Fefe Dobson Is Ready To Let It All Out Again
The Canadian singer-songwriter’s ascent was riddled with racist attempts to brand her as someone she wasn’t. Almost 20 years later, she’s still doing it her way.
Fefe Dobson is well-acquainted with rage. You can hear Dobson’s particular brand of fury on her 2003 breakout hit, “Bye Bye Boyfriend,” a breakup anthem that revels at the chance to knock out her ex with an onslaught of lyrical punches. Or in the gut-wrenching ballad “Unforgiven,” in which she tells off her absent father for a childhood of broken promises (“Daddy, daddy, don't you know you hurt me constantly,” she sings.) She wrote the latter when she was 17 and an expert on the two kinds of teen angst: heartbreak and parental frustration. “I was pissed off for a lot of things when I was younger,” the Toronto-born singer-songwriter tells me. “I still have a lot of rage. A lot of rage. I never did anger management because I wrote music. That was my anger management. And at that age, I had to let it out.”
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And let it out, she did. In expressing her anger the '00s pop punk way — through lots of head banging, heavy guitar riffs, and even heavier black eyeliner — Dobson and her raucous songs managed to make waves in a year dominated by white rock acts like Evanescence, Linkin Park, and The White Stripes, and, on the other end of the Billboard spectrum, hip-hop and R&B staples 50 Cent, Chingy, and Ashanti. While she was battling demons and daddy issues on her records, Dobson was also fighting against a music industry that didn’t know what to do with a Canadian Black girl with an emo rock voice.
Almost 20 years later, she is remembered as an outlier in an overwhelmingly white genre with Black roots, but her trailblazing contributions are still often overlooked. As pop punk slowly makes its way back to the charts (and TikTok), and Dobson readies another comeback album, it’s time she gets her due. Dobson’s keeping the same energy she’s had for two decades in this business: She’s not trying to fit in. “I can't fit in a box. I know I can't because I never have. I didn't even fit in a box when I was just a kid in school before I had a [record] deal. No one could ever pinpoint who I was or what I was. It was always like, ‘Fefe's different,’” Dobson says with a smile.
Dobson is sitting across from me on a grassy hill under a tree on a sunny day in June in downtown Toronto. She’s visiting from Nashville, TN, where she lives now, to shoot a guest spot on Canada’s Drag Race and to film a music video for her upcoming album. She’s wearing ripped black skinny jeans, a leather Gucci fanny pack, a faded oversized grey T-shirt, and a black trucker hat with “Lynyrd F*ckyng Skynyrd” sprawled across it in white letters. Time feels like it’s suspended in the early aughts aka the black-wristbands-and-studded-belts-with-no-practical-function era; Dobson, now 36, looks the same as she did 18 years ago when I turned on the nation’s music station MuchMusic to see that face singing those songs and stopped everything I was doing.
Like most things I saw on Much at the time and obsessed over as a pre-teen, I decided that Dobson was a gift to me personally from the universe. But Dobson was also more than that. Her presence in the pop landscape felt like permission — to be Black and angry in public, to partake in the cathartic release of the rage-fuelled emo music in a genre that had a unique way of articulating the isolation I knew all-too well as a Black girl growing up in predominantly white spaces while also making me feel excluded from it. Being “different” was — depending on where you fell on the high-school hierarchy — a blessing or a curse. But Dobson’s singularity gave unspoken approval to millennial Black girls to just be — whatever that may look like. I call them Dobson Descendants, awkward angsty Black girls who were quirky before it was cool, and who saw Dobson’s popularity as a ticket to the freedom of self-expression.
The freedom to be herself is something that Dobson had to fight for. Racist attempts to “rebrand” her started early. Dobson turned down a development deal at 15 when record executives dubbed her “Brandy Spears” (as in Norwood and Britney). “She's Black, but she's got this pop, white, voice. That's how they looked at it,” Dobson recalls the offensive nickname while petting her purse-sized fluffy pomeranian named Trailer Party, who is curled up on a patch of grass beside her. “It just felt wrong.” Thankfully, Jay Levine and James Bryan McCollum from Canadian duo Prozzäk were working on their own music in a studio next door as she reluctantly did her best Brandy Spears. They needed a female vocalist for the pop rock track “Get A Clue.” It was everything Dobson had been looking for. “To this day, Fefe is the strongest singer as far as raw talent, energy, and pure passion in her delivery that I've worked with,” Prozzäk’s Levine says over email. “At the time people expected her to be an R&B artist but when we [played] around with rock, she totally shined.” From there, Dobson was done trying to live up to the misguided expectations of out-of-touch music execs. “I went to lunch with the label and turned them down,” she says. “I made sure I ate the free lunch first.”
The next day, Dobson’s innate sense of self is on full display on the set of our Refinery29 photoshoot. She’s wearing the same jeans and hat as the day before, this time with a green plaid shirt wrapped around her waist and a vintage Billy Ray Cyrus tour tee. She’s sipping Red Bull as she peruses the racks of clothing, most of which she politely vetoes. Dobson knows what she likes. At one point, she takes it upon herself to add cuffs and spiked jewelry to a powder blue Danielle Guizio linen suit as she yells, “We gotta rock and roll this shit!” Dobson’s style is part of what made her appealing to her fans, including R29 Canada’s art director Yazmin Butcher, who is spearheading this shoot while also trying to contain the excitement of being in the same room as her idol. “Thank you for helping me believe it was okay to be myself,” I overhear Butcher tell Dobson. Dobson says she gets that a lot. “It feels amazing because at that age, I was just trying to be myself and I didn't really have anyone to look up to.”
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Dobson wasn’t always so self-assured. She grew up in Scarborough, ON in “a very angry household.” Dobson was raised by a single mother with her three siblings, all of whom are white. Her parents split before she was born. “There was a lot of tension. I walked on eggshells ever since I was a little girl,” Dobson says. I can imagine that there is an inherent uncertainty that comes with being mixed-race in a world that operates in rigid binaries, especially when one parent, let alone the one of the race you identify most with, is missing. “I was trying to find my identity while realizing I was different in my own household,” she says. “There were moments when I felt like I didn't fit in, or I felt like my colour wasn't being celebrated in my home. I didn't feel beautiful. I felt like I was comparing myself all the time. I don't blame anyone in my home for that. But, that's how I felt.”
Dobson recalls “little things,” like her mom not knowing how to comb her curly hair. It’s both surprising and impressive that Dobson was able to forge a strong musical identity while growing up in a home where she felt so othered. When the world was trying to tell me who to be as a Black girl, I at least had the haven of my Black family. Dobson didn’t (she has family in Jamaica on her dad’s side who she has never met, including her uncle, famous former Olympian Donald Quarrie), but she found a safe space in the music shared in her house — from her mom’s Phil Collins and Bob Marley records to her older sister’s Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses CDs.
Music was also a refuge at school. Dobson says she was picked on a lot at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts in Scarborough. (Other notable alumni include Nina Dobrev and Shamier Anderson.) As one of her former bullies would tell her when she ran into her years later, Dobson was an “easy target” because she was “so emotional.” Casually dropping that one day Justin Timberlake was going to know her name probably didn’t help, although that did eventually come true. Shortly after blowing off those gross “Brandy Spears” executives, Dobson landed a record deal with Island Def Jam and her first major tour at 18, opening for none other than Timberlake.
I point out to Dobson that she and Timberlake, and the reaction to both artists, can tell us a lot about the music industry. He was a white guy co-opting Black art and getting praised for it, while Dobson was just another addition to a long line of Black women who ruled rock music, a genre that has always been Black, and yet she was labelled an outsider. “I hadn't thought about it honestly,” she says slowly, like she’s about to choose her next words carefully. “I was just so obsessed with the opportunity. I'm this little girl from Scarborough and my dreams are looking at me in the face, that’s all I was thinking about,” she says.
Now that she’s an adult, Dobson looks back at some other memories from the early days of her fame differently, seeing them for what they were: racist microaggressions. Like the time during her appearance on the now-defunct German music station VIVA, when a VJ asked her point blank: “What’s it like being Black?” Dobson scoffs at the absurdity of the question, but remembers feeling uneasy in the moment. Then there was the U.S. art for her second single, “Take Me Away.” The image was a sketch of Fefe’s face — outline only. “There was no pigment,” she says. “I never thought about it when I was younger, but now I think it was to not shock people.” In other words, they wanted audiences to think she was a white girl. “Yeah, it looked like Angelina Jolie,” she laughs.
Dobson is still laughing, more nervously now, when she takes me back to the first time she saw Avril Lavigne on TV. It was 2002 and the Napanee, ON native was debuting her music video for her first single “Complicated.” It was just weeks before Dobson was planning to drop her first single. “I was like, ‘Damn it!’ because I thought that the vibe was similar,” she says. “It was just like, man, I'm not going to compete with this girl. She's blonde, she's pretty, she's skinny. I got booty, I got my muscular legs. I thought, do my Dickies even fit me that way, like they fit on her?”
The rest is music history. As Macleans put it a few years later, “unlike… Avril Lavigne, Fefe never managed to make the leap to overnight stardom.” No disrespect to Lavigne, whose infectious bops are eternal, but it’s not a stretch to say that she didn’t have to “leap” as high or as far to get commercial success, label support, and marketing as Dobson did. As progressive as “we” in Canada pretend to be, this country favours white rock acts, too. Dobson has only ever been nominated for two JUNO awards: Breakthrough Artist of the Year (which went to Feist) and Pop Album of the Year (which Lavigne took home) in 2005. She has never won.
Dobson isn’t as ready to say that her Blackness hindered her success in the music industry, because she also recognizes her privileges within it. “I've had a great career, and I'm very thankful for everything that I've had and everything I've gone through, and I’m sure [white artists] had tough times too and went through some shit.” When it comes to Lavigne, Dobson understands that there are limits to the comparisons between the two artists. “You can't take anything away from how talented she is,” Dobson says. “She's an amazing writer and she's had hit after hit. And we actually got to kick it a few times and she's really cool.” It feels like there’s a but coming. “But again, I was ‘different,’ and she fit in a mould. In that genre, I made no sense at that point. It scared people.”
Black women are used to instilling fear just by daring to exist, and Dobson was inadvertently attempting to disrupt the careful appropriation of an entire genre of music. Of course, the industry was terrified. But Dobson was afraid, too. “I was always fearful I wasn't cute enough or pretty enough,” she says. Even though Trixie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ma Rainey, Big Mama Thornton, Tina Turner (who Dobson played in an episode of American Dreams) and Macy Gray, to name just a few, had come before her, Dobson says her experience on the charts was lonely. “I didn't know who to look to. I didn't look like Ashlee Simpson, or Avril, or whoever,” she says. “Now, as an adult, it's like, Damn right, I didn't! I am a beautiful woman. But then I didn't know how to do my hair. Makeup artists would make me look crazy.”
In these moments, when whiteness messes with your confidence, the key is community. When I ask Dobson who the Black people were that she surrounded herself with in order to get her through her most insecure episodes, she brings up one of her best friends, Anastasia “Stacey” Gordon. They’ve known each other since high school. “Stacey definitely let me know I was beautiful and helped me a lot with navigating through the craziness and overwhelming moments over the years,” Dobson says.
One of those overwhelming moments was when Dobson’s sophomore album Sunday Love, which was supposed to be released in September 2005, was scrapped and she was dropped by her label after the first single, the broody “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head,” didn’t chart well. “It was heartbreaking,” Gordon says over the phone. “When you think about being ‘shelved,’ it’s being put back and not given the time and space to grow, that’s something that is common among Black women in this industry. Especially to the point Fefe had built her career up to, that word ‘shelved’ still rocks me. As her friend and support system, I had to keep reminding her that it didn’t mean she wasn’t good enough.”
But that’s exactly how Dobson took it.
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She was living in L.A. at the time, had just gone through a bad breakup, and cut her hair into a choppy pixie. She was mad mad, and the music and her style reflected that. Dobson wasn’t the “Everything” bubblegum pop punk princess of albums past. “I showed up at a Grammy party in these pants that I bought because Billie Joe [Armstrong] from Green Day wore them,” she recalls. “I was in a T-shirt, my spiked-up hair and choker, and these red punk pants. They were rock ‘n’ roll but everyone was like, ‘What? She’s out of control!’”
Even though the behaviour she’s describing to me sounds pretty tame on the rockstar meltdown scale, and would maybe even have been encouraged if Dobson was, say, white and male like Armstrong, it was this phase that led Dobson to lose control of her career. Writing sessions with Cyndi Lauper and Joan Jett were left unfinished when the album got shelved, and she felt like a failure. When Dobson’s “champion” Lyor Cohen, the music exec who had signed her, left Island Def Jam, she was dropped shortly after. She moved back to Toronto “devastated.”
Sunday Love would eventually be released independently in 2006, but it wasn’t until the next year that everything changed. Dobson happened to turn on MuchMusic to see a still-Disney Miley Cyrus singing “Start All Over,” an upbeat, bold leftover Sunday Love track. Another Sunday Love song, “As A Blonde,” would go to Selena Gomez in 2009. “It was a blessing for me,” Dobson says of watching other artists sing her songs. “I realized then that I wasn't shit. I thought ‘Oh, maybe I'm not a piece of crap. Maybe I'm actually good at this.’” I point out how frustrating it is that it took white girls singing her music for her to believe in herself again. “I mean... it's kind of fucked up!” she says like she’s realizing it for the first time. “But, it triggered something in me and I started writing again.”
Enter the Joy era. Dobson re-signed with Island Def Jam in 2009 and came back with a vengeance, releasing the eventual platinum singles “Ghost” and “Stuttering” — songs that remind you of whoever did you wrong in the late aughts from their very first guitar riffs. Joy is Dobson at her best, still mad and emo as hell, but brimming with a swagger she had yet to unleash.
“I was a different person at that point, and that's why I named the album Joy. I had dealt with a lot of the demons of being dropped, my family life, heartbreak,” she says. “Joy was an album of healing.” Black joy and rage often exist in tandem, with one overpowering the other depending on the news cycle. While both emotions are necessary for healing and growth, joy can be as much an act of rebellion and resistance as rage. I tell Dobson all this, and she nods in agreement. “I just always feel like I'm coming back from the dead. I'm like the scene in the movie where the hand punches through the dirt like, "I'm back!"
It’s been over a decade since Joy, and while Dobson has been working steadily since (her latest single “White Line Runaways” was featured in the 2020 indie darling film Unpregnant), she’s re-entering the pop landscape at perhaps the perfect time. Olivia Rodrigo’s juggernaut SOUR has critics asking “Is Pop Punk Back?” (Bustle even named Dobson as one of the album’s biggest sonic influences) and Willow Smith, another Dobson Descendant, is teaming up with Avril Lavigne for a new song. “There were times when I hit a wall [in my career] and I thought, Damn. It's just not my time.” Dobson says. “But now, knowing that I had such an impact, the timing was the way it should have been. That was my fate.”
Dobson is a self-described “care bear” when it comes to love, so it’s no surprise that she believes in fate — both in her professional and personal life. Dobson has been living in Nashville with her husband, the artist known as Yelawolf, (she calls him by his government name, Michael) while she works on her new material. The status of their marriage was unclear before we talked. Dobson recently announced on the Black Girl Songbook podcast that she and Yelawolf were “getting a divorce right now” but to me, she declares that they are very much still married. “I am so in love with love that it's bad and good for me,” she sighs. “It has made me make some great choices. And it's made me make some very bad choices.” I try to get her to clarify what this means, and the most I get is a vague answer about how going through 2020 was “a test” for their relationship. “I’ll leave the rest for the album,” she says coyly.
The lead single is aptly titled "FCKN IN LOVE,” and aside from being “a sonic departure from her previous work,” according to EW, we don’t know much about it yet. Dobson is tightlipped but she assures me that, lyrically, it will reflect everything that has happened in the world in the past year — including the racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s murder. Dobson went to protests in Nashville last summer and says she feels like it’s her responsibility to “bring hope and positivity.” “When I sit down to a writing session, I have to release that emotion. I can't just be like, ‘Okay, well I just witnessed this horrible thing and I'm going to now write a song about how pretty the flowers are.’”
It’s Dobson’s proverbial flowers that her friend Stacey hopes this “reckoning” and recent attempts to right the wrongs of music’s past (see: the #FreeBritney movement) will lead to, namely Dobson’s contributions to rock music being recognized more widely. “Specifically as a Canadian, Fefe has gone through uncharted territory. And she deserved bouquets, not just some flowers, because she really has been a trailblazer,” Gordon says. To Black kids who grew up with Dobson, none of the industry accolades or external validation matters. She’s still the girl who burst on the scene screaming her feelings, giving us the authority to do the same.