Fefe Dobson Is Nowhere Near Done Writing Stupid Little Love Songs
It’s no secret that guitar-driven pop is back en vogue, between Travis Barker, Machine Gun Kelly, and Avril Lavigne teaming up to form a pop-punk Avengers and Gen Z pop progenitors like Olivia Rodrigo, WILLOW, and GAYLE drawing major influence from edgy ’00s mainstays like Avril, Ashlee Simpson, Paramore, and, of course, Fefe Dobson. Best known for moody pop-punk bangers like “Bye Bye Boyfriend,” “Everything,” and “Take Me Away,” the Ontario native ruled the airwaves when her debut album dropped in 2003. For all of Dobson’s success — Fefe Dobson went platinum in her native Canada — she couldn’t quite get out from under the shadow of the music industry’s narrow-mindedness.
Prior to signing with Island Records, Dobson nearly signed with Jive, who pushed her to lean into R&B. Then, once she established herself, Dobson was still compared to her white genre counterparts, such as the also-Canadian Lavigne. Despite all of Dobson’s talent, conviction, and knack for writing magnetic hit songs, her biracial background made it so that the industry didn’t quite seem to know how to promote her. When it came time to record a sophomore album, Sunday Love was pushed back and ultimately shelved by Island (Dobson would release it independently in 2006 and six years after that, it was given a digital re-release). After the 2005 single “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head” didn’t chart well, Dobson was dropped by Island.
Today, Dobson is 37 and lives in Nashville with her husband, rapper Yelawolf. She never stopped producing music and has frequently been name-dropped by younger pop singers, some of whom, like Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and Jordin Sparks, have adopted Dobson’s shelved singles as their own. In 2010, Dobson released an album called Joy, and in the last few years, she’s been steadily working on one-off singles, such as 2018’s “Save Me From LA” and “White Line Runaways,” which she wrote with Linda Perry for the 2020 HBO Max original movie Unpregnant.
Dobson’s latest single, the bombastic “FCKN IN LOVE,” is actually a holdover from 2012, and it’s set to appear on her forthcoming, still-untitled full-length, her first in 12 years. “This one’s not going in the vault,” she laughs over Zoom, taking occasional sips from a can of Red Bull. Dobson is referring to another album she worked on and ultimately shelved in 2018. “I’m really hard on myself when I put out music and I get freaked out at times if I’m making the right move and something just didn’t feel right,” she says.
A few days before she released “FCKN IN LOVE,” I spoke to Dobson about this new career chapter, what we can expect from her new album, being a source of inspiration for Rodrigo and WILLOW, and why the ’00s music industry was “just like being in high school.”
How long have you actually been based out of Nashville?
FEFE DOBSON: I’ve lived in Nashville since 2013 off and on. I had my place in Toronto. I kept that as my base, but I lived here. And then I just sold my place in 2018 in Toronto, so I’m here full-time now.
Can you describe the lead-up to this new career chapter? You’ve been releasing music here and there over the last few years, between 2018’s “Save Me From LA” and 2020’s “White Line Runaways.”
DOBSON: I always work on music. I actually had another album in 2018 that I decided to put it back in the vaults. And it was more of an indie-rock album, surf-rock with a little… It had Velvet Underground psychedelic stuff and the Mamas & The Papas vibes. And that’s where “Save Me From LA” came from. And after I put out “Save Me From LA,” I just decided not to put out the album.
And then working with Linda Perry was just an amazing moment. She’s such a legend. And I started working with my old management team again… I worked with Chris Smith Management when I was signed, which was when I was 17, 18, up until 2014. Then we parted and then [I] got back with the team and Danny Reiner, who is now my manager — but it’s the same team.
That helped because when you’re back with your people, that get you, that understand your sound, that are like, “I’ve known you from the very beginning.” It sparked this fire in me to go back. And that’s where “FCKN IN LOVE” comes from. It’s from the 2012 stuff. And we just went back and were like, “Hey, we need to release this song. We put it in the vault years ago and I think we need to release it because it’s still in our heads.” And we just decided that was a single, but there’s nothing better than working with my old team again. And I really truly believe that’s why I’m where I am right now, willing and wanting and excited about releasing new music.
Can you talk to me a little bit more about how you got back together with your management team? Had you kept in touch with them in the interim years?
DOBSON: Yeah, I definitely stayed in touch. Danny’s like one of my brothers. He came to me about a project called “Lean On Me.” It was a charity song for COVID-19 for Canada. It was to raise funds for the Canadian Red Cross. They came to me and were like, “[We’re] working with Tyler Shaw — do you want to do the artists-to-artists song? Just bring a bunch of artists on a song and just help the best way we can?” I said, “Hell yeah.”
We started calling up different people, different artists that we knew and the producer, John Levine, who produced the track and Dan Kanter, who was my first guitar player ever and was Justin Bieber’s MD. Yeah, we just put this song together and then all of a sudden we got all these amazing artists on it from Bryan Adams, Avril Lavigne, Michael Buble, Justin Bieber himself, and Sarah McLachlan. And the list goes on and on of amazing Canadians that we brought onto this. And that basically is what started the relationship again with my team.
So the new album you’re working on — is it still untitled?
DOBSON: Yeah, it’s not titled yet.
Do you have one in mind, or are you still kicking around ideas?
DOBSON: It’ll come to me, I think. I normally think of the title last.
You mentioned that “FCKN IN LOVE” is a holdover from 2012. Are there other songs that you revisited from years ago that made their way onto this album?
DOBSON: Not yet. Most of the other songs are brand new. That’s the only one as of right now.
How exactly did you end up connecting with Linda Perry?
DOBSON: Well, for the “White Line Runways” track, I actually had never met Linda, which is crazy. She was on the top of my list to work with though for many years. And funny enough, I was on vacation with my husband and the kids and I literally was baking cookies and I checked my email and we were in the mountains. And I checked my email and the email was like, “Hi, looking for Fefe Dobson. This is Linda Perry.” And I was like, “Yeah, right. Am I being punk’d?” And I didn’t even say anything to anybody when I first saw it because I really thought I was being punk’d.
I emailed back and I was like, “Hi Linda. Yes, it’s Fefe. Nice to meet you.” And she was like, “We’ll be back instantly and just call me. Here’s my number.” Again I’m like, “What? No way.” I go outside and try to find reception. My hands up in the air trying to find some bars on my phone so I could call Linda Perry. And I call her and she’s just so rad, so chill. She’s like, “I got this song and this movie’s [Unpregnant] coming out and do you want to be a part of it?” And I was like, “Yes, I do. Of course, I do.” And I flew out to LA and we worked on the track. I recorded it and it was used for the movie.
And essentially working with Perry on Unpregnant led to your collaborating on this album?
DOBSON: No, I was actually working a lot with Jim Johnson before I got the call from Linda or got the email from Linda. Jim and I have been carving out my ideas and visions for the new music at the beginning. And then recently I’ve been working a lot with a new group called Cache. The new sound is really just a marriage of all my sounds, really. I feel I’m just trying to find a way to… Actually, I’m not trying to find, I’m just doing it. But I’m just trying to stay true to my rock-pop roots and just make music that I like, that I’d listen to and that I would turn up in my truck and jam to.
How has your own music taste evolved in adulthood?
DOBSON: Well, I’ve always loved classic rock, not only for the sound, but the fashion. From Joan Jett to Janet Jackson and Nirvana. I’ve always liked to look at the clothes. I’m very influenced by that time period, ’60s and ’70s. And then you got the hair metal in the ’80s. I love Guns N’ Roses and then Janet in ’80s, ’90s. I’ve always just loved everything. And even now as a grown adult, I still really just love everything. One of my songs might have pop melodies and then guitar and then an 808. It just depends, but I don’t think I’ve changed too drastically on my musical [sound], my musical lovers of what I love and what I listen to.
As you’ve been writing, have there been any recurring themes that you’ve incorporated in the album?
DOBSON: Yeah, I’m a lover. I’m not really a fighter unless I have too much tequila. But a lot about my relationship and times we’ve had, good or bad and just what’s been going on in my heart and trying to be as honest and vulnerable as possible. Sometimes it can be scary, but it’s for me very necessary.
A lot has been written about the mainstream return of pop-punk, for example with pop artists like WILLOW and Olivia Rodrigo, both of whom cite you as an influence. And Avril Lavigne just released a “return” to pop-punk album. Is your new music in any way an attempt to catch that wave? Or is this purely coincidental?
DOBSON: Purely coincidental. Purely. And even the Avril [record], it’s around the same time. It’s just the way, I guess timing works. I don’t know.
It’s definitely clear [pop-punk is] coming back. We’re getting bridges again in songs, which is amazing. For me, there were no bridges. There was just one hook of it. There’s verse hook and that was it. And I’m a big bridge person. Guitars are more up front on the forefront of everything. But they’re always there in certain songs tucked away, or just little tasty treat. But yes, of course, it is definitely coming back hardcore right now. And yeah, it’s a perfect timing to do what I do, something that I’ve always done.
When you see a performer like WILLOW talk about you as a major influence, does this give you a good feeling about how the industry has evolved in terms of diversity in the rock genre?
DOBSON: Oh yeah. It makes me super happy to see her killing it and doing her thing. It’s amazing. She’s really awesome.
I’ve seen you give a few interviews where you talk about the first time you saw Avril Lavigne back in 2002. You said, “Our vibe is similar, but I can’t compete with her. She’s blonde, she’s pretty, she’s skinny. Do my Dickies even fit me the way that they fit her?” To what extent do you feel like those industry-imposed beauty standards matter, some 20 years later?
DOBSON: Well, I’m grown at this point and I can navigate through. I can navigate things a lot easier and I can get through things in a way I probably couldn’t have done when I was younger. Does it still happen where artists or Black artists in a different genre feel or in a genre that I guess. For instance, for me, I’m a Black woman, Black girl, [and] when I was younger doing rock and roll and rock pop, and there were some naysayers and folks that just didn’t get it.
That was hard for me as a kid for sure, because I was growing up and I was sensitive. I’m still sensitive, but at least I have more wisdom throughout the years. It’s just like being in high school. And if you went back to high school and had to deal with those same bullies and same assholes, and you would probably laugh at them at this point. You’re an adult and be ignorant. “OK, I’ll talk to you later.” But when you’re young and you’re put in a situation where you don’t know how to get through it and you feel you’re just on your own in some way, it’s a lot harder. For me, in the music industry, when I started, I never saw color, [but] other people may have seen that. And that’s why I bring up high school because it’s just such a young mentality to see color. It’s very immature and it’s ignorant to judge someone based on their color.
Has it ever bugged you when journalists want to focus on color as it relates to rock music?
DOBSON: No, it doesn’t bother me. It’s part of my story and it’s part of who I am. I’m shy at times just to even say I’m shy at times and I’m shy at times to even talk about myself. I’ve never been great at talking about myself. I can talk about music all day long and things I like and my ideas and ideals of love and loss, but talking about myself has definitely always been difficult, but it’s very important because you got to tell your story.
There was a point 10 or 12 years back when some of your shelved songs were given to Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Jordin Sparks. Given how industry communication is not always that great, did you feel at the time that you were being credited properly? What went through your mind at that point?
DOBSON: I was just stoked. I was stoked they were out to be honest. And I had met Selena… When did I meet Selena? Around that time and she was adorable and absolutely a sweetheart. I was cool with it. And I met Miley and she was rad and Jordan’s lovely. They were super cool chicks. They’re super cool ladies. Well, they weren’t ladies then, they were girls. They were very young and… But they were just talented and darlings. Now if they were not so cool, then maybe I would’ve felt some sort of way, but I didn’t get any weird vibes from them at all. Jordin’s been super cool. When she talks about the song, she talks about me being a part of this.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of your debut album. Do you have any plans in place to celebrate?
DOBSON: Yeah, I would love a vinyl. That’d be sick. I would love that. It’d be super dope. And I’ve never had a vinyl for any of my records. That would be not only something that I would love to put out for everyone, but for myself, I want to own one.
When you look back at the last 20 years, what are your major takeaways when it comes to sustaining a career in music on your terms?
DOBSON: I would tell my younger self everything’s going to be OK. It’s okay that you’re different. Stay focused, be patient, and just don’t stop, keep going. One of my favorite quotes is by John Lennon — it’s “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” And I’ve lived by that because every time I think I know exactly the path, life takes me on a completely different route and I’m fine with that because I learned so much from it and I believe that life’s about living and learning.
Speaking of learning, are you planning to release your new album independently? Will there be label involvement?
DOBSON: Well, I think the single’s being released independently, but I think Danny’s got some magic up his sleeve.
Is it a goal of yours to be in control of how your music is released?
DOBSON: The industry is so different than it used to be; streaming and all that physical CDs aren’t the thing really anymore, but labels are great though too. They really help with the cash and there’s a lot of great people on labels that they have a lot of expertise and can definitely market and guide you in the right direction and have a lot of relationships, but my team and I, we have a plan and I trust my team.
Are you planning to your around the album? What would you want to bring to your live shows?
DOBSON: Yeah, we met with my agent and we’re chatting about some tours and what’s next, since we released a single and things are moving quickly. So yeah, we’ll definitely be doing some shows.
I want an all-girl band. I’m all about the all-girl band. I want to bring women on stage with me. They can rock out and kick everyone’s asses. Just a lot of energy. I love performing. It’s my time and it’s my moment to connect with people and to finally give this raw emotion of my songs, give the raw emotion of songs to people that are there just to hear it. It’s important to me.
Are there any songs from your earliest albums that you particularly like revisiting in the live space?
DOBSON: Yeah, we perform “Take Me Away,” “Everything,” a little bit of “Bye Bye Boyfriend,” not the whole song. And then on Joy, “Ghost,” Stuttering,” “Can’t Breathe.”
Looking back, it was awesome to perform onstage and finally get all that angst and teenage just venom that was in me that I was going through and all my love and pain. It was like a therapy session on stage. And I think it saved my life 100%. I look back on my life performances as my saving grace and one hell of a ride.