Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree has sparked a tremendous following, which has extended to its solo artists, including Dessa, the latest to break out to national attention. She has a new album Parts of Speech, and she performs at Bowery Ballroom on Sunday. We spoke to her about whiskey, women in hip-hop, and being misunderstood.
Where did the title Parts of Speech come from?
I wanted something that could communicate the literary quality of the disc. It’s in some ways a collection of short stories as much as a collection of songs. Also, this is the first disc where I’d written a considerable number of the tracks from different perspectives so in some ways it’s a collection of different vantage points, rules and parts.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you tend to follow the major themes of love, sex, loss and communion. Is your approach to those themes different than how you’ve approached them in the past?
I think I’ve probably got a lifelong magnetism to those themes. I think the relationship to those themes changes. When you’re 20, you’re probably most interested in love and loss and sex, and when you’re 50 you start seeing death in a different kind of way. So, I think those are the themes that will continue to captivate me, and with every project you develop a different relationship with those ideas.
You’ve also said you gravitate towards the writers who you feel you can get into their head and take a trip with them. Have you ever felt a listener has really misunderstood something you’ve made?
The songs where I’ve taken a more figurative or abstract approach are sometimes the ones people will express an interpretation where I’ll go “whoa!” My song “Poor Atlas” I’d written as secular story about a woman in a workshop building a body, and someone asked if that was an extended allegory for the environmentalist movement in the U.S. I remember thinking “No, but what are you talking about? That sounds really interesting!” Usually I think the lyrics I write are true stories from my life and easy to follow. It’s infrequent that I’ll write a song that lends itself to that kind of interpretation.
Do you recall the first rap show you ever attended?
I was in high school at a place called Bon Appetit. I don’t remember all of the performers, but some people were there who would wind up being friends. I remember one crew was there of people who went to my high school called Oddjobs. When you’re 15, the excitement of seeing anyone you know on stage is mindblowing. I remember the overall impression of noise and lights.
It’s come up in your interviews that your perspective of how the media sees female MCs as either hyper-sexualized or the conscious “woman on a pedestal.” How did you first come to that realization and has it always been something you’ve made an effort to break?
I don’t know if there was a moment that it dawned on me, but I was aware of these polar approaches: one being “I’m more misogynistic than the dudes” and the other being “deified.” I guess neither role felt like that was my realistic experience. I’m not a misogynistic dude, and I’m certainly not a goddess. I’m just someone trying to do what they love and make rent doing it. I keep my people close. Part of the long term struggle for a songwriter is to try to be genuine, because sometimes you participate in conventions you’re not even aware of. Sometimes you don’t even recognize you’re looking through a pane of glass until you knock your forehead against it. So, the way I envision my songwriting is to continually hunt for as many assumptions I can that I’m unaware of making. Does a song have to rhyme? Be under 6 minutes? In key? A tempo? Even questions like that, I’m interested in asking. How much of my process is me taking somebody else’s word?
Do you recall other female MCs who didn’t fall into those traps?
I remember getting the first What? What? album before she was Jean Grae. I liked her stuff, it seemed to have a genuine quality to it that just felt realer than a lot of the stuff I was listening to.
Given the acclaim you’ve gotten for your live show, and since you do so much with rapping and vocalizations, do you have a particular warm-up ritual?
I do, but I kind of half-ass it. I try to find a spot, even just a corner backstage, to just lean in like I’m on timeout and ask myself what would be the realest show I could do tonight? I used to think I should try to throw a party every night, but you can’t throw a party every night because maybe you don’t really feel like a party. So, for me, it’s about figuring out how not to assume how the night is supposed to go and figure out what’s the realest shit you could do right now given the room, the city, the people in the room and your own headspace. People can tell. If there’s an edge on you today and you feel sarcastic, then work that angle. People will know that it’s real.
Finally, your love of whiskry has been coming up in a lot of your interviews.
Definitely.. Usually whiskey on ice, and I am less particular than most people who drink whiskey. I like it cool, I don’t like warm whiskey, but I’m not particular.
Has whiskey always been your drink of choice?
Well, when I was a co-ed I’m sure at some point I was a “Captain and Coke!” kind of chick, but you eventually grow out of that and drink much better.
Dessa performs at Bowery Ballroom on Sunday, 8 p.m. with Sombear and Aby Wolf.