Dessa: The prospect of growing from this point is scary

Categories: Interview
Photo by Erik Hess

Talk to Dessa in person and you'll see that this woman never gets a break from her own brain. Luckily, it looks like she can handle it pretty well.

In Gimme Noise's sit-down interview ahead of the release of her much-anticipated third album, Parts of Speech, Dessa opens up about everything we can think to fire at her: her music, her projects, her image, and whether she's happy. We delve into the demons, the ways that her imaginary lungs trump her actual ones, and get some insight into dealing with critics.

Dessa never skips a beat, and we found that our whole conversation was just a little too interesting to keep it from the world. Read on for some interesting insights.

See Also:
Six highlights from Dessa's Reddit "Ask Me Anything," plus her new single
On the set of Dessa's "Call Off Your Ghost" music video
Dessa at First Avenue, 6/29/13

Gimme Noise: Let's start with the album. Parts of Speech is definitely a different record for you. How did you decide to make it different this time around?

This is the first record where I've worked with a live band to write the songs as well as music that had already been produced by Doomtree. This is the first really hybridal record... it's got rap beats on it, it's got music of our own composition, it was a live ensemble.

[Pause] I think in some ways... music's like sex. It's not like every time you have sex, you're like, "This is the different version that I'm going for, for this episode of sex. Like, I'm totally different this time, everything has really changed. You just keep doing it, and you do it better.

Photo by Erik Hess

I feel like every time I listen to one of your albums, I'm put in your head with you. Like I'm sitting beside you at some dirty bar, having a conversation with your demons. Or maybe they're my demons. Is that what writing lyrics is to you?

I think I'm not an artist who would say that music is therapy at all. I think that sort of exorcising your demons -- the real work of it -- is probably better done with a therapist than with a piano. It feels sort of self-important to think that people would want to listen to me talk about my shit all the time. I think, for me, it really ends up being a task where you look at the genuine feelings you have in your life, and if any of those are prompted by struggle and conflict, but then to do the work of alchemy, to make that into music.

I think if I were to talk very plainly about how I feel and why I'm sad and what I'm struggling with, it's like anybody bitching about how they feel and why they're sad and what they're struggling with. There's an extra effort required to turn that into a song. So it doesn't feel like I'm just going to let my deepest feelings out and then it's a song. That would just be a diary entry, that wouldn't be a song at all [laughs].

I read a line from an interview with someone where you said that you thought your voice wasn't suited for some of the music that you wanted to do.

I mean, my imagination as a songwriter is boundless. You know, I can write a song that would take a woman with a four-and-a-half octave voice to sing, but I happen to not be that woman. So your body places boundaries on you that your mind wouldn't otherwise have. The instrument in my vocal chord -- in my throat -- is the limit. The instrument in my head is much less limited. So sometimes it's trying to reconcile your big ideas with your finite body. In my head, I never struggle for breath when I'm doing a hard rap lyric, you know... I mean my lungs are the size of a Buick in my head. You just write the rhyme. And then when it's time to deliver the line, you have to figure out, okay, well, how much oxygen can I hold, what's the highest note that I can hit. Can I actually transition from an "mm" to a "th" sound as fast as my imagination has asked me to. The musculature in your mouth limits the speed at which you can rap, but not the speed at which you can write.

Do you ever feel like you're a point of fascination for people? Does it ever get weird for you?

I mean, maybe very rarely. But I think if I focused too much on how I was received that I would be insufferable. You know? I would make music that's designed to people please and that would probably tell. It would probably look like it had been written to be liked, which is, I think, a turn-off in any circumstance. You know, when you're on a date with someone who's only saying things that you will like them, you know, agreeing with everything, or, you know, fawning over your friends in a way that seems disingenuous, that's such a turn-off. Because it feels manipulative. You know, you're acting that way to cultivate a certain response from me. And I think in songwriting sometimes you hear that. Like if you hear a really sad song that doesn't seem like it's a product of a lived experience, sometimes that just feels manipulative to me. Like, you're just writing that because you want me to cry. But you're not crying. You're trying to make some money as a songwriter.

I think if I worried a lot about "This is what people think I stand for," then I'd either get a big head or make bad music, so I try as much as I can to keep my thoughts in genuine music and trust that people who like it will gravitate towards it and people who are not really feeling it will find something else that they like, and I think generally I'm a decent enough person where no one is motivated to like, tear me down. I mean, infrequently do I have a total bloodletting where a critic's like, "Not only do I not like your music, BUT... you should never record, you're an asshole, you're mean," because I feel like I'm not an asshole and I'm not mean. So when people don't like the music, they're generally pretty cool to me still.

Photo by Erik Hess

Are you just super tired of talking about being a the girl in a boy band? Like, Being A Woman In Hip Hop, are you really sick of having that conversation with people?

I mean, yes. But it's frustrating because I don't know how to say it differently than I said it last time. I don't want to be a pullstring doll where you say, "What's it like to be a woman in hip-hop?" and I give my rehearsed answer. That doesn't seem like a really candid conversation. But I've already said it and I don't know what to say. Also I think I'm too aware of it. I don't know that I have an honest answer, because I don't think about being a woman in the same way as like, "What is it like to live as a brunette? How does it feel -- in a state with a lot of blondes -- to be a brunette?" I define myself in a lot of ways, I'm certainly a woman, but I've never lived as a man, so I can't A and B it, there's no control environment. I can't say, "Well, let me itemize the differences. Had I been a man, these are the things that would definitely have happened."

I think a lot of us flatter ourselves when we imagine that, you know, definitely our experiences would be different in another set of circumstances. Also, I've been with those guys for so long. If there was a novelty, it's worn off already. The most I think I'm aware of being a woman, it's in the brief, brief moment when I first start to rap at a show where no one's heard of us before. People sometimes think I'm the back-up dancer and then I start to rap, so you can hear them be surprised and that feels nice, but after that, they're not gonna support you for the length of a 10-year career...

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