Fefe Dobson Reclaims Her Pop Punk Throne (2024)

Fefe Dobson Reclaims Her Pop Punk Throne (1)

Fefe Dobson wears MM6 Maison Margiela jacket and Marine Serre pants, both available at WDLT117 in Toronto, and Christian Louboutin boots.

The singer-songwriter is set to release her new albumEmotion Sickness, music that celebrates her unapologetic spunk and nonconformist sense of self.

  • Writer Yasmine Shemesh
  • Photographer Mathew Guido

When Fefe Dobson was a kid, 10 or 11 years old, she would interview herself. She sat in her basem*nt and imagined she was a guest on a talk show. She was never afraid to dream big. She continues to listen to her inner child whenever doubt starts creeping in. As an adult, she’s had to learn how to listen closely to that wild and fearless little girl. But she’s always known her power.

She knew it when, in high school, she told her friends that Justin Timberlake would know her name one day. “They just thought I was crazy,” she says, laughing. “And maybe crazy’s great. Maybe a little crazy is what you need.”

Dobson’s 2003 self-titled debut, with furious anthems like “Take Me Away” and “Bye Bye Boyfriend,” cemented her as a once-in-a-generation artist and one of the few Black alternative women in the mainstream space. True to her word, Dobson opened for Timberlake on his European tour the following year. Now, with her new album, Emotion Sickness (set for release this fall), the 38-year-old singer has regained her power all over again. The record, her fourth, bridges her musical history—from her debut’s spirited vocal arrangements and roaring guitar to Sunday Love’s raw vulnerability to Joy’s pop musicality—in a union of the many alter egos that emerge from her when she creates music.

Dobson grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, where she lived with her mother and three siblings. She began writing poetry in elementary school, inspired by listening to Silverchair. She was obsessed with the way frontman Daniel Johns wrote, his way of seeing happiness, and how he described his pain. She’d soon start putting music to her prose. “It was really just my way of getting it out,” Dobson says. “I needed an outlet to explain and describe what I was feeling, and I didn’t feel like anyone would really hear it or understand. So I turned to journals a lot.”

Music was a constant, and the house was filled with an eclectic playlist of Donna Summer, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Phil Collins, and Depeche Mode. Dobson listened to Green Day and Blink-182 on her Discman (*NSYNC or Backstreet Boys if she was “feeling emotional”) while on her way to Wexford Collegiate, the arts high school she attended in Toronto. She also loved Judy Garland and found her beautiful voice and tragic story fascinating.

Dobson, like many aspiring musicians, sent out demo tapes and quickly caught the attention of Zomba Music Group, owner of Jive Records, as a teenager. While she emphasizes how thankful she was to be picked out from a sea of hopefuls, something felt wrong as the label tried different genres on her. It was like bumping into a wall. “I needed a guitar,” Dobson says. “I needed angst. I needed to write. I needed a lot of things.”

Then, in the studio one day, Prozzäk’s Jay Levine and James Bryan McCollum popped in. They needed a singer for a cheeky pop-punk track called “Get a Clue,” and Dobson enthusiastically agreed. “I learned it pretty much on the spot and sang it.” Following suit, Levine and McCollum offered to make a record with Dobson, one that she wanted to make. So she “decided to take a risk and join forces with Jay and James.”

She signed with the Island Def Jam label in 2003, and Fefe Dobson became an international smash, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart. Dobson was all over MuchMusic and MTV’s Total Request Live and was nominated for two Junos. Still just a teenager, “I was so protected. I’d never been to a house party. I never got to go to movies by myself. I never did anything,” she says. “And all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Photos! And, like, what?’ I wasn’t ready to smile and be, quote unquote, the photogenic pretty girl.”

Part of what has made Dobson’s work so compelling is how her attitude—her unapologetic spunk, her nonconformist sense of self, how she follows her heart—sears through. It exudes from Emotion Sickness: this time, as a grown woman revelling in her rage and rapture.

Dobson faced challenges as a young Black woman releasing pop-punk music in a mainstream landscape. While she admired punk-spirited disrupters like Tina Turner and Janet Jackson (“‘Black Cat’ changed my life”), it was hard not to have anyone in her genre, in her generation, who looked like her, to look up to. Some challenges also lived inside her, Dobson adds, like wondering what to do with her hair and feeling self-conscious that her Dickies fit differently than on her peers (think Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson).

_________

“I’ve never given up on anyone. I still believe that, even though my heart sometimes gets completely low and my battery completely has no charge, I always find a way to start again.” —Fefe Dobson

Fefe Dobson Reclaims Her Pop Punk Throne (3)

Fefe Dobson wears Alexander McQueen alongside the Knuckle handbag.

Dobson’s first real heartbreak from the industry came with Sunday Love, her profoundly personal sophom*ore effort that was shelved in 2005 before she was dropped from Island Def Jam. “It was about my childhood on a real deeper level, about my inability to understand how to make a relationship work,” she says. Losing the album, which was named for her mom’s alias, made her realize how little control she had. “You can literally put your heart and soul into something and make a body of work, and it can be taken from you. That blew my mind.” Devastated, she moved back to Toronto. “I had worked my entire life to get signed, and I couldn’t see beyond that.”

Sunday Love eventually came out digitally in 2012, seven years later, but without its intended cover art, which had depicted a re-creation of Dobson’s childhood bedroom. It’s still painful, and she has a love-hate relationship with the record. “I felt like I was mad at it,” she admits. “I was mad at the album. Like, maybe you [Sunday Love] ruined everything—like, it’s your fault.” She might rerelease it one day, give it its “proper burial.”

She remained unsigned and kept busy in the meantime: appearing in film and television, writing songs for others, and releasing 2010’s Joy, which got her re-signed to Island Def Jam and yielded hits like “Stuttering” and “Ghost.” But a few years later, about to drop “Fckn in Love,” she needed a break. “There was something going on in me,” she explains. So she paused the release and took a step back.

Making Emotion Sickness, she says, was like shedding skin. Most of it was written in two months, but the process began when “Fckn in Love” finally came out in 2022—Dobson’s first major commercial release in eight years. She began releasing her own music again during the pandemic, after working with her manager, Danny Reiner, and singer Tyler Shaw to gather an impressive ensemble of Canadian artists (including Lavigne, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Justin Bieber) to record a cover of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” directly benefiting the Canadian Red Cross. This time, it felt right. And “Fckn in Love” was in the vault, ready to go. With its electro-pop melody and Dobson’s impressively flexible vocal register, the love song ushered in a triumphant return of a renegade whose influence is reflected in today’s generation of alternative female artists, including SZA, Olivia Rodrigo, and Willow Smith.

Emotion Sickness doubles down on that exhilarating energy, with a rousing musical landscape combining electric production, breakneck drums, and guitar-driven arrangements, with a couple of killer solos—like an album highlight, “I Can’t Love Him (And Love You Too),” courtesy of producer Sam Arion. “A good guitar solo should literally feel like the melody,” Dobson says enthusiastically. “It should feel like it’s speaking to you in some sense.”

Many recording sessions took place at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel while Dobson was going through a separation. “Sometimes you go through something and then you write an album,” she says. “But everything you’re hearing is what I was actually living the night before.” It was a cathartic experience that recalls the journaling Dobson did as a kid. The songs are candid as she sings about wild nights and rough mornings (“Hungover”), flirty crushes (“Shut Up and Kiss Me”), kiss-offs (“Too Late”), and devastating heartache, as on rock ballad “Someone New,” which achingly implores, “It was so quiet/You could hear when my heart broke/Did you hear when my heart broke?”

And then, there’s “Recharge My Heart,” an upbeat track with a standout lyric that carries heavy weight: “One spark is all I need to bring me back to life.” It’s about love, Dobson says. “I’ve never given up on anyone. I still believe that, even though my heart sometimes gets completely low and my battery completely has no charge, I always find a way to start again.”

It goes back to that unwavering belief Dobson has always had: in her dreams, in following her heart, in herself. When asked what Emotion Sickness represents about who she is today, she pauses. Frank Sinatra’s classic, “My Way,” a favourite of hers, best describes it, she says. “I did it my way. And I’ll continue to, because being myself is all I can be.”

Stylist Ashley Galang. Hair and makeup by Cayla Bliss.

August 25, 2023

MusicAutumn 2023

  • Autumn 2023
  • Canadian Music
  • Issue 98
  • Musician

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Fefe Dobson Reclaims Her Pop Punk Throne (2024)
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