Jessica Dobson often thinks in colors. The principal songwriter behind Seattle indie-rock unit Deep Sea Diver had just wrapped touring on their 2016 “Secrets” LP. The band’s well-received “red” album, as Dobson considers it due to its “brooding, frenetic” nature, etched their place as Seattle rock favorites and the quartet quickly returned to the studio to work on the follow-up.
But it just wasn’t clicking.
“Something happened to me internally where I just hit a wall and everything turned gray,” Dobson says. “The recording situation wasn’t right, it felt forced. The songs felt like they weren’t quite ready.”
Outside the studio, the life of an indie musician was catching up to the 30-something singer/guitarist who’d been in the biz since signing with Atlantic at 19. The resilient Dobson has faced her share of ups and downs throughout her career. After the major label shelved her early records, the ace guitarist built an impressive résumé as an in-demand mercenary, joining the touring bands of The Shins, Beck and other indie-rock elites.
Despite critical praise, Deep Sea Diver faced some behind-the-scenes rejections, struggling at times to get buy-in from industry players. That and heightened feelings of anxiety and depression contributed to Dobson’s period of “unexplainable colorlessness.”
“For so long, all I did was just tour, just play, just record — go, go, go! And this was like the first time I stopped,” says Dobson, mentioning an interview she read with Canadian indie-pop star Leslie Feist. “She said something like, ‘Does 42-year-old Leslie want to be doing the same thing that 16-year-old Leslie set out to do so long ago?’ And I think I needed to ask those questions, too, not do I want to play music, but what does that look like?”
That self-examination ultimately reinforced her commitment to finishing Deep Sea Diver’s third and finest album, “Impossible Weight,” out Oct. 16. This time around, many of the arrangements feel more fully baked into the songwriting, as opposed to festooning synths to straight-ahead guitar rockers. In the radiant title track, which includes a cameo from indie-rock luminary Sharon Van Etten, pop-savvy melodies and electro-sparkles cozy up with the alternately brawny and angular riffs Dobson’s long hung her guitar strap on. Another standout, “Shattering the Hourglass,” is a somber tune, swelling with ambient, daybreak synths written after learning her friend and former Shins mate Richard Swift was in hospice just “down the street” from the Tacoma studio they were in. (Swift, a heralded producer and key figure in the Northwest indie-rock community, died in 2018 after struggling with alcoholism.)
Chalk those brighter and tighter arrangements up, at least partially, to Dobson formally sliding into the producer’s chair, with help from Seattle studio vet Andy Park, her co-producer. The decision was made during a pivotal low point in Dobson’s reflective period at the suggestion of her husband and drummer, Peter Mansen.
“For some reason, I just started crying,” Dobson says. “I knew he was right, but I was very tentative about that. I was like ‘No, if I produce this record then it truly all falls on my shoulders.’ I was just hearing that critic’s voice again.”
The resulting newfound freedom on “Impossible Weight” confirmed it was indeed the right call.
So, if “Secrets” was red, what color is Deep Sea Diver’s sonically fertile new album, blooming with themes of empathy and compassion?
“This record, I always saw it as being green,” Dobson says. “Like that kind of circle of life — alive, but some things have to die in order for other things to live, whether that’s musically, metaphorically, personally.”
It may not have been easy, but without a doubt, she found exactly the right shade.