Fefe Dobson revisits the raw heartbreak of her Sunday Love cancellation, 15 years later
It's late 2004. Avril Lavigne is at her prime, Kelly Clarkson has rebranded as a femme-punk princess, and high schools around the country have become key battlegrounds in The Great Preps vs. Hot Topic Goths War of the Early Aughts™. It's here that a promising wave of success ignited by an eponymous 2003 debut (and its TRL-backed, radio-friendly, pop-rocking hits "Take Me Away" and "Everything") positioned 19-year-old Canadian rocker Fefe Dobson to soar from MTV darling to global superstar. But, 15 years later, the now-36-year-old says that behind-the-scenes chaos and disputes with her label eventually derailed her planned (and ultimately canceled) major label follow-up, Sunday Love, from becoming the magnum opus it was meant to be.
At the time, you could tell just by looking at her that Dobson was going through it as she readied her next musical venture. After her debut album racked up over 300,000 in domestic sales and launched "Take Me Away" at No. 87 on the Billboard Hot 100, Dobson entered a transitional phase both emotionally and artistically, which cast a dark lyrical shadow over the sassy, rollicking rock chick image she'd honed on her first album. "I'd chopped all my hair off," she recalls, chuckling. "I was going through a crappy relationship. I was in L.A. and started making this album. It was a very honest record. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to let everything show. I wanted to be vulnerable and exposed."
Dobson wanted her sophomore album to reflect her "rock roots" and the turmoil she felt amid her breakup, so she asked her label, Island Def Jam, to facilitate collaborations that fit the mood. She began sessions with Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon, Holly Knight (Tina Turner, Pat Benatar), Pharrell, and more, with the goal of edging up "the other side" of herself as an artist that fans didn't get to see on her first set. She also "got some tips and advice" from Courtney Love after bumping into her on a shopping trip (she later crafted the song "Hole" as "an ode to her band"), and even tested her songwriting prowess in unfinished sessions with Cyndi Lauper and Joan Jett.
It was all encouraging, she says, to be making an album in the label system as opposed to shaping Fefe Dobson with only two other songwriters: Prozzäk's James Bryan McCollum and Jay Levine — especially since her place in the industry never felt like a guarantee.
"I was this Black girl coming on the scene with a curly ponytail, I knew I didn't look like anybody else that was in the genre," she says. "Sometimes those moments are difficult because it's like, how am I going to compete when you're so different or don't fit into a category?"
As confident as Dobson felt about the album's direction, she says her label wasn't on the same page, and had difficulty getting on board with an LP named after her mother's former stripper alter-ego. "Sunday Love was, I think, the most difficult because they thought the album was too dark and that I didn't know who I was," she says. "Honestly, not until the album was almost done [did the label express concern]. You put so much time into something and it's like, why didn't someone say anything from the beginning? Why did y'all let me spiral?"
Still, they forged on with a lead single, "Don't Let It Go to Your Head," which blends the best of Dobson's pop-inspired songwriting with anthemic rock-ballad sounds to create one of the most "easy-listening" tracks on the record. But Dobson says the oddball music video stoked further conflict behind the scenes, and did little to ease tensions about her image.
"The makeup was so dark, I was wearing ripped up panty hose, [they were saying] 'she looks like she's out of her mind,' it was fighting for what I wanted, one after the other. It was a lot of tug-of-war," explains Dobson. "There are parts of if that I get. If you look at the last single before that [on 2004's] 'Don't Go,' I had straight hair and light makeup. It was a very sweet image, but I wasn't putting it on. It was real for me at that time."
Ahead of Sunday Love's targeted September 2005 release, "Don't Let It Go to Your Head" failed to chart, and Island delayed the release. Dobson knows "this side [of me] kind of freaked the label out," which, coupled with waning public interest (single number two, "This Is My Life," also fizzled during the album's revival campaign in March 2006), ultimately led to one of the lowest emotional points in her career.
"It went from, 'the album isn't coming out' to I was dropped. I went back to Toronto. It was devastating," she explains. The album was eventually independently released in June 2006, and made its way to streaming in 2012. "I didn't know what to do. I shut off for a while. I put Sunday Love on the shelf, emotionally. I couldn't listen to the music. I was mad at it. I was mad at the album, the creation, everything."
Dobson felt a mini miracle, then, as she was watching Canadian TV broadcast a "new" Miley Cyrus song, which she immediately recognized as "Start All Over," a scrapped Sunday Love cut: "I got super emotional," she says. "The reason I heard myself wasn't just because I wrote the song, but my vocals are on the backups. It was like a blessing that came out of nowhere, and it gave me this fire again and reminded me that maybe I'm not s--- at this."
Later, two more artists would officially cover Sunday Love songs for major albums: Selena Gomez & The Scene performed "As a Blonde" on their 2009 album Kiss & Tell, and Jordin Sparks reimagined "Don't Let It Go to Your Head" for her Battlefield that same year.
Dobson says the tracks were given to those artists unbeknownst to her. But instead of getting bitter at the Frankensteining of songs she wrote for herself from a place of singular emotion, she let it carry her confidence back into the music industry: "That's when I started making [my 2010 album] Joy, and that's why I called it Joy; I was in a completely different place," she recalls. "I could've felt some sort of way about it, but I felt like it was a full-on blessing. I needed it. It confirmed that I'm not crazy. There must've been something there, and it made me appreciate Sunday Love again."
Joy set a new phase in motion for Dobson, and gave her several major hits in her home country ("Stuttering" and "Ghost" reached the top 20 in Canada, and "I Want You" was featured in promos for Elliot Page's 2009 film Whip It). Now, continuing her self-assessed reputation for coming "back from the dead," Dobson has been "living life and writing for other people, transforming all the time" as she readies her first new album in 11 years.
"Love is a big topic for me, being in love, being out of love. There will be a lot of fun songs and some flirty songs," she says of the new material, which she's made in Nashville with Beyoncé and Lil Wayne producer Jim Jonsin and "a lot of female writers."
The first single for the currently untitled album, "FCKN IN LOVE," marks a sonic departure from her previous work, with fizzy walls of electro-rock riffs and echoey tinges of new-wave flair driving its anthemic verses to pop perfection. She also knows fans really want to see her on season 2 of Canada's Drag Race.
"All I can say is there's a lot of fun stuff around the corner," she teases with a laugh. "I can't wait for you guys to see what's next."