If ours was a logical universe, a universe in which every action was followed by an ordered and patterned outcome—and every decision by a predictable consequence—then Jessica Dobson would be heading back to school (or somesuch way station) right about now. But life is at best consistent in its inconsistency (and the life of a musician even more so) and so presently Jessica Dobson—a cute-though-normal 22-year-old from La Habra—is not filling out college applications, or even job applications, but rather is spending her days inside Avast! Recording studios in Seattle, midway through recording a second full album for Atlantic Records.
Oh, and by the way, her first album? The one that was supposed to be her debut on Atlantic? She spent three months on it last summer, but didn't like it very much by the end. So she scrapped it.
And there's really not much more to the story.
Except that she's still got a record deal. Jessica Dobson is the luckiest person in the universe.
* * *
A little over a year ago, Dobson packed up her belongings and headed to New York. But she wasn't going there to "make it" or anything nearly so silly—she'd taken care of all that in the summer of 2004, when a demo she'd recorded with Elijah Thomson somehow found its way past the mailroom boys at Atlantic Records, and then was somehow heard by someone who fell for it. So there was really no need to "make it" in New York—she was already signed.
Instead, she had moved there to make an album. It'd been about a year since she'd joined Atlantic, and Dobson was feeling antsy. "When you get a record contract, life feels like you're on a time line," she recalls. "I was thinking, 'Oh, a year's passed and nothing's happened. Gotta get into the studio.'"
Dobson had all the Put-me-in-the-game-Coach! eagerness of a rookie, but it also led to a rookie mistake: going into the studio with musicians and a producer whom she did not know. "The most important thing for any musician making an album is that every single person working with you is on the same page," Dobson says now, choosing her words carefully to avoid finger-pointing. "In my case, the people I was working with might have had a similar idea of what needed to be done, but no one was communicating. A lot of mistakes were made musically—and financially."
By the end of last summer, Dobson was in a jam. "Things unraveled and I started to realize I wasn't ready to make the record," she explains. She was also feeling the weight of her move across the country: "Being in New York and not knowing anyone outside of who I was working with—it was pretty lonely," she says. "There was nobody I could throw ideas off, no one to tell me, 'Hey, that's not the best melody.'"
So Dobson scrapped the album (which she describes as "stale bread, digital butter, no dessert") promising herself to do it right the next time around: to handpick musicians she would be socially comfortable around, to aim for a producer she could trust, and to not, well, make mistakes.
But wait a minute: there are maybe—maybe—a couple hundred people on this planet who have heard of Jessica Dobson. Would there even be a next album, after all the time and money that had gone into recording the first album?
Really, who scraps a debut album and then remains signed?
The luckiest girl in the universe, that's who.
* * *
Looking at photos of Dobson and listening to her voice, it's easy to pick up on what the record label scouts initially thought they had: another Michelle Branch. Or Rachael Yamagata. Or whatever adorable-but-real! songwriter they could market to the public.
But while Dobson is indeed adorable (and can in fact write songs), to market her as a dime-a-dozen pop star would be to miss out on her true talents as a musician's musician. Dobson is—by a number of accounts from other bands, fans and otherwise—a talented multi-instrumentalist, more in the vaudevillian style of Aimee Mann than the straightforward rock of Alanis.
And a musician like that? Not always so marketable. Or easy to please.
Because the best musicians will refuse to release an album they're not happy with—or refuse to craft their songs within a certain pre-ordained set of hit parameters; see Chris Ziegler's "I Got Kinda Lost" and also Fiona Apple, Wilco and Aimee Mann—even if it risks losing a deal with a major label. Not always counted on, however, is the self-confidence lost in the process. In Dobson's case, her decision to scrap the record meant returning home from New York, working a day job at California Health Foods in Fullerton—"Something normal and day-to-day," she says—and waiting for a phone call. Not quite where you'd expect yourself to be after being on Atlantic for a year and a half. "It took a long, long time for the self-confidence to come back," Dobson admits.
Yet the phone did eventually ring—"The okay came out of nowhere," she remembers, and by "the okay" she means Atlantic actually agreeing that her first record wasn't quite right, and giving her the go-ahead to record another debut. The odds of this happening to a still-unknown girl from La Habra—who likely played more gigs in her late teens at the Hub before it closed than she has in the last three years—when there are far more bankable artists in whom they could invest surely must hover somewhere near impossible. And still the music industry doesn't like to take many chances.
So maybe it's not just luck.
Maybe Jessica Dobson really is just that good.
* * *
"Some of these songs I've lived with for four years now," Dobson says, discussing the songs which made the cut from the first album to the second. "I have this tendency to want to rework things when I'm around them for that long, and most of the time, they turn into half-rate versions of the original."
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Most of the time, perhaps, yes, when you're living in New York and making rookie mistakes. But when you're living in Seattle, collaborating with members of the Crystal Skulls and jamming with Sufjan Stevens' drummer? And when indie mega-producer Phil Ek—who counts Modest Mouse, Built to Spill and the Shins as clients—is at the helm? Not so much. When you've got that going for you, it's only natural that your oldest songs—like the undeniably hooky "Most Sundays" (sure to be a single) and the slow-like-honey "Crooked Stars" (sure to be a follow-up)—come off sounding like the best songs, and that recording in general goes "fantastically well."
"Sometimes, it takes a little time to get things right," Dobson reflects, with no detectable trace of irony or even awareness that the farthest most bands get in terms of taking "a little time to get things right" is playing at coffee shops and inside a rented lockout—not recording an entire first album. Still, whatever the reason Dobson was granted a second chance, she is not wasting it. "I look at last summer and think, 'What a great learning experience.' If only to appreciate this summer and coming back and looking closely at who to choose to work with."
As for pressure from the label, you'd think there would be a ton—label execs calling 20 times a day, an on-site handler, anything to ensure that no mistakes are being repeated. But Dobson admits only to the pressure she places on herself. "The great thing about it is I realize the importance of this process, but I don't feel this overbearing pressure," she says. "This time around, I'm pushing myself a lot harder." Sure, she talks to her A&R person over the phone about two or three times a week, but even then, it's over the phone—"It's not like I can play him the songs over the phone," Dobson jokes. "It's like, 'How do the tracks sound?' 'Good!'"
So, yes, it's okay to say it: Jessica Dobson is truly one very lucky girl. But her multi-stop road trip toward releasing her major label debut also offers a glimmer of hope for the industry once thought to be so rigid and soulless: "A lot of things have changed since I signed with Atlantic a little over two years ago—a lot of people at the label got the wrong idea of where I was coming from," she says, adding, "But . . . that's been corrected."