After the Line
It was meant to be Dodie’s year: her first album was on the way, she had multiple successful side-projects and she’d built healthy boundaries between her personal and professional lives. Then COVID-19 happened. After a year spent waiting, she’s more ready than ever to step into life.
“The air so sweet / I gulp and gasp for more” sings Dodie on “Air So Sweet”, the opening track on her keenly-anticipated debut Build a Problem, finally due for a release in May after numerous delays. What’s her favourite scent? “I think I love anything that, like, takes me back to a specific time”, she says. “I have this grapefruit face wash that, every time I smell it, it reminds me of 2010”.
The 25-year-old English singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and hugely successful YouTube creator has admitted she often looks back, longing for the easy freedom of her mid-teens. As the global health crisis stretches into the spring, dodie reflects on the things she wants to leave behind: “I think I should move on from waiting. I think I’ve spent a lot of time waiting for this [the pandemic] to be over and that’s not really the best way to look at life. I’ve definitely been doing that since last year and I’ve noticed it in myself as well. Truly just like watching the sun go down again and again and again… not really bothering to do much because I’m like “It’s okay, I’ll live my life when this is over.” But, you know, a whole year of me being 25 is now over.” She concludes, resolutely: “So I think I’d like to practice being present in whatever situation I’m in.”
Despite her concerns, this year dodie continued to make her mark both on the music industry and the wider online community. How many artists reveal their album title one letter at a time, knitting all 13 letters by hand and announcing each with a separate video - sending fans into a Sherlock-Holmes-worthy frenzy? While UK citizens were confined to their homes, dodie even crafted a deluxe edition of her album by developing a series of part-written songs. These songs were performed acoustically and posted on her YouTube channel back in the spring, a series dodie affectionately referred to as ‘A Lot Of Songs In April (ALOSIA)’.
“Honestly, it was lockdown [that inspired ALOSIA]”, she explains. “I think I needed a project to keep me sane and keep me going. I had a lot of these half-songs - or even like one line, an idea, a snippet - that I didn’t know what to do with and it gave me time to round them off in some way. Then I thought, well, I’ve got all this space and time so I might as well keep uploading them.” Given how long album cycles can be, this deluxe edition also provided an opportunity to include new tracks that felt “more recent and fresh” than the others. “So there’s the main album and then on the B-side is all of these bedroom demos that I made in lockdown. It’s quite nice to have a mixture of polished, professional, huge music that I made in 2019, and then all of these ALOSIA songs.”
Impressively, dodie is able to maintain an online presence that feels intimate and open, despite having millions of followers on every social media platform. Although a casual onlooker might view this content as effortless, it would be disingenuous to ignore her determination considering her already decade-long YouTube presence. This innate drive to create and share music was no clearer than on 8 February 2021, when dodie broke the news that Build a Problem’s release would be delayed. Sharing her tearful reaction to the three-week wait (caused by vinyl manufacturing issues) on her Instagram story, she had clearly waited a long time to present this project to the world. Before this announcement, she described her feelings towards its release: “I think it probably does define the year in which it was written. It’s very relieving, very fulfilling, to go through the process of figuring out all of these feelings and crafting them into something that I’m proud of, and [something] beautiful. It’s been a long time coming because it was pushed back a few months because of Covid. So I’m just ready - more than anything, just so ready to let this go and start something new. I’ve no idea what….”
Will it be difficult to reignite her enthusiasm for those original tracks, following this delay? “The enthusiasm is still there because now and again I’ll just listen to it and be like “Wow! Can’t wait!” I have to listen to it with fresh ears. [A live audience] will definitely amp it up.” dodie acknowledges the disadvantages of writing such autobiographical tracks in this environment. “I’ve obviously lived through that year and made the music and the dust has settled for that part of my life - I’m just about to move on from it and now I have to rehash all those feelings.” Ever the optimist, she concedes: “At least I can return to it as, like, my older, wiser self (by only a year!)”
dodie shared her experience of recording and producing with a wider team for the first time with Best Fit back in 2019. “I remember being a little nervous branching out and being unsure”, she reflects, “but I think I’ve had a lot of practice building my music together [with other people] now.” While once it might have been an uncomfortable adjustment to make, it’s clear she values this collaboration: “It doesn’t feel like I’m giving anything away, it feels like we’re building it together and I’m so grateful for that. So much of this album wouldn’t sound the way that it does if it weren’t for members of my band or my producer Joe [Rubel]. I am super grateful for them, I don’t think I would want to do anything myself now. I really enjoy working with other people and growing things that I can’t [alone]. I’m still insanely picky, definitely as picky as I’ve ever been, but that is a good thing because we all refine it together.”
Mental health issues can be isolating at the best of times, let alone when the law dictates that social distancing and physical isolation is required. In November 2020, dodie published a video () on her YouTube channel doddlevloggle, describing how this lack of contact had affected her. She explained how it not only evoked past traumatic experiences but increased the amount of time she spent “spaced out” - a symptom of living with depersonalisation. Considering the additional stress brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, having friends close by has been invaluable: “I have a few neighbours around. Obviously we’ve had to be very careful but it certainly helps to have at least a bubble of people I can go on walks with.” Rather than spending Christmas with her family, dodie stayed with her friends in London, all of whom happen to be musicians and/or YouTubers. “That was really nice. It’s definitely been a saviour to have these people around, there’s Orla [Gartland], Lauren [Aquilina] and my friend Evan [Edinger] just down the road.”
Newest single “Hate Myself” takes listeners on a journey of internal struggle and interpersonal conflict, these feelings eventually turning inward as self-hate. This track will resonate with listeners who are struggling with their own mental health or difficult relationships during this time; to them, dodie offers this advice: “I think honestly just being the kindest that you can possibly be [to yourself] - it’s ironic but you almost have to work extra hard to be grateful even though it’s so much harder in lockdown. It feels like there’s less to practice gratitude about - but that’s why you have to try a little bit more.” Practicing self-compassion is especially important and a habit that she has tried to cultivate over the past year. “Recognise that you’re not lazy, you’re not lonely. There’s a pandemic and it’s been really difficult for everyone to find motivation and to live life in a way that would probably be a lot slicker and easier with normal day-to-day things pushing you around.” In a world where many live highly-curated online lives, dodie’s transparency with her own struggles is certainly refreshing. “I have let myself slack so much”, she says. “I’m spending a lot of time on my phone, sleeping in... but I think that’s to be expected. I’m trying to be patient, to not be too hard on myself or say that I’m being unproductive.”
“I still find it difficult to tell the difference between putting up a boundary for the Internet, and ‘lying’ or withholding information... is that manipulative or am I protecting myself?"
Tattooed on her arm in black cursive is a quote from the movie La La Land: "A bit of madness is key". dodie has previously explained the meaning of this quote as the idea that “your pain can be used to create art”. When she creates art or performs music, is she able to feel more present and less depersonalised? “I wouldn’t say that it helps my physical symptoms but overall it improves my mental health. Music is so powerful and I always forget that it’s something to turn to. If I’m writing or performing or loving music then it’s easier to find joy in those things.” She adds, with some sadness: “I think my spaciness is with me no matter what, unfortunately, until maybe it won’t be. But at least music can give me joy in that fog.”
These moments of joy come in many forms - often personal, sometimes global. In mid-January this year, BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac picked “Hate Myself” as the week’s ‘Hottest Record In The World'. How did it feel to receive that level of recognition? “It’s wild. I think it was extra special because my manager Josh got me a little radio as a Christmas present so I’ve been listening to the radio now and again. And for some reason, just before I was about to go on air, I put it on Radio 1 and just sat it here -- it made it so much more real?” As a bonafide YouTube star, this ‘offline’ success felt especially significant to her. “Like, oh my god, it’s not just on the computer - anyone can get on the Internet but to have actual radio waves through this thing was so weird. It felt legitimising?! I had one of these radios as a child. The Internet feels so familiar to me. Being on TV or radio just feels so legit.”
With almost three million subscribers across her two YouTube channels (doddleoddle and doddlevloggle), her once-intimate online community has grown exponentially. This increasing online fame has challenged the unfiltered, confessional approach of her early YouTube videos. As a result, she’s sought to draw clear boundaries between her personal and online lives, without compromising on authenticity: “I’m working on finding a good place where I can be present online and share what I’m happy sharing, while keeping the ‘real’ me to myself and not feeling guilty about that.” Now that information entered online can be instantly shared, saved and (in some instances) weaponised, many social media users question what they should post. For YouTube creators like dodie, who essentially grew up online, making the shift to a less-candid style presents unique challenges. “I still find it difficult to tell the difference between putting up a boundary for the Internet, and ‘lying’ or withholding information,” she considers. “Is that manipulative or am I protecting myself? I think it’s probably protection but it’s hard to release yourself of that guilt, I’ve certainly felt that way for a while. Especially when people had an idea of who I was (when I was way more present online) and that didn’t align with who I saw myself as.”
This dissonance between her reality and others’ perceptions sometimes weighed heavily on her, as if it were a personal failing. “I think I should’ve forgiven myself [by now] for feeling like I wasn't showing the real me all the time,” she affirms. “Obviously it’s hard to get your real self across online because you can’t share every waking moment of your life.” Attempting to ‘live’ authentically online - in a medium that is, by definition, a curated view of real life - is not an easy task. “I feel like you don’t have to be known online to relate to that [struggle],” dodie points out. “It can be anyone.” Somewhat less relatably, dodie is also often recognised while out and about in public: “I do get recognised quite a lot. I’ve had a lot of people be like ‘Just saw you in a Tesco in Birmingham’ and I’m like ‘That was not me, I’m so sorry!’” Has anyone ever mistaken dodie for another famous figure? “I think when I’m spotted people usually know it’s me”, she answers wryly. “I am like a caricature of myself, I dress the same [way] all the time.”
Being a similar age to dodie, I confess to feeling inadequate after comparing my life with hers. She laughs, not unkindly. “It’s so funny hearing anyone say that about me because obviously I spend every fucking waking moment comparing myself to other people. People look at your life and pick out the good things that you... take for granted, I guess? [The things] that don’t even bring you joy anymore because you’ve forgotten that they should. It’s like “Oh yeah, I should probably look at my own achievements and feel grateful for that!”” It may be reassuring for fans to know that dodie also falls victim to the toxic side of comparison. “I have a lot of people I can go down the unhealthy path with and go “They’re younger, prettier and better than me””, she admits. “But it becomes so much easier when someone becomes my friend and that flips and suddenly you’re just rooting for them, like wholly rooting for them. I have had that luxury before!”
It’s a luxury she’d like to extend to the actor Emma Stone. In a 2019 interview with Billboard dodie stated that, should there be a biopic about her life, she’d want Stone to play her so that they could finally meet. If the roles were reversed, whose biopic would dodie audition for? “Emma Stone’s?!” she jokes. “If there were a second season of The Queen’s Gambit, I would like to play alongside Anya Taylor-Joy because she’s great…. It’s just me trying to hack these things so I can become friends with my favourite actors!”
"It feels good to be able to make stuff for other people and craft something for them and their vision.”
In popular culture, the “Cool Girl” is by definition a mere fantasy, a made-to-order woman shaped to suit society’s expectations of her. That said, which genuinely ‘cool’ women does dodie admire or look up to? “It’s such a cop-out to say my friends but truly…. My friend Hazel has written a book, an entire beautiful book, it’s like a love story in reverse and it’s just stunning for her to have built a world. My friend Orla [Gartland], who lives next door, is making absolutely banging music; it’s so good, she wrote an album in lockdown, I’m very inspired by her.” She continues, excitedly: “My friend Tessa Violet is planning some new music videos and writing songs all the time - and she’s finding herself online again in such a powerful way, she’s such a powerhouse!”
dodie herself is quite the powerhouse, composing for television alongside her own musical, video and literary output. In 2019, dodie penned a track for the Moominvalley Official Soundtrack, the latest adaptation of the family-friendly animated series. More recently, she’s been composing music for Season 3 of animated comedy Final Space. Is creating music for television a different experience to making her own music? “Definitely, writing for other people is more freeing”, she replies. “I think when you’re scoring or composing for yourself, it’s like “It’s mine, it’s my child, no one touch it!” But if it’s for someone else, I truly flip into a different principle.” This was most evident during the writing process for Moominvalley: “I remember when I was writing for the Moomins show, I was emailing back and forth with the Director like ‘Let me know what you think. I can change any lyrics you want, like anything at all.’ He’d say ‘Maybe tweak this’ and I’d reply ‘no problem’. Whereas if it was mine and anyone asked me to change a line, I’d go “NO! I’ve crafted this, it’s perfect for me!”” The day before our interview, Final Space shared an audio clip on Twitter, showcasing one of dodie’s compositions. It sounds very dramatic and foreboding when compared to her own EPs. “I produced a version of the song by myself and then they added their own production”, dodie explains. “It’s not very ‘me’ but it’s for their show and it has to fit with the rest of that theme; it sounds grand and as it should. It feels good to be able to make stuff for other people and craft something for them and their vision.”
Although she’s now focusing on music, dodie’s stated that her original career plan was to become an actor. If she were to pursue acting in future, what genre or type of character would she choose? “Anything that has a British accent! I did an audition for a show - it was so random, they reached out and asked if I could send something - and I did it all in an American accent. It was so bad, so bad. I can’t act and, like, change my mouth at the same time. So just any acting role where I have to chat like myself.” These days she’s found a happy medium and embraced these dreams through her music and side projects: “Now I’m older I think, oh, acting is really hard to do! I love acting in my music videos, I’ve also done a bit in my friend’s short films, that kind of stuff.” dodie has performed in a number of her music videos - is she a trained dancer? “Oh my god, no, definitely not. But thank you! I did a few things as a kid, I think everyone did, but I haven’t danced in a wee while. Only every time I have a music video am I like “let’s go [dance]!””
Labels can be complicated. While one individual may find belonging, validation and empowerment in a label, another person might view it as inflexible, judgemental and lacking nuance. How does dodie approach labels in her own life: does putting a label on her sexuality, mental health, etc. make things more difficult, or does she find comfort in defining it? “I truly think both. Sometimes I worry that, if I were younger, that a label could make [me] fixate on something… but I think people are smarter than that and overall labels are helpful. I know that when I found a name for my condition, Depersonalisation, that was so validating for me and I found a community of people going through it.” Sadly, her journey to reach this point of discovery was long and difficult, worsened by health professionals who didn’t take her seriously. “When I was 18 I went to the doctors because I was feeling really, really, really bad and asked them if I was depressed (which I think I absolutely was)”, she shares. “But the doctors said “Oh no, it’s dangerous to give someone so young a label”. It threw me into a spiral and I didn’t go back to the GP for my mental health for ages. So I think it would’ve been very useful if I had instead been given that [label] and a little bit of kindness.” Despite her doctor’s unempathetic demeanor, dodie is intentionally open about her struggles: “I think there’s something so wonderful about sharing experiences of mental health.”
Such candidness isn’t without its risks. Whether it’s people “whistling the tune of [her] trauma!” (right after an emotional soundcheck of “Guiltless”) or listeners misinterpreting sad songs, once the music’s released all bets are off. Do the misinterpretations bother dodie? “It truly changes, day to day - and brain to brain! If I’m feeling healthy and objective then I think, man, I’m so pleased, turn that into something that people can relate to and find their own story in and that helps us both process it.” She counters, slightly tongue-in-cheek: “If I’m in my worst moments then I’m like “Leave my trauma alone, it’s mine! Why have I done this, why have I been so vulnerable? I don’t want the world to see my darkness.””
In October 2020, dodie rewarded her fans with a YouTube livestream, titled ‘THE ULTIMATE THROWBACK show’. Here she performed many of her old tracks, some of which were written in her mid-teens and are rarely heard live now - a must-watch for longtime dodie fans. The livestream was a conditional offer that hinged on the participation of her US subscribers ahead of the November 2020 Presidential Election. Three days earlier, dodie had promised a livestream if at least 300 US subscribers clicked her personalised Headcount.org link and prepared to vote. In fact, her subscribers exceeded that goal with thousands of them clicking the link - resulting in 204 voter registrations, 1316 verifications and 594 vote plans made. What motivated dodie to take direct action in this way? “So around the [heightening of the] Black Lives Matter movement in July, a bunch of people who I kind of know online formed a group,” she begins. “This guy, [travel vlogger] Louis Cole, knows a lot of different people and speakers and he formed a group called The Social Good Club. We had Zoom meets every week, interviewing people who’d been incarcerated or who’d written books about the Criminal Justice system - and a lot of political things because obviously it was in the run-up to the US election.” The group decided to harness their collective influence online, starting a campaign to mobilise their subscribers to vote. “We were trying to think of an incentive to encourage people to do it and I’d wanted to do a Throwback Show so this was a good marrying of the two.” Following the success of this campaign, dodie is open to future opportunities to engage and inspire her audience on such issues: “I think it’s important, if I have a platform, to use it.”
"I love reading peoples’ memoirs, I think that’s so fun... it’s super descriptive, as if it were a story but it’s really someone’s memory."
One song that dodie performed at ‘THE ULTIMATE THROWBACK show’ was fan-favourite “Little Room”. Written about her childhood bedroom, it’s a deeply sentimental track that captures the intense memories associated with her family home. She has since moved away and even lived in Los Angeles - was it hard to let go of that little room? “So my childhood home... honestly, it started to get a little difficult to be there, just for family reasons. That kinda gave me the kick to try and leave. I also wanted to go out and explore the world.” Aged 18 or so, she moved from Epping (England) to the city of Bath (England), moving into a large old house with her friend. Unfortunately, she didn’t thrive in this particular new environment. “At first, my experience was not great: I was very alone, I was in a bad relationship, it was cold, I was poor, it was just so difficult. I ended up moving back and spending a few months in the old home, feeling like a child again -- but also not, because everything was breaking around me.” Thankfully, this was not for long. Soon after, dodie moved into a flat with her friend Evan Edinger, who she has collaborated with on YouTube. “I was super lucky that I had a few friends from the YouTube circle and I ended up moving out with Evan, just in London. I thought “This is it, I’ll try again!”, except not really far away this time and with a friend who I knew.” What made this second move so much easier than the first? “It was super helpful for me to have a support system and a network of friends to help hold me through it. That was how I did it, I recommend it!” She muses: “Kinda like building my own family out of my friends, that’s how it feels.”
Some people in this world ‘wear many hats’ and dodie is one of them (coincidentally, the music video for “Hate Myself” features a very fetching blue Postman hat). In 2017, dodie diversified yet again when she published her first book Secrets for the Mad: Obsessions, Confessions and Life Lessons. It’s an autobiographical account of her past experiences, in particular her mental health and sexuality, combined with general musings and life advice. dodie’s inspiration lay partly in the fact that she had created so much material already; on her Instagram account she’d post paragraphs of text resembling diary entries. A book seemed like a good way to assemble these feelings in one place and draw a line under that period of her life. Does dodie plan to write another book in future? Would she keep the same format or perhaps branch out into fiction? “I’ve always wanted to try writing short stories”, she reveals. “I love reading peoples’ memoirs, I think that’s so fun... it’s super descriptive, as if it were a story but it’s really someone’s memory. I’m not entirely sure but I think, yes, I would love to write another book.” With dodie’s schedule getting busier by the minute, don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. “I’ve still got quite a lot of music to go”, she points out. “Who knows? I might find myself typing if we have another lockdown.”
In keeping with the boundaries between her personal and public lives, dodie has previously opted not to discuss the specific meaning of her track “Guiltless”. Instead, she’s said that it’s broadly about forgiving people in your life. She uses the analogy of a space-like black hole that exists in your brain - sometimes you know it’s there but you don’t want to access it. Are there any feelings or moments in life that she wishes she could access again, to relive it? “My honest answer would be that I’d go back to before I started experiencing Depersonalisation and not be spacey for, like, a day. That would be really interesting, I think. That’s just my raw, honest, go-to thought, I’d love to experience that again.” She pauses. “But if we’re thinking a little lighter, I would love to relive the tour that happened in September 2019.”
It is this dichotomy of light and dark that makes dodie so wonderfully real and human. Combined with her likeable, quirky online personality and remarkable talent, it is perhaps this authentic, imperfect reflection of themselves that draws millions of fans to her. Even today’s icebreaker question about her favourite scent receives an endearing answer. “I love the smell of artificial strawberry. I had a lip balm that tasted like strawberry and I’m pretty sure I’ve just eaten the whole thing, it’s so small now....” Another comes to mind: “My flatmate Hazel has a very specific perfume and if she’s away I’ll just go into her room and just smell her clothes!” dodie laughs, imagining the scene. “It would be quite funny if she came in and I was just like “(sniffs) I missed you!” I like the smell of people - specific people, the smell of my friends. It’s enough to make you cry, isn’t it?”