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[Dessa courtesy Doomtree] Dessa Interview
Author: Adam Bernard

When Dessa performed in Fairfield, CT, last week, it was at a venue that had seating, which, as anyone who's been in a sweaty club getting drinks spilled on them all night so they can see their favorite emcee, isn't typical for hip-hop shows. While a little space is nice, and it's doubly nice to not wear someone's beer, seating isn't necessarily optimal for a genre that involves movement. The Doomtree emcee/singer had a challenge on her hands - motivate the audience to get up and move. By the end of the night that mission was accomplished, as the seats were empty, and the venue was filled with energy.

Dessa's set list included a mix of favorites from her previous albums, as well as a few songs from her upcoming release, Parts of Speech, which will be available on June 25th. Before the show, RapReviews caught up with Dessa to find out more about Parts of Speech, as well as her special relationship with her fans. Dessa also revealed what she feels she still struggles with, and her surprising initial reaction when she first heard Nicki Minaj.

Adam Bernard: Let's talk about the new album. When you went from A Badly Broken Code, to Castor, The Twin, there was a huge musical difference, as you did entirely different arrangements for those albums. Is Parts of Speech going to be another radical shift musically?

Dessa: I hope so. I think that listeners who have A Badly Broken Code, or Castor, The Twin, will find something familiar on Parts of Speech, but no one, I don't think, will find everything familiar. On this record I think the tender moments are tenderer than they were on Castor, The Twin, and the tough moments are tougher than they were on A Badly Broken Code.

AB: How do you lay out an album like that?

D: We tried a lot of different song orders to get a flow that felt natural, and not jarring. I think that the hardest part about making this record might have been that, trying to figure out a sequence that would make it feel natural.

AB: Do you have any one, or two, songs on the album that are especially close to your heart?

D: Yeah, I do. I think the track "Warsaw" I'm proud of as a rapper. It's the first rappy single from the disc. Then there's a pretty poppy song on there called "Call Off Your Ghosts," which will be the second single, and I feel really good about it.

AB: You have true fandom for your work. People who like your music REALLY love you. How do you explain the connection you have with your fans?

D: Oh, I don't presume to explain why anyone is drawn to it. I think it would be very tough for me to not seem kind of phony if I set out to achieve a particular emotional resonance. It would feel manipulative. Instead, I think I tell true stories to the best of my ability, and trust that people will find the truth in them.

AB: Is there something about your stories that are maybe more relatable?

D: I don't know. I don't think so. I mean, I work hard to try to find language that tries to relay them well even if the experience is unique.

AB: You're doing this tour now, and everyone in the crowd in every city wants to talk to you after you perform. When was the last time you left a venue at a reasonable hour?

D: {*laughs*} We've lucked out on this tour because the door times are early.

AB: Are there any concerns about starting early when hip-hop crowds sometimes don't come out until 11pm?

D: I think we're finding a sweet spot. I want to extend a welcome to people who don't want to stay up all night, but I certainly don't want to time out people who are trying to have a proper late evening. I was just talking about this with our bassist. Probably the sweet spot is taking the stage at 10:30pm. That's my guess.

AB: Have you had any especially memorable fan encounters?

D: Maybe too many to mention. Anytime someone comes up and shakes my hand and says, "I don't have anything for you to sign, I just wanted to say such and such song meant a lot," I find that moving.

AB: Have you seen any of your lyrics tattooed on people?

D: Yeah, people have tattooed the lyrics to the song "Seamstress," and the song "The Crow," and I think the song "The Beekeeper."

AB: It sounds like you keep a running tab of that, so if someone has your lyrics tattooed on them they should show you.

D: It's always flattering, but I'm not gonna demand to see anybody's tattoo. {*laughs*}

AB: You put so much effort into your work, how much does it bother you when you hear a Nicki Minaj getting ridiculous amounts of airplay, and notoriety, and being held up like she's the shining example of women in hip-hop?

D: I don't think I was bothered by Nicki getting big, or getting famous. She's an incredible technician. The first time I heard her I thought, "oh my God!" I don't love all of her content, but the first time I heard her technique I thought, "holy shit, this woman is sharp." I guess I would probably flinch a little bit at the assertion that she is the be all and end all of women in hip-hop because no one woman is that.

AB: That's what happens, though. With any minority group within hip-hop, whether it's gender or ethnicity based, one artist gets held up as an example. Are we going to reach a point, it seems like it's been long enough, where we can say there are lots of different women in hip-hop?

D: Maybe, but maybe not. I don't follow swimming, for example, so I know (Michael) Phelps, but I don't owe swimmers anything, because that's not really my bag, so I feel like for people who aren't in love with hip-hop, if they have a few names that they know that stand for broad strokes of people, I can't get that mad at them, because maybe they don't love it enough to dig further.

AB: That kinda sucks, though.

D: It does suck. Obviously, it's like there's a lot (of differences) between me and Nicki, her work is nothing like mine, so I'd hate to be grouped under an aesthetic banner that doesn't represent me.

AB: During your career, what has been the toughest lesson you've had to learn?

D: There are a lot of those to choose from. I think I'm still trying to figure out how cameras work.

AB: Which ones, video, or still image?

D: Both, but more video, though. I've been surprised by how much of a challenge translating my work into video formats has been. I'm surprised I'm not better at it, to be honest with you.

AB: Why is it something you want to do? You make great music videos, so I assume that's not what you're talking about.

D: I am talking about that. I feel like I've grown a lot as a live performer. I understand the craft a lot better just by virtue of having done it a hundred, or two hundred, times a year for a while, and I'm not quite as quick a study, I think, in music videos, in live performance videos, even sometimes in interviews I get a weird kind of stiffness to me that I'd really like to train out. That's one of my goals for the coming year.

AB: Is this something where, like performing, if you keep doing it enough...

D: Maybe. I've thought about even, who knows how to do this shit? Can I go ask them? Should I take an Alexander class? Should I go to the high school and take like a beginning acting class just to loosen up a little?

AB: So video is what you're having a few issues with now, but what, if anything, from your musical past, be it a song, a video, a look, makes you cringe?

D: So much. It's like I'm reluctant to call out the big moments because I don't want to call attention to them, but there is definitely some live performance footage that exists online that just makes my jaw clench and my face burn red. I think also, sometimes I will have attended a show, or I will have performed a show, that is really magical in the room, but the magic in the room doesn't always translate to magic in the lens. If you're a little bit off pitch, let's say, a lot of times there's a lot of echoing in the room and the force of your emotional presence covers that. That's not true when you watch it on your iPhone, with totally maxed out, kinda distorted, audio, two days later. That magic has left, and so your win in one format, with the exact same performance, is a loss in another.

AB: Maybe we've come to a point where people need to put their phones away at shows.

D: Probably.

AB: It seems like fewer people are living in the moment at shows, and more are like "let's put this on YouTube."

D: "I was here, and this is where I stood." Yeah, it does feel a little bit like mementos, or souvenirs, or counting coup, or something, like "this is how close I got."

AB: Let's move to something positive. Tell me about an achievement, or a moment, or even a tweet from someone specific that you admire, that's surprised you.

D: For me New York's a big deal. I visit the East coast a lot this year, and the reception, knock on wood, in New York on this tour has been really great, and I've gotten some compliments from some writers I admire that have meant a fuckin lot. Even before that, I gotta say I'm proud of this record. I think that there are some songs that are kind of on the fence. If I get a lot of good feedback I'll think they're good. If I get a lot of negative I'll second guess them. There are also some songs, if you don't like them, it's cuz they're not your line. I know they're good songs. There are a few of those on this record.

AB: Why would you second guess any of it?

D: I don't think it's second guesses as in "I wish I hadn't put it out," it's just as you grow older your tastes change, and that includes the music you made years ago. You have a continuing relationship with those songs. Do I like em as much as I used to? Some em, yeah? Some of em I'm like, "goddamnit, look at me, I was hot shit, even then," and some of em I'm, "oh, this is maudlin. Since then I've learned."

AB: So even if you went back to A Badly Broken Code there are a couple songs, you don't have to name them, you don't play as much?

D: Yeah, absolutely, and on my EPs before that, too. My first EP, False Hopes, that was ten years ago, almost.

AB: Speaking of those ten years, over the course of your career, other than immediate crew, who has floored you with their kindness?

D: There have been a couple of fans who, even just the small gesture of tossing an extra $20 in the merch tip jar for gas money, the fact that they realize how slim our margins are, and how much that has meant to us in the past, and also these aren't motherfuckers with a lot of extra Jacksons layin around, I think that has meant a lot. Then there have been a couple of notes I have received online, people who I haven't yet met, but who took the time to write a page out, and I've kept a few of those in a document that I visit when I'm sad.

AB: Finally, because you are so intelligent, and write such intellectual rhymes, I want to go in the complete opposite direction of that. I want to know what your pop culture guilty pleasure is.

D: Oh God, when I'm on the hotel elliptical machines in the morning I think part of me thinks I'm doing a good job so I can indulge. Whether it's stupid intervention shows, or the Housewives, or I'm Pregnant and Nine Years Old, for whatever reason I just feel like all of my self-discipline has been spent on exercising, so there's none left to monitor, intellectually, what I'm watching on the hotel gym TV. There's that, and you know how some people just need a little bite of really expensive chocolate, just a taste? For me, American made bad milk chocolate en masse is my jam.

Pre-order Parts of Speech at and follow Dessa @DessaDarling.
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Originally posted: May 14th, 2013

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