Dessa: The prospect of growing from this point is scary
Photo by Erik Hess
Talk to Dessa in person and you'll see that this woman never gets a break from her own brain. Luckily, it looks like she can handle it pretty well.
In Gimme Noise's sit-down interview ahead of the release of her much-anticipated third album, Parts of Speech, Dessa opens up about everything we can think to fire at her: her music, her projects, her image, and whether she's happy. We delve into the demons, the ways that her imaginary lungs trump her actual ones, and get some insight into dealing with critics.
Dessa never skips a beat, and we found that our whole conversation was just a little too interesting to keep it from the world. Read on for some interesting insights.
Gimme Noise: Let's start with the album. Parts of Speech is definitely a different record for you. How did you decide to make it different this time around?
Dessa: This is the first record where I've worked with a live band to write the songs as well as music that had already been produced by Doomtree. This is the first really hybridal record... it's got rap beats on it, it's got music of our own composition, it was a live ensemble.
[Pause] I think in some ways... music's like sex. It's not like every time you have sex, you're like, "This is the different version that I'm going for, for this episode of sex. Like, I'm totally different this time, everything has really changed. You just keep doing it, and you do it better.
Photo by Erik Hess
I feel like every time I listen to one of your albums, I'm put in your head with you. Like I'm sitting beside you at some dirty bar, having a conversation with your demons. Or maybe they're my demons. Is that what writing lyrics is to you?
I think I'm not an artist who would say that music is therapy at all. I think that sort of exorcising your demons -- the real work of it -- is probably better done with a therapist than with a piano. It feels sort of self-important to think that people would want to listen to me talk about my shit all the time. I think, for me, it really ends up being a task where you look at the genuine feelings you have in your life, and if any of those are prompted by struggle and conflict, but then to do the work of alchemy, to make that into music.
I think if I were to talk very plainly about how I feel and why I'm sad and what I'm struggling with, it's like anybody bitching about how they feel and why they're sad and what they're struggling with. There's an extra effort required to turn that into a song. So it doesn't feel like I'm just going to let my deepest feelings out and then it's a song. That would just be a diary entry, that wouldn't be a song at all [laughs].
I read a line from an interview with someone where you said that you thought your voice wasn't suited for some of the music that you wanted to do.
I mean, my imagination as a songwriter is boundless. You know, I can write a song that would take a woman with a four-and-a-half octave voice to sing, but I happen to not be that woman. So your body places boundaries on you that your mind wouldn't otherwise have. The instrument in my vocal chord -- in my throat -- is the limit. The instrument in my head is much less limited. So sometimes it's trying to reconcile your big ideas with your finite body. In my head, I never struggle for breath when I'm doing a hard rap lyric, you know... I mean my lungs are the size of a Buick in my head. You just write the rhyme. And then when it's time to deliver the line, you have to figure out, okay, well, how much oxygen can I hold, what's the highest note that I can hit. Can I actually transition from an "mm" to a "th" sound as fast as my imagination has asked me to. The musculature in your mouth limits the speed at which you can rap, but not the speed at which you can write.
Do you ever feel like you're a point of fascination for people? Does it ever get weird for you?
I mean, maybe very rarely. But I think if I focused too much on how I was received that I would be insufferable. You know? I would make music that's designed to people please and that would probably tell. It would probably look like it had been written to be liked, which is, I think, a turn-off in any circumstance. You know, when you're on a date with someone who's only saying things that you will like them, you know, agreeing with everything, or, you know, fawning over your friends in a way that seems disingenuous, that's such a turn-off. Because it feels manipulative. You know, you're acting that way to cultivate a certain response from me. And I think in songwriting sometimes you hear that. Like if you hear a really sad song that doesn't seem like it's a product of a lived experience, sometimes that just feels manipulative to me. Like, you're just writing that because you want me to cry. But you're not crying. You're trying to make some money as a songwriter.
I think if I worried a lot about "This is what people think I stand for," then I'd either get a big head or make bad music, so I try as much as I can to keep my thoughts in genuine music and trust that people who like it will gravitate towards it and people who are not really feeling it will find something else that they like, and I think generally I'm a decent enough person where no one is motivated to like, tear me down. I mean, infrequently do I have a total bloodletting where a critic's like, "Not only do I not like your music, BUT... you should never record, you're an asshole, you're mean," because I feel like I'm not an asshole and I'm not mean. So when people don't like the music, they're generally pretty cool to me still.
Photo by Erik Hess
Are you just super tired of talking about being a the girl in a boy band? Like, Being A Woman In Hip Hop, are you really sick of having that conversation with people?
I mean, yes. But it's frustrating because I don't know how to say it differently than I said it last time. I don't want to be a pullstring doll where you say, "What's it like to be a woman in hip-hop?" and I give my rehearsed answer. That doesn't seem like a really candid conversation. But I've already said it and I don't know what to say. Also I think I'm too aware of it. I don't know that I have an honest answer, because I don't think about being a woman in the same way as like, "What is it like to live as a brunette? How does it feel -- in a state with a lot of blondes -- to be a brunette?" I define myself in a lot of ways, I'm certainly a woman, but I've never lived as a man, so I can't A and B it, there's no control environment. I can't say, "Well, let me itemize the differences. Had I been a man, these are the things that would definitely have happened."
I think a lot of us flatter ourselves when we imagine that, you know, definitely our experiences would be different in another set of circumstances. Also, I've been with those guys for so long. If there was a novelty, it's worn off already. The most I think I'm aware of being a woman, it's in the brief, brief moment when I first start to rap at a show where no one's heard of us before. People sometimes think I'm the back-up dancer and then I start to rap, so you can hear them be surprised and that feels nice, but after that, they're not gonna support you for the length of a 10-year career...
I was reading this interview that you did with someone and it was with a girl, I think, and one of the first questions she asked you was how it felt to be a "white girl" in hip hop. And... well, you're mixed. Your mother is Puerto Rican. I mean, if that were me...
[Laughs] You would be pissed.
How do you respond to that assumption?
It's weird because I think in some ways, I don't have any... if I would have answered that different, if I would have said, "Oh, actually, I'm Puerto Rican." She would have said, "Oh, I'm so sorry," and the conversation would have been over. But in some ways, I feel like I don't have any right to excuse myself from conversations about white privilege, because I enjoy white privilege regardless of my background. I speak in unaccented, Midwestern, college-educated English. I'm light enough, particularly in the winters, to be perceived as European. So I benefit from that privilege, even if it's not the reality of my genetics. So usually what I'll do is I'll answer that question and then go, "By the way, I'm Puerto Rican." But in that order, because if I reversed it, then I wouldn't be asked to task. And I do benefit, in a lot of ways, from white privilege, even in the sphere of hip hop.
So I'm going to switch gears a little bit. Five years ago, Doomtree was not as big as it was now. How have you made the transition from having eight jobs to having one job and eight projects? Your income structure has totally changed. You can focus on charities, which is way different from before. Now you have the voice and the platform to do that.
At the same time, I think that's very much a force of the hip-hop culture -- that artists engage in charitable activities, and that was true before I made my rent as an artist. One of the first exciting shows that I played that was sold out was called Hip Hop for the Homeless and it was an event that used to be held at the Triple Rock... but even before I was making rent, it felt important to occasionally do a benefit or to donate a portion of the door to a meaningful cause. I mean, ever since we started the Blowout -- eight or nine years ago -- I think all of us were working day jobs, but a portion of the proceeds always went to a charity. And now we're real catty about which one of us gets to choose the charity [laughs]. So I think that's been a part of the fabric of the culture even before music became vocational.
[Pause] Then and now, I'd always... I don't like games, like Sudoku or crosswords, not because I don't enjoy them, but because it feels like life is this big race against death and I want to get as much done as I can while I still have time. So usually if I'm awake and I'm not really sick, I try to do something productive with every moment. I definitely have lapses in self-discipline and find myself zoning out at the computer and not knowing where the past half-hour went. But before I could pay my rent as an artist, it was: finish my shift, and then go write as much material as I could, and now that I am making a living as an artist, it's promote this record as hard as I can, till I'm cross-eyed and exhausted, then go have a cocktail and do it again. I think the similarity between five and six years ago to now is that I enjoy the work, so I think I want to do as much of it as I possibly can.
Are you happy?
Uh.... Yeah, but I have to say that hasn't been my goal. That's a secondary goal. I want to be happy, of course, but that's ultimately not what I'm going for. I'm ambitious and I'm driven, and I'm really determined to make as big a contribution as I can, but it is scary. The prospect of growing from this point is scary.
I've kind of lived in the shadow of... what do you call it when there's one goose at the point of the V and you benefit from the fact that he's breaking some of the headwind when you follow him? Stef -- P.O.S. -- has set some really great courses. That he's been a mentor is probably stating it too strong, but he's been a role model for me in a lot of ways. When I hear him answer interview questions -- because oftentimes it's in the van that we get a call, so we have to turn off the radio and sit and listen to whoever's taking the phoner, and everyone is quiet but we're often times clowning whoever's on the phone.... [Laughs] But Stef has handled his public life in a way that it would never have occurred to me to do. I'm naturally... I want to be patted on the head, I want to get a gold star, I want to do the right thing, I want to succeed, and he's been very brave in setting his own standards. He's not here to please people. He's here to fulfill his own vision, and I think watching him set his own course has emboldened me the occasion to say to any business person or reporter, "Sorry that I'm not impressing you, that I'm not pleasing you with this answer, but my job really, fundamentally, isn't to please you." I have a hard time doing that. It's a learned step. And I've watched him succeed by doing so.
When I think about growing from this position, if, you know, knock on wood, if this record were to put me and my band in a larger pool... that is scary. I've been able to work so far on the support of my fans. And on the occasion where I have met record-industry types in L.A. and New York, I don't like it. They're icky. I don't want to have a life full of that. So I don't know how to handle that if that's part of the reality.
Do you like this album?
I'm proud of this album. It's weird because it's so old for me. I've been working on these songs for so long, they're familiar to me. And it's very strange now, to imagine that this is the first moment everyone gets to hear them. Sort of like you've been dating a guy for two years and you're just bringing him home to meet your parents and it's weird all of a sudden, looking at him through their perspective. You never noticed the way he held that dessert fork, and what do they think about that? It's a strange sensation. It makes you nervous, to introduce music that you care about.
Dessa's Parts of Speech is out now. Cop it here.
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