Half-Famous: The Particular Hunger of Deep Sea Diver

After years as lead guitarist for acts like Beck and James Mercer, Jessica Dobson is abandoning the tour bus for a borrowed van to strike out on her own her own with Deep Sea Diver's second LP 'Secrets.'

26 February 2016, 5:50pm

All photos by Kristina Pedersen

When Jessica Dobson plays her guitar, plinking out polyrhythmic riddles or abrupt violations of fuzz, she wears on her face a look of urgent, morbid determination. It is the deadpan jaw-jut of someone powering through an all-night drive, or of someone who’s just been informed that the elevator up to the 50th floor is out of commission.

You may have seen this face before. Dobson has worn it for years, occasionally on national television, usually just a few feet from someone much more famous than she is. There it was, on Dec. 9, 2008, alongside Beck as he performed “Gamma Ray” on The Late Show with David Letterman. Again, in March of 2012, to the right of The Shins’ frontman, James Mercer, as he sang “Simple Song” on Saturday Night Live. Hidden behind big sunglasses, later that summer, on the Lollapalooza main stage.

The look is no different on this dreary December afternoon in Dobson’s north Seattle home. It’s just that now, two months away from the release of Secrets, her second LP under the moniker Deep Sea Diver, the setting has changed. Her basement rehearsal space, with its drooping Christmas lights and faint aroma of dog food, is a far cry from SNL.

The stakes have changed, too. At the moment, Dobson, in a black dress and shredded black tights, is charging through “Wide Awake,” the album’s zero-bullshit first single. Like Deep Sea Diver’s earlier stuff, it’s full of intricacies—hard stops, rhythmic left-turns, whirring synths—tucked into a gravel heap of straight-up rock. It's a chase song, both stylistically and literally: propulsive, anxious, full of what are hard not to read as self-affirmations. “Your vision is slowly dying,” she sings, head down, fingernails bitten to stubs. “It’s only a flame without a fuse / But don’t let it get to you / I won’t let it drag you under.”

Not exactly the comforts a half-famous lead guitarist might’ve grown accustomed to. Yet here are all the tools necessary for the courageous and possibly foolish work Dobson has set out to do. The work of abandoning the tour bus for the borrowed van, of giving up a reliable paycheck for a cut of the door. The work of finally stepping into the spotlight—of creating, on the strength of no one else’s ingenuity but her own, something beautiful, original. Something surprising.

“She totally had it made,” says drummer Peter Mansen, who’s also Dobson’s husband and co-songwriter. “She was doing something that came very naturally to her, that she was very good at.” But touring with other, more successful acts “didn’t have the same emotional baggage or emotional process” as putting a pen on blank paper, he says. “There’s more to it than comfort, obviously, and things working smoothly.”

The game plan wasn’t always this clear. After signing with Atlantic Records as a solo artist at 19, Dobson, now 31, produced—and scrapped—two full-length albums over the course of four years. What remains of those, on old CDs and a broken iPod or two, is a quieter and less technical sketch of her current style. In interviews, she likes to dismiss these folksier efforts, recorded under her own name, as unworthy of an audience.

“I was too young to know what I was doing,” she says. “I think I’m much better collaborating with other people, where I’m not so inside my head.”

The first audition for Beck’s band came by accident in 2008, while she was managing a cafe in her native Los Angeles. She was a partial owner of the place, The Broadland, which she’d helped open with some of her Atlantic money after she was dropped. A friend asked if she knew any guitar players, and she racked her brain for days before considering herself a candidate. It didn’t feel real when she was called in for an audition—then back, for a second and third, in front of Beck himself.

“It’ll be kind of funny just to try out, just to see,” she recalls thinking. “I’ll never get it because I’m going up against studio musicians.” A few weeks later, she left on a world tour.

The 18-month gig with Beck helped secure another with The Shins in 2012. James Mercer tapped her as the lead guitarist for his Port of Morrow tour shortly before Dobson released History Speaks, Deep Sea Diver’s explosive and precise first LP.

For a stretch of dates, she pulled double-duty: warming up crowds with her own material, then hustling back onstage to join the headliners. The realization that Deep Sea Diver—currently rounded out by bassist Garrett Gue and guitarist/keyboardist Elliot Jackson—could become her sole endeavor came gradually, culminating after a set at the Iroquois Amphitheater in Louisville, Kentucky. It was her band’s last show of the tour. Scrambling offstage, she looked up at the crowd and saw something unexpected: a standing ovation.

“I did feel a conviction,” she says. “This is a gift that I have, and I should be pursuing it wholeheartedly in songwriting, cultivating something.” At the end of The Shins’ tour, she pulled Mercer aside to get his blessing. The conversation, as she remembers it, was short.

“Hey. I’ve got to go do this,” she told him.

Writing Secrets—out now on the band’s own High Beam Records label—meant hurdling over an array of obstacles, both external and self-imposed. “I think being somebody’s right-hand woman is one of my favorite roles to play,” Dobson says. “The actual process of writing is the part I tend to fear the most, or start to second-guess myself.”

Dobson is quick to admit that she’s a perfectionist, and she likens her creative process with Mansen to a wrestling match. They tend to turn over ideas, stretch them to their limit, then jettison them altogether. Always Waiting, an EP from 2014, was born from this dynamic; of its four songs, only the title track survives on Secrets. It feels, ironically, like a self-reprimand about creative stasis. “I’m always waiting / For the right words to explain it,” Dobson sings over a haze of organ and guitar delay. “But the time won’t ever come if you wait.”

Secrets is full of these expressions of unease. Across the album, Dobson trawls her insecurities to create brainy, confident rock songs—ostensibly directed at individuals, but almost universally readable as exorcisms of her own doubt, too. In “See These Eyes,” she’s “rising from the ashes” and “trying not to cover up / The riot growing in my heart.” On “Notice Me,” the album’s aptly named first track, she promises to finally “take control.” Her central question—Can I really do this?—is ever-present on Secrets. It also answers itself.

Two months after we first chat, Dobson and her band arrive at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco for the second show of a national tour. “Performing, that’s the most confident part that I have,” she’d told me before we’d parted ways in Seattle. “It’s not so mystical and ephemeral. I have some people in front of me. I’m looking at people’s faces.”

To Dobson’s delight, the venue has not committed what the four-piece, after years of touring, has grown to consider a cardinal sin: a show poster featuring an actual deep sea diver. Yet it’s hard to ignore how the name doubles as an astute symbol of her plight: Alone on a forbidding frontier, trudging slowly forward, engulfed on all sides by darkness and lethal pressure.

Before heading backstage, Dobson peddles merchandise by the club’s front door. When someone asks her to pose for a photo, she looks momentarily bewildered. Then she happily obliges.

The set is kinetic. Dobson, in a patterned blouse and non-shredded black tights, is hyper-focused but smiling broadly. She cracks jokes and beams at a crowd much smaller than the ones she’d grown accustomed to in recent years. Her crowd. The band, meanwhile, is in a frenzy: punishing their instruments, whipping their hair. During the second song, Mansen loses his glasses and makes no attempt to find them. Dobson moves from her guitar to a synthesizer and back again. Near the set’s conclusion, during a ferocious performance of Secrets’s title track, she howls the thesis statement of the evening, the tour, and her career:

“Remember, remember / Your first / Remember your first love.”

Byard Duncan is a writer living in Oakland, California. His work has appeard in GQ, Rolling Stone, San Francisco Magazine and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.

Kristina Pedersen is an artist and photographer based in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram.