Dessa is dope

An interview with the Minneapolis-based, Doomtree-connected rapper/ vocalist, poet/ composer and punk/soul rebel ahead of her POP Montreal show tonight.



The multi-disciplined musicianship of Minneapolis-based rapper/ vocalist, poet/ composer and punk/soul rebel Dessa transcends throwaway approval tags like “dope female this-and-that” by virtue of her innate dopeness, full stop.

Her Doomtree clique holds certified indie hip hop cred. The creative collective started with a group of squatters, a generator and a four-track recorder to become a touring carnival of verse and rhythm that pummels and tickles with every show, under any tent.

Dessa’s own live band astounded the Bell stage at Jazz Fest in 2010, and her sworn circle of Montreal fans will attest that every show she has performed here before or since — whether opening for P.O.S. or crew deep with Doomtree, regularly at Il Motore (now Bar le Ritz) — has been an occasion.

The fantastic, show-stoppin’ MC hits POP Montreal with tour mates and cloud-hop stem-cells and Why? tonight at la Vitrola.

Here is what Dessa had to say about her state of mind, the state of the arts, arts in the States and the dualities of harmony within them all, in chorus.

Darcy MacDonald: So you’ve come up here with Doomtree a couple of times, but you headlined an outdoor stage at the Jazz Fest a few years ago, with your live band. That was great.

Dessa: I did! That was with my live ensemble and we had a blast! That is one of my favourite shows that I’ve played in.

DM: So this is a funny story. You called someone out from the stage that night. And it was me.

Dessa: Okay…(laughs) Awesome!

DM: I forget exactly what was up but you said something about hip hop, and I was like “woo-hoo!” But kinda at the wrong time. And you were like “Oh, you got a problem with hip hop? Well fuck you, man!”

Dessa: That’s great. How endearing of me.

DM: I was out in the audience like, oh, no! Dessa, nooo! (laughing)

Dessa: ‘Nooo!’ (more laughter)

DM: I actually loved it. And I loved that show because I have seen you with Doomtree, and I have seen you open for P.O.S., on smaller stages with a DJ or what have you. The Jazz Fest show was sheer spectacle. So do you tour with your live band?

Dessa: I’ll be travelling with my full live ensemble for the entirety of the Why? tour. So we’ll have my drums, my keys, my bass and Aby Wolf, who is an incredible vocalist, will be joining us for the whole run, too. She and I do really close harmonies that kind of duck and sweep over one another. I really enjoy working with her. I think anyone that has seen us together would say that she really adds something to the sound.

DM: So what projects do you have on the go right now?

Dessa: Last year I put out Parts of Speech, which is my most recent official title. Then this summer I put out a remix album where we gave a cappella versions of those songs to a handful of really diverse producers, and they rebuilt new productions just around the existing vocals. And it was a trip, it was a project I ended up being really proud of.

Now, my next project on the horizon is the debut of a new work for a choir. So I’ll be a new choral work at an orchestra hall here in Minneapolis.

DM: That’s so cool. Is that a big production?

Dessa: Yeah, it’s 100 singers.

DM: That’s wild! That takes major resources and you’re an independent artist. I know what the field looks like out there, so to go from one person, to three people, to seven people, to 100 — how do you make that leap?

Dessa: Yeah, totally. To be honest, this is just a really different model. Usually as an indie, entrepreneurial artist, it falls on your shoulders to figure out how to get from town to town, and how to pay for all your band members.

And in this scenario, which is more in accordance with the classical model, I got a call from a choir and was commissioned to write this piece. So the choir exists already and is nationally known, here in the States, and they said, “Would you be willing to write and perform a new composition with us?”

And I said, oh man, yes, in a heartbeat. So I called up a friend who has a little more experience in the whole choral world than I did, to make sure I could…well, to make sure I could come up with the whole thing that I’d said! (laughs)

So we worked together at the piano to develop a pop song that uses 100 voices, essentially.

DM: Woah!

Dessa: Yeah, I’m really excited. It’s weird, because…it’s music you’ve just never heard. Which is just so strange, it’s just on sheet music — which is definitely not the way I usually work! The first rehearsal will actually be the first time I get to hear the idea out loud.

DM: Were you trained in composition at all? And I mean, this is such a played question, but what is your musical background?

Dessa: I wasn’t trained. But I always just really liked harmonies. Even just now in an era where I put out my own records, I harmonize with myself sometimes twice, sometimes three times, sometimes 12 times, adding layers of vocals. And so that was how I wrote this piece, too. I opened up my laptop and labelled one track “alto,” and then another track “soprano.”

I went online to figure out how high a sopranos voice is and how low a tenor’s is, and I wrote those kinda harmony lines for myself.

And I had a really hard time writing a bass line, ‘cuz that’s not a note that I can sing usually. So I kinda leaned on my collaborator Andy Thompson, like, “Could you help me write some of the bass lines? Because my instrument won’t do that.”

DM: So how many dates will you get to run that in Minneapolis?

Dessa: There’s just one for now. I don’t wanna put the cart too far ahead of the horse. But I’m really proud of this composition and I’m hoping that it might have legs as a pop song afterwards, you know? Maybe I can figure out how to record it with a smaller group of players and release it.

DM: So you’ve got this new album and a remix project, and a couple of years ago you re-interpolated and re-recorded an entire album’s worth of music with Castor, the Twin.  Have you always been into the idea of the remix or is it something you’ve developed a taste for?

Dessa: I think I’ve become more interested in it because over the last five or six years I’ve done a lot of exploring into different ways that music is made. I’m often curious to see how a song that I know might resonate differently if it’s passed through a different lens.

Playing a rap song with an orchestra sometimes sounds really stupid. And sometimes it sounds really big and lush and moving, and exposes like a totally different emotional centre for a song that you thought you knew really well. Like a good cover, I guess — you just find out a different aspect of the song that you hadn’t even known was there.

So when I started playing with a live band, I did so initially because I wanted more happening on stage, I wanted it to be more musical than if it was only a DJ. And as I got to know their instruments better, and they got to know my songs better, we came home from tour with new versions of these old songs that seemed like they might be worth recording.

So Castor, the Twin was a project where we re-imagined a lot of previously released songs, and everything went well. But it wasn’t because I was hungry for a new official release. Part of it was just, well hey, I can probably scrape together the money for four days of recording. And a lot of the people along the road were asking, “Hey, you don’t have that version of the song, do ya?” So it seemed like a small kinda side project that turned into a project that had a little bit more horsepower than we thought it might.

DM: Coming from a crew foundation and being able to also go out and work with such a variety of creative aesthetics must allow you way more liberty than, say, a band can afford its players.

Dessa: It does. I’d add to that comment that if I feel like there’s an artistic impulse that doesn’t have a home in Doomtree, I can make a home for it in my solo projects.

And if there’s an aggressiveness that is hard to achieve with a live ensemble, it is achievable in the producer world of Doomtree. So in some ways it feels like working in both environments better satisfies my appetite as an artist than working in either alone. ■


Dessa plays between Why? and Full Circle at la Vitrola (4602 St-Laurent) tonight, Saturday, Sept. 20, 9 p.m., $18/$20