Q&A: Dessa On Recording During the Pandemic and Her New Podcast

Her new “Deeply Human” science podcast and latest “IDES” single debut in March
Selfie of Dessa wearing an "IDES" bandana over her mouth.
Dessa dons an “IDES” bandana, which also reads “Rome:” the title of the project’s first single, which came out in January.

Courtesy of Missing Piece Group.

It’s safe to say that singer, rapper, and writer Dessa has kept herself busy during the pandemic. Coming up on March 8, she’s launching the brand new podcast Deeply Human, which focuses on the science of the human mind and heart.

As for her music, she’s gearing up to release the third installment of her IDES series on March 15, and new songs on the 15th of every month for the rest of the first half of 2021. While the name is a nod to ancient Rome, the structure of the series is very much a product of the times. In a phone interview, Dessa discussed her current projects.

Where did IDES come from? How long has it been in the works?

This one was very much a response to the pandemic. During usual times, there’s sort of a cycle to music-making: you write and record a bunch of it, you put it out as an album, you go and tour it, and then you repeat that cycle forever. With touring shuttered for the moment, there’s not really any reason to adhere to that kind of cycle. I liked the idea of putting out music more regularly and having something to look forward to at least once a month. Also, to be totally frank, I was very much aware of the fact that nobody knows how long this is going to last, and so I liked the fact that there was some elasticity, and I could continue to do this for as long as I felt like it was the best way to proceed. I’ve always been sort of song-centric. Some musicians have a concept that drives the entirety of the project, but I’m kind of a miniaturist. I make a lot of different styles of music, and I think releasing them as singles allows them to be just that.

You’ve mentioned that you want to give people something to look forward to. Is this purely for your fans, or do you appreciate the regularity it gives you as well?

I mean, from my side, there are no installments in the same way. We’re working steadily to make sure that we have something to put out next month. Yesterday, I approved the final master of the song that will go out in March, and today I’ll present demos for the song that will go out in April. So for us, the work is more continuous. But it does feel good to know that there’s something on the horizon.

How have the times we’re living in impacted the way you make music?

Oh, man. I am a control enthusiast when it comes to the details of a finished song. That means stuff like the levels of the snare drums and even where the inhales land. That stuff is important to me, as it is to a bunch of artists. Now, it’s harder to have your fingers on all the dials. I work with a bunch of super talented collaborators; I’m not mixing or mastering this myself. But usually, I would go to the studio for that final mix session to sit on the couch behind the mix engineer and say “Could you just turn up that harmony a tiny bit?” That’s not possible in exactly the same way, and I dreaded that. I’m learning to let go and trust the other artists. I’ve become a slightly better collaborator because I can’t be as neurotic as I might otherwise be. This project has pushed me to work faster. There’s deadlines waiting, which I think can be really healthy for a creator. I know that sometimes I have the impulse to kind of incubate a project. It’s never gonna be totally perfect.

You’ve described the IDES project as “both an aesthetic and a business response to the pandemic.” Could you expand on what that means, in both cases?

We’re in a time where having regular releases and having something to look forward to on a regular schedule means more now than it would have. Creative digital art is such a primary concern in most of our lives, because before, we were doing things like visiting our mothers, or hanging out with other people, or going to live shows. All of a sudden, digital art becomes a huge part of our lives. If I want to do a regular singles release, how can I do so in a way that’s easy for listeners to remember when to check for the new music? So I’m releasing a new single in the middle of each month on the 15th. My mom was a Shakespearean scholar, and I liked the idea of borrowing that term from the ancient Roman calendar as sort of a natural reminder.

Your song about Janet Yellen, “Who’s Yellen Now?” came from a prompt that the team at Marketplace gave you. How were you able to pull it off?

I thought the ask itself was funny. I work with a duo of producers, Andy Thompson and a dude named Lazerbeak, who I’ve worked with forever. I think after I got the invite from Marketplace, our first call was like, “Is there any way to pull it off?” And they were like, “yes, we’ve got to do it.” But we did so sort of by the skin of our teeth. The version that was on the radio isn’t even mastered. Doing the songwriting, I read about [Yellen] first to make sure that she’s somebody I’d want to send up, even if briefly in this kind of goofy song. And I liked what she stood for publicly. I think she’s leaned into the wind and gone against the grain in economic circles, and tried to build in a social justice component of the policies that she’s part of, which wasn’t always considered the domain of economists. You know, “Your job is to keep the economy healthy. Stay in your lane.” And I like that. Her work on gender disparities was eye-opening for me. I’m sure I would be very annoying if we had Thanksgiving in person because all I’d be talking about would be my newly-learned economic policy facts. I was walking around listening to her speeches, watching some Khan Academy crash courses on how the Federal Reserve and the Treasury work, and studying words that might lend themselves to songwriting. Like “hawks and doves.” That’s poetic already!

What are you listening to right now?

I do listen to Spotify. As a creator, it can be frustrating, but as a consumer it’s so rad. Phoebe Bridgers. I’m a fan of Dominic Fike and Bryce Vine. I was just reading today about Bad Bunny’s recent stuff. The New York Times did a piece about the fact that, like, five of the top 25 pop stars right now are from Puerto Rico. And I admit that I gotta check the Puerto Rican music scene and make sure that I’m not totally slipping.

Update (3/15/21): Dessa’s latest IDES single is “Life On Land.” More details here.

What can we expect for your next singles?

So, the first song that I put out was really “rappy”— dense rap verses. And the second one is much more a ballad. The third one, that should come out in March, is a pop song. Really big, soaring choruses and really satisfying to write. I think one of the best, maybe slightly unexpected, artistic benefits of putting out music this way is that I don’t have to apologize if all the songs are really different, which I often do in albums. Fans seem to tolerate that more, but critics don’t. They like an album to be a little bit more uniform. But I don’t care, for IDES—it’s just like, “Yeah, this is the best song I’ve got to write right now.” The [song] I’m working on now [for April] is slightly goofier. I feel like all the songs I’ve done up to this point were pretty weighty, and there might be an opportunity here for a little levity. I think my confidence in writing lighter stuff was buoyed a little bit by the fact that the response to Yellen was good. I’m a jokey person, but I don’t often joke on record. So I decided to try that for April’s [song].

How did your new podcast, Deeply Human, come to be?

The podcast was a project that had its inception before I was involved. I actually got an email from American Public Media, which is the company that runs and operates MPR—they make a lot of content. I got an email from someone on the team who said, “Hey, we’re doing a podcast in partnership with the BBC. It’s about science, and we wondered if you might be interested in being recommended as a potential host.” And I was like “Yes, both hands, all the way up.” I was super excited by the idea. It felt like the closest thing that I’d had to a proper job interview in a very long time. Granted, it happened backstage at a club, when the editor for the BBC was kind enough to visit me when I was in London performing, and we chatted amongst my open suitcases in a very small backstage. But we connected, and he liked the idea of me as host. So I got the gig and was delighted. I got to go to London and spend a lot of time working with producers, recording at the BBC broadcasting house, and doing a lot of research, which I dig.

Deeply Human takes a look at the science behind our thoughts and behavior. With your background as an artist, what perspective have you brought to your conversations with science experts so far?

One of the things that I really like the show to do is to connect the findings of these really accomplished researchers with the way that the rest of us are living our normal lives. How does research on choice, for example, affect how I use Tinder? I think the idea that science is a partitioned part of our world, a place that’s populated primarily by figures in lab coats holding beakers, is not the model that’s most useful. 

For me, finding ways to connect the scientific findings that we’re talking about with our weekday choices means a lot of writing. I try to treat every episode like a creative writing project. I spend a lot of time on the scripts themselves to try to weave personal stories in as a scaffolding for how the science is presented. There are some skills that I’ve learned as a performer that have come in handy when I’m interviewing. You’re always looking for a way to connect with someone that you’ve just met when you’re on stage. You have to develop a rapport really fast, because the show’s almost over by the time it started. 

I do a lot of lurking on scientists’ social media because I want to find out, when they’re not presenting at scientific conferences or delivering interviews, like what do they like as a person? What are the possible points of intersection here? I’m looking for their Instagram posts about the waterslide they just built, or about the dinner they just totally ruined. I want to know, as human beings, what are they like? Because the moments of conversation that I’ve enjoyed most are those that have had huge giggles in them, or genuine moments of surprise. These people talk about their work a lot. We’ve both probably played both roles; I’ve [also] been interviewed a bunch. And I think it always feels better when you can get off your talking points and have a conversation with somebody. I think I rely on the skills that I’ve developed as a performer to make that happen.

Your podcast aims to uncover the reasoning behind some of the weird habits we have as humans. What are some habits or feelings within yourself that you want to better understand?

I think I’ve always been particularly interested in highly subjective experiences. One of the episodes is on why we get déjà vu. There’s no way for me and you to trade déjà vu to see how they compare. Yours is locked in your head. And mine is locked in mine, and a lot of human experience is like that. But I think finding ways to communicate or study those subjective experiences has always been super interesting to me. In the episode about déjà vu, I get to sit down and talk with this really fascinating, funny scientist who has really intense déjà vu, and she had always thought that was just what it felt like to be alive. She didn’t realize that when one of her classmates had déjà vu, they’re not experiencing a crippling existential crisis of nausea in the same way that she was experiencing these feelings. What does that mean about the way that her brain works? 

I volunteered to be physically burned for the pain episode and learned a hell of a lot about how subjective pain responses are. A lot of us are probably thinking about a vaccine shot sometime in our future. If you’ve had one before, you know that a good nurse will sometimes chat you up and stab you when you least expect it. They’re being deliberate about trying to eliminate the anticipated pain and to distract you when you’re actually experiencing it—those are effective analgesics. I always thought that was sort of babyish the way they would do that. [It’s interesting] learning about how the naturally circulating opiates in your body might be dispensed based on these secondary factors: “Are you distracted? What are your expectations? Have you experienced pain in the past? Are you stressed out?” There are chemical components that are associated with these cognitive states that really can serve as natural opiates.

Are you working on any other side projects?

Yeah, I am. I’ve got some new fiction coming out, but I’m not sure exactly when yet. I just got accepted to a literary magazine after, like, two years of sending this stupid story. So I celebrated with $20 sushi. I think that’ll be published later this year. And then I’ve been working on my first piece of drama—I guess you could call it a stage work. Next month I’ll be making an announcement about how to hear this new script that I wrote.

We’ll have to wait a bit longer to hear about Dessa’s new drama, but the first episode of Deeply Human from BBC World Service, iHeartMedia, and American Public Media launches on Monday, March 8, on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts and all major podcast platforms. Look for the next IDES single on her website or any music streaming platform. Dessa can be found on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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