She may not be a household name (at least not yet) but Midwest singer, emcee, spoken word artist & author Dessa has been garnering some high praise of late, and from some well respected quarters. NPR likened her "old-fashioned high-quality singer-songwriter" skills to that of Joni Mitchell and Rosanne Cash while the Utne Reader lauded the sole female member of the Minneapolis Doomtree hip-hop collective as "A one-woman powerhouse...with a literary sensibility and an aversion to genre clichés."
Of the artist born Maggie Wander, the Chicago Tribune wrote, "Dessa sings, raps, rolls out rhymes like an accomplished poetry-slam veteran, thinks like the former philosophy student and published author she is, and commands the stage with the expressiveness of a performance artist."
Released early last year, her critically acclaimed debut full-length A Badly Broken Code became a staple at college radio and was a favorite with both Amoeba customers and staffers -- myself included. The aforementioned Chicago Tribune was among those to include her record in their 2010 year-end top ten albums list. The album was the artist's long anticipated follow up to her attention grabbing 2005 introduction to the hip-hop world, the five-song Doomtree release False Hopes.
Currently Dessa, along with fellow Doomtree talents Sims and Lazerbeak, is touring the West Coast in a van. Tonight (Weds, May 4th) they play the Tonic Lounge in Reno, NV; tomorrow (May 5th) they play Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, and Friday they perform at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood. Yesterday from on the road I caught up with the down-to-earth, friendly, and witty Twin Cities talent to ask her about her art and the current tour, which I have been following via daily YouTube Doomtree video updates.
Amoeblog: I saw you guys got a flat tire in Boise over the weekend. And, from what touring acts tell me, there is always some unexpected stuff happening while on the road. As a touring artist is it true that the easiest part is actually getting on stage and performing?
Dessa: Musicians train to play music. You refine your set, practice with your instrument, prepare a stage plot. But that sort of work only prepares you for an hour and a half of a twelve-hour-a-day job. The rest of the work of tour is harder to train for. Sims, for example, has spent a good deal of time splicing electrical wiring to make sure our trailer lights work. Ander, our intern, spends most of our drives editing video and managing merchandise inventory. I Priceline our hotels every night, probably spending as much face time with William Shatner as I do with any sound techs.
Amoeblog: Is it true that, unbeknownst to you, you were next door neighbors to the Doomtree guys? And if so, how did you find out they were there and first meet them?
Dessa: I was involved in a live hip hop crew called Medida when I first heard of Doomtree. I’d guessed from their sound that they might be from the Pacific Northwest. Turns out most of the Doomtree guys lived two houses over. I met Stef (P.O.S) by chance while sitting on my front steps. He drove up in a tiny Festiva, wearing all black. I asked if he was a ninja.
Amoeblog: I am wondering how advantageous it has been to the development of your career (or anyone in Doomtree, for that matter) to be part of this respected collective? Might it have been very different if you had sailed solo 100%?
Dessa: Doomtree has been the center around which my entire musical career has orbited. I’m not sure I can even make a credible guess at what my professional life would be like without these guys. They’re my partners and my friends and I consider myself a member of Doomtree before I consider myself a member of any another musical genre or community.
Amoeblog: Are poetry and rhyming in hip-hop first cousins or totally different vocal forms?
Dessa: Poetry and rap are related, but pretty distant cousins. Poetry is about essentialism, and rap celebrates the stylistic flourish or the percussive indulgence.
Amoeblog: Can you tell me a bit about that book you published and what it is about?
Dessa: I collected a series of essays and a bit of poetry for a slim volume called Spiral Bound, which came out in 2009. In my completely biased opinion, it includes my best work. Most of the material is [made up of] true, candid stories written to the themes of flight, nausea, love, opiates, and sparrows.
Amoeblog: I really liked your album A Badly Broken Code but that was released sixteen months ago -- is there something new coming? What can people expect?
Dessa: New stuff: Yep. My tour set includes new arrangements of the songs on A Badly Broken Code—now presented with a live band. It also has a cut or two from my next project which I’m writing as fast as a person who lives in a van can write.
Amoeblog: Is it hard juggling working and being an artist -- especially with tours like this?
Dessa: I have no idea how to juggle the business stuff with the art stuff. I just work as hard as I can until I'm spent. Then I have a whiskey with my boyfriend. Then I go to sleep.
Amoeblog: Can you tell me a bit about The Boy Sopranos? Why did you form it and how rewarding has it been so far?
Dessa: Some of the songs I write are almost exclusively vocal; I just layer my voice many times to create an arrangement. I wanted to perform a few of these songs live, but I wasn't interested in employing a looping pedal, so I invited my favorite female vocalists in Minneapolis to sing with me. Happily, most of them accepted the invitation and we sang together under the heading The Boy Sopranos. Our material featured melancholy harmonies with dark, boozy lyrics.
Amoeblog: In concert what can people expect from the show overall and from your set in particular -- straight hip-hop or a combo of spoken word/poetry?
Dessa: For the past year, I’ve performed my shows at home in Minneapolis backed by a killer live band. They’re dynamic, hard-hitting, and sharp as hell live. This tour is the very first time I’ve had the chance to take the ensemble on the road, and I’m proud of our show together. The tense, quiet moments are pin-drop still and the crescendos are explosive. Very much looking forward to showing San Francisco what we’ve been working on.
Dessa, featuring Aby Wolf and Jeremy Messersmith perform "The Chaconne" live in the studios of 89.3 The Current