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With 'Chime,' Dessa explores the limits of free will

With 'Chime,' Dessa explores the limits of free will

During my conversation with Minnesota native Dessa, the musician, slam poet, and writer told me the best role models are those who buck expectations and are brave enough to speak their truth of the world as they see it. She encapsulates this definition with her genre-defying new album, Chime. Nimbly transitioning from introspective songs investigating the nature of free will to hard-hitting anthems expressing her anger with the current struggles of women, Dessa weaves together a multifaceted record that keeps the listener guessing.

It is fitting that such a musical wordsmith began her career in more literary endeavors. After contributing to the writing and slam-poetry worlds, Dessa was approached by Doomtree, a Minneapolis hip-hop collective, to join their group. In a leap she could have never anticipated, she joined the collective, created three full-length studio albums, had her writing featured in the New York Times, and contributed to the chart-topping Hamilton Mixtape. Just as she keeps listeners on the edge of their seats with her dynamic style, Dessa seems to keep even herself guessing what will be the next turn in her circuitous path.

Dessa will be taking the stage for a sold-out show at the Rochester Art Center on April 4 (presented by My Town My Music). Ahead of the performance, I caught up with her to discuss the new album, her creative writing process and her experiences performing in Rochester.

Minor edits were made for flow and clarity.

Q: How long was the process of creating Chime?

A: That’s always a tough question to answer, because a lot of times I’ll write down little scraps that seem like promising lyrics, and I won’t revisit them for a year or two … or I’ll find them folded up in a gasoline receipt and not have any recollection of writing it at all. I would say that the concerted effort to create Chime was probably a two-year endeavor, but most of my projects overlap pretty considerably.

Q: You have such a large range of styles. Do you have any main musical inspirations?

A: I try to not listen to anything that’s unduly inspiring while I’m making music because I’m too afraid I’ll copy it. That doesn’t mean I have no inspiration. It just means I go out of my way to avoid them to try to make sure that whatever gets in my head isn’t in the same lane that I’m working; because I don’t want to inadvertently bend to a preexisting style. For me, usually it’s little songs, little snippets of language that I really attach to, more than any particular artist’s entire career or discography. Usually it’s these little artifacts that I really dig. I’ll find a song I like and I’ll play it on repeat a thousand times.

Q: The album focuses on love, and especially, the neuroscience of love. I’m wondering how you feel your treatment of love differs in Chime as compared to your previous records.

A: There are some love songs on this record, but there’s a lot of other songs on this one too. I think whereas love may have been the subject in and of itself on a lot of previous songs and albums, on this one, I think that when love does make an appearance, it is very often as a setting to investigate different and larger questions … “Can I decide who to love? Does love just happen to you, or is it a choice that you make?” I’m asking that question almost in a larger context of what is determined and what is free will. And where do the edges of our free will end?

Q: How do you reconcile this side of you that questions if your will is free with this other side we see of a woman who is completely empowered and taking control?

A: That’s flattering, but that’s not how I perceive my life … as a woman who is empowered and completely taking control. I do feel I am ambitious and I’m determined. I do feel like I’ve spent a lot of time honing the skills needed to do my job well. But, I also get very nervous before a lot of performances. I wonder how my professional choices are influencing my personal life. I mean, I have a lot more question marks than exclamation marks in my life.

Q: You’ve had experience writing books, slam poetry, and music. How does your writing process differ between prose and music?

A: Very often it has to do with the scope of an idea. If I’m working on an idea that’s going to take 3.5 minutes to express, it might be a candidate for a song or a poem. If I’m working on an idea that’s going to take 10,000 words to express, that song would be half an hour long, so it’s probably best investigated as a short story or essay. So, sometimes length helps determine which is which. But also, if there’s something that feels very image based, that might become a poem. If there’s a very satisfying, clever bit of wordplay, that seems to recommend itself as a lyric.

Q: You have performed in Rochester before, most recently for a show at Down by the Riverside. What has been your experience playing here?

A: Rochester has been really welcoming to me and to my larger collective Doomtree for several years. It’s just felt like there’s something that kind of tipped over an edge in the past couple of years. The response has been really positive. When you’re playing to a receptive crowd, you can feel the fact that the energy helps make the performance better because everybody feels moved, including the people on stage … we’re all here to feel a feeling. It makes it easier to feel it communally.

Q: You contributed to the chart-topping Hamilton Mixtape with your song “Congratulations.” What are your reflections on this experience?

A: I mean, it’s a huge honor to be asked. Lin-Manuel [Miranda] does amazing work. He assembled this knockout, stellar cast of musicians to be a part of the mixtape. So, I got called to record a song as well … and since then, I was asked if I wanted to record a couple lines for the song (“Almost Like Praying") he did to benefit the Puerto Rican hurricane relief efforts.

It’s hard to overstate how much respect I have for him. What he did for the Puerto Rican community was jaw-dropping. It really was. To watch one man with passion, and admittedly an amazing rolodex and a very outsized talent, to watch this one man make such a difference … I was like, “God, I should try harder.” It’s really inspiring.

Q: Any other upcoming projects in the works?

A: This fall, my first hardcover collection will be published by Dutton Books. It’s called My Own Devices. It’s true stories from the road touring with Doomtree and as a solo artist, on music, science, and a difficult romantic trajectory. I’m hoping to try to make a visit to Rochester for that too, so stay tuned.

Nora Eckert is a conversation enthusiast who loves storytelling, whether it is a feature for her website, The Conversationalist, or within her capacity as a marketing and communications specialist at a local biotech company. She is looking forward to building upon her undergraduate degree in English and business with a masters in journalism. 

Cover photo by Bill Phelps

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