Describing Dessa is hard. She has her hand in every pot and they have not left the spinning wheel. Dessa is a rapper and part of the hip-hop Doomtree Collective. She is a published author of My Own Devices. She presented a TED talk on scientifically eliminating prior relationships. She has been published in The New York Times. She was part of the Hamilton Mixtape with her version of “Congratulations.” She has a song about Janet Yellen. She has launched a podcast called Deeply Human with BBC World Service, American Public Media, and iHeart Media. She also has started a series called IDES where she releases a new song on the 15th of every month. March’s IDES is “Life On Land”
“I started writing ‘Life on Land’ sitting at my Casio keyboard wearing a green sweater and with my hair still wet from the shower,” Dessa explains. “I know because I filmed a little video of myself playing the key line to make sure I didn’t forget it. The first lyrics came easily: ‘Flip a coin, flip a car / I don’t care where we are / the picture and the sound won’t sync / some things time can’t fix’. Almost every other line resisted being written. I walk a lot to try and solve that problem, muttering for a mile or two and coming home with another viable four bars. Like the other songs in the IDES series, this track is a collaboration between me and producers Lazerbeak and Andy Thompson. All three of us thought the song needed an epic pop chorus…but those are easier to talk about than they are to write. When we finally had words and music for each section, we tried several sequences before landing at the structure on record. In the end, we built with pop bricks, but decided to ditch the pop floorpan and go rogue.”
Alongside this release, Dessa is also announcing a collaboration with Dogwood Coffee Co. on a limited-edition coffee. IDES coffee—available in 12 oz whole bean packages—is a blend of coffees from Mexico and Colombia, lightly roasted to produce a cup with notes of maple syrup and dark chocolate covered almonds. Online orders can be placed via Doomtree’s website, and packages will be available at Dogwood’s three retail locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul later this month. A portion of proceeds from sales at Dogwood’s shops will benefit Second Harvest Heartland, one of the nation’s largest and most effective hunger relief organizations.
Dessa has taken bold steps to stay nimble and always working during COVID. Dessa’s experiences can be applied to artists in any year. Dessa is as iconic as Amanda Palmer, Lady Gaga, and Beyonce. She is not as well known…yet. FEMMUSIC was honored to talk with her about her experiences. For info visit https://www.dessawander.com/
FEMMUSIC: By the time this runs Deeply Human will have begun on BBC. How did that project develop? What are your goals with it?
D: I received an email from a colleague who asked if I’d be interested in a gig hosting a science program, a collaboration between the BBC and American Public Media. Behavioral science fascinated me since I was kid–well before I knew the term ‘behavioral science.’ I’ve always been curious about why people think and behave the way we do: sometimes brave, sometimes mean, sometimes neurotic, sometimes hilarious.
FEMMUSIC: Doing IDES your diving into your catalog and also collaborating with other artists. What has been the biggest challenge putting it together?
D: IDES is a single series: on the 15th of every month I release a new track. I’m working with producers Andy Thompson and Lazerbeak on every song, and sometimes we’ll work with guest players or beatmakers too. In the beginning, working remotely was sometimes maddening–an idea that could have been auditioned in the studio with two minutes of dial-turning, could take a lot of back-and-forth over email. But I’m beginning to suspect I’ll emerge as a better collaborator after this is over: I’ve learned to let go and trust more, my old meticulous methods don’t serve very well at the moment and I like what the new flexibility is doing to the music.
FEMMUSIC: IDES is about singles. Sound The Bells was your last album in 2018. Do you think you will make another album in the future, or has COVID made it easier to thrive by releasing singles alone?
D: Very likely, stay tuned. (But I’m not planning much of anything farther than 6 months out–uncertainty is the global mood these days.)
FEMMUSIC: During COVID artists have had to pivot. Before COVID you were already pivoting into different projects from Hamilton Mixtape to Minnesota Orchestra. What fuels your own need to pivot and how do you sustain it?
D: Working as an indie musician almost demands that you have several income streams–there usually isn’t enough in any one of them to sustain you. The plate-spinning can get intense, but it also makes for a really interesting job and, by extension, an interesting life. I don’t see myself as having pivoted too often–because exploring a new enthusiasm doesn’t demand that I leave the others behind.
FEMMUSIC: In 2020 organizations like NIVA (National Independent Venue Association) & NITO (National Independent Talent Organization) came into being as lobbying forces for the industry. They do not represent artists. What would be your way to organize artists and what is the first step?
D: A lot of artist interests intersect with NIVA & NITO, so I think there are opportunities to work together well there. Musician unions and trade organizations like the Recording Academy exist…but I think there is definitely room for more grassroots groups. I’d keep an eye on orgs like The Future of Music Coalition–they advocate, share information, and build community.
FEMMUSIC: Similarly in 2020 touring stopped & streaming went wild. What do you see the new paradigm for artists in 2021 and beyond?
D: I’d love to see the pay structures of streaming services revisited. Fingers crossed. But I’m not sure how this last year will affect our industry in the long term. I expect to be surprised, frankly.
FEMMUSIC: Can you describe your songwriting technique?
D: I gather little scraps of language during my daily life: an overheard bit of conversation, a striking phrase on a sign, a couplet that comes to mind to describe the people walking past. Then when it’s time to write a song, I’ll play the music on repeat for many hours, stitching some of these scraps together until I’ve got a clear direction for the lyrics.
FEMMUSIC: What song (not your own) has had the biggest influence on you and why?
D: Paul Simon’s lyrics on Graceland were eye-widening–they were so strange, but also rang true. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill got worn out in my care. And Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” knocked the wind out of me. All three writers combine the sacred and the mundane in interesting ways–which is something I grew up to be interested in doing too.
FEMMUSIC: What challenges, if any, have you faced as a woman in the music industry? And how did you overcome them?
D: I have been mistaken for a waitress or hired help at my own shows and received feedback on my physical appearance in professional settings in a manner that (to my knowledge) my male colleagues did not. I have been touched inappropriately by fans and promoters. Online commenters sometimes speculate about my gender in mean-spirited ways–in short, the way I look or act must mean I’m not a real woman. In the interest of painting a full picture, however, I’ll also say that sometimes my gender has benefitted me in this industry. When I started rapping, there were few women doing it. That relative novelty attracted attention–the voice I had to offer was one different that those that dominated the scene.
FEMMUSIC: What one thing would you like to change about the music industry?
D: I think physical beauty and sexual appeal play an outsized role in our society–and maybe in entertainment most of all. I’m excited when artists who buck that trend manage to make their way to big stages.
“‘Bombs Away’ is about a feeling of surrender, leaning in and letting go,” Dessa says “As a control enthusiast, uncertainty and ambiguity unsettle me. But this past year wasn’t designed to cater to our preferences. I recorded the demo for this one in Minneapolis, in the middle of a very hard 2020.”
Dessa has started a song series called IDES where she releases a new song on the 15th of every month. IDES is the product of collaborations between artists working from their home studios across the country, trading sound files, snapshots, and voice memos.
Dessa recently made headlines for “Who’s Yellen Now?” The song is a Hamilton-style ode to the U.S.’s first female Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen.
The BBC recently announced that Dessa will host their new series on science and human behavior, Deeply Human. The project is a collaboration between the BBC, American Public Media, and iHeartRadio. It will air on the BBC World Service and be available as a podcast on all major platforms. The first season—12 episodes in total—chases down answers to questions like, “Why do we get Deja Vu?” “Why are we attracted to symmetrical faces?” and “Why do we listen to sad music?”. The show features surprisingly intimate interviews with leading scientists and researchers, presented in Dessa’s funny, writerly style. Available on all platforms March 8th.