Dessa reflects on her artistic journey


I had four definitive aesthetic experiences before my 10th birthday.

The first I don't remember. I was a chatty toddler, eager to talk to adults and reluctant to ever be put down to sleep. One evening, my mom sat me down in front of our home speakers and instructed me to clap along to the music. I smacked my palms together without any apparent regard to the tempo of the song. My mother is a New York Puerto Rican who'd moved to Minnesota some years before I was born. Watching me clap erratically, she grew increasingly frantic at the thought that her light-complected little girl would never have any rhythm if she grew up in the prairie—the prairie where no one could dance, people ended sentences with prepositions, and seasoned their food to taste like chewable air. My dad came home to find her sitting behind me, obviously upset, clapping my hands together, counting, "1, 2, 3, 4" over and over again. Something of a Helen Keller moment.

My second and third aesthetic experiences both involved the Beatles.

I was sitting alone in the living room, listening to one of their innocuous singles. Maybe "Hello Goodbye," or "A Hard Day's Night." I never heard the singer take a clear, audible inhale, so I figured he must have recorded the whole take on one lungful of air. I rewound the tape, hyperventilated to give myself a head start, took a deep breath, and pressed "play" to sing along. I made it 16 or 20 bars, my voice got croaky, then my ribs started to hurt, so I rewound to try again. Eventually my dad came in to find me red-faced and dreamy on an oxygen high. He took a moment to correct my impression, then returned to whatever he'd been doing. And that was my first introduction to the world of editing and production—to an aspect of music that occurs apart from the sounds made by organic instruments.

The next epiphany involved the song "Eight Days a Week." The chorus of this song distressed me because I was sure—I mean stake-my-life-on-it certain—that all weeks had seven days. I brought up the obvious oversight to my mother. "Honey, he's saying he loves her so much that he can't do it all in a week." Well, I reasoned, that love would simply have to spill over into next week, now wouldn't it? After some back and forth with Mom, I came to understand that people who wrote songs were allowed to completely disregard the rules that govern the rest of the world. I was dumbstruck. It was like getting into the car, buckling up, merging onto the highway, then pulling up and driving into the sun. I just didn't know you could do that sort of thing.

My most significant aesthetic experience happened on a Monday, sometime just after 10 p.m. My mom and I were on the couch. The show Northern Exposure had just ended. While credits scrolled, she asked me, "What do you think the theme of tonight's show was?" I didn't understand the question and said as much. "There's one thing that's the same about all of the stories in tonight's episode," she explained. Fleischman the doctor, Maggie the pilot, and whatever the old astronaut guy's name was—all of them were driven by greed. But they learned that greed hurts everyone in the end.

My first thought was, Do other people know about themes? Did the writers of the show know that it was about greed? Yes they did, my mother confirmed. In one stroke, my mom revealed this other, invisible universe, a plane of abstract ideas. I had no idea how big this thing might be—how much I might have been missing. What else has themes that I don't know about? Does breakfast have themes? Do I?

I'm now 29. I spent most of the last decade trying to convince people to take a chance on me—to let me play the main stage, to let me sell my discs in their shops, to consider my music for review. Doomtree became the center of my social life, the center of my professional life, and a pretty sleek little business. And then, this year, I got a chance. Doomtree released my first full-length record, A Badly Broken Code. It received some good national reviews, I toured the country opening for P.O.S, and returned to an impossibly generous reception from Minneapolis. I'm making my living as a musician and a writer. I'm serving as this year's Artist in Residence for McNally Smith College of Music. I'm helping Doomtree make Lazerbeak's new record a success. I've spent my whole adult life trying to have a year like this one.

To be clear, the thrill of the past few months isn't of success—it's of opportunity. For the first time, my big question isn't, Can I have a chance? It's, What am I going to do with it?

With a great deal of help from Sean McPherson, the leader of my band, I'm preparing for a slew of summer and autumn shows. I'm adapting some of Paper Tiger's and MK Larada's brilliant production to live instrumental arrangements, and I'm trying to find ways to solve the persistent challenges I've encountered as an artist. Do I have to have a chorus? No. How short can a pop song be? Less than a minute, maybe. Can I sing while inhaling? Yes. Is it musical? Not really.

I'm desperately eager to make good on the chances I've been given. And I'm determined to earn returns for the people who've bet on me. It's a great privilege to report to work each morning in the lobby of my own brain, and punch the elevator button that reads Invisible Universe of Ideas. To everyone who's purchased a ticket a show, or picked up the disc—thanks. I'm grateful for the job.