Photo: Mathew Guido for Spoke Entertainment Inc.
The world first met Fefe Dobson when she was 18 years old. The Toronto singer-songwriter possessed all the pop-punk/punk-rock stylings and angst of the era when her self-titled debut album landed in 2003 — when punk rock’s popularity had spread so far globally that there was increasing demand for more voices that sounded like hers. Except few in the space at the time who made it looked like Dobson, and almost instantly, she was positioned as a sort of representative for young, angry Black girls in the genre. Dobson just wanted to represent herself. Her first album was led in Canada by the single “Bye Bye Boyfriend,” a guitar-driven kiss-off that pump-fakes as a slow elegy for a love lost before speeding up and shifting to snarling satisfaction over their end. Three more singles off Fefe Dobson would follow; “Take Me Away,” the album’s first international release, became its only song to chart on the Billboard 100.
Dobson’s next two decades saw a gauntlet of professional and personal highs and lows. Her sophomore album, Sunday Love, was pushed back and ultimately canceled by her former label, Island Records; she released it independently in 2006. It didn’t help that Dobson was among the first generation of artists dealing with an internet audience in a new and unforeseen manner — direct exposure to fans comments of all kinds, for example, could be found in chat rooms — that poked at, and created, insecurities and self-doubt. But, by the start of the 2010s, she also fell in love with Nashville-based rapper Yelawolf (born Michael Wayne Atha), whom she married in 2019 after getting engaged in 2013; she’s now based in Nashville like so many who came up beside her. Dobson scored another major win in 2012, when Sunday Love finally got a digital re-release, gaining her attention in a different decade, and with a new generation. There were more singles (and songwriting credits, including for Miley Cyrus) along the way — some of Dobson’s older songs will find a proper home on her upcoming comeback album, her first new full-length release since 2010.
Over a call during a recent visit back home to Toronto, Dobson, now 36, is candid about her unexpected journey through the music industry, and her marriage as muse for new song, “FCKN IN LOVE” — an upbeat, disco-infused lead single revealing an artist who hasn’t abandoned the enthusiasm of her youth, but also isn’t burdened by the problems of coming of age that complicated her arrival.
Is it fair to call this comeback a reintroduction?
In 2014, me and my team — my manager, band, label — released a few songs and we were gonna release an album called Firebird. During that time, I went through a transitional period and we didn’t end up releasing it. And then I made another album in Tennessee, which was more indie-rock, and I also didn’t put that out. I put out a song called “Save Me From LA,” and then another song, “Born to You,” got on Riverdale … I keep doing that a lot. I’ll be writing albums, and then I’m like, You know what? I don’t know if this is right yet. So it’s definitely a reintroduction to who I am and my sound and everything that comes with me from the past.
What happens to the music you decide not to put out? Does it show up later? Are some of those songs showing up on this upcoming album?
This new single was written during the time that “Legacy” came out in 2013, and it’s been in the vault. Then we re-listened to it and we said, “We got to put this out.” Sometimes those songs come back and you’re like, Man, what was I thinking? And sometimes you’re like, It’s a good thing I didn’t put that out, because the sound wasn’t quite right. Or it was a time where I was like, You know what, I don’t think this song would have been as big at that time in music. Everything for me happens for a reason, even musically.
What era would you say we’re in now, musically, that signifies that it’s a good time to be making a return?
Music’s in a different place right now. You know, rock-pop is coming back so hardcore, as is punk-pop — and there’s always waves in music, everything is kind of recycled. It’s hard to create something brand new; we pull from inspirations, and it was about time for this genre to bounce back. With the world where it’s at, we need this kind of music — we’re in a place of wanting to be honest and have some rebellious music and raw energy.
When you first arrived, you had this dual side of anger and anxiety, and on the other hand, a carefree kind of romantic. What do you say your energy is like now?
Definitely on the first album, there’s moments of frustration, anger, teenage angst: “Unforgiven” is about growing up without my dad and all the things he missed; “Revolution Song” is about my broken home. It was because I was trying to be heard and it was the first time I was able to talk about my problems and issues as a kid and actually have people listen. But throughout my career, I’ve also talked a lot about love because I wear my heart on my sleeve.
How do you funnel your rage now?
By getting it out musically and just growing up. I still talk about things if I’m hurt or affected by a human being; I have to express it. I just try to breathe through it at this point and not lose my cool, even though I’m a Pisces. Look, I’m a super emo. I’ve actually been pretty cool out here in Toronto and no one’s really got on my nerves yet.
How does Toronto compare to Nashville?
No matter how long I’m gone for, it always feels like home. I have a lot of friends here, my family is out here, my team is out here. I’ve lived in Nashville off and on since 2013 and it’s definitely different but I love it. Nashville has a really strong, strong community. When times get tough out there — we get insane tornadoes that rip through the city — people come together and really help each other. It’s a small, big city; you continuously bump into the same people. So you have to be good to everybody.
How do either of those cities compare to L.A., where you’ve also lived?
I was so drawn to L.A. because of the rock-and-roll history: The Viper Room and Whisky a Go Go and Jim Morrison and all that, I was obsessed. I actually even moved onto Jim Morrison’s street where he used to live in the ’60s, called Love Street, that he sang about in one of his songs. I think that L.A. has some really beautiful aspects and it helped me write a lot of songs, so I am thankful.
How did “FCKN IN LOVE” come about? I imagine it has something to do with your husband Yelawolf?
Wolf and I have been together for 12 years, and so we just had this great night, and it might have been a great morning too, actually. And I literally had to go into the studio and write about it because some magical things happened.[Laughs.] I just gotta say how I’m feeling and scream it.
You know, relationships are not always rosy and wonderful and rainbows. There’s a lot of storms that happen and I would definitely say my husband and I have gone through a lot. We’ve gone through everything there possibly is to go through together, in some way, with heartbreak. And I went through a really tough time and fans have always asked, What’s going on with them? And so it’s my side of the story, really, in a lot of ways.
You’ve also experienced heartbreak in your career. Take me back to your second album and the pain and drama that followed it. How do you contextualize that experience now?
When it first happened, for sure there was disappointment and I was trying to figure out what went wrong. And even for years after, it was the same thing; it was kind of hard for me to even listen to the album. A song would come on and I would have anxiety about it for days. I’ve come to a place with that album where I have an appreciation for it now. It happened for a reason. I realized through “As a Blonde” for Selena Gomez and “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head” for Jordin Sparks, and all the amazing women that ended up celebrating it, it became something bigger than if I had put it out myself. And was validation and a reminder that everything is going to be okay.
Do you view yourself as this sort of unsung predecessor to the reinvention of punk by Gen Z that you’ve been made out to be?
It’s so hard for me to be able to say that about myself. It’s difficult because I get very shy with it, and it’s also weird to say I get shy with it. I don’t really know how to be anyone but myself through the years so, for me, I was just just living. I dress the way I dress because this is what feels good on me; I’ve stuck to this haircut because it’s my vibe, and I don’t really look great in many haircuts; and the way I sing is just the way I sing because that’s just my voice. When I think about what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished, I look at it thinking I’m so thankful for really just being me.
Still, at the same time, you were one of the few Black girls who held mainstream space in this genre. Did you ever feel an unfair burden because of that dynamic?
No, because I looked up to people like Janet Jackson, and I’m so thankful that I was able to find that in another woman. She represents how I feel, my style and my energy. I don’t think it was a burden. If anything, it was a connection to people who saw me like them. I wish I hung out with these girls, boys, and whoever else and just connected to them on a deeper level.
Who were some other women in music that you felt represented in?
First of all, I love women that are unapologetic. I love that strength that comes from a woman. So Tina Turner, for me. Not only is she an amazing artist and performer, but so is her personal story and her legacy — getting through an abusive relationship, changing a genre. They said it’s a man’s world and she kicked the doors down.
When you first debuted, do you remember those comparisons to Avril Lavigne, who had also debuted a few months before you? The coverage was so limited to your similarities of simply being two teenage Canadian girls in the same genre breaking at the same time. Did that affect you?
I definitely had identity issues and that was mainly because, I’m 18 years old at that point, and thrown into this world where there’s photos of you and you’re online and people can see your flaws and your clothes maybe didn’t fit that great that day. And so there’s all these things I’m dealing with. And yes, Avril and I came out around the same time and we’re both Canadian. When I saw her I was like, Oh my God, she’s so beautiful. How am I gonna compete with this girl? I didn’t know 100 percent how it would affect me, coming out so young and not really knowing myself. When the video for “Take Me Away” came out, I literally cried in my manager’s office because I didn’t think I looked beautiful and I was so petrified of that. Growing up, my mom’s white, my brothers are white, and my dad’s Black but he was never around. My Blackness was never really celebrated and I was never taught to appreciate those features, so that was hard. It wasn’t their fault, it’s just when you’re the only one that’s different in your household, you need more. You need to be told and taught and encouraged on a different level.
What would have made a difference for you at that age and how have you grown since then?
As time progressed, I love my lips, I love my butt, I love my hips. I’m a beautiful woman and every day I grow and I’m really learning who I am. As a young girl, I could have been educated and taught that I was beautiful.
I remember all those years ago, when you were on TRL at some point, one of the hosts asked what you wanted most from your career and you said you wanted to be a legend. What do you want now?
Same thing. I’m still trying to get that legendary status.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dobson told the Black Girl Songbook podcast in April 2021 that she and Yelawolf were “getting a divorce right now.” Two months later she told Refinery 29 that they were still married. “I am so in love with love that it’s bad and good for me,” she said.
Both Gomez and Sparks ended up covering Dobson’s songs to great success.
Their sonic similarities and style, though, are scant. Dobson told The Observer in 2004: “Before I was signed, people would look at me, and go, “Oh my God, you’re going to be the next R&B singer.’ And then when I sang, people were like, ‘You have a pop voice, you can be the next Britney Spears.’ It was always Brandy or Britney, or Brandy-plus-Britney.”