Concert preview: Minneapolis rapper Dessa lets her imagination run free

  • Photo credit: Bill Phelps
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From the September 26, 2013 edition

At times it seems Dessa spends more time thinking and writing about human relationships than most advice columnists.

“I’m interested in trying to catalog the ways we relate,” said the Minneapolis-based rapper/singer/poet in a recent phone interview.

Over the course of three studio albums, including this year’s Parts of Speech, Dessa, born Margret Wander 32 years ago, has chronicled the various ways we come together (her songs touch on romance, friendship and even family bonds) and grow apart (“Dear Marie,” for one, paints a vivid picture of a marriage slowly, painfully unraveling). In the past, these tunes were largely autobiographical. More recently, however, the musician has, in her own words, started to “experiment more with the camera angle,” penning songs from a variety of points of view.

“In my 20s I was struggling to figure out the whole romance thing, so there were no shortages of urgent feelings that needed to be expressed,” she said. “I think at 30 I’m not quite as preoccupied with my own story, which allows me to be more interested and available when it comes to other people’s lives. My intellectual capacity for empathy has expanded.”

So while she still turns out the occasional ripped-from-the-diary scorcher, a bulk of the songs on Speech are written in the second and third person. The effect is twofold. First, Dessa is able to let her already-vivid imagination run wild (“What would it have been like if I had been born somewhere else? Or what if I were a boy?” she said). Second, in an odd way, the degree of remove allows the rapper to open up even more in her music. Call it the “Dragnet” approach in that only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

“I think the hardest part about writing true stories has always been trying to make sure I protect other people’s privacy,” she said. “I picked this gig, so my privacy is mine to do with what I like. But I don’t want to throw other people under the bus.”

Dessa is also singing more these days, and Speech splits the difference between spoken word verses and smoky, R&B-flecked balladry — a byproduct of being brought up by a public relations specialist mother graced with an exceptional voice.

“My mom was an amazing singer. When we were in the car she would sing a harmony line along with whatever was on the radio and then look at me and say, ‘Your turn,’” Dessa said. “In some ways I feel like my musical education happened at grocery stores and on car rides and while doing household chores.”

Despite being the lone female in Doomtree, a Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective anchored by rapper P.O.S., Dessa doesn’t feel any additional pressure to hew to a particular style, and she said her desire to grow and evolve only strengthens with time. Recently she even enrolled in a songwriting workshop where the instructor mentioned he had never written a love song despite penning more than 500 tunes.

“I thought that was interesting,” Dessa said. “Everybody has love songs and everybody has heartbreak songs, but I don’t want to build a career on just those two pillars.”

So moving forward, expect the musician to continue to take risks, and to challenge both her audience and herself.

“I dislike the idea of making music formulaically because you hope someone else will like it,” she said. “I don’t like focus groups, and I don’t like imagining what the market wants and then doing it. That might be an appealing way to make pasta sauce, but that’s never been an appealing way to make art.”