos. There's a coolness and reserve that has made her meld well with male hip-hop acts long before Eminem sampled her for his chart-topping "Stan." And that reserve extends to the press, where she shies away from intimate revelation to an almost comical degree: For instance, in a 2011 article about the birth of her child, the Daily Mail could only say that it was "believed" she had married the previous year.
Yet that reticence doesn't extend to her fans. "People used to joke that I'd do endless interviews and not reveal that much, and then I'd get up onstage that night and tell everyone in the audience some deeply personal story about where a song came from," Dido says with a laugh. "I remember the odd journalist commenting on that: 'Why do I have to come to the show to get the real story?'
"When I started out, we'd set up a table after shows and I'd sign CDs for hours and chat with everyone. I remember someone saying, 'You hand-sold your first million albums.' But I always loved that. [The fans] always surprised me with amazing stories about what the songs are about for them."
And that, she says, is why this private artist has taken to social media with unexpected glee. "I love having this instant access to fans. It's different, but I love feeling that connection with them again."
Whether it's among her fans, with collaborators or just in the broader community of dance and electronica artists, there's something about being part of a group that Dido now finds appealing. She refbers to a line in the new song "Sitting on the Roof of the World": "I don't want to be different/I just want to fit in," adding, "That pretty much sums up me and my life. I was always a little bit of a freak as a kid, and then when everything exploded with my music...I mean, it's brilliant, it's the best feeling in the world. But it's so unusual, so exceptional what happened to me, you can still get that slightly squirmy feeling in your stomach: 'Oh, I feel a bit of a freak.' I never just felt like I really belonged in something. But having a kid, everything just sort of makes sense now. I feel like more a part of the world."
But will she like being "part of the world" when juggling her son with life on the road? "Oh," Dido says with a smile, "he'll be playing cymbals in the background."