Dodie Clark has her own shade of yellow. ‘Dodie yellow’ – official hex code #fef65b – began as the colour of a dress the 24-year-old English singer-songwriter and YouTuber wore in a 2016 vlog, and championed by viewers, quickly became a distinct feature of her online image. The colour appears on the covers of all three of her EPs – but she’s long outgrown the association. Her first full-length album, ‘Build A Problem’, ditches any yellow for serious, sophisticated black.
‘Build A Problem’ is an apt title for an artist used to building things – Dodie has built her own music career, from a camera and keyboard in her bedroom ten years ago, to almost three million YouTube subscribers, a global legion of adoring fans, and consistent chart success.
Her independently-released EPs were predictable hits, but suffered from creative tunnel vision. Social media creators are necessarily autocratic, lines blurred between artist, publicist, and real person. It can’t be easy to surrender control when music management comes a-knocking, but that’s exactly what Dodie does on ‘Build A Problem’, widening her team of collaborators without losing the introspection she’s cherished for.
That heart-spilling tone comes naturally – after all, she’s cultivated intimacy with her online audience for a decade. Many of her Youtube dispatches unfold in song, Sondheim-style, and ‘Build A Problem’ continues that immediacy, with candid lyrics ambiguous enough to maintain some privacy. Dodie mines the dusty corners of her brain, processing mental health (she remains open about her struggle with depersonalisation disorder), heartbreak, self-esteem, overthinking, drinking – essentially, being a twenty-something and a “hot damn mess”.
Snappy opening single ‘Hate Myself’ pulls off its title without self-pity, quietly lamenting ingrained self-doubt. But wait, I can change! claims fourth track ‘Cool Girl’, repeatedly muttering, “I’ll be different, I’ll be quiet, I’ll be easy” – the familiar lie that we can magically shed our imperfections to win somebody’s affection. These insecurities don’t just belong to twenty-somethings, and existential piano ballad ‘When’ – a song about waiting for life to reveal its hand – surely has relevance for all ages: “it’ll be over, and I’ll still be asking when.”
‘Build A Problem’ takes the lo-fi laptop arrangements that made Dodie famous – simple strums, hushed girl-next-door vocals – and buffs them up to studio standard: swooping strings on ‘Rainbow’, the sticky pitter-patter of ‘Special Girl’. It’s a style that will infatuate and irritate in equal measure. For 38 minutes the tempo rarely varies, the percussion is sparse, and sometimes her voice falls to such a low whisper you’re straining into the speaker. The album often feels like an ASMR video of somebody writing in their diary – much like the pencil scribbles and rustling paper that opens Laura Marling’s 2008 song ‘Night Terror’.
In fact, there’s a lot of early Marling in ‘Build A Problem’s muted production and naïve folk-pop confessions (“I kissed someone, it wasn’t you … Put me in a car, I just want to go home”). But a slickness separates Dodie from Marling’s organic folk roots, the same kind that separates Dodie’s early, grainy output from her high-res renown of today.
Dodie outgrew yellow, and she may outgrow Youtube, but the new album ensures she’ll retain her audience as she steps from bedroom to studio, from internet to mainstream. The record doesn’t rewrite her pencilled thoughts, just goes over them in shiny pen. ‘Build A Problem’ follows Dodie’s USP to a tee. To fault it feels like building a problem that doesn’t need to exist.