Ten years after uploading her first original song on YouTube, dodie has released her debut studio album, Build a Problem. Though this marks her first full-length release, the 25-year-old British singer-songwriter, born Dorothy Miranda Clark, has established a strong online presence with nearly 2 million subscribers on her main YouTube channel, and her three independently released EPs – 2016’s Intertwined, 2017’s You, and 2019’s Human – went on to reach the UK pop charts. One thing dodie’s videos and her music have in common is that they both can feel like soul-baring admissions of vulnerability. Throughout her career, she’s channeled that intimacy through lush folk pop built around soft vocals and plucky acoustic guitars, and her debut LP is no different – this time, though, the variations in sound and mood also reflect the contradictions she often speaks about in her discussions of mental health. Working with producer Joe Rubel as well as an 13-piece orchestra, dodie uses the extra space to experiment with different styles and structures as the album delves into darker, more dramatic territory, adding rich, complex layers to her explorations of self-worth, shame, and inner conflict.
We caught up with Dodie to talk about the story behind each song on Build a Problem. Listen to the album and read our track-by-track interview below.
1. Air So Sweet
Your 2019 EP, Human, also opened with this kind of spare, vocal-led track, though this also has a really nice layer of percussion and keys. Was there a reason you wanted to continue this trend with your debut album?
I love an instrumental kind of intro. I had one ready, and I knew I wanted to use it. Especially this song in particular, it’s very, like – my arms are open, open to receive anything, whatever the world hits at me. It just feels very alive. So it felt right to go at the beginning and be like, “Hit me. Throw whatever you have at me.”
Am I right in sensing a bit of a Bon Iver influence here?
Oh, yeah, probably. Definitely, like, clustered harmonies. I enjoyed adding – cause that demo lives on its own on YouTube, but we added a sort of bass sub-type thing and also an echoed percussion part that we wanted to be really subtle, just to give it a little bit of a boost.
You said it feels alive, and there’s almost a sense of quiet optimism and excitement to it as well. Why did you want to open the album with this kind of scene?
I think because the album gets pretty dark – it can be quite heavy, and I don’t even think I realized this until I played it to my friends and we finished it and I looked around and they were like, “Oof.” And I was like, “Oops.” I didn’t really plan that, but I think that’s what happens when you naturally turn introspectively and really evaluate all of your feelings. So putting this at the beginning kind of gives it hopefully a positive outlook of like, “This is life. It’s full of extreme highs and extreme lows, but I’m ready for it.”
2. Hate Myself
The album is named after a line from this song. I was wondering how the meaning of that phrase – “build a problem” – has changed since you first wrote it.
I think it always held a lot in it. For me, to build a problem means that like, I build so many problems [laughs], just around my life. And like, “Why does this keep happening?” But then I also think it relates to me being built, you know, and the problems that were built around me, and that therefore I became a problem as well.
That’s definitely a big theme on the album, the idea of how you’re built and how that affects your behaviour now. One thing I love about this track is how you portray this dialogue – be it internal or external — as a sort of dance, which maybe explains why it’s one of the more pop-oriented songs here.
Yeah, I love writing about something complex and maybe not as bright, as the track implies. Because this song is meant to be a little bit playful – I’m not really indulging too deep into the bad parts of this feeling. It’s meant to be like, you’re right, a silly dance I play. And I think I can almost look back on it, from an imaginary older me and see myself in these situations and ask, “Why?”
I wonder if that playfulness comes in retrospect, but in the actual moment, it feels heavy and all-consuming.
I think it can take a turn. It can get so ridiculous, this feeling of panic inside, that I can almost laugh about it in the moment – there’s a line in the song where I say, “What if I laugh now?” Like, “What if I just break this stupid atmosphere and say, ‘What is going on here? Am I going insane? Are you going insane? Can we just talk out?’” But I never do, and I think if I hold on to that a little longer, it’ll kind of tip into the darkness of, “Man, this is my fault.” I’m like, “How do I keep getting in these situations? There must be something wrong with me.”
3. I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You)
With this song, first of all, I wanted to know your initial, non-Twitter reaction to that Metro headline.
[laughs] Honestly, I just laughed. Because it wasn’t unkind, it’s completely right. I just think it’s funny how, it’s British press, and I don’t usually appear in British press. And I’ve often wondered what it would be like, you know – a good headline, a bad headline. But this was so perfect, it was just, “dodie’s bonk statement” [laughs]. It was just so great, it was such a novelty.
It’s so bizarre, too. It’s such a British press thing that I don’t know how many people outside of the UK will even really get it.
[laughs] Like, what does that mean?
Yeah, exactly. “Bonk” is such a ridiculous word on its own, but “bonk statement”? What?
I think it’s a play on “bank statement”?
Oh… Wow. I didn’t even think of that.
Yeah, layers. Layers to this headline. I think I was so – not afraid, but like, I was curious as to how people would react to me… not kind of coming out as sexual, but showing that side of me that I guess the internet does not see or refuses to see. And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll show my more mature side, cause I’m 26. I’m a woman.” And then that was just such a nice way of bringing it all down, like, not making it that serious.
But the song itself also comes from a personal and lonely place following a breakup, and indulging in this sort of “revenge fantasy,” as you’ve called it. And it’s based on a real experience. How much do you see it as kind of straddling the line between fantasy and reality?
I will say, it’s not about one specific experience – it’s like a combination of one particular night of mine, but like, years ago, and then also something that a friend went through recently. But also, I think, just exploring this theme of trying to sooze loneliness with sexuality, and it being combined with a lot of shame, maybe unfairly. So it’s just exploring a few things within one obvious situation.
4. Cool Girl
I loved this when it came out, and it remains one of my favorites on the album. But after I saw you retweeted that screenshot from Gone Girl, I can’t help but think of that scene whenever I listen to it, which made me wonder whether there’s more to it than I initially thought. Was that an influence?
Yeah, it definitely was an influence. I love that speech from Gone Girl, I’ve seen Gone Girl so many times. I definitely stole her bitterness as she kind of spits out that phrase, like, “Cool girl.” You know, she’ll be this, she’ll be that. I think in my song, there’s a lot more desperation, almost begging – it’s kind of like I’m whispering to other women or other people saying, “I found the answer, you just have to suppress everything.” But then there’s definitely a running theme of denial as well, like, “I know that this is not the right thing, this is not healthy for me.”
To me, there’s almost a melancholy to that desperation, which maybe comes from the way you sing the chorus. It gives it an undertone of, “I wish I could be all those things.” How did you land on that kind of delivery?
Yeah, I’m kind of singing through this breathiness, and I’ve seen a lot of people say it’s whispering – it’s kind of like an intense whisper. It kind of gives the effect of me gritting my teeth as I’m singing. I think that particular sound came from a lot of artists I was listening to. There’s an artist called Emily Kay, who I listened a lot to, and she kind of does that. And then same with, like, Ethan Gruska. I think those two artists combined made me find power in quiet. And that’s not to say – in a lot of the album I do try and belt a little bit more, but I think it really works in this song.
5. Special Girl
I see this as being on the opposite end of the spectrum — going from blaming yourself to literally saying “It’s not my fault.” How do you see the connection between this and the previous track?
I definitely think this is more just entirely playful. Like, when I was talking about ‘Hate Myself’ and it’s kind of this place where you can just laugh about it, and then I feel like if you think a little more, it dips into darkness. This is purely in that laughing place of like, “This is ridiculous that I feel this way or that I’m made this way.” It’s kind of like you’re sitting in this kind of manic place of, “Oh well, fuck it. I’m broken, things happen, shit happens, I have trauma. Oh well!”
There’s such a crazy, upbeat energy to this track, and the instrumental definitely fits that mood. What was it like working with Pomplamoose for this song?
It was so fun. They just bounced around the room and built this song with the rhythm I wanted and really helped to just add more vibes. There was also – it sounds like a double bass, but there’s actually an upright piano with rubber on the strings. It gives it this clanky hammer effect – it works so well because it’s so messy. And then I took it to Joe Rubel, and we made it into this kind of “smashed together but still vibing” thing, which I relate to [laughs].
You’ve talked about this track in relation to the following songs on the album because it’s the first that features a 13-piece string section. But I feel like it also relates the previous songs and ‘Special Girl’ in particular, because it revisits this theme of self-worth, but maybe leaning more on your upbringing and the environment you grew up around. I’m curious how you came up with the metaphor that opens the song, of being brought up in a line but feeling like you’re walking in circles.
I can’t remember the specific way I thought of it, but I guess it doesn’t just relate to sexuality. I think it’s a feeling of being raised with a certain kind of truth. And I felt like I was walking around and breaking it, and as I opened up more into the wild, I noticed the things that didn’t align with that line of truth. And then I realized that there is no one truth, and that’s just somene else’s truth. It was very confusing – I think it always is when you realize that, because all of those rules are still in you, because that’s how you were built. And then you have to keep reminding yourself that you now know this new truth. So yeah, it can be quite conflicting.
That conflict is definitely there, but I feel like this song arrives more at a place of acceptance compared the previous ones. Was the decision to introduce the string section here a way of reinforcing that?
I feel like this song deserves a nice bed, because there’s a lot of darkness in the verses, but I wanted the choruses to be swelling and wonderful. I just wanted those choruses to be a safe space, so I think it deserved a really nice, sweet place to rest.
What was the thinking behind including this first interlude, and what is the question mark in reference to?
It wasn’t called ‘?’ at first. It was just an unnamed interlude, and I didn’t write it after ‘Rainbow’ specifically. I was just playing with modes and liked the way that Lydian sounded and started playing in it, and noticed it sounded kind of dark and questioning. And then it seemed right to place in between ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Four Tequilas’, kind of like a weird bridge of taking all of the confidence and love of ‘Rainbow’ and twisting it. I feel like I kind of stray away from ‘Rainbow’, sort of like I walked too far, and it turns into something unhealthy. And then we added a rumble of strings, like a tremolo, which gave it kind of like a rumble of a self-conscious idea.
8. Four Tequilas Down
This song feels like a callback to ‘I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You)’, both instrumentally and lyrically. How much of that is intentional?
I didn’t even really notice that, but you’re right. I guess the themes are kind of similar, of like, sexual mistake. It’s funny, because I wrote ‘I Kissed Someone’ after ‘Four Tequilas’ – I wrote ‘Four Tequilas’ quite a long time ago. I think ‘Four Tequilas’, for some reason, sounds a lot sweeter.
There’s also this sense of losing control or feeling disconnected from yourself, which, on its own, could be viewed as a result of the alcohol, but there’s more to it when you put it into the context of the album and also your experiences with depersonalisation and disassociation.
Yeah, I definitely think there’s a lot of depersonalization in that song. There’s like a huge disconnect between voices saying, “Something in me says that this is okay,” and these outside voices saying, “Who the hell am I? I know this isn’t right.” There’s these two things fighting – it’s almost like there’s someone above me being like, “Stop.” There’s a drunkenness to it – I think ‘Four Tequillas’ is almost like the fumes of alcohol, whereas ‘I Kissed Someone’ is maybe in the aftermath, the darkness, where it kind of turns sickly.
I like that you sing “they’ll never know” and then you turned it into a song.
[laughs] I know. Classic.
I think this is a good point to talk about the string arrangements. What was it like composing those and working with the Parallax Orchestra?
It was truly a dream come true. It was just so magical, and I wish I could give that experience to everyone. I scored on – I actually used Logic and kind of placed the songs in the project and then scored in MIDI. I kind of did it how I would do vocal arrangements, just adding what I hear underneath, and then translating that into scoring and put it into software so I could tweak it and translate it for the orchestra. But my violinist in my band, Will Harvey, who runs Parallax Orchestra, was there by my side and really helped bridge that gap, because though I know how to read music, I’m not a classically trained string player.
How did you go about connecting the string sections throughout the album?
It was so fun. It tested my musicality to the limit, but in the best way. I think ‘Rainbow’ is in D, and then the next few songs are A, which is an easy place to get to, because a drone can run through and it can just make sense. So then it’s A for a while, and then ‘Sorry’ begins – I know we’ll get to ‘Sorry’, sorry – but then it has to go through so many things to get to ‘When’. So it was kind of easy at first, I think it made so much sense, until I got to ‘When’ and I was like, “How the heck am I going to get here?” But it worked so well, I think.
Were you worried that having the string arrangements start with ‘Rainbow’ in the middle of the album would disrupt the flow of at all?
Yeah, I wasn’t really sure where to place it. All I knew is that those six songs had to go together, which was tough for my label and my manager and everyone else. I think someone said to me, like, “Oh, it creates quite a dip, are you sure you want to keep these together?” And I’m like, “Yes, I wrote them to be together, that’s the whole point.” I know what they mean, but I think it works out okay to almost have like a line in the middle of the album – ironically, because there’s a song called ‘Before the Line’ – and I quite like that. I think it works well to have the singles at the beginning and then sort of holding your hand and guiding you into this more dramatic direction gradually.
What can you tell me about the origins of this song?
I think it’s a result of everything I talk about, but in a far more grounded way. I kind of live in this heightened, denial, chaotic, manic state of like, excuses and blame and then self-blame. It’s not very grounded at all, a lot is in denial, especially ‘Four Tequilas Down’. And then, I think there’s like a clearing in ‘.’, kind of like a breath of fresh air. And then ‘Sorry’ begins very empty, I think, and plain. It’s just a result of acting without looking.
It’s interesting that you say that it’s from a more grounded place. To me, there’s a heaviness to this song, because it arrives at this conclusion of like, “sorry is all I am,” where it almost becomes part of your identity.
Yeah, I think this is a very real kind of guilt, though. I think I feel guilt in a lot of ways throughout the album when it’s not really needed. And then this, I wanted to make sure that this is a real apology, because it is needed.
This song starts with this realization that you’re telling lies, but it’s revealed that it’s more a case of lying to yourself. And the “sick of faking diary entries” line made me wonder to what extent you feel that music is the most honest way of expressing yourself, or whether writing songs can sometimes feel like those entries as well.
I think I’m the most self-aware when I’m writing music. And it’s funny, because sometimes I can lie to myself and I know that I’m doing it, I don’t know why. But in my songs, I do. Which is odd, because my diary entries are meant to be private, and songs are definitely public, and I feel like it’s almost switched in the way in which I share.
How has the way you experience that dynamic changed for you? Is it something you’ve become more comfortable with?
I’m not really sure yet. I think I’ll always be open in my songs because I can’t help it. I will write for myself, and I’ll always say, “I don’t have to put this out,” but I always do [laughs]. And I feel like that’s what art is, you know, sort of being uncompromising. Growing up and finding boundaries in talking openly – I’m sure you can feel some of them, I’m desperately trying to hold up some walls to myself, but in the healthiest way possible. But in my songs, I feel like I can be as vulnerable as I want to be, because I’m protected by music.
I wanted to relate this back to the opening track, because so much at the heart of ‘When’, to me, is about not being able to be happy in the moment. And ‘Air So Sweet’ feels like proof of the opposite.
You’re making ties that I never thought, which is really cool [laughs]. But you’re right, I don’t even notice – I mean, I kind of do, because obviously, I know that I am conflicting in everything I think about. Every single truth or thought I have can change so dramatically the other way depending on my mood or situation. So I’m fully aware that sometimes my brain will tell me, “You’ll never feel pure joy.” And then sometimes I feel… pure joy [laughs]. I think it’s all about contradicting – I wanted to have an album of my brain, of like, “These are all the things I feel, and it doesn’t make any fucking sense. ‘Cause my brain doesn’t.”
12. Before the Line
I love this as the closing track. In terms of just composition and production, it’s maybe the darkest and boldest song you’ve made – I really like the liquid guitar tone that opens the song, which reminds me of Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, and the ominous direction the song takes halfway through is just chilling. Did you intend to challenge yourself sonically with this song, and how was the process of getting that sound right?
It probably sounds like Phoebe Bridgers because there’s a certain guitar shop in LA called Oldstyle that sells a guitar with rubber bridges on it. And they’re all the rage – I think Phoebe’s got one, or Ethan Gruska who produces her stuff’s got one, you know, they’re just around. And they’re gorgeous, they’re so great. This song is played in this weird drop tuning that the strings kind of hang a little looser, so when I play, it smacks them against the bridge a little more – it’s almost like you’re playing a cello. It sounds really messy and sloppy and dark, so that kind of added to this feeling, especially when I go into that darker bit and I’m just really hammering on.
So Joe Rubel, my producer, had the idea of adding little parts from every single song into this song, which I thought was such a good idea. At first I was like, “Okay, I’m not quite sure how we’re going to fit it all in,” but then it adds extra production that I would never have added, by giving us that restriction. There’s like, a string tied over the first verse through the chorus, which adds this airiness; there’s a sort of vocoder type thing in that middle eight that adds a bit of grit. There’s so many extra things that add this sloppiness and heaviness, which I’m grateful for. And my cellist, Sophie [English], she’s incredible, but I was like, “I want you to play badly.” There’s a bit where the chords go [imitates chord progession], and I wanted her hand to slide up the fret, and like, “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing really sloppily,” because I wanted it to be angry and messy and dark.
What does “the light” represent for you in this song?
This song is about depersonalization and derealization, and just being so angry that I can’t break through and feel how I used to feel, and not have these symptoms of cloudiness and just distance. It sucks really bad. I think I’m just begging to not feel that anymore and have all of those symptoms just be released and feel completely present, but I can’t.
The way you evoke that – I think even if someone isn’t familiar with those symptoms, there’s this kind of universal experience of like, wanting to hold on to this “love for the world,” is how you put it in the song, and wanting desperately to hold on to the magic of a certain moment, but at the same time feeling intensely alone. And some might view it as a bleak ending, but you leave things pretty open-ended by repeating the question, “Did I let it go?” Why was this the note that you wanted to end on?
I think sometimes I feel like the depression is my truth. And I think maybe my depression spoke for me then, that it wanted to leave a mic drop of, “This is it, this is the truth.” Like, “This is all shit, this is all rubbish, and I let it go.” But at the end, there’s an organ that kind of carries on. And it’s the same note that opens the album, the same beginning note of ‘Air So Sweet’, so it kind of leaves you into thinking that it will lead into ‘Air So Sweet’ again. And then the cycle will continue, and suddenly my truth will flip from dark to completely light again. And I think it just goes to show that, yeah, truth is not truth. It just changes all the time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
dodie’s Build a Problem is out now.