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Interview: Fefe Dobson – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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When Fefe Dobson hit the music scene in 2003, Island Records knew that they were engaging in risky business. Considering Dobson’s chart-topping contemporaries, like Beyonce (“Crazy in Love”), Ashanti (“Rock Wit’ U”), and Mya (“My Love Is Like…Wo”), one central question loomed in the air: “How would the market respond to a black female rock singer, who was also Canadian?” Putting the uncertainty to the test, Fefe Dobson made the music industry go into a state of shock – partly out of excitement, and equally out of confusion.

Like many other artists before her, Fefe was a musical visionary who came way before her time. In a musical arena that expected her to sing R&B ballads or hip-hop hooks, she has always been acutely aware of the up-hill battle that she has to climb. Now that seven years have passed since her debut, Dobson hopes that now, with the release of Joy, she will no longer be viewed as a musical “anomaly,” but musical reality instead.

Following the release of “Ghost,” Joy’s guitar-driven lead single, Fefe Dobson squeezed some time out her busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on her songwriting partnership with Kevin Rudolf, her love of Tina Turner, and the legacy of rock and roll.

As I was reviewing the promotional materials for Joy, I was taken aback by the artwork you chose for the cover. Instead of focusing the image on your face, the viewer finds your body – half-hidden – laying prone on a stage, which is surrounded by speakers and various instruments. What is the underlying message behind the visual imagery?

During my video shoots for “I Want You” and “Watch Me Move,” I was really, really tired, and I just kind of laid down, because I needed some air. Someone took a shot of me, and we decided it was really cool. It’s a really raw shot that does a great job of expressing how much energy I give on the stage. I was completely wiped out! [laughing]

Considering the amount of energy that you dedicate to your live performances, the title of your album appears to be a “no-brainer.” But what about the title track? What life events inspired the song’s lyrics?

It’s really weird, because this “joy” refers to the love of the human anatomy. It’s the joy you get from someone’s body. And then I thought that it would be cool to name the album Joy because of the emotion. I’m also very joyful in general. As I was recording this album, I was feeling great, and I am really excited about the future. I even accidentally bumped into a woman named Joy, who gave me great advice. So I know that the title was right.

As a long-time follower of your career, I’m curious to know your thoughts about the irony of releasing Joy on Island Records – considering your previous history with the label. [NOTE: Island Records dropped Fefe and cancelled her sophomore album, Sunday Love, right before its scheduled release in 2006.]

Yes, it’s pretty wild, huh?

Definitely! [laughing]

Yeah, it felt like it was safe. I believe that everything happens for a reason and I believe that it was meant to be. I’m glad to be home – even if I had to come full circle.

When you look back on the Sunday Love experience and come back full circle to Joy, in what ways was the shelving of Sunday Love a blessing in disguise?

I learned to be more patient with myself. I get really hard on myself easily, and I think I learned to just relax and enjoy life. Just because certain things don’t go well in life, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t beat yourself up and not have any joy.

Your manager Chris Smith has been your bedrock in various uncertain times. What role did he have in guiding you back to Island? And what was the tone of the conversations that revolved around that decision?

Well, Chris, you know, he’s my manager. I’ve been working with him for almost seven years. He’s loyal, and he’s been loyal to my career, as well as to me as an individual. He started his own label, 21 Music, which gave me the ability to have the strength to create this record the way that I wanted it. When he started to go around at the major labels, Island decided they wanted to be a part of it. So I really look up to Chris a lot, because he’s very smart and he knows what he’s doing.

On the songwriting side of the equation, you have collaborated with Kevin Rudolf of several recent projects, including “Round and Round,” which was released as the lead single for Selena Gomez & The Scene’s sophomore album, and “Ghost,” which serves as the lead single for Joy. How did this bond develop?

We met in a meeting that was being held by L.A. Reid, and he brought the two of us, as well as my A&R, together. He thought it would be a cool collaboration, and we hit it off instantly, as soon as we got in the studio.

With the recent success of the Selena Gomez track, I am reminded about another song of hers that was originally destined to be on Sunday Love: “As a Blonde,” which was featured on Kiss & Tell. As a matter of fact, several of Sunday Love’s tracks have been covered by other artists, including Miley Cyrus – who recorded “Start All Over” [on Meet Miley Cyrus] – and Jordin Sparks – who recorded “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head” [on Battlefield]. Is there a cover that you ‘ are particularly fond of?

I love Miley, and I think she did a great job on “Start All Over.” But they all did a great job.

In your most-recent promotional materials, you cite the rock guitar riff of Janet Jackson’s ‘Black Cat’ as a key musical influence. What is it about the guitar or that particular riff that really caught your attention?

Well, for starters, “Black Cat” incorporated a bunch of different types of music into one song. It was pop. It was punk. It was rock and roll. And I am all of those things. I think it hit me as a kid really hard, because I love to experience a fusion of musical genres. But, yeah, you can say that I just love the sound of guitars, too. A guitar is almost like a vocal. It can sound sad. It can sound powerful. That one instrument can express so many emotions.

I know that you play the guitar, but I read that you have also tinkered with the piano. When did you first become introduced to these instruments?

I was introduced to the keyboard around the age of twelve. When I was younger, I took keyboard lessons, but I’m not really good at learning things, when people try to teach me. So that didn’t really help much. It was a waste of money, I think. But I taught myself the guitar when I was about sixteen, seventeen; and I’m still teaching myself everyday.

When I look back over your career, I find it to be very coincidental that you have paid homage to Tina Turner on two separate occasions. [Dobson made an appearance on NBC’s American Dreams – playing the role of Tina Turner – and she covered “River Deep – Mountain High” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th annual induction ceremony on March 15, 2010.] Like Ms. Turner, you have found yourself consistently battling the media and radio, in regards to race and gender issues, when it comes to the stereotypical categorization of music. Do you ever feel like you are walking in Tina Turner’s footsteps and breaking similar barriers for a younger generation?

Well, I believe that music has no color. It really doesn’t. It’s crazy to me that people give it one. And if anyone knows rock ‘n’ roll history, you know that rhythm and blues was the first rock ‘n’ roll anyways. So whenever these like boundaries are in front of me, or presented to me in boxes, like color, I laugh, because I think it’s ridiculous. But Tina Turner was kick-ass. And when I see Tina Turner perform, I don’t listen to her music like: “Oh, she’s black! She can do this.” I was more like: “Wow, she’s unbelievable!”

Tracy Chapman is another black woman doing music that some people would say is going against the grain, but I would say she’s simply expressing what’s in her heart and soul. I have very strong opinions about that, and I’ve had people come up to me and say: “You’re doing white man’s music.” Those kind of comments are really ignorant, and they really should learn more. They should go on the Internet and Google some music history.

Like you, I believe that music – in its truest sense – has no color. And I think a lot of your songs have a universal quality that is hard to duplicate. In addition to “Ghost,” another well-known track off of Joy is “I Want You,” which was featured prominently in the promotional ads for Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It. On top of that, another track off of Joy, “Watch Me Move” was featured in promos for the NBC’s Lipstick Jungle, as well as the title theme for Margaret Cho’s comedy show. What behind-the-scenes negotiations did you have to undergo to place these songs? And when did you become so business savvy?

To be honest, “I Want You” was a really easy song to place. It’s under two minutes in length, and you can use it for anything. Maybe you want B vitamins. Maybe a new Mac! [laughing] I think it worked, in part, simply because of the lyrics and how short it was. It’s also a very punchy song. I’ve had so many big supporters help me, and it’s been amazing! I think it’s really cool when you hear your song in movies or in commercials.

At one point, you pegged “Paranoia” as being a strong contender for a single, but it does not appear on the final tracklist for Joy. What’s the story behind its omission?

In time, I just wrote other songs that I were stronger singles. And as you know, you can only have so many songs on a record. So you kind of have to give some of them the boot. But I plan to use it in other places. I’ll probably use it as a B-side. But who knows? [laughing] It might find its way back on the track list! [laughing continues] I love “Paranoia”! It’s really a fun, cool song.

For more information on Fefe Dobson, visit her official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • Qwerty

    I love Fefe, she’s such a great artist, and really a smart girl. I cannot wait till Joy is released!

  • http://kimcrawley.blogspot.com Kim Crawley

    Clayton- I relate to a lot of what Fefe says in your interview. I’m rooting for a fellow Torontonian, and I’ll definitely purchase Joy.