It goes without saying that language can be crafted into countless incarnations. A single word can spark an avalanche of thoughts that in the right hands (or lips), can be woven into something beautiful. Artist Dessa knows a thing or two about the beauty of language. A rapper, slam poet, writer, and teacher, Dessa (which means “wanderer” in Greek) can turn an idiom into a song and a feeling into an entire album. Dessa is a member of hip-hop collective Doomtree, alongside artists Lazerbeak, Paper Tiger, P.O.S, Mike Mictlan, Sims, and Cecil Otter. In addition to touring, Dessa teaches at the McNally Smith College of Music, and has written two books, Spiral Bound, a collection of poetry and essays, and Sleeping with Nikki, a short prose story. The Chronostylist catches up with the Minneapolis native, where we get her thoughts on her upcoming album, what it’s like to record in her closet, and always crucial- her favorite drink.
The Chronostylist: Tell us how you got started.
Dessa: I’ve think always loved the language arts, and I initially had aspirations to be a writer, but I wasn’t sure how exactly that aspiration could be. So, then I started performing competitively at slam events (I had a really lousy break up) and my friend took me to a slam, which is like a competitive poetry slam- and she said, ‘I think you should try this.” So I did it, and I won, and it was through that slam circuit that I made my entrance into the hip hop community in Minneapolis. So that was my avenue in, an interest in the literary arts, and then slam, and then rap.
The Chronostylist: Is there a certain song that you’ve written or are currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?
Dessa: I think the song that I was most excited about when it started coming together lyrically was Children’s Work, and a song called Annabelle, which is slated for release on my next record.
The Chronostylist: Speaking of your new album, how was the recording process?
Dessa: Thanks, we’re done!….I’m like a nervous wreck during the recording process, it’s like really rapid vacillations between conceit and total self-doubt, so it feels really good to be done, because I know I’m like a maniac to everybody throughout. But right now the record is mixed, and now we’re just doing the very final audio touches in mastering, which is a much more kind of cerebral part of the process as opposed to the heart-rending part of recording it.
The Chronostylist: Who did you collaborate with on this album?
Dessa: I had a lot of collaborators on this album. Paper Tiger and Lazerbeak are the two contributors who contributed beats to us, and then all three of the instrumentalists in my touring party also played a lot on this record, so there’s Dustin Kyle and Sean McPherson, and Joey Van Phillips…this one is like the first record I think I’ve done where we used the entirety of the arsenal. So we have some really classical sounds, you know like layered cellos played by a member of the Minnesota opera, and then you have really gritty, seedy, sounds from Paper Tiger’s production that are just grit, and so this is the first record I think we’ve really used all the tools at our disposal.
The Chronostylist: What makes your new album different from your past two (A Badly Broken Code and Castor, the Twin)?
Dessa: I think the lyrical voice…is little bit older in that I think that in this record we paid a lot more attention to a perspective other than my own. Whereas I think that the albums I was writing in my twenties…for me at least those are very challenging years, and it was all I could do to express my own perspective well and to manage my own feelings. Now I think this record pulls the camera back a little bit and I’m proud of it particularly as a song writer, I think its one of my best lyrical writings.
The Chronostylist: Tell us some cool stories about the recording process.
Dessa: You mean like while I was recording in my closet did anything stick out?
The Chronostylist: Yeah, sure.
Dessa: Well, I can’t tell if you’re speaking metaphorically, because I actually record in my closet. I live in a one-bed room apartment and I just nail quotes to the inside– the closet that’s right off my living room– and it’s like a little sound proof room, so that’s where I do all my stuff.
The Chronostylist: Oh that’s awesome! Did you experience anything unexpected or interesting while recording?
Dessa: I think there’s probably a lot of little moments where things sounded better than I thought they would, but very few of them would probably make for an incredible anecdote. I think that there were so many cases on this record where I knew that a song needed something, but I didn’t know exactly what. So a lot of times I would send it out to three or four people, not really knowing what I was looking for, but saying “hey this get’s boring by the second chorus do you hear anything here?” And I do a Bruce Springsteen cover on this record, and sending out that tune to four or five or six producers…I thought I was looking for drums, but I think it turns out I was looking for an electric accordion sound because [when] it came back to me [from] Mayda, she’s a musician here in Minneapolis, I was like “oh shit that’s exactly how it should sound.”
The Chronostylist: What is your process for creating a new track?
Dessa: I’m a very slow writer, compared to almost any other song writer I’ve interviewed I guess, so for me very often, I’ll be collecting words and phrases throughout the day. Most days something will catch my eye or catch my ear, maybe its just an expression I haven’t heard before, like I remember the first time I heard the phrase “guild the lilies.” I thought that was great, and my dad once said “wrapped around the axel” to describe someone who was in a really tough spot, and I remember thinking “hmm wrapped around the axel,” and it wasn’t until two and half years later when I was writing a song about a woman in a tough spot that that phrase that I had jotted down all of a sudden became relevant lyrically. A lot of times what I’ll be doing is just collecting bricks even before I know what kind of house I’m building, and then when I hear the production of let’s say Paper Tiger, I’ll flip through all of the specimens I’ve collected to see which of them might the match the feeling that I’m given by the beat.
The Chronostylist: As a fashion-based blog we gotta ask- Is there anything particular you like to wear when performing?
Dessa: I think that for performing there are so many styles that I’m aesthetically attracted to, that I have a very tough time wearing on stage, because I’m really uncomfortable when my range of motion is at all limited. I move my arms above my head a lot which looks lousy with a lot of highly structured clothing…something that I happen to really like. I like weird standing collars and I like really structured buttons. But if I wear them on stage, I look like I’ve recently been deposited by a tornado as soon as I’m off stage, because I’ve bunched it all up and my hands have been in the air and something has ridden up four inches, and you know my bra is all fucked up. So I end up being pretty simple on stage, very often I’ll wear men’s dress shirts. I buy them at thrift stores and I’ll just have them lightly tailored to have a more womanly shape. I end up staying pretty simple– a tight pair of pants under a flowing shirt and I usually finish it with combat boots which are good to stomp in, but also photograph alright because there’s enough rivets and laces to be interesting and add texture.
I think so much of the aesthetic that I’m drawn to– probably admire more than I actually don- because I have a hard time [being] uncomfortable, so I’m usually on the look out for something that’s got a clean crisp line and doesn’t encumber motion.
The Chronostylist: Are there any specific people who’s style you admire?
Dessa: Hm, that’s an interesting question. I mean, she’s got a different body, so it might not be the style that I would wear, but I love the drama [in the style] that Angelina Jolie wears. I’m a fan of dark colors and dramatic necklines… I like her stuff. When I do theatre shows here, they’re a little bit dressier. I wear a lot of dresses by the designer Jax, which are totally affordable for a beautiful evening gown, you know they’re like a hundred bucks. For somebody who’s busty, an evening gown is a very difficult style to pull off.
The Chronostylist: Yeah, I’m right there with you.
Dessa: Are you? Yeah! You know if you’re spending crazy money you can get something altered, but that’s not usually what I do for a show. There’s enough give and structure in those [dresses] that they just… I ran into one on clearance and was like “Who is this?” And I’m never somebody that flips the tag, you know it’s just not my style so if I remember, I’ll keep cutting it out and keeping it. They do a really good job of [designing] figure flattering stuff for bustier people…Yeah check it out, man they’re bangin’.
The Chronostylist: What is one of your favorite memories of touring?
Dessa: Touring is equally thrilling and grueling– its like the one and a half hours you’re on stage, those are hard to beat…I’m privileged to live those with my friends. And then there’s the 27 and a half hours you have to cart your body around the country to be able to have that one and a half hours every day. We still tour in a van, I don’t get my own hotel room, I don’t get my own hotel bed, so its not a very glamorous existence, [and] we still run our tours on a really tight budget. Probably some of my best memories are sort of mundane, in that the most fun I’ve had is when I’m half drunk with fatigue and it’s four in the morning, and we’re just getting into the hotel to go to bed…I always share a hotel room with LazerBeak when Doomtree’s on tour, and you know they’ll sometimes somehow magically produce an airplane sized bottle of amaretto and we’ll sit at four am exhausted, still in show clothes and share a bottle of amaretto in the darkness while waking up and [intending] to do it all again.
The Chronostylist: Oh amaretto is the best. I’m also a huge whiskey fan.
Dessa: Me too! There’s a drink called the godfather, which is whiskey and amaretto on ice. It’s so good.
The Chronostylist: So we’re really interested to know- what’s your favorite word?
Dessa: Oh it changes. I think when I was a teenager, like fourteen, thirteen, something like that, I remember hearing the word disenchanted or disenchantment, and I thought that was so deep…Since then I think at seventeen or eighteen I first heard the word obsolescence, and I liked that. I tend to be attracted to words that we know but we don’t hear them in that particular form, like we all know the word obsolete, but we don’t use the noun very often, obsolescence. So I’m attracted to the familiar and the foreign in words that are formulated just a little bit differently than what we’re accustomed to. That said, man I don’t know what it is might be right now, there are too many good ones.
(Interview by J.Z. of The Chronostylist)
You can find Dessa and check out her current tour dates via Doom Tree