Deep Boy-Sea Diver

Jessica Dobson dives 20,000 leagues beneath her old band, The Shins


At age 22, Jessica Dobson was feeling pretty down. Though the Orange County local had hit gold and signed with Atlantic Records at age 19, neither of the two solo albums she recorded were ever released. After Atlantic dropped Dobson, she decided to answer a band's audition ad just to shake off the rust.

It could have been any band, but it wasn't. It was Beck's backing band. And much to her surprise, she got the job. Dobson's run of luck didn't stop there.

Touring with Beck led her to gigs as a touring guitarist for Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, more recently, The Shins.

"It was like a big tumbleweed of actions," Dobson said. "I didn't have to audition. People were gracious enough to let me tag along."

But by 2007, gigs that many musicians would consider the pinnacle of success were becoming a problem for Dobson. She had rebranded her solo efforts as Deep Sea Diver, playing jangly, Elliott Smith-style pop. Though Dobson said she grew immensely while playing with other artists, her project needed room to grow, as well, and touring obligations were getting in the way.

"You know, I was talking with [Shins frontman] James Mercer about how he just got to the point where he told himself he had to quit his job, put all his expenses on credit cards and do nothing but work on his record every day," Dobson said. "That's what needed to happen with Deep Sea Diver."

Dobson realized that if she didn't pursue Deep Sea Diver full-time, all it would ever be was a side project. So she said goodbye to rock stardom and dove back into the deep seas of the underground.

But when she set out to pursue her solo project, Dobson didn't do it alone. In the time between beginning the project in 2007 and leaving The Shins in 2012, Dobson met drummer Peter Mansen, whom she not only brought into the band, but married. Mansen's complex and percussive approach to drumming was light years removed from the simple kick and snare beats Dobson crafted for herself as a singer-songwriter.

"When I was just a songwriter, I had the drums super-simple. Because I didn't know how to drum like Peter," said Dobson.

Dobson said that the band before and after the addition of Mansen is so different that it's like two wholly separate groups.

Listening to History Speaks, Deep Sea Diver's 2012 full-length release, it's hard to disagree. The simple singer-songwriter material that Dobson started with has been polished into top-notch indie rock that is equal parts Mirah and Abbey Road-era Beatles. Dobson's voice rings clear through vintage-sounding echoed guitars, piano riffs and Mansen's Philip Glass-inspired percussion. The songs are both ballads and percussive sound experiments.

"It was a fight in the beginning, because I was such a fan of letting other things be percussive and not knowing how to drop a melody over things. It took me a while to learn how to be percussive vocally," Dobson said.

She learned. The vocal hook on "Keep it Moving," the sixth track on History Speaks, has a punchy quality as memorable for its lagging, swing triplet rhythms as it does for the falsetto trill Dobson throws in at the end.

But aside from pop, it's hard to pin down a genre for Deep Sea Diver. The fourth track on History Speaks, a melancholy piano ballad called "The Watchmen," could be a reject from the Amelie soundtrack. The album's penultimate song, "Tracks of the Green Line," has a theatrical, Jim Steinman-esque quality. And several songs on History Speaks could pass for B-sides from The Shins.

Even Dobson struggles with genre, saying her style is largely a conglomeration of the diverse sounds she grew up with on the Southern California airwaves.

"I was just inundated with so many records--from Top 40 to hip-hop to Brit pop," Dobson said, adding that she's also fascinated by dark and weighty lyrics, the kind that serve as emotional detox, leaving an artist purged and ready to be filled with something new.

"[That sort of pop] feels like it's tied into a feeling of renewal and a raw experience," Dobson said.

Her marriage to the band's drummer is another element Dobson credits as a major influence on Deep Sea Diver's music.

"Who I am directly affects who he is and vice versa," she said. "A lot of times, our life coming out in music is who we are as a couple."

Dobson said that a central goal of her songwriting is to shake people, but sometimes that means shaking her husband, as well.

"Your heart is turning away / I cannot stand the loss," she sings on "Ships."

"You might wonder now / is this the girl you wanted so unmovable?" she sings on "Keep it Moving."

Dobson said that part of the reason she writes lyrics like those is that she's better at communicating on paper. In both music and life, she doesn't want to become a reservoir of emotions that never come out.

The heart-wide-open approach is evident throughout History Speaks. And so far, it seems to be working with fans. Deep Sea Diver performed prominent slots at SXSW in Austin, Texas, as well as on the Main Stage at Boise's Treefort Music Festival. And shortly after the group plays at Nampa's Flying M Coffeegarage Wednesday, May 22, it will head to Sasquatch.

But whether following James Mercer's advice, and tossing aside her successful gig as a touring musician, will prove to be the best career decision, Dobson doesn't care.

"I've never done music for a paycheck," she said. "That's not the defining factor."