Last September, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon viewers saw a brunette in a short skirt tear through a wicked guitar solo during the Shins’ performance of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” That was Seattle’s Jessica Dobson, who ad-libbed the majority of the solo on the spot.
“I never like to spell things out too much,” Dobson said in a recent phone call. “[With] any sour note, you’re only like a half-note away from correcting it. And I think sour notes are kind of fun anyway.”
Dobson is something of a rarity in the current rock-and-roll business—a female guitar shredder. Off the cuff, you could name Annie Clark, Marnie Stern, and Carrie Brownstein as women who assert themselves in lead-guitar roles today. But others are few and far between.
“So many girls don’t push themselves beyond kind of the traditional three-chord acoustic-guitar song. That’s just the way it is. And so I think people find it intriguing, but I don’t like being treated as a novelty,” says Dobson, adding, “I don’t doubt that I can play the guitar well.”
Neither do Beck, Spoon, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, all of whom have employed Dobson, 27, in their touring bands in recent years. Last fall, she was invited to join the newest reincarnation of the Shins, and she’s since lived something of a double life. One day she’s on national television or spending time in Portland recording the Shins’ hotly anticipated new album, Port of Morrow; the next, she’s at home in her North Seattle apartment with her husband, teaching private guitar lessons and chipping away at History Speaks, the self-released debut from her own band, Deep Sea Diver.
Dobson spent her entire life in Los Angeles before moving here, her husband’s hometown, last year. The pressure of the self-conscious, tightly wound L.A. lifestyle had caused her to consider quitting music altogether. Instead she took a breath of Northwest air and became a storyteller.
“I’ve been so insular and isolated for a long time,” she says. “[In Seattle,] I really wanted to meet new people and get down-and-dirty in people’s lives. [It’s] not so much about how I was feeling, but about how other people were doing in life, and trying to figure out their story and tell that in a song.”
Some songs on History Speaks, like the title track, are slow washes of contemplation (“History speaks, and I’m still listening”); others, like the standout “You Go Running,” are live wires of happy energy and movement. Propelled by Dobson’s uniquely boyish, bawling vocals, it’s an intricate, carefully orchestrated type of pop and guitar rock that can’t be compared to anything else being made in Seattle today.
It could be that Dobson’s parallel words are about to collide—she hints at the possibility of Deep Sea Diver opening for the Shins on their upcoming world tour, but adds “I don’t feel entitled to anything.”
“I don’t want to buy into being lazy about my own record because I’m playing in this other band that’s bigger,” she says. “That’s not how I see it at all.”