Fefe Dobson is photographed in the Library Bar, at the Royal York Hotel, in Toronto, on Tuesday, February 15, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

‘I got scared’: Fefe Dobson faces her past ‘fear’ with a return to music

TORONTO — Fefe Dobson would like a moment to reintroduce herself.

It’s been the better part of a decade since the Canadian pop-rock singer practically vanished from the music scene with almost no explanation at the height of her success.

So it’s jarring to see her on this chilly February morning tucked into a dim corner of a Toronto hotel restaurant dressed in a classic leather jacket with jet-black bedhead hair.

Dobson is here to talk about her wholehearted return to music. She has a new single called “FCKN IN LOVE,” with plans for an album later this year. But the lingering question is, whatever happened to her?

Sipping a double-shot espresso, she searches for an answer.

“Life happened, honestly,” she says casually. “And I was in a transitional period.”

As with everything Dobson, nothing is quite so simple.

When she arrived on the music scene at age 18 in the early aughts, the Scarborough, Ont., native was primed to be an outlier as sugary pop princess Britney Spears gave way to the punk defiance of Avril Lavigne.

Dobson was like neither of them, but the industry saw her as an answer to both.

Those expectations set the stage for Dobson’s career, which often felt like a tug of war between two personas on early singles “Bye Bye Boyfriend” and “Take Me Away.” She was a pop singer with a rock edge; a Black woman who spent her time in an overwhelmingly white mainstream music industry; a sweetheart with a snarl.

From the outside, that duplicity was part of Dobson’s enigmatic appeal. But listening to her reflect at age 37, it becomes clear those boundaries were a source of great anxiety at times and fuel for her fighting spirit.

“I’ve always been kind of like, quietly rebellious,” she says with a slight Nashville twang, a subtle indication of her adopted home.

“I think that’s why I was a little over the top when I started. I was trying to prove my point,” she adds later.

“Guys were always like, ‘Oh you know little Fefe.’ And I’d be like, ‘Dude I’m going to whoop your ass on stage.’”

After the commercial success of her third studio album “Joy,” which spawned the hit singles “Ghost” and “Stuttering,” Dobson struggled to create a followup that satisfied her and everyone else.

Behind the scenes, a split with her management team added to “a nightmare” scenario that culminated in 2014 when the plug was pulled on “Firebird,” her planned fourth album.

“I wasn’t sure if I was making the right choice musically,” she says.

“I got scared that it wouldn’t get the love ‘Joy’ got. So, I just killed it.”

She continues: “You get nervous when you release music. You hope people like it. You hope it connects. But there’s so much fear when you do that.”

Dobson brings up fear again when reflecting on her recent appearance as a judge on “Canada’s Drag Race” where she broke into tears after seeing the queens lip sync to her song “Ghost.”

“It takes a lot to go on stage and just show yourself and be vulnerable,” she told them on the broadcast as she wiped her eyes.

Looking back, Dobson said she “could feel the ladies’ fear” in that moment as they fought to save themselves from elimination in the reality TV competition.

“It’s almost like grains of sand falling through your hands, you know?” she says.

“You want to catch it and not let it get through your fingers. I could feel that. And I have been there many times in my life.”

Dobson’s comeback is one way she’s tightened her grip on the sand.

The new single, which also goes by the radio-friendly title “IN LOVE,” literally picks up where she left off. While the synth-rock fist-pumper is new to listeners, the song was recorded during the “Firebird” sessions in 2012.

Inspired by what she describes as “a great time in bed,” the lyrics cheekily hint at the lengths she’d go for her lover — “Damn you in your birthday suit,” she hollers.

She suspects the song may be better received in 2022 than back when she recorded it.

“It was important to put out something really energetic and raw,” she says.

Other songs from the “Firebird” years will also see the light of day. She feels “it’s time to put them out.”

As for the rest of what’s next, her album is still in the works. It’ll partly reflect on the peaks and valleys of her 12-year relationship with Michael Atha, who performs as rapper Yelawolf. They married two-and-a-half years ago.

During her years away, she recorded an album with Atha as producer. She describes it as an indie rock effort with a dash of Velvet Underground, some ’60s doo-wop and surf rock.

“One of the songs that I really was stoked about was ‘She’s a Wild Bitch,’” she says with a laugh while making no promises it’ll ever be released.

She acknowledges that these days, listeners — particularly Black women, other people of colour and the LGBTQ community — often share their appreciation for the ways she defied the odds when pop music wasn’t so diverse. She says words can’t capture how meaningful those stories are to her.

Music genres aren’t as strict as they once were, she acknowledges, and that’s allowed her to play outside the margins and ignore those who say she can’t be defined as a blend of pop and rock.

“It’s always going to be that way. I’m both and I’ve got to embrace both,” she says.

“From my first album it was like, ‘Don’t be scared to not be rock ‘n’ roll enough, don’t be scared.’ Because it is who I am and it comes out naturally. I have to not be so hard on myself.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2022.

David Friend, The Canadian Press