HIP HOP ARTIST
Does the following statement describe you: “Values resilience, loyalty, and creative expression in everyday life.”
It’s a great statement, but it wasn’t offered up as a description for parents. Those words are how Dessa describes a basic tenet of the hip hop community, and Dessa knows what she’s talking about. She not only teaches “The Language of Rap and the Spoken Word” at a college of music, but she’s also a successful rapper/lyricist/singer/author - a rising star in the world of hip hop. I’m mad – good mad, as in wild about – her sound. I could probably add 6 more words to try to describe her sound and it still wouldn’t capture it, so take a listen here and throughout the interview.
When I first saw Dessa perform, I was hooked by the totally unique sound I was hearing. Part slam poetry, part rap, melodic and moody with its minor chords. In this same show, Dessa demonstrated her layered talent when she changed into a white dress and was joined by two other women to sing a cappella with gorgeous harmony. Later still, Dessa read from her book of creative writing and poetry, Spiral Bound. She’s like a one-woman variety show. (the video after the Proust Questionnaire gives a sampling of all of these talents)
At this very moment, she’s rapping/singing her way across the country on a 40-city tour to promote her new album, A Badly Broken Code. She’s touring with POS, a rap star and part of a collective called Doomtree, of which Dessa is the only female member.
If you ever have a chance to see her live, don’t think twice – go! In the meantime, escape into the music and learn about her drive – she has accomplished way more than most 28 year olds. And in my ongoing mission to find out whether nature or nurture has helped successful artists become who they are, don’t miss the answer to the last question where she describes a “chemical shift” that takes place in her body during a creative process!
btw, i’m starting a new thing where each time i feature a new artist, i’ll post an unique product that i think accompanies the vibe…see it in the Blog.
(all the “videos” in this post that feature the album cover are just music, not an actual video, so you can listen&read)
You went from technical writer for a medical manufacturer to spoken word artist, MC, rapper and music professor. I can hardly think of two more different career paths…can you explain?
I’ve always loved language. After college, I was looking for a gig that with a decent hourly wage—a job that could pay rent, but would leave some time to write and play music. I found a technical writing company willing to give a young writer a chance. Tech writing can be challenging—you’ve got to learn difficult content quickly, you’ve got to convince experts that you’re credible enough to talk to, and you’ve got to organize that information into digestible pieces. There’s a lot of pressure to meet aggressive deadlines. Sims, a friend and fellow member of Doomtree, used to call me ‘Stressa’ when I was working on a project. But I liked it. You get the opportunity to spend a week in someone else’s job. I’ve learned about pacemakers, about real estate, about biodiesel, and about malpractice law. The love of language that made tech writing interesting is the same love that drives me to write my own original songs and essays.
How did you choose the name Dessa Darling and when did you start using it?
I sang karaoke as a teenager, well before I was old enough to be in the bar. I sang under the name Dessa there, having pulled it from a book.
You are part of a hip hop collective called Doomtree. Talk more about what Doomtree is and what draws you to hip hop.
Doomtree is a collective of friends and musicians. We all live in the Twin Cities and most of us have known each other for almost a decade. What started as a group of guys hanging out after school, turned into a group of musical collaborators, which then turned into an independent record label. We’re a family, a crew, and are doing our best to distribute our work as widely as we can.
You seem to be the only woman among the guys at Doomtree. What’s that like? How do people get asked to join and will other women make the cut at some point?
For now, Doomtree has its hands full trying to release and promote our own work. We don’t sign artists; the last people to join were me and Sims. As for being the only woman…I feel comfortable with the Doomtree guys. They’ve been a part of my artistic growth for most of my career. They’ve been friends for even longer. I talk more about being a woman with reporters than I ever do with Doomtree.
Some people say that hip hop is a lifestyle and rap is the word/lyric/music that is part of hip hop. Do you have any clarification about this?
Traditionally, hip hop is a culture that encompasses several art forms, rap is one of those forms. It values resilience, loyalty, and creative expression in everyday life. Now, several decades after the beginning of hip hop, there are all sorts of communities, and sub communities, and sub sub communities. In my circle, hip hop has strong ties to community work; artists are often activists.
Let’s talk creative process. Do you have a special place where you like to create…if so, what does it look/feel like? Do you do write both lyrics and music — which comes first? Do you intentionally sit down to write or do phrases just pop into your mind all the time?
Almost all of the music on my new disc, A Badly Broken Code, was created by the producers in the Doomtree collective. Specifically, Paper Tiger and MK Larada are responsible for the lion’s share of the production. They made discs of their work, the Doomtree vocalists listened to them, and I selected the tracks from this pool.
As I lyricist, I’ll often overhear a bit of conversation that will end up in a song. A turn of phrase often catches my ear and sits on the clipboard in my head until I find someplace to put it. When I sit down to write music, I’ll review all of the snippets that I’ve collected in recent months to see what I can stitch together.
What in your life (past or present) informs your writings?
I’m a sucker for subtext. Any circumstance in my life is a candidate for inclusion in a song if it seems to speak to some larger truth about people and the way we interact. I’ve written about trips to the dentist, about breakups, about growing up and apart from my little brother, about flight, about morphine, and about brief encounters with people who fascinated me.
dessa live performance from a few years ago
Who influences you musically?
I love minor chords, I love virtuosic singers, and I love good lyrics. Cohen’s Halleluiah, as performed by Jeff Buckley, is on of the best pieces of recorded music I’ve ever heard.
How does your A Cappella group, The Boy Sopranos, differ from the work you do solo?
I love layered vocals, particularly harmony lines that swell and dive. Dynamic stuff. I wrote some a cappella music and recorded it by layering my own voice. I was happy with it, but I wasn’t sure how to present it live. So I asked a few of the talented female vocalists in Minneapolis if they’d be willing to join me on stage. I got yeses from a few really exceptional singers, who are all established in their own right. A few times every year, I’ll perform some of that music under the name The Boy Sopranos; we’ll don white dresses, black boots, and sing like a dive bar choir. It’s a rotating cast of singers with one exception: Aby Wolf. She’s an insanely talented soprano who’s been with me for every show.
How did you get into teaching and what course do you teach?
I was asked to visit as a guest lecturer at several institutions in Minneapolis. One of the instructors, named Chris Cunningham, asked if I’d like to teach formally, as an adjunct faculty member. I like public speaking, and so I gave it a try. I’ve been working with Chris ever since. I currently work at the McNally Smith College of Music in Saint Paul, teaching songwriting and a class called The Language of Rap and Spoken Word.
What advice do you give wanna-be musicians?
Show up on time, show up willing to learn, and show up ready to play. Show up in a condition that could pass for sober. That’ll set you apart from 90 percent of the competition. You can be successful in music without following any of that advice, but you better be really effing good.
As a parent, I’m trying to figure out the nature vs nurture idea as it relates to cultivating my kids’ artistic side. Is it nature or nurture for you? Where do your parents fit into the picture — did they help you figure out your music path or did you gravitate to it on your own? Did you have any musical training growing up?
My mother has a lovely voice—with a significantly broader range than mine. I sang with her, or we sang together along with the radio, almost every day when I was little. My dad is something of a Renaissance man: he’s had a lot of varied jobs over the years. None of them were particularly lucrative, but most of them were pretty fascinating. He’s worked as a glider pilot, studied to be an audiologist, and worked on the floor of the Grain Exchange. When I was little, however, he was a musician who played the lute and the classical guitar. My mother’s voice and my father’s guitar must have informed my soft little brain as a kid. So I’d imagine that part is nurture.
On the other hand, writing for me has often been connected to melancholy. There’s a feeling that I get that proceeds a productive period. It feels a little like the way that people with arthritis talk about the weather: I know something’s coming. I know that in a day or so, I’ll start to feel blue, but I’m also likely to become more aware of subtle connections in the world around me—and subtle connections are the stuff of metaphor.
In rap music, that’s not a very popular way to talk about creative process. Maybe it sounds hyper-romantic, maybe it sounds like it participates in a tired myth of depression and art—I’m not sure. But that’s the way it’s been for me. I’m not very much fun to be around when I’m in the process of writing something substantial. So I usually don’t spend time with friends during those weeks. I get heartache-y and sentimental and exhausted. It’s this part of the equation—the chemical shift in my body that proceeds a creative period—that seems to be an organic process, and not socialized by my parents or peers.
Proust Questionnaire for Dessa:
My favorite snack is: sushi
Don’t ask me to: walk any distance in heels, I’m not good at it yet
I would put into a time capsule my: writing
My favorite place is: in my head
When i have a creative block I: listen to music that moves me
My favorite mantra is: “Dessa, you are a 28 year-old woman.” I have no idea why this works, but it always calms me down.