Dessa: I Hear A Ghost pt.1

blame it on Paul Thompson September 10, 2014

Earlier this summer, I sat down with Dessa—she of Doomtree fame, the 33-year-old perpetually on the Best Rapper in Minneapolis shortlist. Still jet-lagged from a spell in Turkey, Dess spent the afternoon at local haunt Muddy Waters ruminating on the political unrest she witnessed and speaking candidly about her process, her best work, and blueprints for the future. Parts of Speech is out now, as is “.38 Airweight, the new single from the whole crew.

You’re just back from Istanbul, right? Were you playing there?

I used to backpack a lot, when I was in my early 20s. But I’ve been [to Europe] only a handful of times in any professional capacity. This time, I had a gig in Prague, but I kind of spun that into an excuse to backpack through Turkey. I was backpacking, and trying to weasel my way into a gig. I met a couple of musicians out there an am trying to set something up there for next time.

You must have witnessed a lot of chaos over there.

Probably like most Americans, I hadn’t stayed abreast in any high resolution of the turmoil in Turkey. But I had a chance to do a crash course in it while I was staying there. Coincidentally, the spot in which I was staying was right outside of Taksim Square, which is the nexus for a lot of the protests in Turkey. I had been warned by a couple of musicians—who I trusted, because they weren’t my mom, weren’t overly cautious—that I look Turkish enough that I should be careful.

They wouldn’t assume you’re a foreigner.

Yeah, which means I might be treated like a demonstrator, and the demonstrating community has been disabused. They’ve been roughly handled. So nothing super, super scary, but there were a couple of times I got spooked and was running through narrow Turkish alleyways with no idea where I was going.

What are the protesters’ biggest immediate goals?

I think they’re generally dissatisfied with the people in power. Their Prime Minister—I don’t want to speak on it too much, because I’m still learning, but he does seem like he’s out of his goddamn mind. He’s asked women to have three children, then decided that wasn’t enough, and now is asking for four, five. He’s on this breakneck campaign to try to make Turkey more populous, thinking that that would equate with political power.

The spark for the most recent round of protests was the collapse of a mine in a town called Soma. This mine collapses, between two- and three-hundred workers [Ed.- Count is now 301] are killed, and all of Turkey gets really upset, because I guess they have really lax [safety] standards there. “We should have seen this coming, mining is dangerous, we don’t take care of our laborers.” The Prime Minister has been super unsympathetic, he said “The death is the fate of a miner,” and one of his aides kicked some of the protesters.

How abreast do you keep of domestic politics?

I would say medium. I think I go in spurts. Like, when I’m on tour, I’m often two months behind—I’m not reading the paper regularly, I’m only catching whatever might be on TV in the hotel gym. When I’m at home, I think I end up being more informed, although I admit that occasionally feeling burnt out and frustrated with my inability to seemingly make real change, sometimes I’ll take news vacations.

What kind of meaningful changes would you like to affect?

On this trip, I was thinking hard about getting serious in acknowledging and defining my sphere of influence. Walking down the main street in Istanbul, there are street kids who look a lot like my little brother looked when he was five—they’re sweet, you know. Then you see their older brother in the corner, and that’s who they’re going to be in four years. And their moms or dads are sitting farther away, to whom all the money is going to be delivered. My initial impulse is that I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do. Talking to other travelers, [asking] “Is it a good thing to give these kids money? Does it sustain and support a street culture? Does it give parents a further reason, when they’re really broke and desperate, to keep kids out of school?”

The answer I came to was: I don’t know how much I can actually, meaningfully do for Turkey. But I do live in Minneapolis. I certainly haven’t exhausted the things I can do here. So I came home, I wrote a check to an organization that I like here that let me tour and meet their teachers, you know. I think it’s easy to be buzzed about how much suffering there is. I went back to my hotel and just…got real weepy. To try to figure out what the answer, the informed response is, maybe the responsible thing is to say, “Maybe I don’t have any business trying to exert influence over Turkey, because I don’t understand it, I don’t know the culture well, and I certainly don’t know the politics well.” But I can help here, and I can help more than I am.


Speaking of Minneapolis, what’s your take on the music scene’s development over the past several years, and what about the conversation concerning the media coverage thereof?

It’s tough, because my own position in the scene has developed over the past five years. Sometimes it’s hard to speak objectively about how the scene has changed, because my vantage point is moving. But if you’re talking about The Current, as a community, Minnesota musicians are inarguably really well served by having an outlet here. It’s fierce, it’s for us, and it’s the rival of almost any public radio station in the country. Does it do absolutely everything? Is it an authority on every genre? Absolutely not, that’s impossible. But I think The Current has been a big part of Minneapolis musicians getting more national love. It’s interesting to watch Lizzo’s career. I follow her on a lot of social networks to see what it looks like when someone gets picked up on a major, because that’s a narrative I’ve never lived.

Have you been up on any of the newer Twin Cities rap talent?

Dem Atlas, Allan Kingdom. Watching both of them—I think I was first exposed to both of them at a Doomtree meeting, where Sims or Stef [P.O.S] or someone was like “Hold on, hold on” and hit play.

I saw Stef yesterday. He said he felt great.

[Ed.- Following the release of 2012’s We Don’t Even Live Here, P.O.S was forced to cancel his national tour for health reasons. In March of this year, he underwent a successful kidney transplant.]

I think he’s taken it really well. Initially when we got the news that he wasn’t going to be able to tour for the last record, I think that was the most discouraged I’ve seen Stef be—which was still more resilient and enthusiastic than I am on good days. He’s a—‘trooper’ is not the right word, because it sounds like I’m his babysitter. He’s an unmovable man in a lot of ways, but one of those ways is his ability to rebound and resolve, even in challenging scenarios.

He’s a road warrior for sure. Three or four years ago, if I had asked Stef, “What’s your ideal on-the-road to home ratio”, I think he would have preferred to be out ten months out of the year. And we’re touring in a van. When you picture ten months, picture yourself sleeping in the back of a van with eight other people and intermittent air conditioning.


What’s your ideal ratio?

It’s less for me. I can go a lot longer when it’s like, two- or three-week stretches instead of a six-week stretch. But also, I’ve never toured in a bus. It might be, if I got to that level, thirteen months a year. Right now, probably three months out of the year feels good. In pieces. I also like developing and then retiring shows—developing a set that has some spoken word in it, that has a narrative that isn’t clear for the first twenty minutes. Then the audience goes “Oh, shit, these are all connected.” I love that stuff. That takes some time and a scratch pad to be able to devise, so it asks for some time at home.

When you’re at home, you’re actively working on live shows?

I’m not punching in at 8:00 and out at 5:00 or anything, but yeah. “How can we re-work these songs? We’ve played it this way for two years. What can we do to challenge ourselves, so when I look back at the band, all of us are on the edge of our seats, trying to hang on?”

When I last caught you in L.A., you had Open Mike Eagle on the bill. How do you go about finding other artists for your tours?

My selection process is a little unconventional, and it might not be the best business practice. But I like it most for me. If I’m out for a few weeks, I like to have a different opener for each week, for a couple reasons. First, business wise: Let’s say you live in L.A., you probably got a little bit of pull in San Francisco, Sand Diego. But not in Nebraska. So I’ll pass through the home market for that artist, then take some new ones. Second, because it keeps the tour fresh. Last—knock on wood—we’re lucky enough to have some people who follow the tour. I want to try to give them a different experience.

Also, content is an issue. Anybody who’s got a killer repertoire, but has three rape-bangers, they’re not coming.


Would you consider playing with someone like that if they agreed not to play certain records?

That’s a good question. On one hand, I don’t want to be so buttoned up that I’m totally inflexible. On the other hand, somebody who thinks that rape music is good music probably wouldn’t jive well with me in the first place. So if it’s one of those deals where “Hey, four years ago on this album, I put out some stuff that, if I had to do it again, I would do it differently”, then that’s a conversation we can totally have. But if it’s like, “Here’s my third single, it’s about hitting bitches”, then I’m probably not interested.

Your music clearly carries ideologies and politics that might be termed progressive, but it deals with dark subject matter. Are you actively trying to tackle subjects that would be more problematic in other hands?

A lot’s been made of, like, ‘conscious rap.’ If I were to classify myself, I don’t think I’m interested in writing moralistic music. I’m just kind of trying to do no harm. It’s not my job to tell people how to live or to set a Sunday school example, but I’m a jerk in any capacity if I’m breaking shit. So I try not to hang out with people who are actively trying to make money at the expense of culture or kids. For me, in my twenties, I veered toward depressive thinking, drank like a motherfucker, and sometimes angry and existential questions came out. In my thirties, I think my themes will probably switch a little bit, as you grow. But I would feel like it was a waste of effort if I censored my true thoughts and feelings because I was apprehensive about sharing a darker side. Truth is probably in the foreground of all my songs—if they sound like they could be true, they’re true. If there are no talking animals in them, they happened, at least metaphorically. I’m into the autobiographical, and if you edit that shit too hard, then it ceases to be true.

That’s a balancing act, though, trying to do no harm. Other people—

It’s not innocuous, I agree. The music has agency. So, it’s a question that’s maybe an aesthetic or philosophical one: “When you listen to sad music, is the listener done harm?” Some people might say yes, if they’re constantly in that. But some people find it therapeutic. I think I would probably agree with the latter set.


What about as the artist? If you make a song on something, does it help you process the event, the emotion?

I think it seems like it’s true for a lot of people, but for me, art and therapy are pretty separate. I always buck at that idea a little bit: “I just write my diary.” My diary sounds pretty much like anyone else’s: “Fuck you, man! I loved you!” [Laughs]. That doesn’t work as a song. There’s no inherent artfulness in journal-keeping.

Sure. Lots of people think the currency of good writing is experience, but lots of people with interesting lives can’t write.

And I think some of my favorite writers do not have interesting experiences, and could write like a motherfucker. There are dudes at the bar who can tell the story you all just lived through better than other dudes. “Hold on, let Danny tell it, let Danny tell it.”

You put other people into your songs a lot. Have you had backlash from that?

It’s definitely a line, and it’s definitely something I’m learning to do better. On the other hand, I’ve been lucky enough to date a lot of rappers, and other singers, who are also writing about me. So it’s an easy exchange: “We’ll both forfeit a little bit of privacy, and in return, we’ll be able to write the songs we really want to.” And that was really convenient. That said, do I use names? No. And if you listen to a lot of my songs, there are very few physical descriptions—almost none. A lot of times, the people I’ve written about will know it’s them, but nobody else. I would say, 75% of the time I’ll send the person the song ahead of time and say “You cool?”. [Pause] I have made missteps.

Parts of Speech feels honest, because the songs are your halves of conversations. You’re not projecting thoughts or ideas onto others.

Hmm. I think about that while writing essays, but I hadn’t realized that that holds true for songwriting. But I think you’re right. There’s probably a drive toward keeping it as true as I can, and the truest story can’t presume to know how the other characters are experiencing it. You can make some inferences, but you can’t definitively conclude unless the other people are kind enough to tell you.

Have you found that, as years go on, what interests you as a writer changes?

I think that the themes stay the same, but the way that those things are expressed changes. I’m not dead yet, so I guess that I can’t say for sure, but I think that the themes will always be love, death, sex, communion, and consciousness, what it ‘s like to be alive and be a human being. Impending loss. It would be easy to love someone if you weren’t so hyper-aware that one of you would die first. But I think the way that sex, love, death, loss, communion manifest at 22 is different than at 32. Sometimes it scares me, but if it didn’t develop…I think you can make the same album twice, maybe, and keep some fans, but beyond that, it’s not going to be brave art. It’s scary, but I feel like fear is a part of the gig.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow as Dessa talks music, writing and education.