Dessa: Power of words

With a sharp tongue, a keen whit and a penchant for weaving literary references into spoken word narratives with a hip-hop flair, Minneapolis MC Dessa is fiercely refreshing. Her discerning approach to song writing results in tracks where it’s clear she paid as much attention to her lyrics as she did to her hypnotic, haunting beats.

Parts of Speech, a 12-track album released on June 25, is Dessa’s latest experiment in her own personal brand of narrative song writing. She may come from hip-hop roots, but her experiences in the worlds of spoken word poetry and creative non-fiction are evident as well. Dessa’s approach to songwriting, she says, is perhaps more like that of a novelist than musician, and she cites a style that claims “sharp metaphors, some tenderness, and some dark humor” as hallmarks.

“The songs on Parts of Speech are very different from one another,” she says. “But I think the writing makes them cohesive.”

Home to indie hip hop artists such as P.O.S. and Paper Tiger, Dessa got her start with Minneapolis hip hop collective Doomtree in 2005. She joined after a chance encounter with P.O.S., who had been living down the street from her.

“I’d been hanging out with those dudes for a long time before they asked me to join and when they finally asked me in, I felt like I’d won the lottery,” she says. “I was so happy and excited – it remains one of the proudest moments of my life.”

From there, she released her first album with the collective, False Hopes, in 2005.  The album quickly became a local favorite, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune heralded it as one of the top albums of the year. In 2010 she released her first solo album, a Badly Broken Code, and then followed it up in 2011 with Castor, the Twin. Whereas her previous albums had been more meditative and introspective, for 2013’s Parts of Speech, Dessa says she began to look outward.

“On Parts of Speech, I write in the third person more than I have in previous projects,” she says. “When I wrote my first full-length, I was wholly occupied by my own feelings, my own demons, my own broken romances – my own world. On this album, I think I’m trying to expand the scope – using my experiences to investigate what it’s like to be human.”

After earning her B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, she took a job as a technical writer for medical manuals before pursuing her art full time. Her diverse background is reflected in Parts of Speech especially, and although she’s been called a hip hop artist who is very much of a hip hop collective, Dessa sings more than she raps, blurring boundaries between genres. Tracks like ‘Call off your ghost’ showcase her ability to write venomously direct lyrics. The song, seemingly describing a drawn out breakup and then bearing witness to an ex moving on, is haunting in its intensity. A tittering beat paired with soft, delicate vocals is like a tiger concealed by the brush – subdued with an anxious anticipation, ready to pounce at just the right moment.

Still others, such as “It’s Only Me,” depart from hip hop influenced beats and instead enlist cellist Takenobu, whom she discovered while browsing Pandora.

“I’m more interested in moving people – in creating a bloom of shared feeling. I’ve always been attracted to the big themes: love, loss, death, and communion,” she says of her song writing motivation. “I hope to tackle them not with a particular sound (each theme might ask for a really different sonic approach), but with a recognizable sensibility.”

Dessa’s Doomtree peers often leave their mark on her tracks, as was the case with “Warsaw,” the album’s single. Fellow collective member Paper Tiger produced the track. Lazerbeak and Cecil Otter have also produced tracks on her past albums. Despite her diverse background and close collaborations with other Doomtree members, Dessa strives to remain creatively independent. She cites diverse musical influences, but nurtures a style all her own.

“I like Philip Glass and Yann Tiersen. I like Annie Dillard and I just discovered the poet Gary Snyder,” she says. “But when I’m writing songs, I try not to listen to any music that could influence me. I don’t want to be any more derivative than I have to be.”

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