Dessa on Her Book-Writing, Album-Dropping, Super-Busy 2018
We catch up with the author, hip-hop artist, and whiskey producer on her mad sprint of a year—and what's to come
Photo by Bill Phelps
Dessa has had a charmed and busy 2018. Musically, she released Chime, her fourth full-length album, in February—and she hasn’t slowed down since. Now, the member of indie Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree, who splits her time between the Twin Cities and New York, has unveiled her eagerly awaited memoir, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, along with a limited-edition whiskey collaboration with RockFilter Distillery.
As she embarks upon her book tour, I caught up with Dessa to get an update on what she is currently working on and what may be on the horizon.
Your first hardcover collection of essays, My Own Devices, just hit the shelves. How would you describe the book?
I’m a fan of brief, potent works of art that use language in innovative ways. In writing My Own Devices, my goal was to tell true, intimate stories in a style that blended humor with scientific and philosophical insights. I write about the benefits and the hazards of living as a touring musician—the loneliness; the standing ovations; the restless, endless hours in transit; the oxygen tanks side-stage in Colorado that help musicians cope with the altitude; the tears in the women’s bathroom trying to hold it together on stage after a break-up; the adventure of living with a roving band of Lost Boys. I also write about family: traveling to Seattle to watch my little brother sell drugs, standing by mom as she slaughtered her first steer, and watching my father build a real wooden plane in our garage.
Is your style and voice as a writer the same as the style we hear when you are performing on stage as a lyricist?
I think my style is recognizable across mediums—I’m the same person on stage, on record, and on the printed page—but writing lends itself more easily to humor. It’s easier to make an abrupt left turn or take a break in the action for a funny aside. Also, in writing an essay or a monologue, you can scale the piece to the subject matter more easily—no matter what it’s about, a 14-minute song is going to feel long.
Do you have any events coming up where you will be reading from your book and signing copies?
I do! I’m just a few dates into my first book tour and loving the hell out of the experience. For someone calibrated to touring as an indie musician, this literary routing is studded with constant, happy surprises. I have a hotel room to myself, and there is a bar of chocolate that I am allowed to take with me! I am going to bed before midnight! There is a copy of The New York Times right outside my door, presumably thrown by a paperboy who bikes down the hallway every morning!
Sept 27, I’m in Northfield at Content Bookstore.
Sept 28, I’ll be at the Loft Literary Center with musician LOTT and writer Safy-Hallan Farah. Advance tickets for that one are sold out, but a bunch will be available at door.
Sept 29, I’m in Duluth at Zenith Bookstore.
Photo by Chad Kamenshine
When can your fans expect to see a new album? Any release dates you can share?
I'll be heading back into the workshop with Lazerbeak and Andy Thompson this November. Too soon to be looking at a release, but almost time to start writing again.
What are the details of your whiskey?
For more than a year, I’ve been scheming in secret with RockFilter Distillery [based in Spring Grove, Minnesota]. This month, we released bourbon together, timed with the publication of My Own Devices. It’s called Dessa’s Time & Distance Organic Bourbon Whiskey. RockFilter grew the grain on their own land and aged it in barrels made from local white birch. It’s a limited run, and I am pretty damned stoked about this project. The RockFilter team is independently owned, nimble, and hard working—a familiar vibe for an indie musician.
You are scheduled to perform October 5 and 6 with the Minnesota Orchestra. What can show-goers expect?
My shows with the orchestra are the biggest and most involved concerts of my year. The talent on stage is enormous. First, I asked the musician Andy Thompson to totally re-imagine my songs for orchestral performance—that means listening to every note, every melody, drum fill, and translating it to strings or brass or timpani, so that the whole orchestra is engaged. The results are these larger-than-life arrangements; sometimes in rehearsals it’s hard for me to not be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the sound. This time around I’ll be playing many of the songs from my new record Chime. Then I assembled a team of my favorite singers to perform alongside me, including Matthew Santos, Cameron Kinghorn, Ashley Dubose, and Aby Wolf.
I lace the evening through with some monologue performances, grab a glass of whiskey, and don my Friday best (courtesy of Joynoelle Design).
What is one thing your most loyal fan would be surprised to learn about you?
I think my own taste in music might be difficult to guess from the music I make. Even to me, my playlists seems scattered and sort of haphazard. Today was Sleigh Bells, Dermot Kennedy, and Kwabs.
If you weren't living your life out loud as an entertainer, what would you be doing?
I’d love a job designing scientific experiments. Dreaming up a protocol that can test for a single variable involves so much creativity—it’s exactly the kind of cleverness I’m attracted to. That said, I have a feeling the person who designs the experiment is also the person who has to run the experiment, and I’m much less excited about months of careful note taking.
What can we expect from Dessa in 2019?
To be honest, 2018 has been an extended sprint. My team will be ramping up for some spring touring—once they’re confirmed, dates will be posted to dessawander.com—but before then, I’m going to find someplace to nap, read a book I didn’t write, and open all the non-urgent mail that’s piled on every horizontal surface of my apartment.