Dessa’s got skills and she’s deliberately stretching them
On her most recent album, Castor, the Twin, singer and rapper Dessa revisited songs from her back catalogue and put a chamber pop spin on them, adding strings and things to the mix. Dessa, who is part of the Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective known as Doomtree, recently spoke with us about the Castor project as well as the new album that she’s nearly finished. Her short winter tour will allow her to test out some of the songs before she plays the South by Southwest music conference in March.
Talk about your background. Which came first the spoken word or the music?
I was initially interested in the language arts as a writer. I wanted to be an essayist, but I didn’t know how someone would go about doing that professionally. Then, I transitioned into the performance scene through spoken word and it was through the spoken word that I entered the rap scene here in Minneapolis.
An essayist is a strange occupation. What inspired you to think in those terms?
I always liked writing but I didn’t have any talent for long form fiction. I liked words and writing but I don’t know if I had the imagination for a novel. I was in college and I took a class on creative non-fiction. It’s an incredible genre with a dry-sounding name. That genre title is devoid of excitement. I took a class on the personal essay, and I was floored by that. I don’t know if you could call yourself a writer if you wrote short, funny essays about real life. To me that was professionally anecdotal. And yet my mind was blown, and I promptly fell in love with my instructor and pined away.
I called mom. And she was like “What’s a Doomtree?” Her first piece of advice was “Watch out for cocaine.” I was like, “These guys can’t afford any cocaine.”
How’d you end up hooking up with the Doomtree guys?
I was performing at a spoken word event and [the MC] Yoni invited me to be part of a band he was putting together to rap. I wasn’t sure I would be a good fit for that role. He said, “Why don’t you come over and just try to rhyme over beats.” I thought he might be creepy, but I texted a friend who assured me he was okay. I went over there and did it. I wouldn’t have impressed anyone that first day. He handed me a disc that was homemade with screen printing on it. I listened to it and I said I liked the guys on it. They ended up being the dudes who lived next door. I started as a fan and became friends and eventually a member. I was asked informally at midnight on a Tuesday. I think it was Tuesday. It was too late to call anyone. I was in their living room and if you can feel like a princess surrounded by cigarette butts and empty beer cans, then that’s how I felt. I was so happy. I called mom. And she was like “What’s a Doomtree?” Her first piece of advice was “Watch out for cocaine.” I was like, “These guys can’t afford any cocaine.”
What was the first record you made under you own name?
It was an EP. We had a series of EPs in the rap tradition of putting out a series of unofficial albums. I put out a series called False Hopes. Everyone put out a False Hopes. That was an unofficial release and it was only five songs long. It was the first music I recorded and didn’t have the pressure of a full length. I was not as terrified if I had been if it were 12 songs. I didn’t have distribution or anything like that. It took me a long time to pull together a full-length album. I didn’t know much about the industry side of it but I knew how to promote shows.
Castor, The Twin consists of ten songs previously released on either Doomtree discs or your previous record, A Badly Broken Code. What made you want to revisit those songs?
It’s a project that doesn’t explain itself beautifully. I’ll explain it and you can take what you can from it. It’s a mess. A couple of years ago, I released A Badly Broken Code and I went on tour and then came home and started working with a live band. I like the ability to change the live show from the recorded stuff. These band guys were not hip-hop players. A lot of them were crackerjack technicians so they were really, really good musicians. Every once in a while they would add a couple of beats and change the key, just in the chorus. All of a sudden, the songs sounded more and more different from the record in in interesting ways. It’s not like we’re trying to be the Roots, but we’re doing different stuff. We go on tour and the songs are really different. People liked the different versions and I captured the rearrangements, which sounded like chamber pop. Rap and chamber pop together. There’s of strings and stand-up bass. There’s a classically trained guitarist. It’s a more delicate album with lyrics that push things forward.
What’s it like working with that band on the new album?
There are moments of total self-doubt and frustration and moments of unfettered conceit where I’m on top of the world and no one can touch me. I’m working just past my areas of expertise. I know intellectually when I say that out loud that it’s a good thing. That’s what you’re supposed to do, but it feels scary and frustrating. For the next record, I don’t want it to be as soft and delicate as the last record was. I want to approach the making of this project with skills from both worlds, from the rap world and from the organic world of orchestral players.
1/8 Chicago, IL
1/9 Cleveland, OH
1/10 Pittsburgh, PA
1/11 Philadelphia, PA
1/12 New York, NY
1/13 Cambridge, MA
1/15 Detroit, MI
1/16 Milwaukee, WI
1/19 Lutsen, MN
2/1 St. Joseph, MN
World Café Live
1Majestic Theatre/The Magic Stick
CSB Benedicta Arts Center – Escher Auditorium