Those who grew up in the early to mid-aughts have the punk and power pop stylings of Avril Lavigne, Hilary Duff, Rihanna, and Fergie permanently etched into our brains. But if you also lived in Canada, you were probably familiar with the sounds of “Bye Bye Boyfriend” and “Take Me Away”, whose music videos received excessive airplay on MuchMusic. Their artist was Felicia “Fefe” Dobson from the Toronto suburbs, who was looking to bring her unique taste into the early 2000s lexicon.
Dobson grew up obsessed with performing and had dreams of being a recording artist from a young age. “I would always be climbing on coffee tables, demanding attention,” she said in 2004. One Christmas, her single mother saved up to buy her a karaoke machine on which Dobson would begin recording the demos and sending them to record labels. “This karaoke machine would take cassette tapes and pull out the lead vocals to allow me to sing the song,” she told me. “I would spend hours after school and on weekends singing everything from Janet Jackson to Guns N’ Roses. It’s a gift that kept on giving. Guess it worked out!”
Born and raised in Scarborough, Dobson grew up in what she refers to as really humble beginnings. “I had my older sister and two younger brothers and our single mom. In my early years, my mom would be playing everything from the Bee Gees and Lionel Richie around the house. Then when you hit those teenage years, whether you want to admit it or not, you start to formulate your own music tastes or open your ears to what older siblings are into,” she said. “My sister used to blast bands like Nirvana on her boombox after school and slam the door to keep me out of her room. I would listen through the crack at the bottom of the door. It was rock, pop-punk, and angsty lyrics that seemed to resonate with me.”
That same angst would ultimately be what the singer would channel into her work, and when she was 14, she received an offer for a recording contract with Jive Records—who had made household names out of Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC. But when it came around to details, Dobson had to turn them down. “It was a really exciting time; as a teenager trying to break into the industry, I thought it would be everything I wanted,” she recalls of that period. “I learned really quickly what the label had in mind for me wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for myself or my career. They were starting to groom me into a pop/R&B-type singer, and that just wasn’t my thing.”
It wasn’t until she started working with Jay Levine and James McCollum, members of Prozzak, who gave her a bit more rock and roll to play with, which Dobson said felt so natural for her. “That’s when things pivoted for me, and I decided to walk away from that initial deal and started working solely with Jay and James on my first album,” she explained. “They were able to blend my influences and background in theatre arts into an album of angsty teen anthems and the purest collection of love and heartbreak songs.”
But the early years of Dobson’s career were not without their hurdles. At the time, the singer spoke on the challenges of being a biracial female singer in an industry that loves to whitewash and assign people to boxes, especially in the early 2000s. (“I don’t think music is about color, I think music is about passion,” was how she put it back then.) Now, Dobson sees those years for how they really were. “I don’t necessarily think of it as a negative experience, but I can’t neglect the microaggressions. That’s my truth,” she told me. “It was little comments about my hair, or body type or skin color (too light for some, too dark for others). I was a teenage girl, developing and growing up, and there were a lot of opinions weighing in during this time because I was a signed artist and to that extent a product for the label to produce, market, and sell.”
She remembers a particular illustration of herself that was once used as a promotional image, and it didn’t show her skin pigment whatsoever. “It was almost like a colorful doodle of me. I guess it was easier to promote me as this almost ambiguous female pop/rock act instead of trying to explain and rationalize why a teenage Black girl from Scarborough was doing rock-driven pop music,” she recalled. “There were a few times, especially where I’d felt almost displaced. I was part white and part black, making edgy rock music. It didn’t make sense for most industry people, but what mattered more to me is that it did make sense to my fans.”
After signing with Island Records and releasing her self-titled debut album in 2003, Dobson soon began work on its follow-up, Sunday Love. Her sophomore effort was initially planned for a release in 2006 following some promotional singles—but it didn’t end up that way, at least not then. Before the record would come out, she was dropped from Island. “[That project] was shelved during a transitionary period at the record label and soon after we parted ways,” she explained. “It was a difficult time, but that album became a fan favorite, and almost this garnered this underground following. It was a really raw album, and I was going through so many changes. I don’t think the team at my label necessarily was aligned with my vision, and I think I got lost in the shuffle, but I’m grateful for that project and the catharsis of writing it. I got to work with some incredible songwriters and producers on that album.”
That underground following would materialize around 2012 when Sunday Love was finally released digitally for the first time. Speaking on the challenges of releasing an album independently long before the rise of Spotify and social media, Dobson believes that good music always finds a way. “I poured so much of myself into that album, and I’m glad it’s available for people to enjoy,” she says. “I’ve very much moved past that time in my life both personally and professionally, but it’s a beautiful reminder 15 years later to reflect on how far I’ve come, and it’s special to me that so many people genuinely connected with an album that didn’t materialize until many years after it was created. Some cuts from that album and demos made their way into the hands of artists like Miley Cyrus, Jordin Sparks, and Selena Gomez. That always makes me happy to think that these heartbreaking moments I wrote about also meant something or were interpreted by some kickass females and became hits for them.”
While the hits of her next album, Joy, would come in the form of the more mainstream pop of “Ghost” and “Stuttering”, Dobson had been giving fans a taste of her third record Joy as early as 2009. “[That album] originally started as an independent project that my label 21 Music was funding,” she said. “When you listen to the album front to back, there’s a point in the tracklisting where it sounds like a car stereo switching between a pop station and an indie station. The second half of that album was part of the original Joy album.”
It would appear that those singles still resonate, as Dobson was recently brought to tears by a lip-synced performance of “Ghost” during her appearance as a guest judge on the second season of Canada’s Drag Race. “Honestly, I’m so grateful and appreciative to the community for really being so kind and supportive,” she said. “I didn’t realize the impact that my music was really having until more recently. The acceptance and empowerment I feel from the LGBTQ+ community are heartwarming, and I just want to send so much love right back at it!”
This year, Dobson is gearing up to release new music and hopefully a new album, her first in 12 years. It starts with the release of its lead single, “FCKN IN LOVE”, which drops on February 25th. “[This song] has been in my vault since 2012, and I’ve always loved it,” she said. It was initially set to be part of an album titled Firebird that the singer was last working on around 2014 that was ultimately scrapped.
“I thought it was the perfect song to pick up where I left off and set a tone for the new music,” she explained. “I’m still actively writing the new album, but we have some music my team and I are excited about that blends the best parts of my previous albums, including Sunday Love. It has that raw, pop/punk rock energy and anthemic lyrics.” She’s also worked with legendary songwriter Linda Perry on the new music, whom Dobson describes as “so nurturing” in the studio environment. “Songwriting is so personal and emotional for artists, and having been an artist herself, in addition to a prolific songwriter and producer, she wants to get the best out of you without overthinking.”
As if new music after so many years wasn’t enough, Dobson has also been contemplating rerecording some of the hit songs from her 2003 debut album, which will turn 20 next year. “Making my first album was such a fun experience. I was young and hungry!” she remembered. “I wanted to get out of my home situation and create a better life I’d always dreamed of. Music was my escape and refuge. I just felt so myself and comfortable in the studio writing and working on it. I could express my feelings through a medium of songwriting and have it sound cool and make sense.
“I just remember it moving quickly once the album was finished. I wasn’t ready for how fast things would happen and hadn’t anticipated that it would be received as massively as it was. I went from a teenager that never went to parties or traveled to flying around the world and meeting so many new and exciting people. I’m excited for the project to turn 20 next year. I feel like a lot of those songs still hold up today. I’m proud of that album.”
When I asked Dobson what her favorite part of being Canadian is, she told me it’s that we feel like one big community. “I feel love from home, of course, but also from lots of places around the world that I’ve toured and places where people stream my music,” she said. “I’m so appreciative of that connection to people on a global level. Canadians and Americans are more familiar with my career and music, but I often receive messages on social media from people in countries around the world who have shown so much love.”