Guided By Aquarius: Exclusive Interview With Sasha Dobson

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“Music is the way for me to stay connected to where I was raised. It seems to be the best way to exist, even though it’s not easy.”

How does one re-define their musical voice? Given her recent shift from jazz singer to singer/songwriter, along with the distinguished musical lineage from which she stems, no quote seems more apt to describe the winding journey Sasha Dobson has experienced on the way to Aquarius, her latest release and first collection of all original material.

The daughter of Bay Area jazz greats – her mother vocalist and educator Gail Dobson, her father the celebrated late pianist Smith Dobson – Sasha recalls watching her father performing at San Jose Jazz Summer Fest when she was a child, unaware of the legends with whom her father was sharing the stage. Jazz was ever present, and it was a calling she followed to New York at 17 to attend the New School. In 2005, with jazz still her primary musical language, she chose to pick up the guitar with confidant Norah Jones, leading her on a new musical journey that later brought her on tour as Jones’s guitarist and began to outline a completely new approach to music.

As she continues to grow more fully into her new singer/songwriter shoes, she’s noticed that her father’s untimely death still informs her work. While his presence on the scene led her down a similar path, his loss now accents her songwriting. Aquarius – a nod to her father’s astrological sign – is gorgeous in its simple spaciousness. Defined by a hopeful melancholy, her album conveys the notion that life’s beauty can only be seen when we recognize it for both its ups and downs. So far, reception has been quite kind. In only a month on shelves, her album has already caught the ears of NPR and helped her secure a slot on this year’s Farm Aid in September bill alongside Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Dave Matthews.

We had a chance to speak with Dobson – who closes our Cisco Silicon Valley Stage Sunday – by phone earlier this week. During our conversation, we dove into how Aquarius represents a new musical beginning, revisited her early Summer Fest memories in light of her August homecoming performance, and discovered that while Dobson may be a New Yorker, California will always have her heart.

In an interview with Kuumbwa Jazz a few years back, when your EP, Burn, had just come out, you said “I’m just holding out for the right opportunity to complete this new phase.” Would you call Aquarius the full realization of that shift?

I really started to shift when I made my last record (2006’s Modern Romance) with Richard Julian and Jesse Harris. That was my introduction into songwriting. I mostly covered their songs and co-wrote a few others with them. I knew at that point I wanted to learn how to accompany myself and use my own writing to incorporate the way that I sing, which is entirely personal.

This is my first body of music I’ve had the opportunity to record in a light that I feel is 100% connected to me. I couldn’t be more involved in the music, but it’s also the beginning. I wouldn’t say it’s the full realization because that doesn’t exist. In my mind, it’s forever, but [Aquarius] is an opportunity to continue on this path, which has been pretty amazing so far. It’s definitely more than just a conscious decision one day to shift from one music to another. It’s like a complete life change. It’s taken almost 10 years.

Aquarius possesses quite the interesting mood. There’s this pervasive sadness to it yet it seems to accept such change as inevitable. It’s not always for the better, but that’s just life.

My producer, Joel Hamilton, opened this huge door into going head-first into that being what I do now. It’s wonderful to encounter a collaboration with a producer who fully gets who you are, what you’re writing and validates what you write. I’m totally lucky to have fallen into that situation with him.

It’s funny – he says that my songs have a theme, which is that they contain the darkest depths of despair but there’s always hope, and it’s true. The one public experience that I keep going back to is losing my dad so young. It’s fairly well known what happened to Dad, at least in California. I’m going home to visit a lot of his fans, and [Dobson Family Band] fans. That particular experience in loss is terrible. We draw greatness from what know, and I was really lucky to grow up with someone like him. That’s helped me find a positive in all of it – at least where my head is at when I’m writing and in life.

You picked up the guitar at the same time as your friend Norah Jones, who you backed when she toured her album The Fall. Is there anything in the works with her currently?

We have a side band called Puss N Boots with [bassist] Catherine Popper, and we’ll hopefully do some recording this Fall. We come together throughout the year when we’re all in town. It’s a very liberating situation. We switch instruments and play original music and covers. It’s just a unique thing for all of us compared to everything else we do as artists. Unfortunately, because everybody’s busy doing other things, it’s kind of a novelty when we get together. Hopefully we’ll record soon just to put something down. We’ve been a band for about five or six years now, so it’s time.

I’d like to to revisit the older days of San Jose Jazz since your father Smith was quite closer with former Executive Director Henry Schiro. What do you remember of those early days? Are there any moments that still stick out to you in relation to the Festival?

I was around jazz and the sea of musicians that they played with unknowingly for the first 10 years of my life. When I was 10 or 12, I started to understand and become a fan of some of the people my parents played with. I became more and more proud of my parents as I got older because I understood what they were doing – my dad’s playing with Bobby Hutcherson? You’ve got to be kidding me!

I played at [Summer Fest] a bunch of times with my dad, and it’s a big honor to come back. I’m doing a more intimate thing this time. I’m traveling with producer / guitarist Joel Hamilton and he rules. I feel really good about the record as well. It’s the first time I’ve ever not been negative about my music. It feels good to step into this world with someone who who really knows what they’re doing, and who I trust.

After spending so much time in New York, does your return to San Jose still feel like a homecoming?

Hell yes! More than it ever has. The older I get, the more nostalgic I become. You start to become clear on who you are and from where you came. Even though I grew up [in New York] and my adult life has been spent here, Santa Cruz is the source of who I am. My dad commuted to San Jose every day. I still have dreams of driving over Highway 17, that commute from Santa Cruz to San Jose. I’ll have to write a song about it. [Laughs]

Sasha Dobson performs on the Cisco Silicon Valley Stage Sun Aug 11 @ 7pm.  Keep up with Sasha by following her on Twitter, liking her on Facebook or by visiting sashadobson.com