Deep Sea Diver probes relationship wreckage
Deep Sea Diver’s debut album, History Speaks, is pretty much stellar from start finish, but there’s one moment that stands out above all others. Toward the end of the nine-song release, the artist known to her husband as Jessica Dobson rolls out “Why Must a Man Change”, a number that will hit home with anyone in a long-term relationship.
All solar-flare guitar, cold-snap synth drifts, and torch-song emotion, the song has the Seattle-based artist poking through the wreckage of a once-loving partnership, the devastating lines including “Heed no direction like some cold and obstinate child/I swear you used to be my protection that I’d stand beside/And you’d whisper to yourself why must a man change his ways?”
“It’s a heavy song,” Dobson agrees, reached on the phone at her Emerald City home. “I basically wrote it in response to a huge breakup that one of my best friends was going through. It’s really easy to demonize one side of the relationship, depending on who you are friends with. I was trying not to do that. But the song ended up being about this guy who refused to look at himself, and who was always pointing fingers. I think for men there’s a real pride thing. It’s hard to say sorry and move toward some sort of reconciliation, especially when the relationship is going to end.”
The gold-star moments on History Speaks don’t stop there. Forget sounding like an artist struggling to find her footing: Dobson arrives fully formed, her first full-length displaying a range that suggests she’s learned a couple of things during her time in the business. The goodness starts with the ’80s-approved “Ships”, which nods to early Police and the dub bands that inspired Sting and company. “NWO” mixes admirably inventive percussion and depth-charge bass bombs with off-kilter piano balladry, while a beautiful Afro-pop heart beats in the exotic “You Go Running”.
There’s a reason why History Speaks seems the work of a seasoned vet. Now in her late 20s, Dobson has a history. In her teens she found herself signed to Warner Bros.; two albums were recorded, neither released. Rather than sit at home and mope, Dobson became a hired gun on piano and keys, which led to stints touring with Beck, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Shins (she now plays with the last of those acts as an official member).
History Speaks, she says, finds her drawing on all those experiences. Just as importantly, it reflects the self-described control freak’s acceptance that, sometimes, the best way to make a record is to take as much input as you can from those you’ve surrounded yourself with. That includes Dobson’s husband (and Deep Sea Diver’s drummer) Peter Mansen.
“I’m definitely more of a traditional singer-songwriter,” she says. “A lot of the stuff was written very White Stripes–style, starting out on piano or guitar and drums. Peter is the one coming up with a lot of the things on the record. We listen to a lot of the same stuff, but he’s more into the process of throwing out crazy ideas and bringing his influences in.”
After noting that her various collaborators on History Speaks were heavily into the likes of Talking Heads, New Order, and Deerhoof, Dobson is happy to rattle off a couple of acts who’ve coloured her own writing.
“I grew up listening to the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen,” she says. “But I think that it’s subtly masked on the record because there are so many influences. It’s hard to put your finger on them all.”
Well, not hard. After all, given his talent for chronicling the various miseries of the human condition, Morrissey would no doubt love “Why Must a Man Change”.
Deep Sea Diver plays Electric Owl on Saturday (December 1).