“I didn’t come looking for love,” Dessa says on “Fighting Fish” off her latest project, Parts Of Speech. “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.”
True to her “Fighting Fish” rhyme and metaphor, Dessa has been consistently working. Since releasing her debut album, 2010’s A Badly Broken Code, the Doomtree emcee has released two more solo efforts, 2011’s Castor, the Twin, and 2013’s Parts of Speech, two critically acclaimed albums that feature her vocal stylings and rhyming prowess. She’s also flexed her love for prose and a gift for writing with Spiral Bound and A Pound Of Steam, further showcasing the artist’s versatility. That’s all without mentioning her extensive work with her Doomtree family, which has included 2011’s No Kings.
Now, Dessa and the crew are joining forces for their final Blowout event, the last of an annual celebration that highlights Doomtree’s appreciation for its fans. Dessa spoke to HipHopDX about recording the upcoming Doomtree album and how her skills have grown. Beyond this, Dessa also explained how some of her most painful moments have helped her create some of her best material.
Dessa Conveys How Rules Are Meant To Be Broken
HipHopDX: When your first album was released, you talked about how someone said your album sounded too perfect when they heard it. That it just sounded too clean, too perfect. I remember you said you wanted to maybe tinker with that in the future. How has that been impacting your new work?
Dessa: I admit that I totally forgot that I said that. I believe you ‘cause I think right after releasing a project, you’re probably unusually sensitive, so since then, I’m sure there are other criticisms that have wormed their way into the forefront of my mind. But I think for future projects, I’m looking for assumptions that I’ve made that I can second guess. I think sometimes, there are rules that I’m following that I’m not even aware of. I think that’s probably true for a lot of people in whatever industry they work. The first time I heard a Rap song that wasn’t in four-four, I thought, “Oh, shit. You can do that?” The first time that I heard a Rap song that didn’t rhyme, I was like, “Oh, right. Of course. You can do that.” It just hadn’t occurred to me to question that convention of the art. I think at this stage in my career, I’m really interested in trying to identify my own assumptions, which is tough. I mean, the whole nature of the thing, it’s almost like a known unknown. That’s part of what I’m interested in.
DX: What have you identified so far?
Dessa: Months ago, I debuted my first classical piece. And questioning, ‘What are these differences between a choral piece and the kind of Pop music that I’m writing?’ I know that there are some, but who’s to say that I can’t import pieces that I like of one genre into another? So, one of the things when working in classical music, that I was told, was, “Oh, sorry the alto voice, which is like the lower female voice, like my voice, doesn’t carry the melody, usually. The sopranos do that, the higher voices.” So I was like, “Oh, OK. Wait a minute. Why?” And there was a good answer. “Well, because a lot of times, if there’s a low female voice, then that voice is competing with some of the other instrumentation, like horns.” And I was like, “Cool. I’m gonna rearrange the horns around it,” or “I’m gonna get rid of horns and have a cello play.” So, it’s just trying to identify what the conventions are and see if they can’t be broken in interesting ways.
DX: What are some conventions or rules in Hip Hop that maybe you wanna challenge?
Dessa: I think for me, I don’t have the answer yet ‘cause I’m still in the middle of it. So this is me just identifying a ground rule, but I don’t know how to trump it yet. Even just content. A lot of Rap songs really center around the same varied musings: it’s struggle or it’s camaraderie or it’s party. And all of those things make and have made for really good songs. But is there some other way to attack this whole motherfucking thing, other than working struggle, the low-worked, dramatic theme? And sometimes when you hear songs about something totally, totally different, it almost attracts too much attention to itself. It sounds like a novelty song or something. I don’t want to write a novelty song, but I want to see if there’s a way to really work a vain that hasn’t been very thoroughly addressed by a lot of similar artists in my genre. So how to do that without sounding cheesy or like I’m doing jazz hands and saying, “Look at me! I mean it’s a song about polyester!” or something that seems outrageous. I’m not sure how to do that quite yet. But I feel like, I feel pretty confident that there has to be some really genuinely uncharted territory in the genre.
Dessa Explains Balance Between Content & Style In Rap Lyrics
DX: Now when you think of your own rap styles from album to album, like “Warsaw” for example, I think the pace that you’re going on that track is very different from a lot of A Badly Broken Code, for example.
Dessa: You mean like beats? You mean like the actual RPMs?
DX: No, I’m talking about the pace of your raps, not necessarily the instrumentation, but your flow. So my question to you is how has your flow developed, in your opinion, through these thoughts that you’re having about the genre and about different boundaries that exist and so on?
Dessa: I think I’m figuring out what my balance is going to be. The hanging scales for me right now, are sort of conflicted because on one hand, I really love flashy percussive shit. Like when Mike Mictlan writes a fast pattern, that’s my favorite part of a lot of songs. And in some ways, I really wanna move in that technical direction. On the other hand, most of the lines I feel most authentic delivering on stage, are those lines where even if they’re not percussively brilliant, I know for damn sure they’re true and I’ve rendered them in an artful, beautiful way. I’ve been so content-based for most of my career, that sometimes…When you write a really fast rap, the content does naturally take a backseat to the technique and so for me, trying to figure out where the balance is like… recently I’ve found myself valuing technique maybe a little bit too much. On the verses I’ve been writing for Doomtree (laughs), the guys are saying the most beautiful, awesome, moving shit and I’m like, “rappity -rap-rappity-rap-rap-rap” and I don’t know if that’s gonna be in the right direction or not. I was excited to flex a little bit. But I don’t wanna flex at the expense of having something meaningful to say. Also, having a killer punchline, a beautiful phrase and a percussively interesting pattern, those are three things that are very hard to do all at once. So, I’m sensing, if you’ve got something really deep to say, you don’t want to say it too fast so that people can’t hear you, or that people might miss it.
DX: Right, and it’s an interesting balance. But in your opinion, who has done a good job of finding that balance with technique and content?
Dessa: In some ways, it might just be the motherfuckers who can maintain clarity even when they’re moving at a very fast clip. I can’t go as fast as Ludacris and have every consonant be crisp. At least that’s not a skill that I have at this point. I think one artist who manages to be literary and who can work in speed as well is Aesop Rock. I like his stuff quite a bit. And he’s got some really interesting patterns, but I mean, talk about some dense writing. He’s got that, too. I mean, you can probably dissect one of his verses for the better part of an afternoon, if you’re inclined.
Dessa Reveals Story Behind “Annabelle”
DX: I’ve heard you say “Annabelle” is your favorite song ever. Why is “Annabelle” your favorite song? And then can you talk about that song’s creation?
Dessa: I think probably “Annabelle” is my favorite set of lyrics. I worked hard on it. I had a lot of drafts of that song. After a while, I had a flow chart so that I could manipulate little two bar chunks, reorder them and analyze the best sequence of all that information. I do feel like some songs sound amazing when they’re accompanied by music and then they fall kinda flat when you just read the lyrics. Like Andre ’s “Hey Ya.” That song is not gonna probably move anybody just reading the lyrics. “Hey Ya,” on paper, is a horrible thing to read four times in a row. But it’s a catchy chorus. He did a good job. I think for “Annabelle,” I’m sure there’s a lot of motherfuckers who wouldn’t care for the folky-Spanish arrangement, but I’m really proud of those lyrics. I think they hold on paper, too. I think they’re well wrought. That’s probably what I was referring to. I feel like if someone right now was like, “Submit to us your best lyrics,” that would definitely be one of the songs that I would submit because I think they definitely hold.
DX: I wanna say it’s cryptic. I think every listener will take something different away from lines like, “You’re in the bathroom with a flashlight.” Somebody will find their own meaning to the message that you have, but what does the song mean to you?
Dessa: Well, I hadn’t anticipated the fact that that song would resonate with people who were caring for people with Alzheimer’s and that’s been the largest demographic that’s responded. Watching someone lose their mind is what the song was about, but I hadn’t meant it in the context of dementia. Most of the people who’ve responded will write me a kind note or something about that song. They’re people who are dealing with that very real scenario.
DX: Like the lyric, “a photograph that I’m watching fade away.”
Dessa: And also just like the actual behaviors described like sitting very still for too long, becoming angry for no reason, becoming difficult to talk to, becoming distant and you’re sharing a room. You’re kinda getting stuck, even reading a book and you haven’t turned a page. Like, where are you buddy? Those are the things that, I hadn’t realized how consistent those were with dementia and aging. But for me, I had written it from a more personal perspective. There was a time in my life where I was really struggling, really struggling just to get through my day-to-day and was experiencing my own challenges, and after hurdling those, I think one of the things that I thought about was what a challenge it must have been to be someone who loved me during those times and how scared I am, too, of losing people in that way. Losing my mind is…I don’t know. My mind is my most precious thing. So, I’ve always been kinda freaked out by that concept. And scared by the fact that that’s something that so many of us lose as we grow older.
DX: So you wrote it almost as a mirror to yourself. Is that what you’re saying?
Dessa: Yeah, I was imagining what I would have looked like from the outside to someone who was attached to me. Also, there was a movie about a woman losing her mind. I was interested in the movie. It was called Betty Blue. It’s half like French porn and half really good emotional drama. It’s a weird flick, for sure. There’s a scene where this woman is losing her shit. She’s trying to hang on, but she’s just not functioning anymore. Her man loves her very much. He comes home and she turns to face him, and she looks like a clown. She had done her makeup, but she can’t do her make up well anymore, so her lipstick is all over the fucking place, her eye shadow is all over and she looks really scary, and kinda clown-like. Then the camera pans to him and you can see how badly he’s freaked out by this and he’s worried. But instead of taking her to a shrink or instead of freaking her out and wiping her face off and treating her like an invalid, he reaches into a pot of spaghetti sauce and he puts the spaghetti sauce on his own face. And for whatever reason, that just blew my mind. I was like that’s what the compassionate thing is to do is, he made himself just as ridiculous. He brought himself to her level so they both could kind of exist in this half-mad place together.
DX: You say you felt like you were losing your mind. What was causing that for you?
Dessa: I had an imbalance of chemicals after I’d had a surgery…I’m a totally functional person now. But it was scary there for a while before getting the treatment. I’d had an ovary removed, because I had a tumor, which can knock someone off balance, and it knocked me way the fuck off balance. It very much affected my ability to think clearly and to speak clearly.
DX: How long would you say that impacted your life?
Dessa: Well, I would say it will probably impact my life forever, not because I’m struggling to think clearly or speak clearly anymore, but because it gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to be in less than full control of one’s own life and mind. And I hope that left me with a greater degree of compassion for people who go through the same things that I was. I imagine being able to look through that window to the moment in my life will probably always inform my world view.
DX: This song and a few others made me think that you were looking out for somebody that you knew that was going through something difficult. You’ve talked about drinking a lot, for example. How easy or difficult is it be so honest on a track, and then not necessarily in control of how the listener takes it?
Dessa: Sure. For me, I don’t find any value in exhibitionism or confessional-ism in and of itself. For me, the reason I’m so candid about my life is because it’s the only life I can be candid about in a moral way. It wouldn’t be fair for me to delve into someone else’s life and share that with the world. That would be a jerk thing to do. My life is the only I can run experiments on. My life is the only life I have to examine because it’s the only life that I know well from the inside, and my mind is the only one at my disposal. The reason I’m candid in my stuff is because I’m interested in that as an artist, as a reader, and as a listener. I find it really fascinating when someone articulates a facet of human experience in art that I hadn’t seen articulated before. When someone talks really well about…like Hunter S. Thompson… he talks about what it feels like to do drugs—even drugs I haven’t done—I think when I first read him, I was like “Oh shit, I haven’t actually read anybody who is really good at writing talking about what this experience is like. This is cool.” It opened up a facet of human experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. Like when I hear men writing about what it’s like to be men. Part what makes them do it really well is the little things, like what it’s like to live in a man’s body that I wouldn’t know unless they told me. That’s exciting because I think it explains what it’s like to be human more fully, even experiences I don’t have access to because I’m a woman of a certain age living in a certain culture from a certain time on the planet. But I don’t want my impression of the planet to be exclusively informed by the accidents of my birth.
DX: And you don’t want other people to feel that same way?
Dessa: Yeah. I feel like I’m not living a life that in and of itself is historically interesting. I’m not a queen. I’m not making history as a politician or as a scientist, but I do feel like I can contribute a really good account of my particular vantage point on the planet and I feel like that’s the skill with language to be able to render that in a meaningful and artful way. In some ways, I’m interested in writing true stories, so I’m gonna have to do it about my life, and if I’m real shy about sharing anything that’s delicate, then the art is gonna suffer. So, I’m willing to be candid because I think it makes the art better and fuller. I can still be a little shy sometimes.
DX: When you balance that honesty with the content-driven lyrics, where it could be cryptic at times or using metaphors where it won’t just be literal, you can’t always dictate how the listener is going to take it. Has that been a challenge for you to hear other people take lyrics a certain way, like, “Hey, why did you write that about me?” Has that been a challenge?
Dessa: Usually, I’m pretty mindful of that beforehand. I don’t write about everything in my life, because some things are too personal and I don’t want to talk about it on the phone with people I don’t know. So, there are limits. But if I’m writing about someone else, usually I give the same courtesy that a book author would do, which is change their name or make sure that I remove the identifying characteristics that would tell their friends it was about them. So if I’m writing about a woman, maybe I will change the gender so that it’s a guy so that she might know it’s about her, but I’m not trying put her out there like that and embarrass anybody. And it would be very presumptuous and vain of me to think that I had rights to invade the privacy of everyone I know because I’m a songwriter. I’ve made missteps for sure where I thought I had obscured people’s identities, and then I didn’t do a very good job. But if I do have a song that everyone is gonna know who it’s about in my friend group, then usually, I’ll send that song to the person and say “Are you cool with this?”
DX: And, usually, they’re cool with it?
Dessa: Yeah. So far, I’ve been lucky. And it’s tough. I’ve been lucky that most everybody says yes all the time. But I do sometimes worry that what if you write a song that you really, really believe in and you can’t get that “yes.” You know Eric Clapton from [the band] Cream? You know that song “Layla?” [Singing] “Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.” I like that song. I think it’s a great song. That’s about being in love with George Harrison’s wife. That’s a horrible song as far as ruining a dinner party for-fucking-ever. At the same time, it’s hard not to be glad that Eric Clapton was a bad friend for the scope of that song, because it made for such good music and it made for a real feeling even when that feeling wasn’t a polite one to have.
DX: When you are so personal, are you conscious that that stuff is going to get brought up by fans or in interviews?
Dessa: Sometimes…I mean I would say it’s only one out of every fifteen songs that has something so charged that it’s an issue. I mean usually, it’s like, “Oh, you loved somebody and it didn’t work out.” Well, everyone has loved somebody and it didn’t work out. That’s no secret. There’s no headlines in that. There’s no melodrama. Usually, it’s like, “Yeah. That shit sucks,” but everyone knows it sucks. Most of us are adults. We’ve all been hurt and hurt and we are pretty familiar with the shape of those feelings.
DX: It makes me think of “Mineshaft 2,” where you talk about drinking too much after a breakup and how drinking has also been a part of other stuff that you’ve done and how that can be taken by a listener. It’s such a personal thing for you to say…
Dessa: Is it that personal? If I’m like “Hey, left to my own devices, I drink too much and have drank too much after a hard time?” That is personal, but I feel like it’s not that crazy. If I was like “After really hard times, I do a ton of angel dust and live as a man for a year,” that would be like “Woah! That’s crazy.” But the idea that I like alcohol too much, and I’ve indulged too much in the past, I feel like…I don’t know how insane that is.
Dessa Explains How “Fighting Fish” Relates To Her Career
DX: Everyone has those moments. Right. Going back to your career and the trajectory you’ve taken, “Fighting Fish” was such a standout track [on Parts Of Speech]. What are the parallels between the metaphor of the fighting fish and your career?
Dessa: For me, as an artist that was born and raised in the Midwest, that song was about making a direct response to the culture here that would tell you that you’re vain if you want to be special. Trying to be exceptional, trying to standout, trying to become something amazing and unusual, there’s a degree of egoism in that that doesn’t jive very well with the kind of prevailing moods and restraints of Minnesotan culture. So that song kind of answers that. I do want to try, God dammnit! I do want to try to be something amazing. I don’t know if I can do it, but I guess I’ll find out. But I do want to try to be exceptional. I do want to try to be amazing.
DX: And it sounds like you’re telling people to just grab a shovel if you want to also do that, or you can get out of my way.
Dessa: Yeah! Or walk! You don’t have to also try to do that, but I don’t want be told, “Oh, that’s silly” or, “That’s preposterous,” or “Don’t be ridiculous,” as a child.
DX: Did you feel that judgment more when you left and came back?
Dessa: To be honest, I think it’s popular for artists here to say that, too. “We’re not rocket scientists, we’re just doing our jobs.” There’s a popular workman-like attitude amongst artists here. In one way, that’s incredibly compelling, because it’s humble. On the other hand, when I wasn’t a musician, this job didn’t seem like other jobs. And I don’t want to pretend like it’s like other jobs because I have it now. When I was nine, this shit seem liked magic. And I don’t want to say that it’s not magic now because I do it. This shit’s magic. I mean, you only get to do the magic five to ten percent of the time. I do acknowledge that. I spend way more time in Microsoft Excel than I do in ProTools. My job is mostly paperwork [laughs]. But I don’t want to deny that there’s something special about being an artist.
DX: The reason I asked about leaving and coming back is because Atmosphere has that track “Bitter” on Southsiders, where they reference that: “Came home / Everybody wanna judge now / Don’t let ’em see you celebrate your touchdown.”
Dessa: Yeah. I think that, and this is me probably encouraging and giving license to haters, but in some ways, even in my own career, I’m sympathetic to the fact that there is a particular appeal to an underdog, and when they’re not an underdog anymore, then that particular sympathetic facet has been shorn off. You root for the underdog, and then they become a champion and there’s a feeling now that they’re rooting for a champion. I get it. Have people criticized me harder? Yeah, probably, but to be honest, I feel like I’ve got unusually civil listeners. There’s a lot of shit that I do that people don’t like, but as far as other musicians go and other musicians who are related to the Hip Hop genre, a lot of times if my listeners just aren’t feeling it, they don’t say anything, as opposed to some of the really, really genuinely foul feedback you get. When I’m written up on Hip Hop sites, the response is incredible. There’s a lot of rape, questioning whether or not I’m a woman, things like that. Yeah, It’s foul. It’s really foul. In a lot of ways, it’s unique to Hip Hop. I genuinely believe that when you look at like a Folk star, she gets written up, somebody just doesn’t like her shit. Critics, a lot of times, just write about her music, as opposed to ‘Man, get on your knees and suck my dick, bitch.’ That’s the type of criticism that is unique in a lot of ways to Hip Hop. I hate that shit. On the other hand, the athleticism of Hip Hop…Hip Hop feels like two-thirds music and one-third intramural hockey game, and it always has. I like how aggressive we are. I like that it’s competitive. I like that it’s bold. I wish it wasn’t so sexist, but I do like those other parts.
Dessa Details Growth In Prose, Rap, Singing & Poetry
DX: Going back to your different talents, you’ve said prose was your favorite, what you’re more comfortable with. Do you still feel that way?
Dessa: I used to feel like prose was the field that I had developed mastery of and everything else was catching up. Now, I feel like it’s a little bit more even. I spend a little more time working as a songwriter and I spend a little less time working as a prose writer. I still feel like if I had to write something to save my life today, I might take prose over lyricism, but I feel a lot more confident now as a lyric writer, and most recently, as a poet. I used to really avoid that term because I think it gets thrown around really lightly. I think that really good poets are few and far between. I think it’s the art form with the least margin of error, meaning if you have a little fluff in a Rap lyric, that doesn’t bother me too much as long as you’ve got punchline coming up or something clever coming up soon. A light two-bar? I’m not worried about it. Even in a story, you can have some sentences that can tag along as long as the rest of the shit is good. In poetry it’s like, “Absolutely not, motherfucker.” It’s like being in a hot air balloon, there’s no room for [error] here…I felt like that for a long time. And then last year, a literary organization asked if I would work with them on a very short collection, where I had a real professional poetry editor working with me. So, now I feel like I’m catching up in that form, as well.
DX: “Poetry” does get thrown around a lot and it gets thrown around a lot with Rap. A lot of times, it’s like “This emcee is a poet” or “That emcee is a poet” or whatever. Who are true poets, from your perspective, in Hip Hop?
Dessa: Well, I would have to read their poetry. Part of me is like…I remember in an interview where someone said, ‘We should call rappers poets,’ as if it’s not value in and of itself to be a rapper, as if you have to be a poet to be highbrow. It’s a class thing or something. If a rapper calls themselves a poet and they’re being serious about it during interviews and they’re saying ‘Yes, I am a poet,’ I’m like, “Cool, so let me read your poetry. Are you telling your poetry is your Rap lyrics? Then let me read that without the beat and see if it holds up.” I think there can be a lot poetry in Rap lyrics, absolutely. But to be like, “Yes, this is poetry and it will stand on the page.” I’m less immediately convinced of that. So, I would want to read on-page work and then decide what I thought about it…A lot of times we are trying to legitimize rappers by calling them poets, and we don’t have to do that. They’re legitimate because they are rappers.
DX: Now, when you think of your own lyrics—and you just talked about how your work has progressed—you’ve talked about how you use a lot of wit, but also melancholy. “Children’s Work” has a lot of that, as well. Throughout your work, I think it’s safe to say melancholy is a theme throughout. Why is melancholy such a theme in your work?
Dessa: Yeah. I would say two things: One, my disposition has changed more than I thought it would. I’m happier than I thought I would become. Also, I think disposition is largely a matter of inheritance as well as of circumstance. Some people, no matter how much they work out and no matter how much they eat, they’re never gonna get that waif-like slender beauty of like a Kate Moss in healthy way. That’s just not how they’re built. They’re stocky. They’re more muscular. Some people are red-haired. Some people have higher pain thresholds than other motherfuckers. They’re not being tough. They just aren’t bothered by getting blood drawn or whatever and it doesn’t hurt them very much. I think similarly, we probably have some general disposition emotionally when we’re born. I’m a sensitive motherfucker. I think I’m tough and I can endure a lot, but shit gets to me, man. It gets to me when I hear people talking on the bus about their own lives. It gets to me when I watch beautiful movies. It gets to me when I listen to music. Sometimes in my life, I know I’ve said, “Okay. For the next couple of weeks, you’re not allowed to listen to much while driving because you’re not driving well, because it’s moving you too much. It’s too much of an emotional distraction, you’re too transported by it.” Men and women too, like recently, a guy was driving me around Turkey and he was listening to this Turkish song and he was rendered speechless. He said, “I know you don’t understand this,” because it was in Turkish, but he said it was like flying and his voice was breaking as he was listening to the song. It was strange to watch someone so moved when I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the words. I felt like I was in a lab setting almost, watching music at work because I was immune to it. But I think my sensitivity is so high so it resonates when other people are going through stuff. And I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people.
Dessa On Finding Joy & Peace Through Communion
DX: How do you find the joy? You’re taking all of this in. How do you not soak it all up and have it impact you too much?
Dessa: I think for a while, it did. I mean, I was generally steadily unhappy for a very good chunk of my twenties. Profoundly unhappy. In some ways, I wore that as a badge. That meant I was an artist. That meant I was sensitive. That meant I was more in tune with the world, to suffering of other people. I don’t think that anymore. But I know for me, sometimes the antidote to sadness and suffering hasn’t been joy exactly, but it’s been a sense of communion. In the same way, sometimes, if when you’re blue, listening to the perfect sad song gives you some relief or at least some meaningful connection more than listening to Pharell’s “Happy” might give you on that particular day. But that is a good question, I think. Why do we like sadness? All of us want to avoid sadness, so why do we make so much sad art? In some ways it’s a confusing philosophical question.
DX: But you’re saying you find some peace with something that’s sad sometimes.
Dessa: I feel like particularly if people can connect to it. Like if you’re at a concert and something beautiful and sad is happening, and you choke up and you find your hand flies to your chest, and you look around and see a room full of people with their hands on their chest, I don’t know why that feels good, but it does. Sometimes feeling happy doesn’t feel like the authentic response. Sometimes, finding something that feels real feels better to me than something that feels happy.
DX: I can understand that audience members can feel that. You also have another perspective. You’re the artist looking at the audience. Has your music, being that it can deal with sad issues at times, does connecting with your fans bring that type of peace or communion that you’re talking about?
Dessa: I think it can. Yes. People who come to my shows are usually already interested in some melancholy experience so it’s not like I’m taking a room full of bubbly cheerleaders and being like, “Let’s all bring it down.” It’s a self-selecting group. So probably my shows are already populated by people who have an interest in having that shared feeling. I remember reading something by Joan Baez, where she makes a distinction between her work and being an entertainer. That resonated with me, totally. For a while I was like, “Oh, my god, I’ll never be able to rap and sing and jump around with the same athleticism as some of the other performers in Minneapolis.” I can do a triathlon, and still wouldn’t I have the breath control to jump up and down for an hour and a half and sing on-key. You can give me a hundred lifetimes before I am able to do that. But maybe my job isn’t to lead a party. Maybe my job isn’t even to entertain. Maybe my job is more about trying to realize moments of genuine communion. And that made me feel better, like, “Oh shit. I can do that. That’s something I have a shot at.” That doesn’t mean it happens every time, but when it does happen, it feels like more than me. It feels like more than them. It feels like, “Look at what we made together.”
DX: You’re saying your disposition has mainly been because of the things you’ve heard other people experience. What about your own experiences?
Dessa: I think generally, I just run blue. I don’t have the worst life. I don’t have the best life. I think, increasingly, my life has gotten pretty awesome. I get to do what I love, I have my own space, I’m healthy and that’s already more than most. But I think that naturally I run blue, in the same way some people naturally have high blood pressure. That does mean that I might be a little bit more tuned in to suffering, both mine and other people’s.
DX: And compassionate, right?
Dessa: I hope so. I mean, I’m moved by it. I think there might be something about being moved by it that makes people feel comfortable enough for people to talk to me about it. There’s a surprising number of people are willing to tell me their whole shit. I think that maybe I pick up on that too. When you meet someone you don’t know very well, but you feel comfortable enough to entrust with some personal info, I’ve been lucky enough to be the recipient of a lot of people and their stories.
DX: Did you ever feel like you had a hard time handling that?
Dessa: I mean, yeah. I think life is hard to handle for most of us, at some point. I would say, from about 21 to 28, I had a hard time dealing with it. I was like, ‘Ah. This is so sad.’ What a tragic feature, man. I felt like the only one who seems to know for sure that we’ll die and we’ll have to do all of our living in that shadow. Jesus Christ, man.
DX: It seems like you’ve found a way to deal with that.
Dessa: I think for now, yeah. It might just be that 20s suck for a lot of motherfuckers, and are also exciting and vibrant and alive, but I think the 20s are just tough. I’m 33 now and I’ve heard from a lot of people that the 30s are just…You naturally feel more in control and stabilized, a little bit. But it might just be by virtue of being the species that I am, that I’m going through some of the natural life stages and that includes a change of mind.