Performance/interview: Dessa

January 29, 2013|By Matt Pais | RedEye Sound Board

How odd it is to hear an artist you respect and appreciate suggest she doesn’t have the pipes to tackle her words.

“If I had the money, I don’t even know if I would be singing my own songs,” says rapper/singer/poet Dessa, a solo artist and member of Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. “I think I have a really vast imagination for lyricism, but I don’t have a limitless voice. So a lot of times it’s finding out what the instrument will let me do with the ideas.”

Self-doubt aside, the 31-year-old old Minneapolis native is doing just fine, judging by 2010’s acclaimed “A Badly Broken Code,” 2011’s “Castor the Twin” (which rearranges tracks from “Code”) and her success with Doomtree (featuring P.O.S. and Sims), who delivered the best performance I saw at Lolla 2012.

Before her performance at Schubas (and after performing "The Chaconne" exclusively for RedEye), Dessa talked about her many recent Chicago appearances, replacing herself on her own songs and sorting out the sincere from the sleazy in the music business.

Click here to watch video from our interview

You’ve spent some time in Chicago recently, including at Lollapalooza, when I saw you and Doomtree perform. It was my favorite show of the weekend. How did you feel like that went?
Thanks! I have two parts of my mind when I’m on stage. One is the part that’s performing. And the other voice that I wish I could shut off a little more, is like, “How is this going?!” And I think at Lollapalooza it’s particularly hard to shut that voice off. It was a big opportunity for us; we’re aware of how many people are there and [think], “Do I look like an idiot on the JumboTron?”

You didn’t.
It felt good. It felt high stakes, and in my body in the moment I was nervous and excited I guess. Probably in equal measure.

Did the group talk afterward and recap?
We did. A lot of times though we always say the same thing. Sims is always like, “Yeah!” And P.O.S., Stef is always like, “Cool, man. That was good.” And then Mike and I get real sulky [sulky voice] if we don’t think it went so well …. I feel like it’s like “Groundhog Day” of show recap almost every show.

So it wasn’t like, “Oh, we absolutely killed it!”
There’s always a cohort of people in Doomtree who are like, “We slayed it!” Even if we just filled up the gas tank. “The gas tank is not empty!”

“Totally full!”
“Totally full of gas!” We did a good job; it felt good. I’m occasionally the wet blanket. (in Debbie Downer-esque voice) “Well, I would have liked it if we’d practiced those choreographed dance moves a little more …”

When I saw you, I walked over from Chief Keef’s performance. How familiar are you with this new rise of Chicago rap, and what do you think of what you’ve heard?
Medium. Chief Keef, I think probably I associate him as much as I do with a musician [as] with the political implications of what he’s rapping about or the social implications. The Pitchfork drama; the episode of beef with Lupe. I think a lot about what the social obligations are, if any, of being a performing artist and so I’ve probably spent more time thinking about what Chief Keef means than I have listening to his music, to be totally honest.

So how do you feel about that?
I think I’m still deciding exactly where I land. But I do think that music has agency. It informs the way we think, even if we’re not aware of the influence it’s having on us at the time. That doesn’t mean you have to lead Sunday school with every 16-bar; that would be a very boring [rapper]. Do you know what I mean? Sex, drugs, anger, angst and pulp are important parts of music. That said, I don’t think it’s the case that an artist can remove him or herself from any moral conversation by saying, “It’s just art,” as if by virtue of being art it doesn’t have a social implication or social value or social consequences.

The tour kicking off tonight is with a full band, whereas when you were here last it was solo, spoken-word, monologue stuff. How does that change your preparation as far as what you’re doing on stage?
I perform so much more frequently as a musician than I do as a spoken word poet or as a … monologist. I never say that word out loud because I don’t know where the accent goes. Monologist. Monologist.

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