In Conversation with Dessa

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A rapper who performs with orchestras around the world; a wordsmith whose essays are as lyrical and beautiful to read as her poetry; a philosopher who uses science as a way to try and better understand the complexities of humanity – there’s no question that multidisciplinary artist Dessa transcends traditional categories.

So, in her new book My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, it comes as no surprise that Dessa’s literary voice proves to be as nuanced and varied as her many interests. The collection of essays delves into the years she spent touring with other artists as they made a life for themselves in music, her scientific musings, and as she puts it, “a lousy run in romance.”

Our blog contributor Serrana Gay had the chance to pick Dessa’s brain about her new book and what it is like to be a multidisciplinary artist.

SG: So, your new book My Own Devices is coming out on September 18th. Can you tell us a bit about the book and what inspired you to write it?

Dessa: Yeah. It’s a book of true stories. It’s personal essays, mostly about my life on the road with Doomtree. Also, it’s about my lifelong fascination with science and also a sort of lousy run in romance. For me, this book of essays was an opportunity to combine a lot of my intellectual fascinations and personal passions into one project. It’s science, and sad love stories, and reflections on some of the materials that I studied earning a philosophy degree. And some adventures from the road, like being on a train on tour that killed someone, and the many years spent with other artists trying to make a life for ourselves in music. Yeah, it’s something that I’ve been working on while making music for years.

SG: You started to answer my next question already! The full title of your book is: My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love. Can you talk about how those three very specific things are linked and how they have influenced or shaped you?

Dessa: I think I have lived a life that is informed most by art. By love. And trying to connect with people, and my attempts to understand a lot of these things. And for me, science, research, and rational thought is the lense to better understand the world. I’m a committed empiricist. I think that’s the best way to understand and share ideas. Those have probably been the largest themes of my life.  

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SG: You are a musician, poet, and fiction writer. What inspired you to move in the direction of nonfiction for this book?

Dessa: I think that stories are all the more compelling when they are true. I think that in writing, my objective isn’t to entertain, but to be a member of the exploratory team trying to understand the world. Truth is what interests people, I think.

SG: Because you write in many different genres, I am curious about your process. When you sit down to write, do you know what subject needs a song and what needs an essay, or does the form come naturally through the exploration of the subject matter?

Dessa: I write down ideas first, and I make a guess as to what category they will fall in: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, or song. I keep documents of little phrases or couplets. For me, it’s usually a lot of different tiny ideas that can later be built into fuller pieces.

SG: As someone who has been very successful in multiple art forms, what are some of the benefits and/or pitfalls of being a multi-hyphenate and do you have any words of wisdom for people starting out who have multidisciplinary tendencies?

Dessa: Whether it’s on stage, in a poetry chapbook, or in a full-length book, all my work really does center on, and is driven by, language. So, in that way, there is kind of a united theme or thread that ties all of my work together. I would say that the hard part is getting someone to believe that you can do it. It takes a lot of work to establish yourself in different fields. There are just a lot of people to convince that you are credible. Because the people who are gatekeepers for nightclubs are probably not the same people who are gatekeepers for literary journals, and so you have to convince a small town’s worth of people to consider your work. And that takes a lot of time.

On the other hand, if you are good at it, or you think you can get good at it, I would just say: don’t let the existing powers that be try to convince you that you are only allowed to do one thing. It’s easier to do one thing. There’s good reason to consider doing one thing, but it’s just not true that you are only allowed to do it. If you are willing to put in the work to really develop more than one skill, and you are also willing to try to develop more than one career simultaneously, then yeah, I think working across disciplines can lead to a really full, elastic life. The downside is that it takes a lot of time and work. The upside, however, is that if there is anything I discover that I find fascinating, usually there is some way for me to incorporate it into my career. I can usually find some way to involve the astrophysicist who I sit next to on the subway, in a stage show, or a fiction piece, or a poem, or a podcast. There is a way to make everything that you find interesting part of your craft, and that’s exciting.

SG: How do you approach social issues in your work? Do you feel it’s possible to create art that isn't in some way political?

Dessa: I think that there probably is a fine and often-blurred line between the personal and the political. I think that my work isn’t often an overt call to action. I’m not good at that. But I do think that in testifying about real, lived, and imperfect experiences, there is often a case made for a certain social perspective. Or a case made, even on rare occasions, for policy considerations. So, kinda going from micro to macro.

SG: What are you reading right now?

Dessa: I am reading one of those “Best American Collected” anthologies of science writing, 2016/2017. I’m also reading a couple of published scientific research papers on well-being because I’m preparing for a speech. And I just finished reading Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime.

SG: What other artists and writers do you feel have influenced you?

Dessa: I would probably list both Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. Mary Roach. Maybe also Annie Dillard. Although maybe I flatter myself because I like Annie Dillard. I don’t know that I’ve managed to be influenced by her, but I admire her very much.

SG: Would you like to share any exciting projects you have coming up after this book release?

Dessa: Oh yeah. Actually the same day as the book release, I have a Bourbon that drops, inspired by the book. On that bourbon, I collaborated with Rockfilter Distillery, which is a local distillery based in southern Minnesota in Spring Grove. They grow their grain organically and age their spirits in locally grown white oak. It was really exciting to combine an interest in sustainability with a very fun project. That bourbon is called “Time and Distance Organic Bourbon Whiskey.” That will drop on the 18th of September as well. It’s a limited run. And then after that for me, I go on my first book tour, and in October I’ll be appearing with the Minnesota Orchestra at orchestra hall in Minneapolis.

SG: You once said: “The challenge has been how to write a moving, true song and trust that telling the truth has power.” Can you talk about how this comes into play when crafting a creative piece versus nonfiction? Do you feel that there is a difference for you between drawing from your life for inspiration vs. telling your true story?

Dessa: I feel like the terms are so dumb: “nonfiction,” “personal essay,” “literary essay”. None of them sound effective. I think if you wrote a true story from your life as well as you could, and you remembered it, technically that is nonfiction. Whether or not you want to use that word, of course, is anybody’s call. It’s your choice, but I think that is creative nonfiction. Technically. It meets all the requirements. I would encourage those people to embrace the term. If they are telling true stories from their lives creatively, get in there. Call it that. Call it a personal essay.

Dessa is a rapper, singer, and essayist who earns her living on the road. She’s performed around the world at opera houses, rock clubs, and sometimes standing on barroom tables. Her imaginative writing and ferocious stage presence have been praised by NPR, Forbes, Billboard, the Chicago Tribune, and the LA Times. As a musician, she’s landed on the Billboard Top 200 as a solo artist; a member of the Doomtree collective; and as a contributor to The Hamilton Mixtape. She’s been published by the New York Times Magazine, NPR, the Star Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, literary journals across the country, and has written two short collections of poetry and essays. She splits her time between Manhattan, Minneapolis, and a tour van cruising at six miles per hour above the posted limit.

You can find out more about Dessa by visiting her website or following her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.