In Conversation With Dessa
In the second week of November, Minneapolis rapper, singer and writer, Dessa, graced the UK with the second of two UK tours behind her brilliant new album, Chime, going to Glasgow, Leeds, London, Brighton, and then finally, Bristol. Over the past decade plus, the multi-talented artist has slowly but surely built an impressive discography, both as a solo artist, and as a member of the prolific rap group, Doomtree, whose live shows and consistent output between members have made them an integral part of their hometown’s music scene. Chime is the latest addition, and perhaps the magnum opus of this discography. A succinct and pensive fusion of hip hop and indie pop, featuring Dessa’s signature wit, charm and ability to approach topics such as love and determinism in a candid, yet philosophical manner. I was fortunate enough to sit down with her before her excellent performance in Leeds, to talk about some of the themes throughout Chime, her forays into multiple disciplines, and more.
We’ll start by talking about the album, Chime, which is a really great album by the way. Like a lot of your work it’s very introspective, but one thing I like is how it never veers into oversharing for oversharing’s sake , something I personally hate. Is there ever any fear, or even pressure when it comes to being openly vulnerable, for lack of a better word?
Yeah, I mean I think there are definitely moments of discomfort when it comes to talking about really intimate details of your life, but to tell a good story that really matters to strangers… I think it’s important that it would really matter to you, and oftentimes that involves being vulnerable or sharing moments where you are not the victor (laughs). Yeah, stories where you are only the hero are not only untrue, but boring.
So there are tracks on the album such as ‘Fire Drills,’ my personal favourite on the album, as well as ‘Jumprope,’ which talk about your own experiences with gender, while also putting them into a more universal context. Obviously, these are very hot button issues right now with the likes of the Me Too movement going on, so do you ever feel the need or an obligation to comment on issues such as these? Do you think artists in general have an obligation to?
I’m rethinking what my own responsibility is. I think… that given the state of political affairs in the US, I’ve reconsidered how political I ought to be. I feel like unless artists and thinking, empathetic people speak out, then we won’t have enough of the public to push back against the current climate of American politics, which unfortunately is one of fear and hate.
I think it [your commentary] is effective because you’re not just choosing the easy target of poking fun at the obvious cartoon-y figure that is currently in power in your country.
Yeah, and I think, I mean, I think as the world has changed in the past ten and twenty years that a lot of our ideas about race, gender, and equitability have changed; mine have [changed], and developed and matured, y’know? And so for me, although I think there are some artists who are fantastically effective at making rally-cry, fight songs, I don’t think that’s my talent. I think that telling a true story, and hopefully doing it with empathy, is what I feel most moved by as a listener. I like first-person accounts where people are reevaluating long-held beliefs about our class, gender and race, but from a personal, lived experience instead of using words with an academic fit.
I totally agree. So, coming from Minneapolis, hometown of Prince, Atmosphere, Rhymesayers, and of course, Doomtree, growing up there, what was it that drew you and continues to draw you to hip hop as a format to express your ideas?
I had initially wanted to become an essayist, and I wasn’t exactly sure how to gain a foothold in that world, and I had met the members of Doomtree when I was a performer on the slam poetry circuit in Minneapolis, and it was the members of Doomtree to be honest that drew me into that world. They made it seem like there was a hospitable place for someone like me to live and work in the cultural terrain of hip hop. I liked the way they worked, I liked the people in Doomtree, the way they hung out… they were as much like friends as collaborators, and it was like they had built this whole little culture that they could take with them in a van wherever they went, and that’s what was cool to me.
Did it also have anything to do with the capacity for more words in rap?
Yeah, definitely. I mean as a writer, the genre is particularly appealing just because you get so much ink, whereas if you were to write a pop song with 400 words, that’d be a really long pop song, y’know?
So you’ve now released three solo albums and a book, all to positive reception, and you’ve built this carefully-guarded reputation that seems to carry over multiple disciplines. Are there any other particular goals you have in mind? Is there a main career objective?
I think for the most part I’ve operated under a general umbrella of the language arts, whether that’s on a page or a stage or over music. But y’know, I’d like to try my hand at acting, but I think I’d only feel comfortable sharing that work if I was really confident that it was good because, like you say, if I’m going to ask people to trust me to span genres, then I really have to make sure that I deliver every time, I don’t want to take that trust for granted.
Final question, if you could go back to your younger self at the start of your music career, knowing what you know now, what sort of advice would you give to yourself?
To be honest, I feel like I’m still waiting for the older self to come and give me advice (laughs), I’m very actively learning all the time. I feel like I, like a lot of young artists, was very eager to share immediately. Most of us would benefit from focusing on the quality of our work for a little longer, before focusing our efforts on broadcasting that work.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to do this!
Thank you so much.
Dessa’s latest album, Chime, and her new book, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, are out now. Check out the music video for her single, ‘5 out of 6,’ below.