Back on March 10th The Shins were making their long awaited return as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. In a picture that was circulating a lot (in my world at least) was the band and cast members of SNL, and right in the middle of the picture sandwiched between James Mercer and Jonah Hill, on the same stage as Tom Hanks, was Jessica Dobson. She’s not the type of person who seems to be star struck by being on an iconic television show seen before millions. She might not have been awestruck but I was.
Deep Sea Diver’s Jessica Dobson has a story that serves as both a cautionary tale and a success story. By the time she was nineteen she had a recording contract with Atlantic records. A phenomenal opportunity that most musicians will never get. By the time she was twenty-two she had recorded two full length solo albums, neither of which would ever be released, and then she was dropped from her label. You only get one shot at the majors, if it passes you by you’re most likely done and you move on. It’s a rarity to get a second chance.
It’s a testament to Dobson’s talent as a musician that she’s not just another cautionary tale. She struck out on tour as the guitarist for Beck, and later as the bassist for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She went back to Phil Ek (who recorded the second ill fated solo Atlantic album) and recorded a new batch of songs. Impatient with the bureaucratic label system and probably still with a sour taste in her mouth, she self released the New Caves EP, the first release for Deep Sea Diver. Its success pushed her to start recording a full length, History Speaks. It took a year and a half of torment and tinkering before it was released, but the final result is one of the most powerful debuts I’ve ever heard.
It was a Sunday night two days after the History Speaks record release show, I was busily trying to finish an article when I distracted myself with a video that had been sitting on my screen since the following Wednesday. No more than five minutes later I was buying the album on Bandcamp. My heart was pounding like I’d just run a marathon, this is what happens when I find something so amazing that I don’t know what to do with myself.
I assumed that History Speaks was Deep Sea Diver’s well honed and expertly crafted third album, their masterpiece. That it’s actually their debut is astounding, and makes you wonder just how much better they could get. DSD (As I’ve come to refer to them when I’m feeling lazy) with Dobson at the helm, along with her husband Peter Mansen, John Raines, and Michael Duggan work as a cohesive unit as strong as steel. They take you from indie rock reminiscent of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to beautiful piano infused ballads. What sets Deep Sea Diver apart from anyone you might want to compare them to are the truly unique melodies that just feel really good rattling your bones.
Of course Dobson’s voice is what haunts me even when I’m not listening to DSD. It’s like a bottle rocket, blasting off, weaving and wobbling, twisting and turning in ways I can’t recall having heard before, then it explodes. Her voice sounds redolent to numerous great singers, but I don’t imagine that it’ll be long before those singers are compared to her. If you can’t tell I think that Jessica Dobson and Deep Sea Diver are about the best thing since sliced bread. If you haven’t bought their album yet, do so, or we seriously need to reconsider our friendship.
This brings me back to March 10th and SNL where Dobson performed with The Shins as their new guitarist. It was just three days later that Jessica and I spoke, two days later she would head out on tour with The Shins. I felt extremely lucky to have an hour to talk with someone as fun, and talented as she is. The week of its release History Speaks was the number one album at Bandcamp. In June DSD will join Dobson on tour and open for The Shins. For DSD it’s only a matter of time before they are seriously recognized.
My conversation with Jessica was absolutely delightful. I came away with an even greater respect for what she has been able to accomplish given her rocky start. What follows is just a sampling of the full interview. You can, and absolutely should check out the full podcast interview here, or in itunes. It’s the best fifty minutes you’ll spend all day, there’s plenty that isn’t included in this excerpt.
How long have you been in Seattle?
It’s been a year, a really awesome year.
And before that you were living in Los Angeles?
Yeah, I grew up in Southern California: born and raised.
While you were in Los Angeles, the city caused you to consider quitting music. What was it about California that made you want to quit?
LA breeds that handout kind of community. It’s just shoulder rubbing and it’s a lot more materialistic than I think the Northwest is. It’s a really uninspiring place to be, I personally like the quiet, we [her and her husband fellow Deep Sea Diver Peter Mansen] live out very close to the woods and a lot of parks. I got tired of the LA rat race and it’s nice to be away from that. I wasn’t too inspired by the music scene down there, in Seattle there’s a lot more going on and it seems… not that it’s any easier to come up in this scene, but there’s a lot more support.
What is it that makes the Northwest more bearable than Los Angeles?
It’s definitely slower paced. I love how spread out the city is, where you have all your different boroughs, Ballard, Capitol Hill. I find myself going out less. Seattle people are spoiled, because in Los Angeles you drive everywhere and you have to have a car or else you’re crusin’ with your mom. In Seattle you don’t have to have a car. So I find myself walking, running, biking, so much more. But getting to shows, I feel like I get to the ones I really want to see, whereas, living in California I felt like I had to be out every night and see everything. Here I have more time to be at rest, and I’m fine being in my basement making music six nights out of seven and just going out once and being inspired by the bands I think are sweet.
You’ve been a touring member of Beck, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and now The Shins. How has playing in those bands helped you shape your own music?
I think anytime you spend time getting into the mind of another songwriter it rubs off on you. With Beck, that was when I started really getting into pedal-world of different fuzzes and effects. With the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, that was just bass and I became a better bass player. It’s funny because I’m not really a bass player but I played bass for them and that was a pretty interesting experience- and I love them. With The Shins, James [Mercer] actually plays a lot like I do because we grew up listening to the Smiths and a lot of jangly-pop guitar. But he’s obviously a much different songwriter than I am. He’s so good at taking the three chord song and putting such a unique melody on top of it. Where I tend to clutter up songs with what I think are interesting chords, where the melody stands more simple and then the band comes back and is spooning out what doesn’t need to be there. I’ve learned a lot from James and just keeping things simple.
You recorded a solo album for Atlantic records that ended up not being released. What was the story with that?
When I was nineteen I signed a record deal to Atlantic. It’s the age old story of: signed too young, didn’t necessarily have the right management influence, I didn’t have the right team around me. I got lost in the system and recorded a record that didn’t even sound like me. So by the time it was finished I was adamant about it not being released, and so we scrapped it. Then we recorded another one with Phil Ek up in Seattle, which was awesome, but it never got released because all the momentum was lost. There’s actually two full lengths I recorded from age nineteen to twenty-two on Atlantic records. Then I got off the label and released New Caves Ep- self released it, this is Deep Sea Diver. At the time at Atlantic I was just going under my name, then it became Deep Sea Diver. It’s funny because I’ve recorded two full lengths, but this [History Speaks] is the first Deep Sea Diver full length, which is really exciting.
With that first recording was there a feeling like this is your shot and you’ve got to make it work because most people won’t even get that opportunity?
When I was driving back from LA and the offer had come through, I remember thinking those exact words: so wet behind the ears and wide eyed, this is my only chance. I was just talking to my buddy Jessie Baylin, she has almost the identical story of mine, I think just a different major label. If you don’t have someone who’s actually experienced and been through that [to say] “no actually, keep honing your craft, keep writing good music. If the deal’s right don’t pass it up.” I think back at that time when I was nineteen, labels were throwing out a lot more money for younger talent or new talent that they as a label, “the suits” thought they could manage and bring up. So many opportunities have come my way and they’ve never been any that I’ve gone after, they’ve always just happened to me. I just had no idea at that age.
How did the transition happen from your second full length that wasn’t released to the New Caves EP with Deep Sea Diver?
I was pretty bummed for a while after I got off the label, and I actually hid away, I became a manager of some restaurant and was pretty unmotivated to release anything. But I feel like there were a few pivotal people in my life that kind of slapped me back into the music world. I just released that [New Caves EP] without any expectation, I didn’t know if people still cared. That was a really good stepping stone into the next season of life, which was a lot of touring and playing with Beck and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and buckling down for a full length. It put the wind under the wings.
When I first heard History Speaks, I thought I was listening to a well established band and it really surprised me to learn that the album is currently only available on Vinyl and as a download through bandcamp. Was that a choice, or was that made out of necessity?
In a way I was a bit nervous on waiting on anybody to put it out. I’ve seen plenty of friends self release records and if it does well or if someone’s interested, the labels will come to you. It’s okay to put out your own record and not wait on a label and see what happens. That was my mentality for self releasing this time around. I did not want to have to wait through contracts, I’ve just been through that so much in the beginning of my career. It was actually quite easy, self releasing. Our record label is in our bedroom, there’s boxes of vinyl everywhere and we package it ourselves, and we take it to the freaking post office and it feels really good. It’s awesome, it’s so much work to self release. I’ve never worked so hard in my life on the business side of music. But there’s a lot of really surprising things coming our way that I think wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t put so much work on the front end in. A lot of people are stepping forward and we got this tour with The Shins and obviously me being in the band had an influence on that, I’m not assuming that we would have got it if I wasn’t in the band.
I’m totally not opposed to being on a label, but so many people are getting smart, sometimes it’s just best to self release and get a distribution deal. Sometimes it’s best to just do the label thing, or start your own label, there’s no formula these days. All I care about is putting out good music and if people want to support that, that’s great.
How long did it take to record History Speaks?
We began recording that record in January of 2010 and we literally recorded up until a day before the last song was mixed and sent off to mastering. It was a good year and a half process, which was beneficial because we were able to go back on a few songs and rerecord. It’s different when you get to fully tour on songs and we didn’t necessarily get to do that, so we had to trust our ear and the judgement of our friends, to wade through and see what to chop off and what to keep.
What is it like having that much time to record an album?
It drove me crazy, the times when I had no lyrics but we would set a hard date out for ourselves. It’s weird because sometimes I do so well in really condensed and hard deadlined periods of time. On a couple of those songs I wrote the lyrics the first day I wrote the song and then a year later I rewrote them, and I think they’re so much better, so I don’t think there’s any formula to it. Having a year and a half I never expected for it to take that long, I was just living in the moment and rolling with what my gut told me to do next. Sometimes we had to make some hard decisions to scrap stuff, which then tacked on another month or two to the recording process. We had to remix things, we even remastered the record, there was a lot of- not second guessing but just not settling for half rate. And I think the record is not the same that it would have been if we didn’t make any of those decisions that took more time, but in the end it’s a record that we’re proud of and I’m glad that we sacrificed six months or a year.
Are you the kind of person who keeps a little notebook and constantly writes down ideas as they come to you?
Yeah, it’s usually like, one phrase that sets off a song. Like, You Go Running, was on the front of my field notes, “assisted watch, your lips pulse to the beat of trouble.” I don’t even know where that came from, I just wrote it down and then it became an entire song, six months later. Which is so strange, out of one line it was able to birth an entire story. I don’t understand half the time where these songs and lyrics come from, it’s usually from a phrase I’ll write down or just a word.
You’re going to be going on tour with The Shins, both as a member of the band as well as with Deep Sea Diver, opening for them in the middle of their tour. After that are you going to be diving (sorry) right back into Deep Sea Diver and building that up more?
Every day I’m working on two things, whether I’m on tour with The Shins, it’s focusing on that. But anytime I have to myself it’s working on it [Deep Sea Diver]. It’s an interesting situation, I committed to The Shins and I also released a record and there’s some scheduling things that I have to work around, but Deep Sea Diver is my first love. We’re already writing our second record and so it’s just a lot going on and I’n trying not to focus too much on what I can’t do this year with Deep Sea Diver, but make the shows that we do play count.
Were you surprised by the reaction you got from History Speaks?
Oh Yeah, I was blown away actually, because I knew I was proud of what we put out but I didn’t realize that it would resonate so much with people. It’s so nice to finally have put something out. It’s not the praise of people that I care about but, the genuine response of just, “this is resonating with me,” I think that’s incredible. Because it was really easy to lose track of that over a year and a half- two years. Especially with the history of me being in the music business. With New Caves, that was a cool thing to release and I think it was a stepping stone to History Speaks. I haven’t been able to receive anything like this. Not that it’s the biggest deal in the world, it’s definitely still a slow ship being built and I’m just excited that it seems like there’s a foundation now to stand on. It’s exciting times. I just love packaging up the vinyl and it’s so cool to do it on our own right now.***
Jessica Dobson should or could have ended up little more than a cautionary tale of signing with a major label unprepared at nineteen and having the whole thing fall apart by twenty two. Looking back she doesn’t see that early Atlantic deal as a bad thing, from that she was able to take her genuine talent and make some really amazing music.
Back in February I posted an article from Jesse Thorn of the PRI show Bullseye. In the article he talked about twelve artists who were able to achieve a level of success by doing “their thing”, rather than what a larger organization was pushing them to do. I would add Jessica to that list. She could have gone forward with that first Atlantic recording believing it to be her chance to make it. Instead she took a risk and shelved it, and walked away to do her own thing. She worked hard, took the right opportunities as they came along, and when the stars aligned and the time was right she did her own thing, and self released an outstanding album.
Deep Sea Diver has already begun work on a second album, and they will join the Shins on tour in June. Sometime this Summer you can expect to see History Speaks on itunes. Make sure to check out thedeepseadiver.com for any new music or shows. You can also watch Jessica shred it up on the guitar for the entire tour with The Shins. History Speaks is currently available as a digital download or a limited pressing of vinyl at Bandcamp, with cd’s coming soon.