On “Skeleton Key,” from her third full-length release, Parts Of Speech (Doomtree), Dessa claims she hasn’t “met a locked door yet that I couldn’t beat,” and that seems to sum up her philosophy toward life. Reached while on the West Coast leg of her tour behind the new critically acclaimed record, in advance of a Chicago date in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion to conclude this year’s Downtown Sound Series (with a local favorite and fellow female rapper Psalm One), she downplays the fact that she’s the only female member of the Minneapolis hip-hop collective, Doomtree. “We’re seven artists all with different musical tastes and styles,” she points out, so she’s “more concerned with writing strong verses than I am with my gender. We’ve been working together for so long, any novelty has probably worn off.”
Dessa was born Margaret Wander, the daughter of parents who met at a Duluth music store, and she describes her musical education as taking place “in a moving car, or standing at the kitchen sink. My mother sang all the time, and encouraged me to join in, singing harmonies or little lines of counterpoint.” In addition to their emphasis on music, she has said that “Language and verbal communication were important in my family. If I could argue my way into a later curfew, that argument was entertained … it was a great motivator to help me develop a facility with words.”
Growing up with a book in her bed, to paraphrase an earlier lyric, Dessa was high school valedictorian, eventually skipping a year of college and graduating with honors before she could legally drink, according to her label’s bio. With a degree in philosophy, she worked nights waiting tables and days writing reference manuals used by doctors in the implantation of pacemakers, and eventually began managing the business affairs of Doomtree, in addition to once dating fellow collective member P.O.S.
Compositionally, Dessa describes her creative process thusly:
“I write down little scraps of lyrics all the time—a turn of phrase that catches my ear, a metaphor, or a bit of overheard conversation. Then, when I’m writing to a beat or to a piano line, I’ll return to this long list of little scraps, looking for bits and pieces that might fit with the music at hand.”
In other interviews, she’s made clear that she draws no real distinction as to whether the music she creates should be considered “hip-hop” or “R&B.” In fact, often, she says, “I end up rapping and singing on the same song. Sometimes I end up in the grey area that’s somewhere between the two. Usually, I’ll try to fit a particular phrase to a beat and the tempo will help me determine which mode sounds best.”
In terms of subject matter, she says that most of her songs and essays are “true.” “As a general rule, if it sounds like it could have happened it probably did,” so after repeated listens to Parts Of Speech and a few spins of her earlier records, 2011’s Castor, The Twin and the 2010 debut, A Badly Broken Code, it sure sounds like some of these previous loves have left her in a bitter place. Even her choice of a Bruce Springsteen cover, “I’m Going Down,” on the latest release, is steeped in sadness, and done up in a spare acoustic setting until the swelling atmospheric conclusion. It’s also an interesting choice to not switch the genders in the songs, so it’s either told from a male perspective in a female’s voice or sung from one woman to another. But on other cuts, like the rocketing “Fighting Fish,” (the chorus of which references the Greek philosophical paradox of Zeno’s Arrow) her bitterness is channeled into a passionate yet matter of fact delivery: “I didn’t come here looking for love, I didn’t come to pick a fight, I come here every night to work, and you can grab an axe, man, or you can step aside.” As she sings at the end of the track, “I make my own luck now,” and that seems to be her thought nowadays as she “works” her way across the country.
Having just discovered that morning that their touring vehicle’s right turn signal had gone out due to a shredded trailer wire, she says “Life on the road is a strange mixture of epic adventures and persistent inconveniences.”
Although fellow Doomtree collective members Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger produced several tracks on Parts Of Speech, and members of Dessa’s live ensemble all contributed to the record, as did several top-flight Minneapolis musicians working in rock, folk, and opera, she points to the involvement of a cellist as her favorite collaboration on the new record. About the ballad “It’s Only Me,” she says she wrote the song on piano, “just tinking away on a keyboard in my apartment. I made a little demo … and knew that I wanted a fuller arrangement, but wasn’t sure exactly what direction to pursue. Months later, l was listening to a Pandora and I heard a cellist named Takenobu. I looked him up online, cold-called him, sent him my demo and he ended up working up a big, sweeping cello arrangement.”
And who else’s music does Dessa spin in her personal collection?
“I try not to listen to much music while I’m working on my own records—I know influence is unavoidable, but I try to guard against being more derivative than necessary. That said, as a kid, I listened to artists like Michael Jackson, Whitney [Houston], and Paul Simon.” Nowadays, she points to Aby Wolf and Open Mike Eagle, who have opened on legs of current tour, as “definitely worth checking out.” She also says about Psalm One that she “is a long-time friend of Doomtree. We’ve shared stages before, most recently at Schubas Tavern in Chicago. My band and I are excited to play with her again, doubly so at Millennium Park.”
Dessa performs a free all ages show with special guest Psalm One as part of the Downtown Sound Series in Millennium Park at Pritzker Pavilion on Monday, July 29 at 6:30 p.m.