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Dessa Interview

The Doomtree Crew don’t stop, ever. So when we got a chance to catch up with Dessa from the Minneapolis mob, we couldn’t turn it down. Currently on a huge tour of the US showcasing the amazing new album ‘No Kings‘ to all and sundry, the rapper and singer talked to us about making her solo album, the pros and cons of being holed up in Wisconsin and how she likes her handshakes.

So read on and be sure to click those videos embedded in the text so you can see just why we’ve always been so excited by her and her team-mates. Onwards!

Hi Dessa! It’s time for the dream-team interview [dream team because of my jaundiced face with your wonderful t-shirt on the webstore, obviously] – I was going to open and say “we’ve come on a long way since I first interviewed Doomtree back in 2006” but I remembered you weren’t there because you were busy expanding your horizons in South America [right? I think anyway]. So I gotta open up with how did you come to terms with not being part of the interview back then? Therapy and comfort food? Shock treatment? Booze?

Denial.  I was a part of that interview and enjoyed every minute of it.

I want to get right into it straight away – you’ve just released your new album ‘Castor, The Twin’ on Doomtree Records. For those that don’t know, it’s a reworking of some of your songs with live instrumentation and one of the things I like most about it is that you didn’t just say “there’s an 808 here, let’s just replace it with a real snare”, you brought new levels and layers to each track. So I guess, first up, tell us a little about how you came to the decision that you wanted to re-do your tracks? How did you decide on the tracks that you wanted to use? Was it an epiphany that came to you that 551 would sound dope with a band or did you guys work loads of songs out and cherry pick the best?

When I set off to tour my last album, ‘A Badly Broken Code‘, I asked a trio of live players to travel with me as my backing band. We piled into a van with Sims and Lazerbeak, who served as main support, and headed west to put on some mileage and play a bunch of shows.

(Frank aside: Like a lot of listeners, I have some serious reservations about live hip hop. Done badly, it sounds cheesy or like elevator renditions of otherwise listenable songs. I knew I wasn’t interested in creating a sound that had anything in common with a ‘jam band.’ I wanted an airtight ensemble capable of big crescendos, beautiful counterpoint melodies, and moments of suspenseful restraint. Happily, that’s almost exactly what I got.)

By the time our touring party returned home, we found our set transformed. We’d taken advantage of the live band’s range of dynamics and the players had written new parts for many of the songs. Sean McPherson, my band leader and bass player, was playing bowed upright in addition to his plucked lines—which makes for a moody, classic cello vibe. Dustin Kiel wrote new piano and guitar lines; on at least one song he was playing them at the same time with one hand on each instrument. Joey Van Phillips added a lot of power to the set—he’s a hard-hitting drummer who’s worked in almost every style.

All of a sudden we found ourselves playing music that didn’t sound much like anything I’d recorded. And attendees were asking for the new versions of our songs. So we hit the studio to record the new arrangements, adding viola, mandolin, vibraphone, and timpani.

And maybe a little info on the title too?

In Greek and Roman mythology, there are a pair of twin brothers: Castor and Pollux. (Not so incidentally, these are the stars of the Gemini constellation). Castor is human, Pollux is immortal. In a scuffle, Castor is slain. Pollux loves his brother desperately and campaigns for Zeus to allow him to split his immortality with his twin. Zeus agrees and the brothers alternate days, spending one day among the living, then one day with the dead. In naming the album, I wanted to express the fact that these songs were rearrangements—twins of existing songs. I also wanted to convey the idea that these songs were more organic, tender, nuanced versions—its an album without synthetic production, a very human sound.

I’ve been lucky enough to come out to Minneapolis to see a few Blowouts and over the years I’ve seen you go from straight up rapping over beats to introducing the live element with your band and friends – were you always keen to have that backing behind you? And hard as I’m sure it may be to answer, do you prefer being backed by a band or are you cool with just having Beak or Papes behind you?

Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger make some of my favorite arrangements. In addition to being gifted musicians, they understand a rapper’s perspective: what makes a beat appealing to emcees, and what kind of rhythms make the thing workable. For live performances, though, I’m a sucker for performers who create everything live—it’s like watching aerialists without a net, and knowing that they might make completely different choices from one night to the next.

There’s a brand new track on the album, ‘The Beekeeper’ – when was that written? Was it during the sessions of recording the new album?

I’m never a very fast writer, but ‘The Beekeeper‘ was unusually painstaking. At some point in the song’s history, I think every word was different. I wrote the piano line first, then asked (Jessy Greene, the violinist who now plays with the Foo Fighters) to layer several parts. She nailed it, utterly nailed it. After the neuroses begins: I listened to the song on repeat dozens, or sometimes a hundred times while trying to compose the melodies and lyric content—and then to wrestle them together. For ‘The Beekeeper‘ I knew I wanted something dark and epic to match the piano line. I often write with a zoom lens, focusing on details of scene and character. For this song, I leaned towards the panoramic, incorporating the sort of language that you’d find in a myth or a religious text to describe the broad truths of the human condition.

You’ve got a new rendition of ‘Palace’ on ‘CTT’, which was originally on Papes’ album ‘Made Like Us’. On a personal level, it’s my favourite song because a) it’s awesome, clearly and b) it’s named after the football team I support who I took Paper and Stef to see when they were touring a couple years ago. Can I now claim that Dessa is the newest member of the Doomtree-Palace Connection? I’ll send you a scarf for the Blowout, ha!

I’ll do almost anything for a scarf.

Your album A Badly Broken Code’ got some great reviews [it was my number one album of 2010 in fact] and showcased your ability to both rap and sing in equally high measure. When you’re writing new tracks, do you go in thinking “right, time to make a total rap heater?” or does everything just flow naturally?

There are definitely voices in my head that concern themselves with how my next record will be perceived. But I try to tamp them down and focus on how to best express my genuine experience—I’ve got to trust that people will detect the sincerity in it.

The new CD pre-orders came through with a short story and you’ve already had your ‘Spiral Bound’ book out, do you enjoy writing outside of your music? Is there a separate mindstate when you’re writing poems or stories rather than lyrics?

I write less prose than I wish I did. Music has deadlines that writing doesn’t—at least for a writer without a publishing deal.  Writing prose can feel a little more cerebral than writing rap lyrics—but both involve mouthing words, furrowed brows, frusteration, and maddeningly slow progress.

You have also been a teacher for a while [still doing it even? I’m slack here sorry!] – do you get as much pleasure from teaching as you do from seeing a room full of smiling faces after you’ve killed a Blowout?

I used to teach courses about writing, promotion, and hip hop, but the touring schedule takes a regular classroom gig off the table. McNally Smith College of Music has been gracious enough to keep me on as an Artist In Residence; several times a year I visit campus to report what Doomtree is learning in the trenches. We talk about the habits of successful indie artists, strategies to get press coverage, the social media hustle, and the grind.

Minneapolis has a very supportive hip hop [and music/art] scene and with the backing of the crew behind you, there’s a huge amount of love for you. Does it still surprise you that Blowout sells out super quickly and how about the fact you’re getting love across the board further afield? Are there any shows/cities you’ve played that have been amazingly good?

I figure there are no laurels to rest on. When we put tickets out for the Blowout, it was nail-biting right until doors opened. That said, it can be an amazing surprise to arrive in a new city and find enthusiastic listeners—even people who know the words. That really knocked me out the first few times it happened, I was so dumbstruck I stopped singing myself.

The new Doomtree crew record ‘No Kings’ came out in November. You guys all headed out to a cabin [in Wisconsin right?] to make the record in a concentrated period of time which is a switch up from the last crew album which was a sprawling epic of an album. How did this environment for making music work out and how excited are you by it? What can fans expect?

Man, the cabin was intese. We loaded up on booze and sandwhich fixings and sequestered ourselves for a few days to knock out the bulk of the album. Some of the guys are swift and prolific writers; it can be hard not to feel pressure when you’re the last to finish every song. I spent most of my time walking, trying to hammer out my parts. We’d wake up, have breakfast, pick a beat, and then I’d walk for miles in the woods, with the beat on repeat. After I eeked out 8 bars, I’d head back to the cabin, find out which beat was next, and then set off again.

2011 was a massive year for the crew with your record, the crew album and Sims’ amazing ‘Bad Time Zoo’ and the crew set on the main stage at Soundset [which was fucking awesome to see] – do you all continually push each other to make the music you make? Like, if Cecil drops a ridiculous beat, Mike will want to jump on it, or Beak unleashes another Lava Banger that makes Stef want to jump on his MPC?

I think we’re all motivated by one another and, as we amass more experience, we can better relate to one another’s professional concerns. “Oh, you’re three weeks away from a release date? Man, I know exactly what that brand of excitement, panic, and exhaustion feels like.” Or “Bad turn out in Santa Barbara? I feel you man, push through it. L.A. is around the corner.”

Ok, time to switch it up a little, we’ll do some either/or questions, see what you come back with:
Halloween or Christmas?

Halloween. Sugar and secularism.

Glasses or contacts?

Contacts, unless I’m negotiating a compensation package.

New Edition or Bobby Brown solo?

Lauryn Hill

Normal Skittles or Sour Skittles? [influenced by that huge packet of skittles on your twitter]

Normals, future sure. But only after all the cheap and trashy milk chocolate has been consumed.

High Fives or handshakes?

Handshakes, with a flourish.

Facebook or Twitter?

Twitter. But the crucial transmissions are still sent by passenger pigeon.

And to finish up, do you have any plans to come over to London? Hard as it may be for the whole crew to make it, I know quite a few people who would love to see a Doomtree show in the UK…

I wouldn’t hold my breath quite yet. But it’s time to start crossing fingers. The scheming has begun.

Check out and for all the crew updates, Dessa’s twitter and make sure to grab the crew album ‘No Kings‘ which features this banger: