There was buzz around Canadian pop-rocker Fefe Dobson when she debuted her self-titled first album in 2003: The effort premiered at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers Chart, sold about 300,000 copies domestically, and spawned one minorly successful single, “Take Me Away.” But then Dobson virtually disappeared, and it came to pass that her sophomore album—Sunday Love, which was to hit in 2006—would not be released by her label, Island Records. Until recently, Dobson had stepped away from the studio—or at least singing in the studio—and could mostly be found writing songs for other artists, everyone from Miley Cyrus (“Start All Over”) to Selena Gomez (“Round & Round”). But now, after more than seven years, Dobson has got a couple of new singles—“Ghost” and “Stuttering,” which she recently performed on The CW’s teen cheerleading drama Hellcats—and is finally ready to release another studio album. The disc, Joy, hits retailers today, in fact. To celebrate her return, EW got Dobson on the phone to talk about her scrapped album and the last few years; her new album; who she’s been writing for; and who’d she love to collaborate with in the future. Rock—or rather, read—on.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s talk about your new album, Joy. It’s been a while since you released anything. How are you feeling about getting back out there?
FEFE DOBSON: So excited. I’ve been waiting for this release for forever. I tried to get it to a point where we’re all happy, and I’m happy, and I think we’re ready. I’m ready. I’m so stoked, I can’t explain it to you. I’m smiling right now.
When somebody says, “Give me the pitch for what Joy is,” how do you answer that?
Joy to me is a reflection of the life experiences that I’ve had throughout the first record and kind of having some time and a hiatus. It’s just like all of those experiences that I had during that period—that growing up period. I made my first record when I was 17, and I’m in my early 20s now, so I kind of had some time to figure stuff out.
You grow and change a lot during that period.
Exactly! You grow and evolve and as you do that, your art hopefully reflects that change and that growth. Musically, it’s still rock and roll, but there’s elements of pop because I love pop music. I love rock music, I love country music—I love all music, let’s be honest! But it reflects that and my interests. It’s a really raw record.
Raw in the sense that you feel like you put yourself out there? What does that mean?
Yeah, definitely because I put myself out there and just kind of expressed what’s going on and what’s been up. And it’s raw because, musically and sonically, there’s two sides of the album. There’s the indie side and the pop side, and the indie side is musically very raw, and sonically, and the pop record is more raw lyrically.
Wait, so the pop side is more raw lyrically and…
Basically, what’s happening is that I made this album for like three years. It’s a concept record, and half the record is indie rock and half the record is pop because that’s who I am as an artist. So we kind of wanted to make it more literal, and in a way poke fun, but also just say, “Here it is,” and put it on the table.
Why did it take three years to do? From the outside it seems like a long time to do an album.
Yeah, I mean, it took a while to make this record because there was a record called Sunday Love that wasn’t released. That would’ve been released probably in 2006 or 2007, so I guess maybe it’s been longer than even three years. Why? I guess I needed time to grow up. I needed time to go through all those growing pains to really make music that was me and didn’t sound like other people. At that point in my life I was a young teenager, so I was like, “Am I pretty enough? Am I popular enough? Am I thin enough?” And I needed to go through that process in order to make music that was true otherwise I’d be making music out of insecurity.
I’ve read stuff before that said that you weren’t always necessarily happy with your experiences making albums before. Are you happy with Joy?
I’m really happy with this record. I’m extremely happy with this record. I feel like my fans have stuck by me through so much, and I’m thrilled to give them this album. I just hope that they feel like they’re able to take something from it, so that they don’t feel like they waited for no reason.
Totally. Is there anything from the scrapped album, Sunday Love, that made it onto Joy?
No. I really wanted to start fresh. I felt that Sunday Love was a moment in time and everything happens for a reason, and it’s meant to be on that album to tell that story. And this album is a different story. I don’t want to mix the two stories up, but maybe one day I’ll re-release it, or do an acoustic version of that album.
But some of Sunday Love has trickled out through other artists who recorded songs from it, right?
Yeah, totally. It was so cool to have people cover them. Like Selena Gomez has covered tracks of mine, it was just amazing.
Pick a song from Joy—maybe one of your favorites—that you really love and tell me the story behind it.
Off this album, I’d have to say that there’s a track called “Can’t Breathe” that I’m really excited about. It’s a ballad. Actually, originally, I was writing it for Leona Lewis and halfway through, I was like, “No! I love it too much! I don’t want to give it up!” So I got an amazing producer to produce it—he’s like a legendary producer, he’s from Canada. His name is Bob Ezrin, he produced The Wall from Pink Floyd, and he produced Destroyer for KISS. Peter Gabriel, he’s worked with everybody. But I mean Pink Floyd’s The Wall? It doesn’t get better than that in the rock world. It’s legendary.
Is this the song that has Orianthi on it?
Yes, Orianthi plays guitar on it. We just weirdly and musically—whenever I do that song live—I just really feel a connection, like on another level with that song.
You worked with really cool people on this album—from Kara DioGuardi to JR Rotem. What was it like to work with such bold-faced names?
With Kevin Rudolph, it was really cool because he kind of taught me a new writing style, which I haven’t experienced. He kind of pulled me out of my shell in some ways. When we first started working together, he was like, “Here’s some headphones, start singing some melodies,” and he recorded everything I did—good or bad—and then we went back to listen for which melodies were good. But it was a good writing style because I’m used to sitting with a guitar or piano, and singing things in the air and not recording my mistakes. He was cool about recording everything, because then you find gems. When we got to write another song for someone else, and we got to do “Round and Round” for Selena Gomez, that was really cool to be able to pen that track with Kevin, and he’s just really cool.
How do you know when you write a song—for instance “Round and Round” or the other songs that you’ve written that other artists have recorded—that it’s not for you?
For me, I try my best not to judge the song until the done about whether it’s for me or whether it’s for a country artist or a poppier artist. I don’t really know that until it’s done and I listen to it. If I can’t imagine myself playing it on stage with my band, then I know it’s not for me. If I can’t somehow make it organic, then I know it’s not for me. Whether it just doesn’t sound like me…it’s just something I know when I listen to it. And if it’s just right and I feel like I can perform it, then I know it must mean that it’s me.
So you go into everything like, “Oh I’m writing this, and it could potentially be for me, or it could potentially be for someone else”?
Yeah, “Round and Round” was a song that originally the writing sessions were for me and for my record. And at the end of the day, I thought it would be great for a singer like Selena, and she and her people loved the song, so I was like, “You know what, I think she’d do a great job with it.”
Have you ever thought about putting covers on your albums? A great song you did on American Dreams and for the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame was “River Deep, Mountain High.” Any chance you’ll ever record a cover or two?
I don’t mind covers at all; covers are cool. As long as there’s a way to make the cover my own so that I’m not copying someone. It was a different thing for “River Deep, Mountain High” because it had to emulate Tina Turner for American Dreams, but for Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame, it was the same vibe, it was the same production. But if I were to put a song on my record that I covered, it would have to be where it sounds that only thing that was familiar was the melody and lyrics. The production would have to reflect me as an artist.
That makes sense.
Yeah, because the reason you’re covering them is because they’re so amazing. So if you can’t bring your own vibe to it, it’s like it’s an already awesome song, and that’s great, but what’s your spin on it? What’s your take on it? How do you envision it? It’s already amazing, so you’re going to have to make it different so that it’s more you.
Who do you dream about collaborating with?
I would love to work with Jack White or Kanye West. Them together, that would be amazing.
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky