Dessa On Love, Neuroscience and Collaboration
Minneapolis rapper Dessa first made her name pounding the pavement as a part of the DIY hip-hop collective Doomtree, which includes other accomplished musicians, like Lazerbeak and P.O.S.. She’s made it a point to keep her audience guessing as to what is next, whether it is performing on the Hamilton soundtrack or with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Her effortless cadences and deeply personal lyrics leave each release with more than enough to unpack. On her latest record, Chime, out now, Dessa explored the path of neuroscience to investigate the parts of the brain responsible for love’s grasp and she can learn by confronting these overwhelming feelings.
What’s driven you to pursue these activities outside of music, like neuroscience, and find a way to incorporate that into the recording process?
I think, primarily, curiosity. I like the idea of being able to subvert expectations — at a concert, especially. When people walk into a room where they know music is going to happen, I like to give them something unpredictable, like neuroscience or a cocktail with a short story about its recipe. I like figuring all of the design out, in addition to the music onstage.
I think of it as, how do the lights in the lobby set an expectation? Or, is there a secret way on stage, so I don’t have to go the normal way? I do not like surprises for surprises’ sake, but I like to jolt people out of the script we have for how a concert will go.
Your seamless weaving of traditional hip-hop timing and sung melodies are more prevalent on this emotive record. How has your style evolved over the years?
I always think I am rapping more than I actually am (laughs), but that is directly because of Lazerbeak, and he will tend to say ‘..mehhhhh, I think this is a sung song.’ I’ve never been super savvy when I am crossing that line. How few notes do you have to use to be rapping? How many notes do you have to use to be singing?
There are moments where I try to go for these weird harmonies, where I kind of am serving as my own choir because I’m looping my voice. I love hearing these big, grand sounds, like an orchestral string section. I was drawn to rap music through Doomtree, and I fell in love with rap’s constructive anger.
Whether I’m working with Lazerbeak or myself, I always try to find that ratio of beauty and aggression in varying amounts. I grew up listening to Joan Baez and Tracy Chapman. The guys in Doomtree were listening to Pavement and Minor Threat. There were all these distinct voices and overlapping styles.
I can also sense a little more texture in my voice. It’s gotten a little more beat up because I’ve been yelling for ten years (laughs).
With love and its sometimes unshakeable and overwhelming grasp at the center of the record’s concept, were there any relationships that gave you an understanding of how love can sometimes be debilitating? How did that end up with seeking the help of neuroscience?
I was maybe twelve years late to that understanding. If I knew it earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have been fixated on my partner.
Sometimes, it didn’t feel healthy, like ‘Why can’t I catch up with the pace car?’ People just seem to get these feelings and get the fuck over them. Maybe it’s a feature of my personality, as much as it could be a feature of my relationships.
I’ve always had a curiosity and fascination with science. The reason I gathered this team to explore the neural anatomy of love was partially because of this TED talk with Doctor Helen Fisher, who had done a lot of work with FMRI machines and people who had been recently dumped. She had discovered a locus in that brain that is associated with these feelings of love.
I was also feeling, personally, kind of desperate. I had tried all the normal interventions for heartbroken girls. After a breakup, you can be blue. If you’re still that way in a month, and a month becomes a year, it feels like you begin to forfeit a big part of your life.
Does that curiosity tie into anything from your upbringing?
I think what I’ve done is find my strengths as a performer. When I performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, it was one of the shows I am most proud of. But, I was never going to be proud of that show by being the best alto singer on stage. I was going to elevate it to something genuinely exceptional through the subversion expectation and an intelligent design.
There were carefully crafted, theatrical moments that made a little miniature play tucked into the seams of this concert. As I developed as an artist, I took frank appraisal of what I am best at. I trust people can tell when you emote honestly, and I cherish that.
It seems the album ultimately ends with these questions of understanding what you can or cannot change about yourself and your personality. Do you feel you finished making the record with any deeper knowledge of yourself?
I think something that has helped me develop this position and career as a working, independent musician was this very intense drive. I didn’t have a lot of patience for myself, and that helped me make this a career, but it didn’t help me become a well-rounded person. I tend to fixate, but I also like that about myself. I like reaching and trying, but I want to make sure it is paired with patience and an awareness that there are some things you cannot change, and you may have to just work through it.
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