In June, Minneapolis based Doomtree member Dessa released her second studio album, Parts of Speech. She’s currently on tour (find dates near you here) with her live band to promote the record. Texas native Alex Wilder (@notawilder) and I caught up with her.
It’s been about a month now since Parts of Speech was released and you’ve been touring extensively in its support. What are your favorite, and least favorite, things about being on the road? Do you ever still get nervous before shows?
Best parts of touring: traipsing around the universe with friends and doing work that I find meaningful.
Worst parts of touring: numbing fatigue, muscular atrophy, and the scarcity of fresh food.
Do you write while on tour? If so, how does your writing change (thematically or otherwise) compared to when you’re at home?
I always set out on tour thinking “This is the tour that I’m finally going to begin writing on the road.” I either come home empty-handed or with a verse about touring. Never an interesting verse.
Your records are always sonically diverse and you’ve captured a sound that’s incredibly exciting, but also hard to place. Alex and I have seen you play in several different cities and the crowds are always different and always unique, especially for a rap show. Are you ever surprised by the people with whom your music resonates?
I’m flattered to see as many varied crowds as I do. I regard myself as a pretty deliberate person. I consider and reconsider most aspects of my work, but you simply can’t control the way that people respond to the music, so I don’t spend too much energy speculating about it.
On the note of your specific sound, it seems that your music would present unique challenges when it comes to sequencing an album, yet one of your strengths is taking disparate, divergent sounds and making a cohesive record. How do you go about making albums with “Momento Mori” and “The Crow” or “Warsaw” and “It’s Only Me” sound like they belong together?
Well, honestly, some people say those songs don’t go together. But, to me, there’s a consistency of voice and, even when the sounds change, the fundamental sensibility doesn’t.
When the tracklist for Parts of Speech was announced, it was surprising to see a cover sitting right there in the middle of all those original songs. What was it about “I’m Going Down” that made you want to put it on the album? Also, covers can be tough to do well. What did you do to make Springsteen’s song your own?
I liked that song as a kid because my best friend Maria liked it. When we decided to tackle it as a band, I knew I wanted to keep the lyrics and the structure of the track, but I wanted to change everything else. I wanted to try and recast the whole feeling of the song into a much darker message. My guitarist, Dustin Kiel, played different chords beneath the melody line and the whole emotive center shifted.
You’ve shown a tremendous ability to switch back and forth between singing and rapping. This is obviously a testament to your vocal talent, but it brings up some unusual questions about the writing process. Do you find that the subject matter of a song dictates the form, or will you wake up in the morning saying “I feel like rapping today?”
Some days I do feel like rapping. Some days I feel like writing prose. But when tackling a particular piece of music, I think it’s usually the tempo and the rhythms that inform my decision to rap or sing.
Some of your songs have really interesting quirks that aren’t often found in rap writing. Like “Mineshaft 2” being largely in second person. This is common for punchline based rap, but almost unheard of for a narrative. Do you go through multiple drafts of songs to find interesting angles or does it come early in the process?
I usually do try on several approaches while songwriting (manipulating tense, person, and the like). With “Mineshaft 2,” though, I knew that I wanted to write a song to my former self, so the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ are both primary characters.
Your writing is often deeply personal. As fans and critics, we’re used to praising the confessional quality of an artist who does that, but I imagine things get complicated for you as a person when it’s not just your thoughts and feelings in the song, but someone you know personally. How do you balance the desire to be complete and honest in your writing while still protecting friends and acquaintances?
It’s important to me not to violate the privacy of my friends and family, though I don’t pretend that my track record is perfect. I’ve sometimes cut too close to the quick. To be mindful of the people in my life, I usually omit identifying characteristics and situational clues. Or, sometimes, I’ll just play the song for the person it’s about and ask, “Is this ok, or should I change it to further obscure the fact that it’s about you?”
Back in 2011, you tweeted about how distasteful you thought some of Odd Future’s more violent, sexist lyrics were. What do you think is an artist’s social responsibility?
You don’t gain any special moral responsibility by being an artist. But being an artist doesn’t excuse you from the moral responsibility of being human. Don’t be a jerk.
You’ve mentioned a few times that the rest of Doomtree was instrumental in your hip hop education. What was your relationship with the genre like before then, and who are your favorite rappers? Anyone we might not expect you to listen to?
As a kid, my parents played Whitney Houston, Sade, Michael Jackson and Rod Stewart at home. In high school, Atmosphere dominated the speakers at a lot of parties. I didn’t get passionate about hip-hop until later in my teenage years. In my early 20s, I was a devoted listener of the Doomtree guys before I met them. Cecil and P.O.S. really blew me away.
Thanks, Dessa. What’s next, both musically and from you as an essayist/poet/Vine enthusiast?
On October 3rd, the Rain Taxi Review of Books will be publishing my next collection of poetry. Essited.