“In my world,” Fefe Dobson explains about her songwriting, “there’s a map to creating something that’s hooky, and turns the ear on constantly, so that there’s no boring parts. Melody is more universal than words, in many ways.”

Dobson’s songs have always seemed very personal and very introspective, even though the emotions and experiences she expresses in them are universal. That became evident almost immediately upon the release of her self-titled debut in 2003. Fefe Dobson entered the Billboard HeatSeekers album chart at No. 1 and spawned four consecutive Top 10 radio hits, including “Bye Bye Boyfriend” and “Take Me Away.” That led to multiple award nominations (including Best New Artist and Pop Album JUNO noms), earned two MuchMusic video awards and, ultimately, landed her a spot opening for Justin Timberlake’s 2004 European tour.

In the 20 years since, there’ve been three more albums, including the newly released Emotion Sickness. Dobson moved from Scarborough to Los Angeles, and now resides in Nashville; got married; had several more hit singles; and sustained a successful part-time acting career. She’s also had songs she co-wrote recorded and released by the likes of Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Jordin Sparks.

Dobson has garnered a reputation for making tough decisions over the years, including rejecting an early contract offer she thought was inappropriate, and scuppering the release of a completed album with which she didn’t feel comfortable. The single “FCKN in Love,” which survived that rejected album, has been streamed more than 2.4 million times on Spotify since its release in 2022.

Fefe Dobson, Hungover, video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Fefe Dobson song “Hungover”

While her lyrics – almost all of which are solely written by Dobson on Emotion Sickness – obviously resonate with a large audience, they’re not the driving force behind the music. On the phone from Ottawa, where she performs that night as part of a nine-date Fall 2023 Canadian tour, Dobson says, “For me it’s always been melody first. Lyrics come afterwards. It’s always been like that. I’ve been very fortunate that way. Even from the very beginning.”

Five of Emotion Sickness’ nine tracks were co-written with Bryn McCutcheon, Kirstyn Johnson, and the album’s producer, multi-instrumentalist Sam Arion, all of whom reside in Toronto. Dobson hadn’t really intended to start working on an album, but on creating what would become the opening track – the bombastic, high-energy “Hungover” – it almost became a necessity.

“At first I was kind of shy about it,” Dobson recalls, “because I hadn’t written a punk song like that in years, just, like, balls-to-the-wall. I thought, Oh my God, will my team even like this? I thought I was making a song that was just about what I felt at the moment, not a song that would carry a project. And I got a call from my team, and it was, like, ‘We need to make an album right now!’  The Toronto aspect, the Canadian aspect of it, just happened that way, which was kind of nice. It was like going to my roots.” With the likes of Olivia Rodrigo and a resurgent Avril Lavigne bringing the sound of pop-punk back into popular culture, it’s no wonder Dobson’s team was excited.

While her songs tend to alternate between keyboard- and guitar-driven tracks, they don’t necessarily start out that way. For example, the dynamic, rocking, anthemic, “I Can’t Love Him (And Love You Too)”, started out on acoustic guitar. “We didn’t know if it was an old, doo-wop song,” says Dobson. “We didn’t know what the song would transform into.” When adding lyrics, Dobson says she’ll vocalize sounds, then find words that fit.  “Certain sounds will come out of our mouths, and I want to write words to match that,” she says. She refers to a friend and supporter, producer Jim Jonsin (Grammy-winning producer/songwriter who’s worked with Beyoncé, Usher, Lil Wayne, and Eminem). “He calls it ‘holy ghosting,’ where it comes from a higher power, or someplace,” she says. “It’s like something speaking through you, and I honour that.”

Dobson says another 10-year wait for her next album is unlikely. She admits to being shocked by the great response to her new songs. “The first night [of the tour] in Toronto, which was the album release day,” she says, “we started the show with ‘Ghost,’ which was great, everyone was familiar with it. Then we did [new song] ‘Shut Up and Kiss Me,’ and when that chorus hits, it always blows my mind. Every show, it was the same way, with people jumping up and down. The new stuff is coming off really well. It’s making me happy because I’m, like, ‘OK this is connecting.’”

Writing Royally
Dobson chose a very comfortable, if unusual, environment to write most of what became Emotion Sickness: her favourite corner room at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel – a place she considers her second home, when in Toronto. “We just set up mics and we started writing and recording vocals,” says Dobson. “I literally sat, listening on the bed, in my hotel room. We were writing the songs, mapping them out.” Some of the vocals recorded there, including those on “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” made it onto the album. With microphones, guitars, and keyboards all plugged directly into laptops, no one in the neighbouring rooms complained.

For years now, before every show, Terra Lightfoot huddles with her bandmates and they shout the following mantra: “To the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll!”
It’s no coincidence that the award-winning songwriter’s new record is called Healing Power. But that’s only a part of the story. The album took five years to germinate; it’s filled with joy, sorrow, and all the emotions in between. Produced once again by Gus Van Go (The Beaches, Arkells), Healing Power is a pop-rock gem. The record is about slowing down, taking stock of – and acknowledging – one’s feelings. Finding gratitude in the little things.

The big things, career-wise, have already fallen into place. CBC Music calls Lightfoot “One of Canada’s best all-around musicians… an amazing tour de force, the complete package.” Guitar Player magazine says she “has a huge voice and a big and gutsy guitar tone to match.” The Globe and Mail says she “cuts like lightning to a tree.” She plays marathon tours (eight countries across four continents, so far), has opened for Willie Nelson and for Bruce Cockburn, and recently launched her own record label Midnight Choir. In 2019, conceived, created, curated, produced, and co-headlined The Longest Road Show, an all-female touring revue.

When Words & Music catches up with Lightfoot, she’s at the tail end of a solo mini-tour of the West Coast, on a double-bill with her fellow ace guitarist, Ariel Posen. The singer-songwriter is travelling with her new husband Jon Auer (songwriter/guitarist for now-defunct American power-pop band The Posies), whom she married in the summer of 2023 (which made one of her recent singles, “Cross Border Lovers,” even more personal than when she first wrote it). Their newfound love permeates the dozen songs on her sixth studio release; so does a re-discovery of everyday simplicity, even as a touring artist living in a quick-moving world. “You have to put in those moments of everyday joy,” says Lightfoot.

Was the musician spent after running at a rapid pace for far too long? Yeah, I was a bit burned out,” she explains. “Also, I didn’t have a good sense of what was happening around me because everything was moving too fast. It’s up to each musician to set the pace of what they’re going to do … I’m busy again now, but it feels different because I’ve integrated ways to handle it.”

Terra Lightfoot, Cross Border Lovers

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Terra Lightfoot song “Cross Border Lovers”

“Handling it,” to Lightfoot, means making time on the road to appreciate Mother Nature’s wonders and bounty, rather than racing from town to town, and motel to motel. Without these pauses, the journey is a blur, rather than something beautiful. Lightfoot shares that, on her most recent tour,  in between gigs she and Auer have visited a Buddhist Temple in Austin, a Monarch Butterfly Grove in Southern California, and hiked by the sea in Mendocino.

The seeds for Healing Power arrived far from the California Coast. Alone, on a Swiss mountaintop a few years ago, Lightfoot had an epiphany beneath a European larch tree. As she gazed at the majesty of the vista and the mountains, standing alone in the Austrian Alps, the songwriter felt something. She started to sing and play guitar as if no one was watching. A flood of emotions, unlike any she’d felt in years, overcame her. Mother Nature was telling Lightfoot to find a better balance in her constant chase for success. This catharsis taught the musician a few other things – like it’s okay to write about topics she used to feel were taboo: friendships, addictions, and stories previously too personal to share in song.

“Friendship and community are among the most important things in our lives, so writing about that was therapeutic,” says Lightfoot. “I’ve also processed some anger on this record for the first time. I’m not an angry person, so that’s been cathartic … to write a song and say, ‘I’m actually a bit angry about that.’ I can let that out and process it. Hopefully, others can do the same. That’s what songwriting, for me, has always been about.”

The other important piece of Healing Power was finally bidding adieu to her long-time hometown of Hamilton. “That’s a big piece of the record… leaving the place that made me the musician I am,” says Lightfoot. “I now live in a house in the woods, with a pond, and it’s a place that I love coming home to after a tour; that makes everything better too.”

“Fired My Man” captures how Lightfoot felt about her previous existence. In the second verse she sings, “All my house plants were barely hanging on / It was emergency, ask you, it’s time I made it home.” “I literally I had to get friends to break into my apartment to water my plants sometimes,” she says, “because I wouldn’t know when I was coming back, and thought they were all going to die – as I ‘d been away more than a month. That song is about coming home, not even feeling like you’ve been there, and asking what it even means to have a home if you’re never there.”

New beginnings. Newfound love. A new home, and a new record. Life is good for Terra Lightfoot these days. To the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll, indeed.

Rêve“It’s surreal,” says Briannah Donolo, with stars in her eyes. On Oct. 20, 2023, the dance-pop singer-songwriter known to the public as Rêve launched her debut album, Saturn Return. The release followed a handful of singles, including the dancefloor bomb “CTRL+ALT+DEL,” which she co-wrote with Montréal duo Banx & Ranx, that went on to win a JUNO in the Dance Recording of the Year category. “I like to joke that this album is like I’ve been pregnant for three years and I’ve finally given birth,” she says, referring to her shiny new project, where she’s rounded out her musical persona.

“The music industry being what it is today – dominated by singles – it’s become difficult to keep the attention of music lovers, who often only get to know only one chapter of the musical history of an artist,” says Rêve. “I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity to write a whole book, a full-length album.” The project’s ballads – the intense “Past Life” and “Release Me” – exist not only in stark contrast to beat-heavy tracks like “Disco at the Strip Club,” but also reveal a facet of the artist to which we weren’t privy before.

As she says, Saturn Return was three years in the making, and involved thousands of song ideas recorded on her phone. “If only you could see it, there’s more than 3,000; it’s embarrassing!” she says with a giggle. Three years of participating in song camps, and collaborating with other artists, since the Montréal-born singer first started being noticed – by appearing on our TV screens standing on the Bell Centre ice rink, singing the national anthems when the Montréal Canadiens played home games.

She left Montréal for Toronto, with a suitcase full of dreams of an international career, propelled by her skillful dance, disco, and house songs. That seems like a strange decision, when one considers that Montréal is Canada’s nightlife capital, and provides its soundtrack. “It’s true, and you’re not the first one to point that out,” says Rêve. “The thing is, my management team, as well as the labels I hoped to work with, are all in Toronto, and it’s still a bigger market.

“The funny thing, though, is that my main collaborators are in Montréal,” she says, meaning Banx & Ranx, the production powerhouse duo of Soké (Zacharie Raymond) and KNY Factory (Yannick Rastogi). For the last decade, they’ve been creating hits for the likes of La Zarra, Sean Paul, and Alessia Cara, among other luminaries.

Rêve, Disco at the Strip Club

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Rêve song “Disco at the Strip Club”

It was also in Montréal that Rêve caught the dancefloor bug. “Music has been a part of my life since I was a little one,” she says. “I remember all those shows we would go see on weekends; it was a family outing for us. I do remember the first time I stepped into Club Velvet in Old Montréal. It was quite an eclectic place, and it felt like you were entering a dungeon, because of the stuffed animals, and candle wax dripping down the walls. And what an amazing sound system! I remember that first contact with the music, the DJ, and the bond that’s created between that dance music, the artist who’s playing it, and the people who are dancing. It was transcendent. It stayed with me, and I wanted my music to have that.”

Rêve says that when she got to Toronto, “I felt I needed to be taken seriously as a songwriter, so I wrote intensively, every day. At one point, I was doing two writing sessions a day, six days a week.” Most of her songs are written on the piano, an instrument she studied as a child, “I find the melody, the lyrics, it’s all there. Then I take a step back and try to find a way to make the song cool. Sometimes I’ll sit in the studio with no starting point and I just explore. I’ve always believed that songs are like little truths that are floating around in the atmosphere and that our job as artists is being able to catch them. Each day I devote to writing is like that, and that’s what makes being a songwriter so exciting and satisfying.”