By Matt Pais
RedEye Sound Board
January 29, 2013
How odd it is to hear an artist you respect and appreciate suggest she doesn’t have the pipes to tackle her words.
“If I had the money, I don’t even know if I would be singing my own songs,” says rapper/singer/poet Dessa, a solo artist and member of Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. “I think I have a really vast imagination for lyricism, but I don’t have a limitless voice. So a lot of times it’s finding out what the instrument will let me do with the ideas.”
Self-doubt aside, the 31-year-old old Minneapolis native is doing just fine, judging by 2010’s acclaimed “A Badly Broken Code,” 2011’s “Castor the Twin” (which rearranges tracks from “Code”) and her success with Doomtree (featuring P.O.S. and Sims), who delivered the best performance I saw at Lolla 2012.
Before her performance at Schubas (and after performing "The Chaconne" exclusively for RedEye), Dessa talked about her many recent Chicago appearances, replacing herself on her own songs and sorting out the sincere from the sleazy in the music business.
Click here to watch video from our interview
You’ve spent some time in Chicago recently, including at Lollapalooza, when I saw you and Doomtree perform. It was my favorite show of the weekend. How did you feel like that went?
Thanks! I have two parts of my mind when I’m on stage. One is the part that’s performing. And the other voice that I wish I could shut off a little more, is like, “How is this going?!” And I think at Lollapalooza it’s particularly hard to shut that voice off. It was a big opportunity for us; we’re aware of how many people are there and [think], “Do I look like an idiot on the JumboTron?”
It felt good. It felt high stakes, and in my body in the moment I was nervous and excited I guess. Probably in equal measure.
Did the group talk afterward and recap?
We did. A lot of times though we always say the same thing. Sims is always like, “Yeah!” And P.O.S., Stef is always like, “Cool, man. That was good.” And then Mike and I get real sulky [sulky voice] if we don’t think it went so well …. I feel like it’s like “Groundhog Day” of show recap almost every show.
So it wasn’t like, “Oh, we absolutely killed it!”
There’s always a cohort of people in Doomtree who are like, “We slayed it!” Even if we just filled up the gas tank. “The gas tank is not empty!”
“Totally full of gas!” We did a good job; it felt good. I’m occasionally the wet blanket. (in Debbie Downer-esque voice) “Well, I would have liked it if we’d practiced those choreographed dance moves a little more …”
When I saw you, I walked over from Chief Keef’s performance. How familiar are you with this new rise of Chicago rap, and what do you think of what you’ve heard?
Medium. Chief Keef, I think probably I associate him as much as I do with a musician [as] with the political implications of what he’s rapping about or the social implications. The Pitchfork drama; the episode of beef with Lupe. I think a lot about what the social obligations are, if any, of being a performing artist and so I’ve probably spent more time thinking about what Chief Keef means than I have listening to his music, to be totally honest.
So how do you feel about that?
I think I’m still deciding exactly where I land. But I do think that music has agency. It informs the way we think, even if we’re not aware of the influence it’s having on us at the time. That doesn’t mean you have to lead Sunday school with every 16-bar; that would be a very boring [rapper]. Do you know what I mean? Sex, drugs, anger, angst and pulp are important parts of music. That said, I don’t think it’s the case that an artist can remove him or herself from any moral conversation by saying, “It’s just art,” as if by virtue of being art it doesn’t have a social implication or social value or social consequences.
The tour kicking off tonight is with a full band, whereas when you were here last it was solo, spoken-word, monologue stuff. How does that change your preparation as far as what you’re doing on stage?
I perform so much more frequently as a musician than I do as a spoken word poet or as a … monologist. I never say that word out loud because I don’t know where the accent goes. Monologist. Monologist.
That’s a hard one.
It is hard. So that took an incredible amount of preparation. Leave the venue, go to my hotel room and continue to prepare and then practice in the car on the drive. And think about, “Is there a better timing I can use? Is there some other metaphor I can use to better express a particular theme?” A lot of it’s [flexible]. I know where I have to land, but I don’t have to get there in a particular way every night. There’s just certain plot points that must be hit …
So you’re rewriting as you go.
Yeah. If a certain crowd seems real laugh-y, amp up the joke lines, and if they’re more sedate, or more contemplative—
“Did you ever notice how it’s monologist or monologist?!”
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. “Boy, are my arms tired!”
Now with a full band, is it less stressful?
Strangely, it is. Bringing myself around was terrifying. It wasn’t terrifying, it was high stakes. Working with these guys, I have a three-piece that I usually play with, and Aby Wolf, who is this really stellar soprano, she does these really nice close harmonies--a really first-rate vocalist. I do it so much more that I feel probably more comfortable.
How do you explain why there’s so much hip-hop in Minneapolis? I’ve spent a little time there; I have some family there. I don’t know what a great rap city looks like but some people might be surprised. Between all of Doomtree and all of Rhymesayers, why is there so much greatness there?
I think understandably a lot of people probably imagine it would be flyover country for rap music. I think it might have just been one of those scenarios where you had a few dedicated people hustling hard who inspired a lot of other people. Maybe not to pick up the craft, but it reinforces the idea that you don’t have to relocate to make a successful go of this vocationally. Also I think we have a lot of great models in punk rock and in hip hop for a workable, sustainable DIY. Not just like, “I’m going to sew a patch on my jacket and quit my job.” Which also can be cool but not sustainable. There’s a lot of people who have developed really talented entrepreneurial skills to make this [bleep] work in addition to [music].
How do you characterize the musical personality of the city, and how do you feel like the Midwest plays into that, if at all?
It’s really tough for me to call, only because I haven’t lived anywhere else. So I’m probably like the worst person to ask. In the same way I have a younger brother so it would be like, “How would you compare this to being an only child?” “I have absolutely no idea; we would have to send Max away!” So I don’t know. I mean, it’s DIY. I think there’s a hustle. I think there’s a doggedness to it.
You’ve talked about “Castor the Twin,” which takes a new spin on tracks from “A Badly Broken Code,” diagnosing weaknesses on the previous record. What were the weaknesses you saw?
God, I don’t remember talking about it so intense! Just putting it all out there in that interview! “Where are the weaknesses in ‘A Badly Broken Code’?” I think I’ve found my voice a little bit more since then. I’m proud of that record though, to be honest. I’m really proud of that record. Nonethless, when I listen back to it, are there moments where I think I’d be better prepared to tackle those songs again? Yeah, for sure. But there’s also some moments that’s just sort of like brazen like, “I’m having fun, and I’m not thinking too hard about it!” That I probably am less likely to pull off successfully now. I think it was more like allowing some of the vulnerability in this songs and the lyrics of those songs to be showcased in a different way [than they were before]. I think a lot of times when there’s production, that’s a big part of what you’re hearing. It was like a killer snare. I dug making that record. On the other hand, performing some of that material on “Castor on the Twin,” which is almost a chamber pop record or something where it’s got classical sounds but backing rap music--not in a hybrid-al way I hope. In a natural way. Making that record ended up being a lot more like lyric-based for me. You really hear every word. The themes are really at the fore instead of the production.
With the new stuff do you want to continue to go in that direction, with a little less going on in some ways and more focus on the lyrics? How much does your participation in Doomtree make you want to go to an opposite side of the spectrum?
Oh, that’s a good question. I think in some ways I do a little bit of writing on the page as you mentioned. When I put out my first short book, I was so much happier in Doomtree. And I think it was because I was trying to write a book in every rap song that I made, and then it wasn’t a book and I was pissed off. “This isn’t a book, this is just a song!” What I realized that, “OK, you’ve got an artistic appetite that you’re not actually attending to at the moment. You’ve got a drive that you’re not--you’re not doing the work to satisfy [that].” Because after I did the book I was like, “Oh, [bleep], I can just write good songs. This feels great!” So I wasn’t worried about that anymore. I think in some ways with Doomtree, if I’m looking for a two-and-a-half hour set where I’m sweating through my clothes and I’m done and it looks like you’ve been in a dryer for two-and-a-half hours because my hair is [bleeped] up and I’m half drunk on whiskey and somebody hit my face and I have a little cut on my—you’re just tore up. It feels good. It feels athletic. It feels adrenal.
That doesn’t happen in a spoken-word performance.
Not likely! Unless something went wrong. “That was really creepy.”
“Why am I sweating so much sitting on a stool?”!
[Laughs] Yeah. “I gotta go to the doctor.” That said, I think probably each one feeds a slightly different appetite. But the record that I finished that comes out later this year is, I think because I now know, “OK, this is what a rap beat does, and if I drop the snares, this is how it affects the song.” Or if I put a kick on 2 and 4 instead of 1 and 3. You just figure out how the dials work in a rap song. And then I have an organic record, so now I can figure out what more of those dials do. Like, “What’s the difference between a viola and a violin?” “Wait, what’s the difference between a four-string violin and a five-string violin?” “Oh, that’s how that sounds? So it’s deeper and woodier?” Now I have that ammunition too. When I set out to write this most recent record, which doesn’t have a name yet, to say, “OK, what would best serve this song?” And it didn’t feel like, “Oh, my direction is chamber experimental pop retro.” And it wasn’t like, “OK, I’m a hip-hop artist, stay in your lane.” I was like, “[bleep] a lane, man, what would make this song good?” The thing that would make this song good is produced snare and a five-string violin. Boom.
Any idea of when it’s coming out?
We’re arguing about it now. When the weather’s warm. I don’t know how warm it will be or how long it will have been warm for …
There are so many fantastic lyrics on your record. If you’re willing to pat yourself on the back at all, I’m wondering if there’s a line that comes to mind that seems particularly meaningful or is one of your favorites for some reason.
Garsh. There is a tune on the next record called “Annabelle” that I think, the song as a whole that I was most proud of. I’m not going to sit here and recite three-and-a-half minutes of lyrics. But [that one] as a whole. And another one that I dug was, “Your conscience is clean and as white as a line of cocaine” about having a conversation with a friend about his drug use. And, “Anger is just love left out and gone to vinegar.” I like that.
All good. One I put down was, “You’ve got a lot of long answers to a lot of short questions.” I like that because lyrics like that make you extrapolate in interesting ways and are open to interpretation, where other lyrics are about one little thing and that’s it.
Thanks. Yeah, totally. There’s a lot that to be totally frank, there’s a lot about how I do my job that I am not yet satisfied with. I really struggle--sometimes on stage, sometimes in the studio--there’s a lot of frustration there, but the writing part, that part I feel confident in. I was born to do something with words. Now I just gotta learn how to do something with this [touches her throat].
Do you not feel as confident in your voice?
Absolutely not. If I had the money I don’t even know if I would be singing my own songs. If I could put together a show where I could design the whole thing. I would sing a bunch of them, but there are some songs where to me they sound good, but here’s a human female vocalist’s range and here’s where my range lives. There’s some songs that sound good and impactful here ‘cause it’s high tension and high drama, but I don’t have a limitless voice. I think I have a really vast imagination for lyricism, but I don’t have a limitless voice. So a lot of times it’s finding out what the instrument will let me do with the ideas. Where after a particularly tough song on the last record I was talking to my boyfriend, I was just like, “Could I have someone else sing this song and put it on my record?” I was like, “That’s weird as hell.” He was like, “It certainly is.” I was like, “Let’s just think; is there a reason I couldn’t do that?” And he was like, “No, technically not. I would say it’s a last resort.” And we made a list of vocalists who I would hire and have her do it. I was like, “I’m going to go back in the studio, I’m going to try and record this 22 more times, and then after that I’m done. I can’t do it; I can’t do the song justice.”
Mariah Carey wasn’t interested?
I’m waiting for the text.
You wrote on Twitter, “Ballads and rap songs are not as different as good songs and bad songs.” Why did you feel that need to be addressed?
[Laughs] “Why the hell did you say that?!” Probably because I was being a little self-obsessed, and I know that a lot of what people say, good or bad, about the kind of stuff I do has to do with genre ... Everyone likes to imagine that they’re doing something innovative. On the other hand when I finished “A Badly Broken Code,” which is the first record that put me on more of a national—I don’t want to say national caliber—but sent me around the country as opposed to just playing at home. Even people on my team, who are still on my team and I really trust, voiced some concern, like, “Dude, I think these are some pretty good songs on here. Could you do two more song songs and two more rap songs? Then you’d have two records and just split ‘em up. You have the singing stuff and you have the rap stuff.”
“At least ask people to wave their hands in the air. Whether they care or not …”
“If I could just have some indication that you care. With an airborne hand.”
“That’s the label that’s talking.”
[Laughs] “If I could just see your palm …” I get it. In some ways I think a singing song or a love song or a ballad, I understand that that’s a different thing than a rap song, but it doesn’t feel like it’s so alien that it can’t coexist. If I’ve got something else that provides continuity, a sensibility, a lyrical style. It’s not like I went song song broccoli song song. When you make a mix, if you meet a pretty girl in high school, or if I meet a pretty boy in high school and you make a mix, you’re not thinking, “Ooh, this doesn’t go. This is indie rock and this is folk.” No, you just make sure the [bleep] sounds cool and says something. That’s what I feel like making an album should be; it’s just a mixtape where I wrote all the songs.
When you were doing soundcheck earlier, you said something like, “The sound doesn’t have to be at a rap show level, this is delicate material.” Do you feel like people are surprised when they come to a show--when you’re categorized in iTunes as rap and people expect to see something that they don’t get?
Yeah, I’m sure they must be. I think in some ways I’ve dodged some bullets by the fact that I think I’m a decent person to work with. I try to be honest, I try to do right, I try to be something that approximates on time. With fans and stuff, if you don’t love my [bleep], [bleep], find something you do love. What else is there to say about that? Is it always going to sound the same? No. If I asked [fans] in conversation most people would say, “Yeah, it shouldn’t sound the same every time.” Of course that introduces the element of risk. Well, that means you might not like it. OK, to me that seems like a fair exchange. At the end of the day everything that’s at stake is $12 and an hour-and-a-half of your time. So if you hate it, the losses aren’t that bad. With any luck, you might really [bleepin’] like it.
I want to ask a few quick ones. What’s the first album you remember buying?
It was probably something by Offspring.
You have all their albums and can’t remember which one you got first.
[Laughs] No, I can’t remember which one it was. [singing] “… keep ‘em separated …”
How often do you listen to that now?
Zero. I listen to that zero. [Laughs]
I think it was Joan Baez. And then shortly followed by No Doubt.
Didn’t the Offspring open for Joan Baez at one point?
[Laughs] Yeah! The “Keep ‘Em Separated” Tour featuring Joan Baez. Please keep ‘em separated.
What’s a question you’d be excited to never get again?
Do you want me to answer honestly?
No. I’m sorry, it would be, “What’s a question you’re asked too often?”
OK! I thought it’d be something about—
Women … Five years ago, “What’s it like to have breasts in rap?” I was like, “It’s crazy!”
I ask everyone that, even actors. “What do you think that would be like?”
[Laughs] Yeah. Carpenters, the guy who services my air conditioner … I think I answered a lot of questions about the women thing, and it used to bug me for a while, but I think maybe it’s just a case of every year I’ve had something a little different to say about it. Even just because at first it didn’t really affect my career at all, and then when you start taking photos for magazines, it is different, the way Sims is treated, the way that I’m treated. For good reason or for bad, I don’t know. Then once you start dealing with L.A. guys then all this sliminess that I thought was not part of the music industry as prominently as it was displayed in biopics about Cadillac Records back in the day or whatever. It’s like, “Wow, it’s not that slimy.” Then you meet L.A. and New York guys and it gets … they’ll greet you and they’ll touch you or something, but they don’t say like [in sleazy voice], “There’s a casting couch, I want to sign you but first I have to see the goods.” They don’t say anything like that, but their hands linger too long and it’s so insidious. And I don’t know when to yell, “You’re touching me too long!” Because it’s so casual the way that the lines become crossed. That stunned me. I was ready to be like, “No! no!” And I found that sexism and misogyny and complicated gender roles came with a lot of otherwise really good people.
I think anything in that sleazy tone of voice would be uncomfortable. “I think your music is phenomenal.”
[in sleazy voice] “My wife loves your stuff.” It’s never a good voice.
What’s a question you wish you got more?
To be honest, the stuff about my lyrics, that’s probably where I’m most comfortable and it indicates somebody spent a little time checking out what I do. That always warms my tiny heart to be able to answer questions about what I’ve written.
On favorites in Chicago: “I always try to duck out for sushi or a salad. Because you eat so much fried stuff ‘cause that’s what’s at the bar and you eat a lot of food from foil, gas station fare … I’m also kind of cheap. For me I’m always taking out my iPhone and trying to find the best deal that I possibly can. ‘You have 17 minutes between now and doors. Go!’ There’s a couple of spots that had really inexpensive sushi to answer your question. I like playing here, quite a bit. I like the sound at Lincoln Hall. Most of my experience in Chicago is still venue-based. I really do end up being tethered to the same few blocks. I was surprised last time in going to Wrigley Field, playing right near there. In my head I had imagined it as culturally vacant, which is the way that a lot of our area is in Minneapolis. Where the stadium is is sort of warehouse-y and not very interesting. So I was stunned how much cool stuff there was to see in that area. Walking to get my sushi it was like an ice skating rink of people running figure-eights as if they were in a snow globe. I was like, ‘Are you guys real?’ and a lot of really cool boutique-y bars and stuff … I think I expected salt flats. ‘Hello …..’ I was expecting a warehouse district. Even to just see some kind of manicured storefronts or whatever, I was like, ‘Oh, this is way cooler than where the stadium is where I live.’”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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