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The Vulnerability Behind “Build A Problem”, dodie’s Debut Album

Even with the release date drawbacks coming from left and right - to a level that seemed downright personal at times - dodie’s hands, in the meantime, were anything but empty. Between Q+A sessions, interviews, and how-to-play tutorials for her new songs on her vlogging channel (doddlevloggle), the singer-songwriter has been keeping busy. 

Ever since the release of her debut album, Build A Problem, got pushed back to May 7th - a change in plans that ended up being the final one -, Dodie Clark released another single, titled “I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You),” alongside a music video, turned twenty-five, and somehow still found enough time to record twelve separate lyric videos for each one of her new songs on the A-side of her newly released album, all of which were uploaded to her main channel mere minutes after the stroke of midnight, just a few weeks past the ten year anniversary of her first ever YouTube video. Yes, we’re all wondering the same thing: when does this woman sleep?

With no less than twenty-two tracks to its name, Build A Problem is without a doubt dodie’s most ambitious project to date. Coming out as a deluxe album, its “A Side” contains a total of fourteen songs: we start out with the hopeful and acapella-ish tunes of “Air So Sweet”, which sounds about right when it comes to dodie; hardcore fans are well aware of her tendency to have at least one song, slightly shorter than the others, where her talent for arranging and performing dreamlike harmonies gets to shine. And that very track invites us in to have a peek into dodie’s mind - or, to quote one of her older songs, to “unzip her skin and let us have a see.”

The “A Side” is what dodie herself considers to be the main album; it consists of revamped versions of old songs, like “When”, “Guiltless” and “Boys Like You”, as well as the singles released in the lead-up to the debut, plus six other never-before heard songs: “Special Girl”, “Four Tequilas Down”, “Before The Line”, and “Sorry”, plus two instrumental interludes, respectively titled “.” and “?”. 

Then, of course, dodie continues to do what she has always managed to do: blow everyone away with the sheer, vulnerable honesty of her lyrics, the subtlety of her harmonies, and soft yet unique arrangement of instruments. In fact, for the album, dodie arranged a thirteen-piece string section herself - as she puts it: “I think when I first started writing, I always said to everyone, ‘I really want strings in my music, and I don’t think I knew what that actually meant…I knew that I wanted to try arranging for a larger section by myself, so I tried, and I did, and oh my God!”

The strings really come in in Build A Problem, giving each song a sense of fullness that would have been lost otherwise, if not entirely wasted. While dodie is good enough to carry out whatever point she wants to make through her voice and instruments alone, the finished product comes to show that she meant what she said a few months ago in an interview: she wants people to come out of this album knowing what she can do. And rest assured - she does not waver on that promise. 

From top to bottom, the “dodie album” is filled with a vibrant sense of humanity, from the quiet moments to the defiant ones, the playful and the serious, the upbeat and the melancholic, the pretty and the ugly. If dodie once said that she writes all of her songs intent on keeping a sense of ambiguity - as if each one can relay two different stories -, the songs in Build A Problem as a whole dabble in something else: duality. And if duality isn’t enough, picture this; Build A Problem is just like standing in front of a three-faced mirror and staring into your own face being reflected dozens and dozens of times. And all of those faces, no matter how distant or distorted they seem, are still you. 

That notion is exacerbated by dodie’s known issues with mental health, which she’s spoken openly about both in interviews and on her YouTube channel. The song “Before The Line”, on the album’s “A Side”, isn’t the first time the singer-songwriter has used her music as a means of catharsis for her depersonalization - a condition where “life feels like a dream and nothing is real,” often associated with dissociation, which are brief episodes that cause feelings of unreality/spaciness as a response to stress or a traumatic situation.

 

The thing that makes “Before The Line” stand out, specifically, is something said by dodie herself, on the captions of one of her Instagram posts: “I really just let myself be angry with the state of my brain in Before The Line and it felt great. (...) There’s a time to feel grateful for everything you’ve learned about yourself and achieved through stuffling and then there’s a time to just be PISSED OFF. This is that.” 

 

There’s bravery in vulnerability, just as there is vulnerability in bravery; neither are mutually exclusive, nor are they able to stand on their own. dodie captures the human experience exactly like this: by picking apart the complicated things and laying them out bare. The things that seem contradictory and messy, such as the juxtaposition between tracks like “Special Girl” and “Cool Girl” -  the former, a playful and upbeat song that seems to delight itself in the heartbreaks it has both caused and suffered; the latter, a more somber tune that oozes tiredness from trying to be less of yourself in order to be loved more. Coupled with “I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You)”, “Hate Myself”, and “Four Tequilas Down”, dodie doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s very easy to ruin things, especially when it comes to other people. As said in the lyrics of “All My Daughters”, a demo from the “B Side” of the Album, “I will hurt you, almost definitely / Ask the people who have left me.

And speaking of Build A Problem’s “B Side”, that’s where dodie’s specialties really shine. With eight polished-up demos recorded during lockdown, the new tracks sound exactly like… well, dodie. Though they’re certainly still demos, and a bit rough around the edges, the care and thought put into every single one of them is undeniable, and more than all the other tracks in the album, they speak to dodie’s singing-songwriting roots: of something distinctly personal and private, like the original songs she’s recorded in her room and uploaded to her channel for years. 

Her special brand of poetic simplicity hasn’t wavered once throughout her career, and if anything, it’s evolved. While titles like “anything”, “one last time, please”, and “let go” speak of longing for something already lost, others, such as “in the bed” and “bored like me”, carry a more playful, sultry edge that dodie has been dallying with in recent times - which can be seen in the music video, directed by Hazel Hayes, for “I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You)”, for example. None of the demos make or break the album, per se, but it’s undeniable that Build A Problem would be something else entirely if they weren’t in it.

In addition to the album as a whole, as mentioned beforehand, dodie released a series of twelve lyric videos for her new songs, all of which were created with the help of three people that have worked with dodie multiple times before, Jack Howard (Director and Producer), Sophie Newton (Producer), and Ciaran O'Brien (Director of Photography), and are a must-see for the complete experience of Build A Problem. Rather than simply uploading a video with only the lyrics - maybe with a stylized font or something - the videos, in order of appearance, tell a story in and of itself, because no one’s ever said dodie does anything by halves. 

 

All recorded in the backseat of a car, the lyrics play out as subtitles, while dodie herself incorporates the aspects of what she meant to convey in each song: a party girl with a red dress and a car full of colorful balloons in “Special Girl”; the black and white and rewinded recording of “Sorry”, which slowly fades out into the opening notes of “When”, with childhood videos playing out as the view from the window. The thought put into every shot and detail is near staggering, and it definitely makes this debut album - long awaited, much speculated about - worth every second. 

 

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The article above was edited by Laura Okida.

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Lover of poetry, books, animes, podcasts, languages, sociopolitical analyses and existential debates. Firm believer that it's better to have a bleeding heart than no heart at all. Freshman at Casper Libero, INFJ, Jewish, and lesbian.
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