Millennial Magazine - Features - Artist 1:1 - Dessa- On Stage

© Photo by Jessy Gonzalez

In an era where the term “multihyphenate” is bandied about with increasing frequency, rapper Dessa stands out as a genuine exemplar of the word’s fullest, most vibrant meaning. Called a “national treasure” by NPR, she embodies the rare blend of rapper, singer, writer, academic, and indefatigable creative force, constantly redefining the boundaries of artistic expression and personal branding.

On January 18th, Millennial had the distinct privilege to witness firsthand her electrifying live show at The Lodge Room in Los Angeles. Fresh off a tour that captivated East Coast audiences and left an indelible mark on 2023, the Twin Cities icon performed songs from her acclaimed album Bury The Lede, alongside fan favorites like Fire Drills and Blush, all while overcoming the challenge of laryngitis.

Seeing Rapper Dessa Live In Concert

Watching this amazing performer Live is a kaleidoscopic experience—part spoken word, part pop concert, part underground rap battle—all delivered with an energy that’s as infectious as it is nuanced. To see her live is to be part of an event where something more than just music is transmitted; it’s an exchange of ideas, emotions, and energies that can leave you fundamentally transformed.

Her approach to music and performance is as multifaceted as her background, seamlessly integrating influences from neuroscientists to street musicians, and employing an array of collaborators from across the globe. Her journey from a studious, science-and-writing-loving kid in South Minneapolis to a stage-commanding, genre-defying artist is nothing short of remarkable.

Millennial Magazine - Features - Artist 1:1 - Dessa- Messy Hair

© Photo by Sam Gehrke

We caught up with Dessa to further dive into the evolution of her sound and take an intimate look at the ethos driving her creative pursuits. From her DIY beginnings to her innovative collaborations across disciplines, as she discusses the challenges and triumphs of her unique career path, her artistic influences, and her vision for the future.

As we explore the “Dessaverse”—a realm where music, poetry, science, and storytelling converge—we’re reminded of the power of art to challenge, inspire, and transform. 

Congratulations on a creating a magnificent and memorable show experience at the Lodge Room here in LA. No small feat considering you were battling laryngitis at the time! How did that factor into the last few shows of your tour? And what in particular did you learn from the experience of not being able to speak?

I think in words; I express myself best in words; I learn in words—I am essentially a meat piñata full of words. So being ordered not to talk by my doctor was a huge deal. I was given a serious course of steroids, a few other prescriptions, and put on strict vocal rest for a month. 

BUT, for the seven shows of my West Coast tour, I was allowed to use what voice I had for the one hour a day spent on stage. (Huge shout out here to bandmates Aviva Jaye and Joshua Holmgren for helping hit the high notes—and sometimes the low and mid-range notes too.) After tour, I could speak a little, but was still mostly silent to try and heal up.

Millennial Magazine - Features - Artist 1:1 - female rapper Dessa- Performance

© Photo by Jessy Gonzalez

In the van I’d communicate by typing into an app called Buzzcards, which I’d downloaded years ago when I first saw a deaf Lyft driver using it. My boyfriend and I communicated with a dozen ASL signs and a lot of pantomime. But I also had to get used to having my questions go unasked and letting my thoughts float past unexpressed—a weird [and mercifully pretty brief] spell of social isolation.

You have a powerful chemistry with the other talented musicians that were backing you on stage. You’ve performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as an entirely solo act. Having had these very different experiences as a performer, which is your preference? And what is your dream performance setup?

At the beginning of my career, I would sometimes perform as a solo act: just me and a mic, backed by production (most of the beats were made by my fellow Doomtree members Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger). But as soon as I was able, I added another voice to stage. 

Vocal harmony is one of my favorite parts of music making, and it pains me not to have the complementary vocal melodies darting and weaving around the one that I’m singing. (Shout out here to Aby Wolf—killer vocalist, long-time friend, and one of my first harmony partners who’s played by my side in grimy clubs from Des Moines to Vienna.)

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© Photo by Scott Streble

Flash forward a bunch of years and I’ve had the occasional opportunity to perform with huge choirs and even a couple of orchestras. And those experiences are reeeally different—in no small part due to the expectations the audience brings. 

At a basement show, for example, people anticipate a loud set; they expect to interact with the band a little; they’re probably ready to clear out quick if the cops come. At a seated show in an orchestral hall, people expect glassware instead of red Solo cups; the expect printed programs and probably a sequence of bows. In both cases—and a lot of cases in between—part of what I enjoy most as an artist is trying to buck the prevailing norm to create a night that’s a little different than the one people thought they were gonna get.

That said, if money were no object, my dream setup would be a hot-shot vocal ensemble—let’s say 8 voices–along with an octet of strings to keep the numbers nice ’n neat. I’d add somebody clever triggering tracks; a drummer; and a couple of wild card guests.

Maybe a throat singer. Or a handbell squad. Or a savant at playing wine glasses. And we’d perform in weird reverberant places: stairwells, mineshafts, empty silos. (That last bit was an unexpectedly fun exercise. If there are any grant writers in the house, holler at me.)

Your new album ‘Bury the Lede’ has a much lighter, more danceable sound than much of your previous work. What is the inspiration for this new direction? 

My disposition naturally leans melancholy and most of my music reflects that. But as a listener I also love a strong pop song—danceable, sing-into-the hairbrush stuff. As the pandemic was ending, it felt like we were collectively well aware of the sad, hard stuff; we had a non-stop faucet of sad, hard stories on TV and the radio. And the question became what to do with it all. 

The moment seemed to call for some sort of hurricane party (those are actual events where people get together to take cover from a storm with music, booze, and dancing, sharing bunks and provisions). Much of the record is about indulging in a measure of hedonism even as the threat on the horizon mounts. 

I released a song called “Hurricane Party” as a lead single and I think that concept serves as a decent shorthand for the whole human project: we’re mortal and smart enough to know it, so while we can, we cavort with one another, fall in love with sensation, with other people and their ideas. Survival is, at best, indefinite.  So maybe get a cocktail with an umbrella in it.

You’ve stated in the past that you’ve always had a policy of “friendship first, music second, money third.” Explain whether or not that ideal has remained constant for you in the decade since joining the Doomtree crew, and what your relationship is now with being a solo artist versus a member of a collective?

Almost twenty years after being asked to join, I’m still a member of Doomtree. Our lives have definitely moved in different directions—and not all the members are active— but the group was always about more than just making money or music.

Being part of a touring band is difficult. You get weird hours, low money, broken axles, heavy gear. But it’s also sometimes transcendent: you get passion and purpose, free drinks and applause, and a chance to live a life on your own terms.

Millennial Magazine - Feature - Artist 1:1 - Dessa- new album- bury the lede

© Photo by Sam Gehrke

Being the leader of a touring group involves a necessary layer of logistics and a fair number of Google docs. It’s definitely a management role as well a front-person role: you wanna kick ass on stage, but make sure your people have what they need off stage too. (I’m lucky enough to have the help of a great manager—salute to Becky). It stresses me out, but also suits me pretty well. As is probably obviously by now, I’m a control enthusiast.

You’ve had a very eclectic array of creative projects. From books to podcasts to music,  everything your fingerprints are on seems to fit so comfortably into its own space in the ‘Dessaverse’. Which role (rapper Dessa, writer, podcast host, etc.) would you say you feel most comfortable in? And what are some additional bucket list creative pursuits?

Most of my projects orbit somewhere in the stratosphere of language arts—songs, books, monologue, maybe a little radio play. The form factor of the finished work varies considerably, but I suspect I’m at my strongest when working at the sentence level.

Even more than I love a good story, or a compelling character, I love a totally unforeseen metaphor that can hijack a thought and take it to totally unexpected imaginative terrain.

What are the next few steps we can expect to see you taking as an artist? Is more music coming soon, or should your fans expect an output break from you?

For the past few months I’ve been touring my latest record, Bury the Lede, and I’m jusssst starting to scheme on new ideas. As is often the case, my interests are tugging at their leashes in a few different directions. I’m currently researching an essay on beauty; working on a song triptych, and also piping a lot of buttercream flowers—an unforeseen recent obsession.

I have a vivid memory of you many years ago sharing in an interview that ‘in an ideal world, you’d be paid to think’. From an outside perspective, you’ve been fairly successful at that pursuit so far. What is your advice to other thinkers, artists, and intellectual creatives that are inspired by what you’ve been able to do on your journey?

Be kind to people when you can. It came as a pleasant surprise to me to learn how much personality matters in this industry; people generally prefer to keep company and award contracts to artists who are both talented and thoughtful. 

And as you work your angles—trying to score the next gig or take the big swing—keep in mind what opportunities the people around you are looking for too. A mutual win is the very best kind.

Millennial Magazine - Features - Artist 1:1 - rapper Dessa- bury the lede

© Photo b Scott Streble

As American rapper Dessa continues to navigate the intersections of music, literature, and culture, her work remains a beacon for those who seek depth, innovation, and authenticity in the arts. Her dedication to her craft and her ability to seamlessly blend genres and mediums make her a singular force in the contemporary music landscape.

With a career that has already left an indelible mark on the industry, this impacting artist’s future endeavors are eagerly anticipated by fans and fellow artists alike, promising further contributions to the ever-evolving dialogue of what it means to be a creator in today’s world.

To learn more about “Bury the Lede,” be sure to follow her on Spotify.

 

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