Singer-songwriter Joel Dobbins is somewhat obsessed with music, and he tries to indulge that obsession as much as he can. On his numerous Internet postings (Facebook, Myspace, his personal blog), Dobbins has been updating his fan base. His latest posting?
“I miss making music.”
He is away from his home base in southeastern Pennsylvania, and while he is having fun, he is not working at the craft at which he obsessively grinds away. When he was being interviewed last week, he was on the phone from Seattle, where he was visiting his girlfriend for a few weeks. Since he was spending time with her, he was not doing, at least on an intensive basis, what he spends most of his time doing — composing music.
For obvious reasons, “Seattle is very dear to me,” says Dobbins. “The furthest west I had ever been before was Ohio.”
Dobbins will be performing at Sarah Donner’s Indie Music Night at Princeton’s Griggstown Pavilion on Saturday, April 10.
“It’s the second time I will be performing there,” says Dobbins, who says he first connected with Donner on Myspace. He will be performing solo, most likely wielding his acoustic guitar for the gig.
Dobbins has built a substantial, if somewhat cultish following, through his quirky, eclectic, intellectual, witty songs, which also reveal a brooding, emotional and vulnerable personality. At 22, Dobbins has released four CDs: “Fishing for Piranhas” (2006), “Hatatoy, Atatahoy” (2007), “Unreal” (2008), and “Investment” (2009).
When he’s not in Seattle, Dobbins continues to write music — he has more than 100 unrecorded tunes he wishes to get down on disc — and he is presently working on three albums at the same time.
While he has described his music as “all over the place,” Dobbins says these next albums will be more organized thematically. “In the past, I was experimenting more, not really sure what kind of direction my work was going in. I was still learning how to mix songs well.”
These next three records, especially one Dobbins says he is going to devote to love, will have much more structure. “I like the idea of concept albums, those that have a start, middle, and ending. The album as a stand-alone thing has really sort of died, in favor of singles, but I really like to stay in that format.”
He has so many disparate influences that he can’t really be categorized. Among those he lists are Coldplay, Green Day, Gnarls Barkley, John Mayer, Michael W. Smith, Nelly Furtado, Radiohead, Regina Spektor, Rudy Vallee, U2, and They Might Be Giants. Hard to really detect a pattern there. But Dobbins, admittedly laying on the hyperbole, says he has been musical “since he was inside the womb.”
Dobbins was born in Brunswick, Maine; his father was a retired Navy man turned IT computer guy at a hospital, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom who also had a cleaning business. He has two older sisters and an older brother. “I was born into a pretty musical family. My dad played guitar, both of my sisters tried different instruments and stuff, and there was a lot of that around me, as far as I can remember.”
Dobbins was most captivated by the piano, however. The family had one in its living room, and it was sort of the focus of his home, at least in the mind of the young Dobbins. “For a while, my mom gave beginner piano lessons to various people,” he says. “Some of my earliest memories are of me sitting at the piano when I was very small. I can remember the keys being much bigger than my fingers, and me feeling my way around. We have a couple pictures where I am just standing in front of the piano, reaching my fingers way above my head so they can reach the keyboard. That’s how I started fiddling around with that, around the same time I learned how to walk.”
Between the time he was 12 and 16 years old, Dobbins says, he played guitar. Aside from dabbling in some design work on the computer, he did pretty much nothing else. At the time he was being homeschooled and most of his interaction with others happened at his job at a grocery store and in church.
“When I was 11 I started playing guitar, and when I was 12 I started playing with the musicians at church,” he says. “I was also in a couple little bands. I usually hurried up and finished my schoolwork so I could devote more time to playing and composing music. That was a great developmental period for me.”
Dobbins considers church one of the most important influences in his life in terms of social, spiritual, and musical development. “Church has had a huge influence on my life; most of the musicians I have played with over the years I met there.”
The style of contemporary Christian music Dobbins grew up playing has affected him in a purely musical sense, he says. “A lot of the music is designed to be very singable. So a lot of what I learned about writing catchy melodies came from that influence, and that is also where I got a lot of experience performing. It’s been a place where I can express myself a lot through music.”
Dobbins says the church of his childhood in Maine, as well as the one he currently attends in Pennsylvania, are both charismatic but nontraditional churches. “When I started going, the whole focus was reaching out to the whole community, so there were a lot of interesting people there. It was right on the border between charismatic and noncharismatic.”
When Dobbins was finished with his schooling, he moved to Reading, PA. “There wasn’t any conflict at home or anything like that,” he says. “I had a great relationship with my family then, and I still do. A lot of it, though, was that I felt like a big fish in a small pond.”
What happened, in fact, is that he just had an offer he couldn’t refuse, says Dobbins. His older sister by 10 years had gone to college in the area, had married, and was the mother of two children. She offered Dobbins the chance to move in with her family, rent free. “The deal was that I would serve as the babysitter,” says Dobbins, and he took the deal. That was five years ago, and just recently, Dobbins moved into his own townhouse in the Reading area, not far from his sister and her family.
“Moving to Pennsylvania, I have just seen a whole lot more, been to a whole lot more places, and played in them, than might have happened before. A lot of (my decision to leave Maine) had a more to with music, finding out a way to branch out that way.”
Indie Music Night, Griggstown Pavilion, 373 Bunkerhill Road, Princeton. Saturday, April 10, 7 p.m. Rally for One, Joel Dobbins, Turning Tides, Ed Saultz, and Johnny Charles. $5. 609-672-1813 or www.sarahdonner.com.