“Even as a kid, learning particular words delighted me,” says rapper/singer/writer Dessa on the phone from Brooklyn, ahead of her Nov. 19 show in Princeton. “I was delighted to learn that there was a word for two weeks when we came across the word fortnight in my Peter Rabbit book.”
It’s cliché to say that a person has a way with words. And reductive. A person’s ability to evoke something in another human being through language is often the result of years of work, curiosity and growth. At the beginning of Dessa’s life in words, for instance, she was “definitely imitative. In fourth grade I would write poems with titles like ‘sunset’ practicing the basic skills of meter and rhyme. It wasn’t until my late teens until I would write stuff that was self-expressive.”
Indeed, for Dessa, words have led the way—from a kid curious about language to an accomplished writer and musician with a wide audience.
Amy Klobuchar used Dessa’s “Bullpen” as her walk-on song during her 2020 presidential campaign, something that Dessa, a fellow Minnesotan, calls an honor. She published a book, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, in 2018. And earlier this year, she used her words to make a song about Janet Yellen called Who’s Yellen Now after a challenge from President Joe Biden.
Hindsight affords Dessa the ability to look back on how her writing progressed. In college, she says, she wrote a piece called The Microbiology of a Love Affair: “I was telling the story of a sad breakup I had with a dude, but I was using metaphors for how the human systems respond to stuff like pathogens and allergies.”
But once Dessa graduated college, she ran into a problem. Unsure exactly how to share her work, she then turned to performing her words: “I started to perform because I wasn’t making headway with writing on pages. Performing gave me an opportunity to present my work in another format. I started as a spoken word artist and then joined a rap group.”
The rap group she joined was Doomtree, a Minneapolis-based rap collective of which she’s still a member.
“I was a fan of that group before I was asked to join,” says Dessa. “I thought their performances were big, sweaty and energetic. When I got the invitation to join Doomtree it was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
As a musician who does solo work, working in a collective has pros and cons, she says.
“Being in a collective, the strength and the challenge is that you are trying to harness many different ideas and tastes, and you get a lot of interesting sounds,” says Dessa. “It’s also hard because your favorite is usually your idea.”
Dessa also learned about the DIY spirit in her early days with Doomtree. It’s a spirit, with a “Minnesota Nice” flavor, that she still carries with her today, and that fills her apartment closet with merch for an upcoming tour.
“There’s a DIY spirit that infuses the music scene in Minneapolis,” says Dessa. “It might be the case that if you grew up in the big cities on the East Coast and West Coast that you might be discovered by a major label. That seemed unlikely here. In Minneapolis, you either hire a screen printer or you learn how to screen print your T-shirts. There’s a lot of hustling and hard work at the grassroots level. Like spending time outside of venues handing out flyers to your upcoming show.”
In addition to her work with Doomtree, Dessa has released four solo albums, with her most recent album, Sound the Bells, recorded live with the Minnesota Orchestra and released in 2019. With each album, she’s grown as an artist, becoming more comfortable styling the delivery of her words, and the music around them.
“In the beginning I didn’t sing quite as much because I was afraid of being dismissed or being perceived as an ornamental member of a rap group, which is sort of a gendered concern,” says Dessa. “I’m not worried about that anymore, and I sing more. I’m more confident in my delivery, and my voice is a little lower now, and I like that.
The former TED talk speaker also got more comfortable on the music side of things as well. “Musically, I started getting more involved in the production. In recent years I started to make more melodies and samples.”
In addition to what Dessa has to offer musically, she is also quick to adapt to change, and that was evident during the COVID lockdown, when she started her IDES project.
“When we were still in the throes of pandemic, it didn’t make sense to release music like we would traditionally do in this industry,” says Dessa, “which is you write a bunch of music, then you record it, and then you go on tour, and then when people get tired of it, you record new music.”
With touring completely out of the equation during COVID, Dessa looked for new ways to stay engaged with her growing audience. The IDES project was her way of doing that, releasing singles on the 15th—or the middle, as the name implies—of each month in the early part of last year. The project was inspired by how much she looked forward to watching shows like Ted Lasso, The Wire, and Jane the Virgin during the COVID lockdown.
“The way I released IDES was in part due to my feelings about art during the pandemic,” says Dessa. “I noted how much I looked forward to the next episode of the show I was watching during the darkest times of the pandemic. That meant so much to me, and I was snotty about TV shows before. It meant a lot to be able to return to familiar characters and knowing that there would be more to access. I thought it would be cool if we could create a release plan that would have that same structure; where there was art that would be released on a regular basis, and knowing that you had more to look forward to.”
Another big moment of pandemic-born growth for Dessa came courtesy of a comment that President Joe Biden made about Janet Yellen last December. Biden noted that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a play about the first Secretary of Treasury (Alexander Hamilton), and Biden suggested that Miranda make another musical about the first woman Secretary of Treasury: Yellen.
Commissioned by NPR’s Marketplace to bring Biden’s comment to fruition, Dessa, who contributed to The Hamilton Mixtape, went into action, and “Who’s Yellen Now” was born. She selected a beat, and recorded vocals at her home. “All of us we’re delighted by how goofy and how catchy of a song it was,” says Dessa. “When Janet Yellen and the U.S. Mint retweeted the song, I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna go to bed.’”
Your chance to hear Dessa comes Nov. 19 when she plays at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.
”I’m super stoked to play Princeton,” says Dessa. “In part because the format of the night will be different than what we usually play. We usually play clubs with a couple of acts on the bill, and it’s rare that we get the chance to design a show, and play in a theater like the McCarter.”
Dessa will be performing at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton on Nov. 19. Ticket information can be found here.