Dessa: Mark of the Metaphor | Q&A

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To describe an interview with Dessa, it seems only appropriate to try out a simile. A contortion of language the Minneapolis-based emcee holds very dear.

It’s like taking your coolest college professor out to lunch: pitching them ideas about art and the humanities and having them come back either politely affirmed or respectfully set straight.

“Conceptually, you’re right. And in practice, I think we have some roadblocks,” she says of the theory that women finding success in hip-hop is a natural extension of the art form’s fundamental goals.

For her own part, Dessa compares her aptitude for autobiographical lyrics (as opposed to fiction) to the thrill of being handed a camera versus the anxiety of being asked to paint from the imagination.

These metaphors and conceptualizations of her music and writing appear to shape the landscape of how Dessa considers her body of work: from her rapping with the hip-hop Midwest collective Doomtree to her debut solo album, A Badly Broken Code, to her 2009 collection of poetry and prose, Spiral Bound.

In late June, she released Parts of Speech, her third full-length solo record. The album marks a version of Dessa songs that the artist says includes both her “tenderest” and “toughest” material. The lyrics touch on familiarly tense and tumultuous themes for Dessa, including the seizure of empowerment, emotional desolation, anger and drug use, all packaged in a new brand of melodic pop sound that the rapper had a greater hand in producing than ever before.

“This is the first record where I’ve really had the opportunity to carefully craft and build a record from scratch,” she says. “So I think on this one, too, there are a few songs that have a tempo that allows the words to really become the focal point of the disc.”

Dessa will perform with her live band Monday night at The Waiting Room in Omaha. Tickets are on sale here.

But first, the emcee, writer and thinker spoke to Hear Nebraska about her love of metaphor, how doing the dishes can be a welcome distraction from writing and the philosophical topic of her thesis paper for her high school’s International Baccalaureate program.

Listen here for the full and uncut interview with Dessa:

Hear Nebraska: I love that I get to open with this, but I’m kind of curious, what are you reading right now? You’re obviously such an avid reader.

Dessa: I’m not going to impress anybody with my reading habits. Very often, I’m reading mostly emails until I fall asleep. But outside that, I have a copy of the Harper American Literature, the Norton Anthology.

HN: Wow, so like classics?

D: Yeah, but, you know, just kind of thumbing through it. In part, because I know there are so many classics that I haven’t yet read. There are so many classics that people have significant holes in their reading history. So sometimes before falling asleep, I’ll just kind of thumb through a page and find a poet I haven’t heard of or find a prose writer whose name doesn’t ring familiar.

HN:  Well, if you’re reading prose or poetry, do you find that it fuels into the same discipline when you write, whether it’s prose or it’s lyrics? Or is it kind of a larger creative pool for you?

D: You know, to the best of my ability, I try to avoid exposing myself to whatever medium I’m working on. So if I’m working on finishing a book, I try not to read very much. And if I’m working on finishing a record, I try not to listen to too much music for fear that I’d be unduly influenced by whatever I’m listen to. So I try to steer clear of anyone who has a style that’s even remotely like mine when I’m working on finishing a project.

HN: Mk, so what would you read as you were putting the finishing touches on Parts of Speech? What would you go to read as an escape and not to be influenced?

D: Oh, I see, sure. I think when I’m finishing a project to be honest, I don’t tend to turn to anything. To the best of my ability, I tend to close myself off from inspiration, knowing that it’s impossible to be entirely original and that some degree of derivation is unavoidable. But I figure I’ll just limit it as much as I can.

So I tend not to turn much to other artists for inspiration. Although sometimes I might find myself at a movie that might move me. During those last few months of finishing a record, usually it ends up being sequestered because the deadline is fast approaching. So as much as a I can, I’ll just hole up my apartment and work when I wake up and work until I fall asleep, knowing that there are plenty of hours that I’ll ground to a standstill. And I’ll take a walk or do some work.

HN: I guess I’m staying with this for a just a second. I’m curious as somebody who writes on the page as well, when it comes to the vocal gymnastics of taking notes you’ve written on a page and then bringing them to really fast — like lots of words packed into one space — into the audio medium, how does that balance work itself out for you?

D: I think usually when I get an idea, my first job will be to class it. To figure out whether it will be best served as a rap song or as an essay or as a poem. So usually when I’ve got the first spark of an idea, it announces itself as to what bucket it will land in.

Yeah, it doesn’t feel like, “Here’s an idea, now I’ve gotta make it fast.” I guess I talk fast to begin with. But I’ve gotta make it percussive. I’ve gotta really get into the mechanics of syllables to see where the stresses and the emphases will lie and how to make the thing rhyme in a way that sounds cool. But it doesn’t feel like I have to accelerate it.

HN: Once you put it in one of the buckets, do they tend to stay? Do they ever jump out into the other buckets?

D: Mm, yeah. Sometimes I’ll find that someone’s jumped the tank.

HN: And is there anything in particular about those ideas that make them crossover or is it just something that happens every now and again?

D:  Usually, it’s a matter of scope. So if I have an idea and I try to maybe write an essay on radicalism — what it means to be radical, how that word is bandied about in the press in increasingly weird ways. “Self-radicalized.” To me, it just means thinking.

That idea seems like it would be poorly addressed in a song or in a poem, at least the way that I’m interested in addressing it. Because I really want a lot of ink. I want the opportunity to create a deliberate, well-structured argument that has rebuttals and refutations. And if the thing should be eight pages long, which I doubt it will, I want the space to do that. So essentially that one doesn’t feel like it would be a very good song, because I really want the freedom to express myself. Even if it I don’t rhyme, in very deliberate ways, I need the ink.

So a lot of times, an idea is just too big to be a song. So if I were to write that song about radicalization, that would be a nine-minute song or an 18-minute song. So it just feels like the word count is too high for a song or a poem. And the motor of that idea is rational as opposed to imagistic. I’m not excited by the fact that there might be some amazing metaphors. I’m more excited by the argumentation, by the concepts of it. It doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily best served in a super aesthetic way as it might be in a rational way. Whereas if I get an image that’s brief and blinking, it might be better served in a poem or a song.

HN: I remember you saying once in an interview that since you wrote your book that you feel happier deciding, “Oh, this is something for a song.” And that before you had kind of felt some sense of discontent that the songs weren’t books.

D: Yeah, totally.

HN: Do you feel more comfortable now classifying those ideas? Choosing their bucket?

D: I mean, I think it wasn’t so much in choosing. I think it was that being a writer made me a happier rapper. If you were dating somebody and you were spending all your time with them, and they didn’t like staying up late and drinking, or they didn’t like going for runs or something else that you like. That essentially you had no one else to do that with because this was your only outlet.

For me, rap was my only outlet for a while, and I really missed it. I wanted to do long form conceptual investigation into ideas like radicalism and it’s really hard to do that in a rap song. And I was pissed at rap because it wasn’t providing everything I needed. But as soon as I wrote a book, it was so much easier to fall totally head over heels with rap again, because it just didn’t have to be my everything.

HN: Well, this is interesting. Because I like that even just now in talking about essays versus rap, we get a patented Dessa simile, like, “This is like dating someone.” You seem to just love trying to make sense of things so much with metaphors and similes. Where does your love of figurative language come from?

D: Man, I don’t know. I just love it. It’s always been a source of excitement for me in reading. And when I hear other conversationalists do it. I think connection-finding is part of the way that I understand the world is relating the new to the familiar. And it’s also just a dopamine surge. It’s exciting.

It’s exciting when I stumble onto a connection, particular when it’s one between these seemingly really disparate ideas or scenarios. And it’s exciting when I hear someone else fashion a connection that’s unfamiliar. I know that when a good writing spell strikes, I can tell when it’s going to happen because there does feel like a shift in my head where even if I’m just on the bus, where I’ll start looking out the window and seeing more connections than I did the day before, and I’ll think, “Oh shit, the next few days are gonna be it for a generation of rough drafts.” And it’s been like that since I was I was 12.

HN: So that’s how you know that it’s time to write? That the literal world is not just the literal world?

D: Yeah, it’s like now writing for a living, I don’t have the luxury of writing when those really fruitful spells hit. And it can be done outside of that state. There’s a sadness that usually accompanies it. It’s not a place that feels full of sweetness and light, but it feels like a meaningful place. And I started having those spells, I think, when I was 12.

HN: Well, it’s interesting to think about the moment, the moments when you feel like writing. I was watching an interview — I think it was older — might have been from 2008 where you said you usually feel like writing around midnight with a rum and coke in your hand. Which seems really kind of like dark and romantic. But I’m wondering as music has increasingly become your profession, is that still true? Are you better off writing in depths of night than putting in office hours?

D: (Laughs). Yeah, I think have become better at producing material in imperfect conditions, so I don’t have to feel this flash of melancholy and wait until exactly midnight.

HN: (Laughs.) The stroke of midnight.

D: Yeah, but I’m nowhere near office hours and usually it is ten and eleven when I’m under the gun. I’ll find little reasons not to write, like, “Oh my god, those dishes! That’s just slovenly. You’d probably write better in a clean, adult environment.” And then the dishes are done and my mom calls, and “Oh my gosh, I haven’t talked to my mom in forever.”

HN: Right. So in that sense maybe maturing and writing more often in more imperfect conditions is just being confronted with imperfect conditions while on tour.

D: Yeah, and on tour, I find that most of the dudes in Doomtree, too, it’s really hard to write anything of value. You always mean to, because there’s a lot of time on tour, you’re out on the road a lot so to not write during that period seems like a significant loss. But every song you write on tour just ends up being about tour. Tour is such an overwhelming grind. It’s hard on your body. It’s the most work that’s usually part of the job. You always want to write so you can stay limber and productive as a writer.

But you always end up with “on the open road!” Or “living in a van!” And “going city to city!” And you end up just writing these usually just really hackneyed road songs.

HN: That explains like 40 years of on-the-road country music.

D: Yeah! And I can’t judge, man. I’ve got a notebook full of them.

HN: Now, Dessa, let me move for a second to Parts of Speech. Officially, I think the album came out on the 25th of June. It’s like eight days old. But going back and watching videos, some of the songs are clearly much older. As an independent artist — you don’t have Columbia breathing down your neck saying, “I need this in two months” — how did you know it was the right time to make Parts of Speech and put this collection of songs together?

D: I think for somebody that doesn’t write real quickly, the album process is relatively constant. You write all the time and when you have enough songs and then when you have enough songs to make an album, you start to think about putting one out. So I’m not a writer who writes quickly enough to put aside a month or two months to write the record and then can later put aside a few months to record it.

For me, if I were to stop writing, then I would delay the next release considerably. I just continue to try and capture ideas in a little handy Moleskin or on my phone or my computer and continue to write songs. Because I do it slowly enough, that I really have to stay on it to avoid having an unduly long lapses.

HN: Sure, well, I’m tempted to say that Parts of Speech is a softer record than A Badly Broken Code, but I also don’t know. The themes are certainly not any less trying or less difficult to deal with. So maybe why is the presentation of the music surrounding the songs, why do think it feels a little bit more tender?

D: I think this is the first record on which I’ve played such a significant musical role.

HN: You played some piano, right?

D: I played some piano. And arranged, executively produced a lot more of the songs. And I think having that input musically, there were several songs that I might have been interested in writing or presenting on A Badly Broken Code that I just didn’t yet have the musical chops to do.

So I love layered harmonies and I’ve always had an emphasis on words. So this is the first record where I’ve really had the opportunity to carefully craft and build a record from scratch. So I think on this one, too, there are a few songs that have a tempo that allows the words to really become the focal point of the disc. But at the same time, a song like “Fighting Fish,” I think some of tenderest songs are on this album, but I feel like some of my toughest songs at this point are probably on this album.

HN: And then I wonder, it seems like one of the things people are picking up on and there’s probably something to it, that the album does lean more toward the singing than what people might recognize as rapping. Just yell at me if I’m wrong, but do you see the space between singing and rapping as maybe less significant than people might make it out to be?

D: I think I definitely understand the distinction less … I know that there’s a difference, but I think I’m probably less attuned to that distinction in my own work. But I feel like there’s also a slim lane, a gray zone where you’re singing kind of monotonously or you’re rapping kind of melodically.

HN: Yeah, they come together in the middle and all it takes is a second note to call it singing.

D: Yeah, exactly.

HN: Well maybe because of the more singing heavy side of things, when I look at the lyrics and read them aloud, it could definitely be rapped in a traditional sense. But there might be fewer words in general. Do you think melodious song lyrics, does that require more of paring down of ideas or more focus on a central idea?

D: Yeah, it ends up being pretty simple math in that if you’re talking quickly, delivering quickly and rap tends to be quick, you get more words in a four-minute song. And if you’re singing, which tends a little bit slower, you get fewer words in a pop song.

HN: OK, well, this is maybe a little bit more general. But from what I’ve seen, Dessa, you’ve always been very upfront about the fact that a lot of your writing is autobiographical. Which is interesting, because I think that turns into a dance with a lot of artists about what’s me, what’s a version of me. Why have you been comfortable about owning up to the word “autobiographical”?

D: I think I’ve always been interested in true stories. Before I was rapping, my primary interest was in creative non-fiction. And I think every story is made more compelling when somebody says, “And that really happened.” So I’ve always been more interested in true stories.

Also, I think I’d be kind of a lousy fiction writer. So it’s also me just following the path of least resistance in that my talents and my aptitudes seem to very strongly point me in the direction of non-fiction as opposed to fiction.

So it’s like a painter works entirely from their imagination or often can. Whereas a photographer is apt to present the realities of the present moment in a compelling way. And I feel like I’m much more like a photographer. I’ve got good angles, but I’m not making shit up generally.

HN: OK, so you’re not going to Photoshop anything into your songs.

D: Because I’m not very good at it, you know what I mean. If somebody handed me a paintbrush, I’d go, “Shit. What am I supposed to do?” Whereas if somebody handed me a camera and I could hunt around for a day and try to find a moment that somehow feels resonant of a larger truth or theme, I’d feel much more comfortable with that task.

HN: Sure, and because you’re kind of a lyrical photographer and your writing process has been described as in large part due to observation, is there ever any concern or blowback…

D: People in my life? Absolutely.

HN: Yeah, I’m thinking about the line about martinis tasting like tears. Like, “Dessa, I said that to you a year ago!”

D: Yeah, he did. His name is Diego, he lives in Austin. For the most part, I try to be forthright. My privacy is mine to cast off if I like in the interest of career. But I have to be more careful with the people in my life. They might have absolutely no interest in having their lives portrayed in song in a way that could feel like it infringes on their privacy. I’ve definitely made some missteps.

But every so often, I’ll send a song out before it’s released and say, “Hey. Take a listen.”

HN: Wow, OK, interesting. And so if somebody says to you, “No, I’m not comfortable with that,” you will revise? You’ll edit?

D: Then I’m gonna try to talk them into it. (Laughs.) Or I’m going to try to find a way to preserve their privacy and preserve the line. So in the line about “martinis taste like tears,” I’m not saying the dude’s name. The only person that really knows he said that is me and him. So in some ways, I haven’t done anything that would alert his friends to the fact that he’s being quoted in this song.

HN: Right, that he’s saying this awesome thing.

D: Right, and yeah, in that moment, he’s like, “Great, what a clever thing to say.” So, yeah, I’ll try to do the same thing that an author might do. I’ll change names or important biographical details, so it doesn’t feel like you’re a recognizable figure. Protecting my sources.

HN: Understandable. Well, you’ve been saying this for a long time. And I like the way you described it in one interview, that you’d rather be somebody’s tenth favorite rapper, than somebody’s first favorite woman rapper. You’ve been saying things like that for a long time. To what extent has you simply asking over and over for that qualifier of “female rapper” to be dropped been successful for you at least in seeing it dropped?

D: I don’t know. I think a lot of times people know that I think that, so when they pay me a compliment, they’ll pick a different compliment other than “You’re my favorite female emcee.”

I guess it would be tough for me to know if anybody thinks different. At the same time, I think I’ve also softened a little bit in that the voices of men and women are patently different. They’re slightly different instruments. So I’m not interested in treating female emcees as if it’s a different heat, that we’re in a different race entirely. Because I think we’re as capable of making as compelling music as men, so there’s not a need to have a different handicap on the course.

But I’m now more sympathetic to that idea of I’ve got a favorite female vocalist in folk music and I’ve probably got a favorite male. If we’re talking about the aesthetic difference, then I’m game. But I don’t want the inference to be that we need to play slowpitch.

HN: Of course. It seems like if you trace hip-hop’s ambitions back to its source — this might be too noble or too naive — but going all the way back, it was always kind of about giving a voice to the out-group or the marginalized group, so in some sense it seems like women finding success in rap seems like a natural extension of rap. It’s what it always set out do, so I’m wondering why…

D: I see what you’re saying. I think there’s an argument to be made that that’s true, but that ends up being a more conceptual argument than an argument that’s based in a community. And that’s what’s hard, right? The same thing could be said of a gay rapper. But that’s not what we’re seeing. So conceptually, you’re right. And in practice, I think we have some roadblocks.

HN: There you have it. OK, my last one. And this is maybe an ill-advised question, but this is why it’s my last one.

D: (Laughs). OK, you got it.

HN: You were an IB (International Baccalaureate) kid in high school, right?

D: This is not where I thought this was gonna go. Yeah, I was!

HN: Good! I was, too. And I’m curious because I’m super lame, what was your extended essay about?

D: (Laughs.) Yes! It was on the philosopher Martha… Oh, shit. That was the wrong class. That must be TOK (Theory of Knowledge)…

HN: This is high stakes. Don’t mess this up.

D: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mine was on — this is such a teenage topic — it was on wrongdoing and the moral significance of willful wrongdoing. So essentially, could you end up with a really bad person having tried to be good? So what if Goebbels and Hitler really fundamentally believed they were on the right side of history and ethics, would we perceive their behavior any differently? And can, in fact, you penalize someone that is doing the very best they can, but is horrifically misguided?

HN: What did you conclude? Do you remember?

D: (Laughs). Oh god, I don’t know. But I’m sure I ended with a flourish. (Laughs). I think I would blush to read that paper now.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s staff writer. His extended essay was about the rise of the publicly maligned black heavyweight boxing champion. He dedicates this interview to Sonny Liston and to Dessa for being a bonafide genius. Reach Chance at