Touring with Beck, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Shins, Jessica Dobson played some of the biggest stages a rock guitarist could hope for, but it came at the expense of her own band.
So Dobson put herself front and center, walking away from the Shins to focus full time on Deep Sea Diver, which has grown from a solo project to a four-piece band with a new album, Secrets, released this month.
"I love collaborating, but ultimately what does bring me the most joy is creating something myself," she says.
Dobson put together Deep Sea Diver's first record at the same time she toured as lead guitarist for the Shins, and it was the difficulty of keeping active on both projects that forged her decision in late 2013 to make her own band the first and only musical priority.
"Being the right-hand woman for James Mercer was fantastic. I got to focus solely on being a guitar player and supporting a band and that frontperson," she says. "But I realized toward the end of that tour that was an amazing experience, but if I'm to do Deep Sea Diver the way I want to do it, I can't tour with other bands to that extent."
Performing alongside stars like Beck and Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dobson learned lessons in playing to crowds big and small.
"I love playing smaller stages and being right there in the face of the audience. I've tried to step up my game as a frontperson and lead singer," she says. "My performance level is so much stronger now. When you're playing shows in bigger venues and bigger bands, you have so much more room on stage to be more animated and learn how to impress a crowd."
Deep Sea Diver — joining Dobson are husband Peter Mansen on drums, Garrett Gue on bass, and Elliot Jackson on guitar and synth — intended to record its second full-length album (on the heels of 2012's History Speaks), but the band started to find its footing with a different sound, one that brought together the rhythmic, intense rock of bands like Talking Heads and Television and a dreamier side influenced by groups like M83 and Beach House.
"The new direction of sound is a bit more bold and in-the-face. We did most of it live, and it captures the sound of the band," says Dobson, who plays more guitar on Secrets than before. "We're always searching for ways to write great pop hooks as well as tear-jerking, somber ballads. I don't think we can ever make a record that's purely ballads or purely pop. There's always going to be a combination."
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That combination is natural for Dobson, who says she'll always have her different sides artistically — guitarist versus pianist, frontwoman versus sidewoman, rocker versus balladeer — which simply reflects how she interacts with the world.
"My personality will forever be split," she says. "I am both Type A and Type B, introverted and extroverted. I have that duality. I have a good sense of humor and can also be dark and somber and serious."
The new album contains songs that are more thematically cohesive, augmented by the sense of mystery in the album title and its stark cover art, a black-and-white portrait of a profile and its mirrored reflection in the middle of a sharp diagonal color divide.
"We really, really wanted to draw people into a different world with this record. We sorted through songs and passed over some and left them for future use," Dobson says. "Thematically, we're dealing with overarching themes of how technology is affecting us, the disconnect between people. Those are very ominous themes. Nobody really has a solution to them yet, but it's good to be asking those questions philosophically about our brains and our relationships and how we can reconnect with people."