Making Sense of the World: A Conversation with Dessa
Dessa, a hip-hop artist, poet, essayist, and part of the Minneapolis-based rap collective and record label Doomtree, recently released Chime, an eleven-track album on which her signature literary style comes through powerfully as she explores love and loss, and the question of free will.
In the time she has been writing songs for Chime, Dessa’s work has branched into several interesting collaborations, including a project with neuroscientists at the University of Minnesota in which she tried to create a protocol for falling out of love—a project that influences some of the songs on the album. Her interest in neuroscience also led to a series of shows with the Minnesota Orchestra, and a book of essays, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, due out in September from Dutton Books.
I caught up with Dessa by email in between a live performance and a music video shoot to talk about some of her collaborations, where she stands on the intersection of poetry and performance, and self-care for busy artists.
The Rumpus: You’ve just released a new album, Chime. When you last spoke with The Rumpus, you said that when you think about what makes writing work, voice is more important than narrative. What kind of voice did you take on in creating Chime?
Dessa: An artist friend named Kai told me that one of the hardest things to draw is the human hand. It’s so difficult, he said, because you think you already know what a hand looks like; you’ve got this image in your head of the five fingers spread out flat. So you don’t really look at what you’re trying to capture—at the endlessly varied shapes that can be created by a human hand in action or in repose.
I think there’s a parallel in music-making, and in writing, and in daily life. You’ve got this idea of what music should sound like or how an essay should read or what a woman in her thirties is supposed to act like while walking around. Finding a voice can be conceptualized as a two-fold process: it’s both about developing your craft and about dissolving burdensome assumptions.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that the voice I tried to use on Chime was my own. It’s not the way I talk to my mom on the phone, of course. But the lyrics use the same words, images, and tone that I use privately when trying to make sense of the world around me.
Rumpus: Hip-hop is an especially intertextual genre in which references, samples, and remixes abound, sort of like one big, ongoing conversation. What do you see as your role in that conversation?
Dessa: Hip-hop beats and lyrics are often laced with all sorts of callbacks and subtext and double meanings. Most really good punchlines run on wordplay or on a totally re-contextualized phrase. Rap lyricism is acrobatic—it can bounce a reference off anything: current events, old movies, consumer products, other rap lyrics. My constellation of references reflects my interests and experiences as a person: in the pages of my rhyme books, I’ve referenced other rappers, Bach, drug-store nail polish, T.S. Eliot, The Princess Bride, Maya Angelou, nursery rhymes, Pilot brand pens, plastic-bottle booze, Joan of Arc. Like everyone, I’m a mixed bag.
Rumpus: The voice/narrative distinction appears frequently in discussions of poetry, as does the distinction between “page” poetry and “stage” poetry. Do you find these kinds of distinctions useful, or do you think they’re overly reductive?
Dessa: Some pieces that earn standing ovations in performance fall flat on the page. And some pieces that win on the page are confusing, dry, or otherwise dissatisfying when read aloud. If I were pressed to formulate a general rule, I’d say that performance poems don’t demand the same level of distillation as printed ones do; in fact, a slightly more conversational approach often feels more natural for spoken word material—it’s congruous with all our other lived experiences of listening to people talk. There’s also a temporal aspect: in performance, the poet gets to decide how long the experience of a poem lasts. On paper, the reader gets to decide. Timing is a particularly important variable for humor and for high drama—which is maybe why performance poetry has more of both.
All that said, I hate formatting general rules because so many rad artists subvert them in such amusing ways.
Rumpus: I like that you frame this as a question of subversion—of rules, of the audience’s expectations. Can you think of a couple of artists who you feel do that especially well?
Dessa: [Musician and comedian] Reggie Watts is a lot of fun to watch in a live setting. He manages to violate an expectation—about how a joke will land or a lyric will resolve—just milliseconds after he’s established it. He’s like a batter who’s staked out a position just two feet away from the pitching machine; he’s really got an athletic imagination.
Rumpus: What’s subversive about your work?
Dessa: Because I work across genres and disciplines, I have the opportunity to design events that involve unusual combinations of elements. Jumping into the audience with a live mic isn’t all that surprising at an indie hip-hop club, but it’s an unexpected maneuver in a classical hall. PowerPoint presentations may be common tools for writers, but they’re not often used on stage at rap shows.
When I’m writing music or prose, however, I don’t subvert for subversion’s sake. My task, as I understand it, is to counterweight conventional wisdom to find out what it is I really think.
Rumpus: You work collaboratively with Doomtree, but you’ve also collaborated with groups and organizations outside the field of hip-hop, from ice cream brands to the Minnesota Orchestra. How does collaboration in general and collaboration outside of your field specifically influence your solo work?
Dessa: Collaboration is easiest for me when I’m working with someone whose skills are very different from my own. While designing an ice cream flavor with Izzy’s, for example, it was easy and exciting to learn about how the subtle inclusion of graham cracker or salt or crème fraîche informed the taste of the finished product. I’ve got no experience in that field, other than as a dessert enthusiast, so I had no opportunity to get territorial. Working with other writers can be a more challenging experience. But my longtime friendships and collaborations in Doomtree have been some of the most instructional and fruitful in my life and career.
Rumpus: When you do these collaborations, do you find yourself siphoning off language from areas outside of your field? What are the best ice cream-related terms you learned?
Dessa: As a person, I like collecting interesting words. As a songwriter, though, I think technical terms are often distracting—more show-offy than expressive.
My favorite part of ice cream making was probably the tiny little spoons uses to portion flavors in small batches. They’re just longer than a matchstick, they’re kept on a silver ring, and they measure out portions like dash and pinch.
Rumpus: How would you describe the relationship between classical music and rap? Is there something in particular about classical music that made you choose the symphony as accompaniment for your work involving neuroscience?
Dessa: The fusion of varied musical traditions can be cheesy, so it has to be done carefully. When I first met with the Minnesota Orchestra, it was the director Grant Meachum who made it easy to say yes to the collaboration. He understood how carefully the music had to be arranged for the night to be a success—he wanted to really showcase the power of the all of these players on stage, not just add a layer of strings. And he respected how carefully I wanted to design the event: I aimed to create an atmosphere that welcomed rap fans and season ticket holders, but surprised them both.
His team worked with mine to build the show up from the floorboards; we designed everything from the bar menu—we wanted to make sure Orchestra Hall wouldn’t run out of whiskey—to the pre-show lobby entertainment, which included a youth circus troupe, to the on-stage lighting—classical players generally can’t read sheet music through the strobes that are standard at pop shows.
Sarah Hicks, a total badass who did clap push-ups side stage, conducted the show. Andy Thompson arranged it, turning in 999 pages of charts to the orchestra’s librarian. If I can be so immodest, it was pretty effing awesome.
Rumpus: Before music was in the picture, you wanted to be an essayist and worked as a technical writer in the medical field. I think a lot of artists are working in fields related to, but still not exactly, what they want to do. Aside from simply putting in the time, what advice would you give to artists who want to move from a good-enough job to success in the field they want to be in?
Dessa: I don’t think there’s a universal formula, but freelance work helped me transition into making art full-time. It would have been difficult to hold a nine-to-five and make art in the evenings, so I sought flexible hourly gigs. I’ve been a tech writer, a face painter, a temp, and have handed out samples of gelato at grocery stores. I didn’t quit my day job in one dramatic stroke; I scaled back incrementally as my music became more lucrative. I don’t have kids, so I had the freedom to take risks. And I’m naturally a saver, which really, really serves someone making her living in such an unpredictable field. Although it freaked me out at first, I acclimated to the erratic financial rhythms of the arts—it’s sort of like getting your sea legs at the bank.
Rumpus: Artists who have a lot of projects going on tend to be terribly overworked. What do you do to protect time for yourself?
Dessa: I am not the model to emulate on this front. I do a little meditation, work out at the YWCA, cook a lot of healthy food. But I also stay up way too late, have an unsupervised child’s appetite for cheap milk chocolate, and will sometimes work myself into a weird, twitchy frenzy, trying to execute a dozen tasks at once. I’ve got a really busy year ahead, so I’m trying to improve my daily habits to make sure I don’t spend it spazzing out.
Rumpus: I know that frenzy well! I think for me, it has to do with the way we’re culturally conditioned to believe our worth and our productivity are bound together—part of why so many of us always keep busy. Is that it for you, or is it something else? Does meditation help you with that tendency? What’s your meditative practice like?
Dessa: I started a (pretty inconsistent) meditation routine after reading a book by Russell Simmons on the topic. He is not, obviously, a dude I’d otherwise recommend as a life coach.
While I’d love to claim that my perfectionism is the product of some sinister cultural pressure, I’ve always been a little neurotic. While my friends and family are supportive of my career choices, the driving force to achieve comes from within—for better or worse, that’s how I’m built. Sometimes it helps me and sometimes it doesn’t.
Rumpus: What projects by women and nonbinary folks have you excited right now? Poets, neurologists, musicians, astronomers—anyone.
Dessa: I’m a fan of the science writer Mary Roach. She’s got a great tone, a clever approach to her subjects, and a curiosity I admire. Bonk is a fascinating scientific examination of human sexuality.
Rumpus: Are you feeling the creative slump that often seems to follow the release of a major project, or are there other projects you’re working on now?
Dessa: For me, this coming year is big and exciting and a little daunting. I’ve got an international tour, a few ambitious hometown shows, and then the publication of my first hardcover collection of essays. (Shout out to everyone at Dutton Books—many of whom I currently owe emails). At this juncture, I’m less worried about a creative slump than I am about actually slumping into my computer, burnt out. Tomorrow, dammit. I’m meditating twice as hard and eating half as much chocolate starting tomorrow.
Feature photograph of Dessa © Bill Phelps.