Wes: So, Dessa, you’re a solo artist, but you are part of the DOOMTREE collective. For those that don’t know, tell us a little about DOOMTREE. How did it come together? What is it exactly?
Dessa: Doomtree is musical collective, an artist-owned indie label, and a bunch of close friends. We’ve been making music together for most of our adult lives. The roster runs down like this: Cecil Otter, me (Dessa), Sims, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S, Lazerbeak, and Paper Tiger. We started out by recording music in the basement of a shared house and burning CDRs to sell at live shows. We now operate a lean little indie record label, tour the country in a gray van, and have had the good fortune to play some pretty stellar stages.
Wes: A lot of firsts in the last few months for you. Your first LP, and now you’re on your first headlining tour. What are some of the feelings you have going out on this tour being that it is your first?
Dessa: I’ve recorded music for years, and I’ve toured the nation several times over with Doomtree. Even though my solo discs was largely collaborative–including beats from every member of the Doomtree production team–it’s a special thrill to create something over which you exert total artistic control. The successes are yours to relish and the failures are yours to suffer. This tour is the first one on which I’ve filled the role of tour manager. Even now, just a few days into my first headliner, I’ve come to appreciate how hard that role is. Tips for the rookies: bring a three-hole punch; soup travels better than most non-perishables; download the Priceline ap, but don’t rely on it—hotels cut some pretty mean deals on the phone.
Wes: What can concert-goers expect from a Dessa show? This isn’t your typical hip/hop show. From what I can see from photos so far, you’re bring the live band with ya; a stand-up bass even? Who did you bring out on tour with you?
Dessa: At home in Minneapolis, I play my live shows backed by a three-piece band. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to bring that ensemble on the road. The stand-up bassist is my band leader, Sean McPherson. He impressed the hell out of everyone in the touring party when he arrived to the first show with laminated set lists. Joey Van Phillips plays drums in the set and Dustin Kiel plays both keys and guitar. You can meet the whole cast in Lazerbeak’s recent blog post at www.doomtree.net.
Wes: Would you call what you do hip/hop? Alternative hip/hop? pseudo-rap? How do you explain your sound?
Dessa: After I released my first full-length, A Badly Broken Code, there were quite a few conversations about genre—Was it really hip hop? Was it experimental pop? Was it R&B with a spoken word bent delivered with jazzy cadences. To be honest, most of the finer distinctions of genre are lost on me. I learned about ‘chill wave’ two weeks ago from my boyfriend who spend the better part of twenty minutes wasting his intelligent explanations on my totally blank stare. I know classical sounds different from pop which sounds different from the stuff they play in Bollywood, after that I start to stumble. So, in my own career, I’ve decided not to care. Not because I hope to be some genre-bending rebel, but because making good music seems more important than knowing what to call it.
Wes: What has the response been so far on the tour from the fans?
Dessa: Only one show in–too soon to tell!
Wes: What is the difference, if any, performing for your fans in Minneapolis compared to other parts of the country like here in LA?
Dessa: I couldn’t reasonably ask for a more supportive city than Minneapolis. When I entered rap from spoken word, they said, Okay, let’s hear it. When I started writing and singing more hip hop ballads, they said, Alright, cool. When I wrote a book, they said, What is this supposed to be? Oh, okay, sure, why not. In other cities, I’m acutely aware of how many dues an artist must pay for that sort of leeway. So my goal in LA will be to introduce people to the live band format. A lot of people have been skeptical of the transition, but almost everyone has been converted. We’re not a jam band, and we’re not The Roots. These are killer musicians—both as players and as composers—and I think we’ve put together some new arrangements that represent familiar songs in some really dynamic, imaginative ways.
Wes: As a woman in a men’s club like hip/hop, do you feel any sense of responsibility as a woman in this industry? In the past, and currently, many women in hip/hop and pop trade on their sexuality. Do you ever feel the responsibility of being a positive role model for your fans, female or otherwise?
Dessa: A lot of artists try to duck out of moral conversations by saying “I’m an entertainer, not a role model. Raise your own kids.” The problem with that approach is that morality is one of the only conversations you can’t duck out of. In fact, that’s the whole point of morality. That it governs everyone equally. Even if you’re rich. Even if you’re famous. So while I don’t think artists have any special obligation to be moral, they have at least as much as the rest of us. And if you’re engaged in an activity that needlessly hurts people—whether you’re a rapper or a cop or a cashier–then you should cut that shit out. Glamorizing guns, misogyny, and drug trafficking might needlessly hurt people. Might not. Let’s talk it out. But just because you’re a star doesn’t mean you can skirt your responsibilities as a human.
Wes: With your sound, this singing and hip/hop style you have, do you feel there is a place for you in the mainstream? With all of the pop and more superficial rap that is circulating out there, do you think listeners are ready for a more thoughtful, and lyrical style like yours?
Dessa: The distinctions between mainstream and underground have become so permeable that the categories don’t serve too well anymore. Mainstream doesn’t mean ‘being signed’ and underground doesn’t mean ‘conscious.’ I’m ambitious and I’m willing to work. I want to go as far as my art will let me.
Wes: Minneapolis is no city to sleep on for hip/hop and musical talent. As if Doomtree wasn’t enough, you’ve got the powerhouse of Rhymesayers Ent. in town, too. A close affiliation, I understand, very supportive bunch. Is there something about Minnesota, or the mid-west that is producing such talented rappers? What’s in the water there? Is it the weather?
Dessa: I’m not sure exactly why Minneapolis is a hot bed. I think art begets art—there’s a positive feedback loop to the whole thing. Whatever the reason, I’m glad to be a part of it.
Wes: What do you get out of making your music? What do you hope listeners can glean from track to track?
Dessa: Music and writing feels responsive to me. I eat to stop feeling hungry. I sleep to stop feeling tired. There’s a similar kind of appetite for music and writing. It’s in the refining of those ideas that the whole thing gets more cerebral.
Wes: How did you get in to hip/hop? Did you ever have the coming out party with your family? “Hey, I’m a rap star now.” What was the reaction?
Dessa: When I first joined Doomtree, my mom warned me about cocaine. I told her none of us could afford any. Three or four years later, she came around.
Wes: Is “A Badly Broken Code” the album you set out to make, or did it grow in to something different as you went about making it?
Dessa: I’ve always been more song-minded than album-minded. I knew I wanted a collection of my best songs. To my dismay, that took 5 years to make. To my delight, a lot of other people liked them too.
Wes: What is next for Dessa Darling after the tour? Any side projects, EP’s you’re working on?
Dessa: I’m (drumroll) getting ready to record a disc in which the band and I perform our more innovative interpretations of the songs on A Badly Broken Code, along with a few new cuts.
Wes: Any message out there for young people looking down the barrel of the music industry? Those thinking their work is just a “drop in the ocean” as POS might say. Any advice for people getting in to music or hip/hop?
Dessa: Be honest. Your reputation is like a taproot, it starts much deeper in your history than you imagine. Nothing can fuck with excellence and excellence can fuck with almost everything else.
For information on all of the tour date on the “into the spin” tour, and more of Dessa and the entire DOOMTREE hip-hop collective, visit www.doomtree.net