The day before the release of her debut album Build a Problem, British singer-songwriter Dodie marked the 10-year anniversary of her YouTube channel with a cover of ABBA’s “Thank You For the Music.” Over the last decade, Dodie has established herself as a steady presence on the platform, an exceedingly rare kind of content creator who never left to focus on other ventures, avoided controversy and grew up right alongside her audience. Those who have followed her over the years know about her mental health struggles, who her friends are and have already celebrated the release of multiple EPs with her.
Her work as a musician and an online creator is linked in a way that her contemporaries (for example, Troye Sivan, who also found fame through YouTube but stopped posting vlogs leading up to the release of his debut album Blue Neighborhood) have actively rejected. This is part of what makes her celebration of 10 years on YouTube so notable. Unlike the shallow, cash-grabbing music of YouTubers and influencers like Jake Paul and Addison Rae, Dodie’s music has always been honest and grounded. The core of her fan base — those who have been around since her breakout song “Absolutely Smitten” or even longer — is loyal and was earned slowly but organically. Her songs often touch on dependency in love, her deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and her struggles with fame and her mental health — topics she’s never shied away from talking about online.
Build a Problem, Dodie’s first full-length album, comes after 10 years and three EPs, and it manages to feel both like a culmination of everything she’s done so far and the very beginning of something big.
References to her previous work are scattered through the album and act both as easter eggs for her fans and reflections of her growth as an artist. Three songs on her new album — “Air So Sweet,” “Cool Girl” and “Rainbow” — had been previously released on her YouTube channel as one-take, unpolished videos in which she’s accompanied by little more than her ukulele.
The clearest reference and the thing that makes the album feel most like Dodie’s work coming full circle is “When,” a reworked version of the track which closed Intertwined. In the song, Dodie confesses to living life with one foot in the present and one in the past, “busy begging the past to stay.” The lyrics in the new version are unchanged, but Build a Problem’s “When” is noticeably fuller. The single piano, violin and cello which accompanied Dodie in the original version are replaced by a thirteen-piece orchestra that creates a rich, cresting, almost Disney-like wall of sound behind her voice, which has clearly matured since 2016.
Dodie’s intelligence as a songwriter and musician is emphasized by the changes she has made. The new orchestrations make the song feel fuller and effectively underscore the longing at the core of the song. The presence of “When” on both her debut EP and debut album feels like the loveliest of bookends, marking the beginning of an era and then ushering it out lovingly. Even though Dodie tells us that she’s still stuck in the past, the clear development in her skill as a producer from one “When” to another shows us how much she continues to grow.
Many of the album’s musical elements will also feel familiar to fans. Dodie, who, through her career has fallen into and then elevated the “white girl with a ukulele” trope, employs a baritone ukulele as a centerpiece of multiple songs. It’s a trademark of hers, but it never feels quirky or gimmicky; instead, it purposefully creates a throughline in the album. However, where her YouTube videos tend to stick to a more minimal sound, she’s joined by a full set of strings on multiple tracks, a well-placed cello and clarinet in “Special Girl” and heavy percussion in “Boys Like You,” which adds to the groove of the album.
Thematically, Build a Problem is rife with uncertainty and regret. “Hate Myself” and “Sorry” are the most obvious examples. The former is an upbeat, one-sided conversation with a partner who is prone to going silent during arguments, and the latter feels like it takes place in the immediate aftermath of a brutal falling out in which both parties have said things they wish they could take back. Still, there are pockets of hopefulness. “Rainbow” is an acknowledgment of Dodie’s bisexuality and her frustration with the label and public misunderstanding of it, but it’s also a recognition of belonging to the queer community and a refusal to change who she is.
Dodie has never been a typical YouTube musician. Her thoughtfulness and honesty defy the stigma of YouTube music as superficial, clickbaity and just altogether bad. Still, her album proves those who may have doubted her because of her online origins wrong. It’s a testament to what she has accomplished by building a loyal following online. With Build a Problem, she takes a significant step beyond her Youtube fans and into the mainstream that will surely embrace her.
Build a Problem is a deep reflection on the person Dodie has become over 10 years. It gives voice to all of her insecurities as to her place in the world, verbalizing universal worries and imbuing them with her own specificity, all while giving listeners music to dance and to cry to in the same album. Dodie is an artist who has already spent a decade of her life growing up and making music in a public space but Build a Problem feels like she’s just getting started. It’s the turning of a page, and it’s clear that she has so much to write on the next one.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.