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Creative force Dessa stoked to perform at Grand Rapids Riverfest

A woman sitting on a chair with her legs crossed. She is wearing a green shirt and black pants.
Dessa is a Minneapolis- and New York-based musician, poet, writer and podcast host.

Dessa is performing at the 2023 Grand Rapids Riverfest, Saturday, Sept. 9. Her latest album "Bury the Lede" debuts Sept. 29. Tickets are now sold out.

KAXE Music Director Kari Hedlund talked with Dessa about the opportunity to work with the Minnesota Orchestra, her new album, loving radio, gaming the music industry system of algorithms, good deodorant, and the reality of being a working musician.

Dessa is part of the lineup for KAXE's Grand Rapids Riverfest on Saturday, Sept. 9, and said she's just as excited to watch as she is to perform.

KAXE New Music conversation with Kari and Dessa

Edited for length and clarity.

Kari: Dessa is a creative force with Doomtree poetry, author, radio host, a singer, lyricist and rapper. She's part of the lineup for Grand Rapids Riverfest, coming up Saturday, Sept. 9. Tickets are now sold out for the event.

Welcome to KAXE, Dessa.

Dessa: Thanks for having me.

Kari: So we're talking as you are coming off of a run of sold-out shows with the Minnesota Orchestra. Are you still on a little bit of a high from that?

Dessa: Ohh man, I think it's a high and a low. lt felt so great to be able to pull those shows off, but also, that was for me the kind of big goal in the distance for a really long time.

And I was kind of working at capacity. You know what I mean?

I also felt like that sustained level of adrenaline. Clearing the bloodstream for a while, you know?

We aim pretty big for those shows, and obviously, there's so many working parts, so it felt good to have them pull off pretty clean.

Kari: Was this your second round of shows with them?

Minn. rapper and hip hop artist stands with Myrna Peterson at the Reif Center in Grand Rapids.
Myrna Peterson
Grand Rapids' Myrna Peterson poses with Dessa after her performance at the The Reif Center in 2023.

Dessa: I think it's my fourth. We started working together on the invite, essentially, of Grant Meacham at the Orchestra. He hit me up and asked if I'd be game to collaborate.

And for me, it's just an order of magnitude. A different level of production and musicianship and a really different way to make music than the mostly sample-based stuff that I've been working on.

Yeah, it's a world apart and it is collaboration that brings two really different traditions of music making you know together. So yeah, it feels ambitious. It feels big, yeah.

Kari: You always seem to be up for trying something new and up for new challenges. Playing with the Grammy-winning orchestra and the enormity of it, the amount of musicians, it had to be a little intimidating.

Dessa: Serious understatement. I want to do right by them and I want to try to meet their standard of excellence and do something creative, that feels like a big swing. Something you know that is an invitation to play. On that stage and with those players.

And pull off a kind of show that is really distinct from the kind of performance that you throw at a club like First Avenue — hollowed ground. Or when I'm on the road, which is more like mid-sized clubs, where you're standing in a room that can hold you know 500 people, 700 people. And it's a really different endeavor.

"But I think that culturally, in Minnesota, we do sort of penalize the tallest poppy. Don't be special. Don't be too ambitious. And New York doesn't. New York says strain upwards."

When I'm a part of a three-piece, the flexibility that affords you, is you're really nimble. Like if I wanted to, I could gesture with one hand a closed fist and we would usually stop on a dime and I could chat for a second and start the song again, or goof off or steal somebody's cellphone or jump off, you know, into the crowd and just learning how to maneuver.

I sometimes describe it to friends as being on the deck of a destroyer. It's just the scale and the scope is what makes that project. I feel like anybody who stood in front of Guernica, like a huge canvas or a huge building.

Part of the impact is because of the scale. A postcard of Guernica is not Picasso's Guernica. It's like the size makes the thing. And so to be able to stand in front of dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of ... like virtuosic musicians who are making this sound live. They're the caliber of their musicianship, is on display at every moment during that set.

I'm excited, but I'm also 100% like, I am a type-A person. So it's an opportunity to get weird in a different room.

Kari: I imagine it's a different brain exercise performing in that sort of space versus the flexible at-a-whim space. Being able to make some changes or do some things that are different.

Dessa: Yeah. I'm not a film buff. I know that for my friends who are and for my friends who make films there are some projects that you really want to be watched on that big screen because it was designed for that format. It rewards the immersive sound and color, so I can't imagine those people being disappointed to see us tucked into bed with our iPhones sideways. Do you know what I mean?

I think for the orchestral project, again it’s like the sweep of of the music that happens when you are in a hall that has been acoustically designed. The purpose built to be able to reflect the strings just so and to create a balanced sound in every seat of the hall.

It is like you are comparing an Etch-a-Sketch to an IMAX, as far as just the immersive experience of that sound.

This Is Minnesota Orchestra: Dessa with the Minnesota Orchestra

Kari: So in general, you are often exploring new challenges and new pathways for your career. How do you approach new opportunities that come to you? That maybe scares you a little bit or intimidates you.

Dessa: I would say that generally I try to be adventurous and ambitious and for me, that doesn't mean fearless. You know, I'm freaked out a lot of the time. I get pretty significant stage fright before most shows and sometimes really upsetting stage fright because I can feel it infringing on my ability to perform to the level of my skill.

I can feel my voice quiver and I hate that.

Trying to take some big risks doesn't mean that I'm standing ferociously facing the wind all the time. Yeah, I'm freaked out sometimes, but I think also my natural inclinations as a collaborator have been that I've been drawn to people who do really different stuff then me.

You don't want to come off as a fusion restaurant between, like, Malaysian food and something else that feels just forced together. You have to be thoughtful about it. I like that because then in some ways it's like you're a student at the same time you're a collaborator, right?

You're learning like, OK, how do you do that? How on earth do you cut your own reeds, or work with a dentist and ask, what is that glue that you put in everybody's mouth that we all bite down on?

"It's like there is no shortage of existential threats, but there have to be some parties too. And you can go into those wide-eyed. But there ought to be some dancing in between the sirens."

You're expanding your own understanding of the world, but also it spares the ego. So if you and I work together and we're both radio people and we're both writers then I'm real sensitive about like, 'No, I wrote it this way and I don't need feedback.'

Whereas I don't know how to do any of this other stuff, so I find I'm less territorial. It relaxes my defensiveness because I am working with people who are experts in stuff that I'm not.

Kari: Let's talk new music.

Dessa: What are you thinking? Why did you make that face?

Kari: That's a really interesting thing. I've never thought about it in that way. It just makes so much sense that it would be less personal — obviously it's a learning process and working with people of different backgrounds from you. But I haven't thought about it in that way that it takes the ego out of it.

Dessa: It kind of spares me. Because it affords me a lot of room to do the work that I know how to do and then to revel in other people's talents without being a little creepy territorialist. Yeah.

New album

Kari: So let's talk about some new music. You have recently released a couple of songs that are going to be on your upcoming album Bury the Lede out in September.

Let's start with “Hurricane Party.” So this is a song that sounds like a party. Well, lyrically — I'm hearing it anyway — it addresses the critical ills and critical crises of society today. Would you talk about that dichotomy a little?

Dessa: Yeah. You know, I grew up in Minneapolis and I live now in Minneapolis and in New York, but I think one of the best parts and the most challenging parts of being a musician in our era, is that you travel a bunch, which is rare because you get to see the world and learn slang from all over and you know a lot of America particularly is not super well-represented on TV.

You know, we have a pretty coastal self-concept as Americans. You don't hear a lot of newscasters with accents from Alabama. I think that in traveling around and seeing how other people live and what they have for dessert and all that kind of stuff, you get to learn.

I have my favorite cities as I'm sure every traveling musician does. But I love New Orleans with a particular enthusiasm.

Minn. hip hop artist Dess looks strong and capable on the cover of her new album called Bury The Lede.
Minn. singer, rapper and writer Dessa debuts her new album on Sept. 29, Bury The Lede.

In the places in the U.S. that are on the coast, like hurricane parties are an actual thing. So when a hurricane is coming, you like to batten the hatches, you provision, you make sure you've got the food and clean drinking water and oftentimes booze.

And you shutter the windows. It's weathering the storm. You know, if you're not evacuating.

And so maybe you have people over and there is that sort of like, hey, this is a party in the shadow of an existential threat. And that feels like a lot of Friday nights just out in the world right now.

We are keenly aware, I think after the pandemic and the ensuing rethinking of race in America and what seems to be an increasingly polarized place to stay.

But yeah, it's like there is no shortage of existential threats, but there have to be some parties, too. And you can go into those wide-eyed.

But there ought to be some dancing in between the sirens.

Dessa - Hurricane Party - Official Music Video

Kari: So Bury the Lede will be out Sept. 29 and was produced by your longtime collaborator Lazerbeak, along with Andy Thompson. What else can you tell us about this new album?

Dessa: I think this is probably the first record where I've got a lot of pop sounds on it, but I'm not a pop apologist. I think when I started making music, there was a pretty clear demarcation and the lanes between pop music and underground hip-hop were pretty clear.

And it was a double white line and you didn't change lanes very often.

I've always loved pop music. I've gravitated towards some of those sounds — I love strong melodies. I love great soaring choruses.

I think that there is understandably the presumption that pop music is like catering towards the lowest common denominator, that it isn't smart.

I don't think all music has to be smart, but I don't think that there's anything about pop music that means it can't be smart.

And I think that the lowest common denominator is not as low as the industry thinks it is. I think you can, in fact, have really smart lyrics and as long as the melody is catchy. I think you're good.

So for this album, I think it's the first time that I've leaned hard into pop and said, yeah, I can still be writer-ly in a way that's singable and even danceable.

This record does feel different from the past projects that I've done, but I'm really proud of it.

Kari: So talk a little bit about this in-between time, you've made the record, it's not out to the public yet, but you're talking about it a little bit. People have heard bits of it. What is this in-between time like for you before it's out?

Dessa: So you finished the project and then nobody's heard it except you and your friends. And that is true for a few months.

The oddest answer? It doesn't make me look super cool probably, but I do think that this is the time of the creative process where there's a lot of opportunity to ping-pong between extremes of self-appraisal.

Like I'm just, I'm best-in-show one day and then I'm a hack and my entire professional life is fraudulent. It's an extreme of intolerable self-appraisal on the outskirts and then eventually I think it is a pendulum.

It kind of settles in the middle and also to be honest, I've been on an indie label since I started essentially, and this time in between the finishing of the project and the release is a really big time.

Today we're trying to move pre-orders and in part because you know indies don't have the lines of credit that major labels do.

So we spend all this money to get the thing made.

You pay the designers or your friends you know to make cool album art and then you’ve got to manufacture all of them before you ship it.

So we're sensitive to cash flow and we try, for anybody who's gonna buy the record, we try to give him good reason and a good incentive to buy it in advance so that we can weather that gap, but also because we try to admittedly game the system a little bit. A lot of music listening is informed by algorithms.

That's not true in our conversation. You're curative. Decisions that you're making as a deliberate curator on air....obviously you know when we and I listen to Spotify and some of those algorithms get me pretty well.

"When I'm a part of a three-piece, the flexibility that affords you, is you're really nimble."

But nonetheless, you do find that money is favored. Money works in music, and we don't have that much money.

And so if we can consolidate all of our sales on the first day of release, then we can try to spike up the charts even for an hour, which gives us a higher chart position which can maybe get us into the slipstream of the algorithms as they work.

Kari: I mean, I think gaming the system is what you — it's like a necessity in this world of the industry.

Dessa: It is. I'm not saying there are villains out there, but it's like there's so much black box stuff. And I don't think it's a surprise to anybody listening.

But Spotify and services and other streaming services have made music super accessible, which isn't bad, but it's made it really hard to get paid to make it.

You still gotta pay rent and pay the friends that you're working with. To, like, make the stuff in the first place, you know? For us, I think it is definitely part of the plan.

It's like, how can we work the edges to compete with bigger fish?

Songwriting and the love of words

Kari: You are a lyricist, to the max. Can you talk about your love of language and when that started?

Dessa: I think it started almost at the same time as my memory did. Like my first memories. Some of them involve an affinity and fascination with words, so learning words that I was surprised existed at all.

Like I remember when my mom, I'm sure she was reading like Peter Rabbit, but when she said the word "fortnight" I was surprised to learn that there was a name for two weeks! You know what I mean? Like, and here's the name for three-and-a-half days, like, it just surprised me that such an unlikely span of time had a name.

And I was excited by that. I remember being like, "Say it again," and filing it away for later deployments.

I don't remember this, but my mom said later, "Somebody came over," and I was like "Ohh Mark! I haven't seen you in a fortnight!"

Cause I was 3 years old and eager to flex or whatever.

In some ways it it feels so elemental.

I've worked to develop that love and those skills. But I think it was sort of like blood type. I think some of it was ingrained in bread, you know, it was just like I I love chocolate and I love words.

Kari: I grew up in a family where my mom loved names like Martina Navratilova.

She would talk about Martina. I mean, she loved tennis anyway, but like any athlete or any person in a culture that had a really interesting and fun name to say, she would just love those words.

And so it's translated to me and to my sisters. Were your parents wordsmiths? Do they love words?

Dessa: Yes, in short. But also I love that it's such an interesting, particular facet about your mom.

Do you remember that?

Do you remember the name of the figure skater from Russia when we were kids? The tennis names are infectious.

Kari: Yeah, I know.

Dessa: I remember she had a really interesting one and there was a gymnast too, yes.

I can see you receding down the rabbit hole, like you're just getting smaller and smaller as an astronaut.

Kari: So this is what you do to me because we are the same age.

So, so many of your references are like pathways in my brain going to my childhood that it's like, "Oh my God, I forgot about that." And that's so it's like....

Dessa: Yeah, touching the wire.

Kari: Down this rabbit hole. Trying to figure out where was that in my memory bank, yeah.

Dessa: I think that yes, both my parents are verbal and my dad was very much like an autodidact. So he was studying astronomy in our backyard. He was a big fan of the classics.

He was a World War II scholar when he was studying in the basement. A broke, brilliant and passion-driven dude.

I would say that one of the things that he really imparted to me was to find something that you love and then find somebody who's willing to pay you something to do it.

And if you keep your costs down, you don't need that much money. What you buy yourself, when you keep your costs down, is freedom.

"It is like you are comparing an Etch-a-Sketch to an IMAX, as far as just the immersive experience of that sound."

Public radio

Kari: So I know you're a public radio fan. From guest hosting on 1A, which you did a great job of, by the way, I've fully enjoyed those, to collaborating with Marketplace Money for your song about Janet Yellen. And of course, Terry Gross. Let's talk about this. Why a song about Terry Gross?

Dessa: Total mega matriarch of the public radio interview format.

I think I listen to a lot of public radio probably because it was on a lot of the time when I was a kid. I was born into that and my mom was in media my dad used to work in public radio when he was college-aged and stuff.

So yeah, it was just kind of part of the fabric of my growing up.

Having an opportunity now to be behind the microphone a few times, I did a podcast with the BBC and American Public Media for a few years.

And when I first made that transition — so it's prerecorded. You're editing. I get to write my scripts and be real careful and stay up late and tinker it with all the words one by one.

And then transitioning to live radio. It's like, I want to know what brand of deodorant you use! Oh my God, woo!

Live radio felt like a completely different game to me. The countdown clocks. But yeah, I love radio as a form and a format, and in some ways, I think I would say, my love of radio is actually probably just an extension of my love of the language arts and literary forms that are oral.

I grew up as a slam poet in my early 20s. That was my first foray into performance and eventually into hip hop. Art performed aloud. That has a special resonance for me.

Whether that's good work on the radio or, on the occasion that you get to see a really strong slam artist or really good reading of an audiobook, it's a special thing.

Amanda Shires is performing at the 2023 Grand Rapids Riverfest, Saturday, September 9. Her latest album is a collaboration with the late Bobbie Nelson, sister of Willie, called "Loving You."

Kari: So you split your time between Minneapolis and New York City. How has your time in New York impacted you and your creative spirit side?

Dessa: I think of the features of the culture in Minnesota and in Minneapolis specifically, where I grew up. There are many artists. There are a lot of independent venues in Minneapolis. The fact that bookers are totally aimed at supporting the local scene is seen as a big deal and isn't as true elsewhere.

There are some markets that really do have deserts where maybe you've got a coffee shop to play in or you've got a stadium, but then there are no stepping stones to developing your career.

I didn't know that when I was in my 20s, I didn't realize that. Minneapolis was really good at that, and not every place was similar, we've got great, some of the nation's best, radio for indie work, you know, and that is definitely not true everywhere.

But I think that culturally, in Minnesota, we do sort of penalize the tallest poppy. Don't be special. Don't be too ambitious and New York doesn't. New York says strain upwards.

Now granted, you don't want a kind of ambition that's going to step on somebody else on the way up but yeah, I think that New York, where I could talk a little bit louder and dance.

You know what I mean? Like, even just like there's a guy from which I buy fruit on the corner for years, like my old apartment, I don't know his full name, but we would always dance when I was buying oranges, because why not, you know? And we'd sing the same stupid song.

New York isn't very shy, and I like that. I like that people say I want to be and then they say a really big goal, and it's not assured that they'll get there. We don't presume that they're conceited for trying or for wanting it and that feels good to me.

"I love radio as a form and a format and in some ways I think I would say my love of radio is actually probably just an extension of my love of the language arts and literary forms that are oral."

My mom's family's is from from out here. She's on the Puerto Rican side. And so. Yeah, it does feel good to see that just on the streets a little more. You know, there weren't too many Puerto Ricans around when I was growing up, and it's nice that looks kind of like my mom and I like the way they talk.

It feels good.

Kari: Thank you so much for your time today. Dessa, we are so excited to have you perform at Grand Rapids Riverfest coming up on Saturday, Sept. 9.

As the sun went down, hula hoops lit the audience of the Grand Rapids Riverfest 2022.
Weisguys Images
As the sun went down, hula hoops lit the audience of the Grand Rapids Riverfest 2022.

A little side note on this. We've seen an interesting Venn diagram of your fans and Amanda Shires' fans. We have seen such a crossover with people who are so stoked to see the both of you there and that was just a little unexpected.

Dessa: Yeah. My bandmates, would you mind if I give them a super quick shout-out?

Kari: No, please do.

Dessa: OK, we're heading up from the Cities, I'll be playing with a four-piece band that day, so slightly extended.

I've got Joshua who is this fantastic keyboardist and saxophonist and rapper, to like me.

Aviva Jay, a phenomenal voice and she plays the harp. It's super rad.

And then bassist Allison.

I think looking at the lineup, I was stoked to be asked to play. And then right after that, I was like I'm super stoked to attend the show. You know what I mean? Like as an attendee!

I'm gonna be able to find a great spot to stand because I'll have a cool wristband like this is going to be great to listen to. So we're excited as listeners as well as performers to see the show.

Kari: Good. Well, we can't wait to have you. And again, thank you for your time and your words, and your music. So looking forward to Bury the Lede out on Sept. 29.

Dessa: Thank you so much, see you soon.

Kari: (after Dessa hangs up) Love her. Are we best friends?

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