Interview: Dessa

Catching up with the prolific musician and writer amid her biggest year yet

A portrait of Dessa.

photos by Darin Kamnetz


I’m always pretty meticulous,” Dessa says over a cup of strong coffee on an overcast morning in Minneapolis.

And prolific. A one-hour conversation allows time for the rapper and author to rapidly dissect a small fraction of her recent creative output. This includes recording and touring with, and without, Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree, collaborating (separately) with Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Minnesota Orchestra, and rocking the stage at Super Bowl Live.

She has published books, released her own flavor of Izzy’s Ice Cream and her own Elixery lipstick, and even penned some essays for this very publication—as well as The New York Times. Plus, whatever else she has fit in since this story’s completion.

For now, the artist who splits her time between Minneapolis and New York sticks to discussing her fourth full-length album, Chime, which arrived in February, and a memoir, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, coming out on Penguin Books’ Dutton imprint in September. But even within those, any scratch of the surface reveals a never-ending network of carefully plotted processes.

“I do a lot of drafting and redrafting,” she continues. “For most of my career I’ve been attracted to the really big themes, the kind that you can work on for a lifetime as an artist or as a human being. Love, loss, connection, communion, courage, and culture.”

You’ll find them all on Chime, often blended and refracted to showcase a range of vivid emotions, tempos, and textures. The gospel-inflected “Good Grief” finds her down, but not out, “Fire Drills” is brash and empowered, and she shows a goofy but brainy side in “Shrimp.” The narratives are specific to Dessa, but favor time-tested observations over anything ripped directly from today’s Twitter threads—and that’s on purpose.

“I’ve been more interested in the songs for songs’ sake,” she says. “And trusted that my worldview will inexorably come through. You can tell it’s written by a woman, and it’s from her perspective because it’s the instrument that’s delivering the lyric. For me, the challenge has been how to write a moving, true song and trust that telling the truth has power. Even power that you might not be able to anticipate as the author of that particular testimony.”

The album cover for Dessa's Chime.
Chime

Chime is the result of both  remote collaboration and immersive in-person sessions with producers Andy Thompson, who brought classical chops and pop sensibilities, and Doomtree’s Lazerbeak, who made it bang. The trio met in Thompson’s basement studio, and survived on Trader Joe’s snacks.

“Jumprope” features a backing track that Dessa produced herself with a furrowed brow, a cup of coffee, and a beat machine on her table.

“I’ve been around [music production], but I’ve been around people who can speak Mandarin, too, and I don’t speak any more Mandarin by virtue of having known them,” she says. “It’s a really different craft, 100 percent different than lyricism. It was exciting to turn something out that met professional standards.”

She was even more elated—crying on the street, she says—when her New York-based agent told her My Own Devices, her first hardcover book, was a go.

In it, she braids together true stories spanning from her early 20s to the present, pulling from a decade on the road with Doomtree, her scientific pursuits, and her self-described “rocky” romantic life. Her family and her musical collaborators became her characters to develop.

“I’ve had the opportunity to think a lot about what makes personal stories work, and what hampers them,” she says. “Using humor to temper sentimental moments, and using a casual tone to tackle really technical topics is important. We landed on something that feels really good.”

Her eyes light up at the final question. Is she already working on something new? “Another book? Absolutely not,” she says, half-laughing. “No, I lie. I have maybe half of a fiction one done.”

Upcoming shows: Dessa reunites with the Minnesota Orchestra for two performances October 5 and 6 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. More at doomtree.net/dessa.

Digital Extra: Extended Q&A

Describe the creative process behind Chime.

Often, the melodic component would first attract me to a production, and then kind of like dressing a paper doll, you can swap out percussive elements, or synthetic pad layers to see how they all work together. Some of that business we did remotely. As we were honing in on our good ideas, Lazerbeak and Andy Thompson and I would meet in Andy’s basement and hash it out. Andy has a standing desk and he’d stand behind his big monitor, and Lazerbeak and I would sit behind him, and with our laptops on our laps, and share ideas.

How did you divide up the work?

We all cut our teeth in different parts of music, essentially. Andy has classical chops, he has these great pop sensibilities, Lazerbeak makes “Lava Bangers.” I’m primarily the lyricist, and I write vocal melodies. We don’t always share the same terminology. I can’t always identify what part of Lazerbeak’s percussive layer that I’m responding to. Is that the shaker? Is that the maraca? What’s going “tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh”? For Andy, I don’t know enough music theory to say “Can we go to the relative minor?” I like when it feels sad, but like windswept sad. Not like sandstorm sad. We sing the parts to one another. Whenever we got stuck, Andy would pick up an acoustic guitar and I would sing or rap over this campfire rendition of the song, to make sure the bones of the melody and the meters were good. And then we’d put our production hats back on.

What’s it like splitting time between Minnesota and New York?

I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Minnesota and New York for just over a year and a half. It feels really good. Minneapolis is my home. It was where I was raised. I still have family nearby. My mother’s from New York, so her side of the family is still East Coast. I had a crush on New York since I was a kid. I traveled out there for my summers. I spent it in a Puerto Rican community called Spanish Camp. I like the Puerto Rican family and culture there. I like how big and performative people are, even in conversation. When I go buy fruit from the guy on the corner, we have a little dance that we do every time I buy grapes. I love that. I love Minneapolis. It’s a center for the literary arts. So working on some collaborations out there feels like it’s expanded my group of friends.

You got to play for an international audience at the Super Bowl. How did that feel?

We lucked out and got one of the nights that wasn’t ridiculously cold, and we got a really pretty snowfall. It was more mixed because of the bill. Some people knew the words, and it was clear I was performing to some people for the first time. That’s exciting. It’s exciting to audition for new listeners.

How does your forthcoming book compare to your past written projects?

Most of the things I’ve written before have been stand-alone pieces. In every piece, you have to reintroduce yourself. “Hi, I’m Dessa, this is what I do for a living, this is roughly how old I am. This is my gender.” You have to get all the introductory stuff out of the way so that you can get to the matter at hand. In a collection like this that’s bound together with these through lines and themes, you don’t have to do that. It was fun to be able to develop the characters throughout, from piece to piece. [Doomtree rapper] Sims, when we first meet him, I mention how long his eyelashes are. He hates wearing sunglasses because his eyelashes smash on the inside of his sunglasses. I always thought that was such a privileged complaint, you know? I wish I had eyelashes that made sunglasses uncomfortable. The first time we meet my little brother, he’s this tiny, big-eyed kid who I’m trying to mother bird, kinda half raise as my own. To be able to develop those characters throughout the book was a really different endeavor, and fun and hard. We landed on something that feels really good. I’m really excited, nervous-excited. It’s very candid. I haven’t been this honest and forthright in public.

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