Fefe Dobson Has Been Here All Along
The singer made her mark as one of the few Black pop-punk singers of the early aughts. Now she reflects on that time and how things have changed.
Back when eyebrow rings, Chuck Taylors and raccoon eyeliner were all the rage in the early aughts, Fefe Dobson emerged as a singular pop-punk force. At the time, she weathered comparisons to fellow Canadian Avril Lavigne, and rode the pop-punk wave alongside Paramore. But Dobson’s songs—fierce pop jaunts with gritty guitar riffs—made a splash with moody emo kids. In a genre that was largely dominated by white women, Dobson inspired Black alternative kids who saw themselves in her. “I've had a lot of young and older Black kids, Black women and Black men tell me how much I've impacted them,” she tells NYLON. “When they tell me, it's a blessing.”
With rebellious, uptempo singles like “Everything” and “Take Me Away,” her self-titled 2003 debut focused on the rush of teen love. Throughout the next decade, she’d go through a rollercoaster with her label Island/Def Jam and release two other albums. Aside from a handful of acting roles the past few years, things went quiet.
But that’s changed. Now, at 35, Dobson resides in Nashville where she’s largely been working on her own music the past few years. Most recently, she was asked by Linda Perry to sing “White Line Runaways,” the track that ends the Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira-led dramedy Unpregnant and is featured on its soundtrack. “Linda Perry is a legend and working with her was just a dream come true,” she said.
With the release of her new song, NYLON caught up with Dobson about what it was like working with Perry, her next album, and the challenges she faced being a Black girl making rock music in the early aughts.
It was a welcomed surprise to hear your new song “White Line Runaways” at the end of Unpregnant.
Thank you. It was a fun surprise to hear from Linda [Perry]. It's a cool story. I was on vacation four months ago and me and the family just went in a little cabin out in North Carolina, baking cookies and going on the lake. And I get this random email at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. and it's just “Searching for Fefe Dobson.” That was the subject line. I was like, "Ah, I don't want to be punked. Am I being punked?" Because I had never met her previous to this [song]. I didn't even know how she found me. And so I responded, I was like, "Oh my God. Yes, it's Fefe." It was such an honor, and she instantly gave me her number and was like, "Give me a call, I need to talk to you." So again, I'm like, "Is this really her?" At first, I was like, "Maybe I'll just wait a few hours," to try to get the balls to call Linda Perry. She's such a legend, but my gut told me to call her instantly. And so I went out and called her and she was so chill. It was like I had known her from before. She was just so rad. She was like, "Do you want to do this song?" It was just really crazy timing because I'm actually in the middle of making my album. So I was like, "Man, can I write with you now too for my album?" And then I heard the song, and I was like, "I'm in." I was already in before this offer.
What appealed to you about the song in particular?
Linda Perry is a legend and working with her was just a dream come true. But her melody and her lyrics are so "rock girls are great." And I really have a connection with girls coming together and women coming together, and the movie is about that: two girls and their friendship and embarking on this journey. It really attracted me. I told Rachel [Lee Goldenberg] the director, I said, "In the last hour and a half, I have cried, laughed." I'm like, "I feel all these emotions, it's amazing." There's so much heart in that movie.
Did you get Linda to work on your album?
Not yet. But I'm definitely going to bug her until we sit at a piano through Zoom.
What have you been up to the past decade?
The past decade, I've done some movies. A movie called Home Again. It's a foreign film, Jamaican. I did a Christmas movie actually called Christmas in Compton. And then I did some TV with The Listener. I've been writing. I'm actually writing an album right now with Jim Jonsin. So we're working on that at the moment, but I've written a lot throughout the years. I've had a family life, I've been just growing up. I moved to Nashville from Toronto. There's been music I had after Joy: We released a couple of other singles called “Legacy” and “In Better Hands.” There's been music in between management; [I’ve been] trying to figure out my right team. And it takes time.
Have you written for other artists throughout the past decade?
I just started working on Austin Mahone's album. I was out with Jim [Jonsin] with a couple of other writers out in Nashville for about two-and-a-half weeks, and we were working on Austin's album. That happened three weeks ago.
You're married to Yelawolf. Have you guys continued to make music together?
We've made a couple of songs together. We had a song called “Animal” on his album Radioactive. That was produced by Diplo. We've done a couple of other things together. The song on the Riverdale soundtrack on season one, episode seven, he co-produced that with me. We try to work together as much as possible.
Your debut album had such an impact on early 2000s culture. What happened when it was released and you found fame? What was that experience like for you?
Well, it came out in 2003 with "Take Me Away." I'm Canadian and doing music was my dream. When it came out, it was just such a crazy experience. I remember just being in the parking lot of some radio station when I heard it for the first time on radio in the U.S. And I think everybody around me was flipping out way more. I didn't understand, I was so young. I was 17 years old, so the impact didn't hit me so much until I started doing a lot of TRL and things like that and traveling. When I did the “Justified” Justin Timberlake tour in Europe, that's when things really started hitting me like, "Wow, my life is changing," and I was so thankful to travel and to see success, but also just to make a name for myself. That was my goal as a kid, to get out of the situation I was in as a child and just try to make something better of myself.
How different do you think things would have been if you were starting out today as opposed to 17 to 20 years ago?
I definitely think there's no such thing as genre these days. When I was coming out in 2003, I remember people saying to my manager, like "Do you really think this Black girl's going to do this rock-pop stuff and this is going to work?" I don't think that would be even said today. I think that's a big difference. There are no boundaries with genre, and you can do anything you want, and you can have one record with a punk song. Then, the next couple of songs down on the tracklist, you can have a country track. I think that's what's so amazing about music right now.
What challenges did you face as a Black woman putting out punk rock music on a mainstream label back then?
Well, just naturally being a young teenager, you are still trying to figure out who you are. And then when other people are trying to figure out who you are on a different scale, on a bigger scale, it gets hard. Being a Black girl doing pop-rock in the early 2000s was definitely interesting because people were curious like, "What is this about? Why is this happening?" And it was hard because me and Avril [Lavigne] came out at the same time. I loved Avril and we're both from Canada obviously, and we were compared all the time. It didn't really make sense to me. We were so different. My manager got questions all the time like, "Do you really think this Black girl is going to do pop-rock and this will work?" And he was like, "What are you guys talking about?" It's insanity. That's an insane question, first of all.
You were wrongly categorized a lot as an R&B singer when you were younger, too.
Right. When I had first come out, they'd see me and they'd be like, "Okay, we get it." They first said, "’Brandy Spears" because her voice is pop, but she's Black. It was very weird. They would see me, and they instantly thought I did R&B. But then they'd hear me and they were like, "Wow."
It took several years for the second album you recorded (and the third one you released) Sunday Love to come out. What happened there?
So, the first album was the debut album, and then we made Sunday Love and it got shelved because certain people had left the building and there were budget cuts and whatnot. While making Sunday Love, I was dropped [by my label] and had to go back [to Canada] and try to figure it out. Through that time, before my third album came out, I wrote on that album you see the credits [for] "Don't Let It Go To Your Head," which ultimately Jordin Sparks did and "As A Blonde," where Selena Gomez covered that song on her album. Then, one day I was in Toronto, and I had left my record label or wasn't with them, and I turn on MuchMusic and Miley Cyrus was singing a song called "Start All Over.” I'm watching this video and I'm like, "Why do I know this song?" And it was one of the songs I wrote during the making of Sunday Love. I just knew then that I had to keep going. It was a stressful time not having the label and whatnot. But then I went to LA and got re-signed to Island Def Jam [by] L.A. Reid. Then I made Joy, and Joy was a successful album out in Canada with "Ghost" and "Stuttering," and then Sunday Love came out years later. I don't even know when it was put out because I wasn't told. It was just put out.
Do you feel like you had a hand in Selena Gomez's career?
She did "As A Blonde," and then during the making of Joy, I wrote a song called "Round and Round" with Kevin Rudolf, and she did that one as well. I've never really spent time with her, so I can't say I've had a huge part in the beginning of her career, but I'm really proud of her for what she's done, and I'm proud of Miley [Cyrus]. I love seeing these young girls grow up and just kill it. It's awesome.
You had a wildly successful debut album. Do you feel like the changes at the label and the shelving of your second record changed the trajectory of your career and perhaps caused you to lose some momentum?
Maybe so. At that time, I would probably have said "Yes, 100%." But now I really believe everything happens for a reason in some strange way, and I just think that that album was meant for other things. Sunday Love was meant for other things. And I think those things were for Miley or for Selena or Jordin. I thought it was for me, but there was a bigger picture. And I think that that helped me in a lot of ways, in the bigger picture. What I'm talking about is showing me that I can write or that I can have success in other ways and giving me that push to never give up. Even though I had success after Sunday Love and success with Joy and “Stuttering,” always knowing in the back of my head that I can write for other people is an amazing feeling because it means other people can get my feelings, emotions, and sing about my drama. It's a cool experience to hear someone else's voice with your idea.
Did you feel like it was an uphill battle for you in the music industry over the years?
When you're young, everything feels like an uphill battle. From how you dress and you see yourself and you're like, "Oh, why did I wear that?" When you're a teenager, you're just trying to figure everything out. You're trying to rebel, you're trying to just figure out which guy's going to like you and boyfriend crap. When it comes down to music, I think it was a little bit [of an uphill battle] at times because I always have been one to never try to fit in. When I was young in elementary school, I wore my mom's hand me downs from the 1960s. I always tried to look and be different, and it hasn't always worked in my favor. It has made things harder at times when I was younger. But I wouldn't change anything, and I'm always going to just follow my gut and do what I feel is me. I don't want to fit in. It's just not my thing.
How long have you been working on your fourth album?
A minute. I worked on another album and this was a couple of years ago and it was just me writing, literally just creating music. I made this really chill music and one of the songs got used for Riverdale. And then I decided not to go with the album and started again. Now, me and Jim are four songs in or so, but our goal is February to release this album. We're working super hard trying to get it all done.
Is the new album still going to be called Firebird?
No, that album was the album with "Legacy" and "In Better Hands." We released a couple of singles from that, but we didn't end up releasing the album. I've made so many albums and there's some that I'm like, "Okay, let's put it out." And there's some that I just decide to hold on to.
What can people expect from this record sound-wise?
It's going to be true to my sound—rock-pop. I love 808s. I'm obsessed with 808s and Jim Jonsin's the king of 808s. So, just soulful, honest music. I'm going to be as honest as I possibly can.