Sometime around early 2008, Fefe Dobson was standing in the kitchen of her Toronto loft when she heard a familiar melody playing from the TV: it was a song she wrote, called “Start All Over,” and it was being sung by Miley Cyrus.
“I was like, ‘Wait a second. This is my song,’” the 36-year-old singer-songwriter recalls with a laugh on a recent video call with Billboard. Watching the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana’s music video was a surprise to Dobson, but a welcome one nonetheless. “It brought me to a whole other level of validation,” she says.
It wouldn’t be the only time she’d be moved by watching someone else interpret her music on television: several years later, Dobson appeared as a guest judge on Season 2 of Canada’s Drag Race in late 2021. As the bottom two queens finished lip-syncing for their life to the sound of her searing 2010 synth-rock kiss-off “Ghost,” she suddenly burst into tears on camera.
“I could feel their heartbeats,” she explains of the emotional moment. “I knew exactly how they were feeling. I’ve been there. ‘This is my moment, and it all could change in a span of two minutes.’”
Dobson, who finally returns with a new single this week ahead of her first studio album in over a decade, watched her own life transform in even less time nearly two decades ago. As the then barely 18-year-old launched into the first few notes of her gritty “Stupid Little Love Song” during a showcase at the Toronto nightclub Reverb for Island Def Jam Records in early 2003, label executives in attendance began scrambling to sign her within 30 seconds. And just like that, her life changed almost overnight.
“I went from just being this teenager who went to school to moving to New York. Then I was on TRL. Then I was in Europe,” she reflects. “It was like a whirlwind.”
It’s not that Dobson didn’t have experience dealing with the major label machine prior to the Island Def Jam deal: by the age of 14, she was already sending demos to record labels. A year later, she caught the attention of Zomba – affiliated with Jive, home of the biggest pop acts of the late ‘90s including Britney Spears and *NSYNC – and entered into an artist development deal in 2000.
“I was like, ‘Yes, Justin [Timberlake] will know me!’” she cheers. Timberlake wouldn’t just know Dobson – she would eventually open for him on tour. But the artist development process also came with some unfair and problematic comparisons, as well as an undesired nickname: “Brandy Spears.”
“It was like, ‘Yeah, she’s Black, but she’s got this pop voice,’” she recalls. “I was 16 or 17. I didn’t understand what that meant. I’m just trying to make music that I love.
“I love Brandy and I love Britney a lot,” she continues, “but I was like, ‘Can I be my own person?’ It made sense to them, but it didn’t make any sense to me.”
Dobson ultimately ditched the deal, sensing she wasn’t being moved in the direction she wanted. Throughout the process, she made two connections that stuck: Jay Levine and James Bryan McCollum, of the Canadian band Prozzäk. With them, she eventually found her sound.
“They just understood that I needed that guitar,” she says of her self-titled 2003 debut album, which tackled heavy themes, from her absent father to ex-flames pressuring her for sex. “I needed that rebellious energy… I needed to express what I was going through in my home life. I had to. I had to.”
For those who had the pleasure of hitting puberty in the early aughts, the Scarborough-bred singer-songwriter’s name likely conjures very specific memories of studded belts, jelly bracelets and heavy eyeliner. Before she finished high school, Dobson was already impacting radio: by late 2003, she was in rotation with jagged, angst-filled jams like “Bye Bye Boyfriend,” “Everything,” and “Take Me Away,” her debut single in the United States, which peaked at No. 87 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 25 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart.
The perils of teen life are turbulent enough for anyone to navigate – let alone as a blossoming pop-rock star in the public eye who had never even traveled abroad before. “I definitely felt the momentum and had to find a way to deal with it, being so young,” she remembers. Having already dealt with bullies in elementary school while growing up in Canada, Dobson found herself navigating opinions about her sound, style and physical appearance on a global scale. Her band, management and a best girlfriend offered refuge in the hardest of moments.
“I had members of my band that really cared about me and would sit with me and deal with my emotions when I was crying over this boy, or crying over a photo I saw of myself,” she says. “They were my family. They kept me grounded and wiped my tears many times.”
The comparisons to her contemporaries didn’t stop after her debut – after all, Dobson wasn’t the only prominent female pop-punk star to come out of Canada in the early ‘00s. When asked about the return of Avril Lavigne at nearly the same time as herself this year, Dobson smiles.
“It’s funny timing. I think it’s awesome,” she says. “When Avril came on the scene, around the same time I did ‘Take Me Away,’ I saw her on MuchMusic and was like, ‘Damn.’ I thought she was so pretty. She had this pretty blonde hair, and I was like, ‘Man, I ain’t going to compete with this girl.’”
But it was never about competing in the first place. “Honestly, deep down, I just want to be everyone’s friend. Like, ‘Avril, I like your shoes,’” she says with a chuckle. “Ashlee Simpson, when she came out with her stuff, it was like, ‘Let’s hang out!’ We’d hang out. It’s so important for women to have each other’s backs. There’s nothing cooler than seeing two chicks come together.”
Throughout her ascent to pop stardom, Dobson never lost sight of herself, or compromised her aesthetic, inspired by a combination of her idols – from Sid Vicious to Debbie Harry to Janet Jackson – a feat for a major label artist. “It was me, 100%,” she says. “I chose the Dickies. The Converse. All of that.”
According to Dobson, pushback from her label didn’t happen until she was deep into the recording process for what was meant to be her second album, Sunday Love, which was leaning towards a harder rock sound, inspired by Courtney Love and Hole. Dobson was very conscious of her commercial success up until that point, and even more aware of the looming threat of a sophomore slump.
Between 2004 and 2005, she began working with industry heavy hitters like Veruca Salt’s Nina Gordon and Rob Zombie collaborator John 5. The collaborator list grew with a steady stream of impressive names: Pharrell Williams, Dallas Austin, the “hilarious” Cyndi Lauper – even one of her idols, Joan Jett, whom she met for the first time wearing an almost identical outfit and haircut. The two would write a song called “Underdog” that never saw the light of day, one of many tracks tucked away in Dobson’s self-described “vault.”
Sunday Love moved on to the mixing and mastering stages, and a video for the Billy Steinberg co-penned lead single “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head” was released. And then… nothing. The album was shelved, and wouldn’t see an official release until about seven years later.
“All of a sudden it was, ‘This is too hardcore. We don’t know how to market her. It’s just too much,’” she recalls of the decision to cancel the album’s release. “It definitely hurt my feelings.”
Executives deemed Dobson too “confusing” as an artist, she recalls. But, confusing how? “You do question that,” she wonders. “Why was I confusing? I’m not behind-the-scenes when it comes down to the conversations that happen in the boardroom.”
It’s something Dobson still ponders to this day, although she tries not to dwell on it too much. When asked about whether she feels misunderstood as an artist, she takes a moment to consider her answer. “I truly think I’m starting to realize that more now. I’m figuring out and navigating what people think, and what people thought. I do feel understood. And at the same time, I feel like there’s more to understand,” she says, adding, “I’m very sensitive.” (She is a Pisces, after all. “One hundred percent emotional.”)
Regardless of the marketing, the music spoke for itself. A handful of songs recorded during the Sunday Love sessions were offered to top pop stars of the mid-to-late ‘00s, including Cyrus, Jordin Sparks (who covered the album’s lead single), and Selena Gomez (who went on to record “As a Blonde” with The Scene). Another one of Dobson’s songs, “Round & Round,” would also eventually go to Gomez.
Yet the placements didn’t make Dobson upset – they gave her a boost of confidence. “’You’re not a s–t writer,’ she remembers telling herself. “‘You can do this. Maybe it didn’t work for you, but clearly your songs are being enjoyed by others.’ I was very happy to see these ladies kill these songs and make them amazing. I was very, very proud… I feel like women have to celebrate other women and that’s very, very important.”
Still, it was easier for Dobson to pass off tracks penned for herself than try to write for other artists. “It doesn’t always work that way,” she admits. Her song “Can’t Breathe,” for instance, was originally intended for Leona Lewis. “After it was done, I was like, ‘Yeah…I’ve got to sing this. It’s my song,’” she says with a chuckle.
Her journey with the record label became something of an on-again, off-again relationship: after being dropped mid-Sunday Love, she started writing songs for what would become 2010’s Joy, and was asked to come back. The album spawned several more hits back in her homeland of Canada, including “Stuttering,” “Ghost” and “Can’t Breathe.” After Joy came what was meant to be a record called Firebird in the early ‘10s, including “Legacy” and “In Better Hands.” But following the string of successful singles from Joy, she wasn’t totally sold on the music, so she shelved that record herself.
“I was proud of the writing, but I was scared,” she admits. “I was like, ‘What if it’s not as big?’ I just decided that I needed to wait.”
And so she took a little break from everything, mostly – even her management, who she’d been with since she was 16. She moved to Nashville, where she now lives on five acres of land in the woods (“Deer walk through the yard in the morning, it’s very therapeutic,” she says), and started writing yet another record after 2014, this time inspired by Velvet Underground, 60’s doo-wop and surf rock. It didn’t see the light of day, either. “I feel like I always have albums that don’t come out. It’s my thing,” she says with a laugh.
At least a few songs did publicly come out of the sessions: one called “Born to You,” featured on Riverdale’s first season in 2017, and another, “Save Me From LA,” released in 2018. (She wasn’t a huge fan of life in the city, as the title might imply.) Her time away from management didn’t last long: she reunited with the team a few years later and picked up right where they left off.
The benefit of having a vault of unreleased records is that there’s plenty to pull from, including Dobson’s latest single “FCKN IN LOVE,” out today (Feb. 25). It’s a love-drunk synth-rock anthem appropriate for Valentine’s Day season, complete with a shout-along chorus of “I’m so f—king in love with you!” It was originally written in 2012 during the Firebird era, about a “really good night… and a great morning” with her significant other and now-husband, rapper Yelawolf.
“You know what I mean?” she teases of the events that led up to the track, which kicks off with a very subtle line: “We just made love…”
“FCKN IN LOVE” arrives over a decade after Joy, and the music landscape has changed significantly. It’s a world of streaming, TikTok dances, and replay-friendly, algorithm-appealing, bridge-free tracks clocking in closer to the two-minute mark.
“I think songs are getting shorter, but I also ask for a bridge every time I write,” she says, perking up as the conversation shifts to songcraft. “Bridges are amazing! You’re going to a completely different place and removing yourself from the melodies you’ve heard…and remember key changes?!”
Dobson’s earnest love for music-making has kept her going for decades, and her passion remains palpable – as is her impact on a new generation of pop-rock artists, even if she didn’t set out to necessarily be an inspiration. A quick scan of the top YouTube comments on any of her music videos reveals an outpouring of love and appreciation, especially as an artist who didn’t exactly fit the mold of the stereotypical pop-punk stars of the early ‘00s.
“It means so much to me, honestly,” she says in response to all the comments about feeling seen, especially as a mixed-race female artist making rock music amid acts like Good Charlotte, Blink-182 and Simple Plan. “I have a hard time putting it into words. I always do. I don’t think words describe the appreciation. It’s an overwhelming feeling. I say overwhelming because I never imagined that would be the case. Growing up in Scarborough, Toronto, literally just trying to escape my home… I’m very thankful, and very blessed that way.”
The name Fefe Dobson is also bubbling up more than ever in recent months, thanks to the mainstream return of biting lyrics, crashing drums and searing guitars on songs by Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish and Willow. “I believe that things always get recycled, and things always come back. When I was out in 2003, I was looking towards the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s,” she says. “But we needed this. We need to be able to scream our emotions and be unapologetic about it. The genre makes so much sense right now… we’ve gone through a lot as human beings.”
“FCKIN IN LOVE” isn’t just a one-off return from Dobson: there’s an album on the way, coming as soon as this spring. The songs are basically done. And it’s not going in that vault this time, she swears.
“I’m just letting it all hang out about what I’ve been through, where I’ve been, my relationship – which a lot of people want to know about, because it’s been so up and down,” she says. “I’m just really trying to stick to my roots again.”
She’s worked with Jim Jonsin, Savannah Rae, Miami writing team CASHÆ, Max Martin collaborator KIDDO and her “hero” Linda Perry, who she collaborated with on “White Line Runaways,” featured in the HBO MAX film Unpregnant.“The music is a combo of the first album, Sunday Love and Joy,” she explains. “It’s all three of them. Big choruses. Having fun, kicking doors down, and wearing Dickies again. Let’s go.”
The album still doesn’t have a name yet. “Call it Monday Love,” she jokes, which, honestly, is a pretty great idea. Yet Dobson’s tone becomes more serious when she considers the motivation behind her own return, which will kick off just before she sets off to Paris to celebrate her 37th birthday at the end of February.
“When I was a kid, music was my survival. It’s my life purpose. It’s very deep for me,” she declares. “I just never want to stop.”