The last time Canadian singer-songwriter Fefe Dobson released an LP was in 2010. The first iPad was just released. American Idol was still the biggest television show. One Direction were formed, and Katy Perry became the first woman in history to score five number-one singles from one album, Teenage Dream, during its first release. That year, Dobson released Joy, which enjoyed the success of the singles “Ghost” and “Stuttering”, a more mainstream departure from the pop-punk of her first two albums. Over a decade later, the singer is preparing to release its follow-up, Emotion Sickness, which she promises is a return to the old-school Fefe of yore.
Even though it’s been nearly 13 years since the last Fefe Dobson album, she’s never stopped writing or creating music. “It’s just in my nature to write and create,” Dobson told me. Following Joy, she released some singles like “Legacy”, “In Better Hands”, and “Save Me From LA”, which were supposed to be included on an album she was working on at the time called Firebird. The singer describes her music like her children in that she has difficulty making all her thoughts, feelings, and emotions visible to the world. “The Firebird album was really special, but I also felt like there was some great expectation for the follow-up to Joy, and that wasn’t what I was chasing,” she said. “I think the resurgence of alt music to the mainstream and the way in which genres are bending really felt like an opening I needed to make a return to music for me.”
Interestingly enough, the lead single from the forthcoming Emotion Sickness is “Fckn in Love”, which was intended for inclusion on the unreleased Firebird. After reconnecting with her management team during the pandemic after some years apart, Dobson went to work on a new album, working with writers and producers everywhere from Los Angeles, Nashville, and Toronto. “It was like unfinished business for us, and we wanted to get new music back on the map,” she explained. But as in the nature of every artist, the singer wasn’t loving the results. She felt it was trying too hard to lean into current Top 40 trends and losing what Dobson described as the “true essence” of her art.
But everything changed when she wrote a song called “Hungover”, which prompted her to scrap what she had and lean into the sound that would ultimately become Emotion Sickness. The album’s title, euphonious as it is, isn’t an exaggeration. “I wrote the entire album in a span of two to three months of a turbulent time in my own relationship,” she told me.
Dobson describes her new LP as a culmination of her first two studio records, a true reversion to the early 2000s version of her artistry. When I asked her what prompted that creative decision, she didn’t hesitate. “I think I know my sound and feel confident in my songwriting again. There’s a piece of me that never changes,” Dobson said. “The little girl from Scarborough, Canada, who loves love and wants a better life and is overflowing with emotion. I think I’ve evolved as a person and as an artist, and that’s reflected in the production choices and artwork for this project.”
As a result of this return to her roots, the singer has also been vocal about the challenges she faced coming of age in the music industry as a Canadian biracial singer of pop-punk and rock music. In a recent appearance on Jessi Cruickshank’s Phone a Friend podcast, she mentioned how she was referred to as “Brandy Spears” growing up in the industry, their only way of understanding her and her sound. When I asked her what she makes of how the entertainment industry has and hasn’t improved in such areas since then, Dobson described it all as still a work in progress.
“I think that people in general are more aware of these instances, but it’s not to say we’re in an incredibly progressive space since that time per se,” she said. “In the early era of my career, I think the industry was focused on putting artists in categories and boxes to sell them effectively. These days, I think there is a lot of improvement in terms of bending genres or having a rap artist on a rock song, for example.”
Casual racism and microaggressions are not the only ways that pop music and culture have and have not changed since Dobson’s initial bouts of success. While the singer’s self-titled debut album enjoyed its fair share of accomplishments when released in 2003, Dobson’s sophomore effort Sunday Love was shelved by Island Records ahead of its originally scheduled release, and the label dropped Dobson. Listening to that record with 2023 ears, it’s unmistakable that it was abandoned because it was a little too edgy and provocative for its targeted mainstream audience of 2006. But today, success for artists who have followed in Dobson’s pop-punk and rock footsteps, like Olivia Rodrigo and Willow Smith, is found in the masses.
Fefe Dobson admires young female singers of the moment like Smith and Rodrigo, whom she described as “absolutely killing it right now”. She rationalizes it all as being a different time when working on her second album. “I do have a love/hate relationship with [Sunday Love], but it needed to happen,” she said. “I think overall, the label was going through their own transitions at the time, and my project was an abrupt change from my debut album in terms of my image and the darker sound. They didn’t know what to do with me or that album. I was definitely in my feelings about it at the time, but in hindsight, I don’t resent anyone or anything about that time.” Since several songs from that album were covered by artists such as Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and Jordin Sparks, Dobson knows now it was more about the time and place being right and not whether she was good enough.
In the years since her last album, Dobson chose to leave Los Angeles and settle in Nashville, a place she labels as a music capital for all genres, not just country. “Some of the greatest songwriters and producers are based out there. It’s a very music-driven place,” she said. At the time she made the move, she’d begun getting the feeling that her time in Los Angeles was expiring, a sensation she doesn’t feel at all in Nashville. She was looking for a new perspective.
“I’m a bit of a wanderer that way,” the singer explained. “I love to explore new places and make new memories. Those experiences are how we grow and learn and inspire my songwriting. I’ve been in Nashville for years and made some incredible friends.” Since starting to release music again, however, she’s been feeling what she called a gravitational pull back towards Los Angeles and maintains that she’s never been tied down to only one place.
On the campier side of Dobson’s new material, she’s spoken about being someone whose heart breaks very easily and describes herself as “very emo”. It strikes me that this is a large part of what has made listeners stick with her for two decades, as, more than anything, being emo is a state of mind. She’s willing to lean into the full extent of her emotions for her art. “I’m a Pisces; it’s just who I am. I love hard,” she laughed.
Dobson said this is precisely what her new album is all about. “It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and those intense feelings you get along the way,” she clarified. “I think my fans really responded and continue to because it’s honest. I’m not chasing the charts and pumping out records constantly. I need to take the time to live and love to write from an honest place, and I think that’s what they’re connecting with. These are real-life situations, experiences, and emotions we can all relate to. There’s a little emo in all of us!”