Photo by Ryan Tharp
She was born Margaret Wander and took the stage name Dessa, which comes from Odysseus and means “wanderer.” But don't get the wrong idea, says the Minneapolis MC—meandering is not her style.
“There's purpose to the decisions I'm making and a purposefulness to the path I'm taking,” insists Dessa, whose stellar debut album, A Badly Broken Code, dropped last month on Doomtree.
“I do tend to be a little preoccupied,” she adds. “I'll wake up in my body and realize I'm four stops beyond my bus stop, or I'll walk well past the grocery store because I'm lost in thought. Maybe ‘absentminded' is more accurate than wandering, but I'll take the poetic promotion.”
Really, though, this born lyricist knew where she was headed all along. She wanted to write and spent her first two decades poring over books and stockpiling words in the “warehouse at the back of my head,” she says. In 2002, at the urging of her best friend, Dessa entered a slam poetry contest and won, opening a whole new world for the wordsmith.
“I'm a very extroverted person,” she explains. “I love writing, but it doesn't feel pleasant the way a movie or making out feels pleasant—it feels like hard, uncomfortable, tweaky work, you know? Part of the attraction to a spoken-word or rap setting is that you're able to create a hybrid between very careful writing craft and performance art.”
The victory landed Dessa a yearlong stint with Minnesota's competing slam poetry team, where she honed her spoken-word skills. Turns out she could also sing—a formerly private thing she did at home with her mom—making her a package deal for Doomtree, the Minneapolis hip-hop collective, which enlisted her as its only female member.
Dessa, who cites ethereal alt-rocker Jeff Buckley as one of her favorites, proved a natural at hip-hop, a genre she artfully dismantles on her debut. Produced by Doomtree's Paper Tiger, among others, A Badly Broken Code includes melodic a cappella, retro torch songs and rapid-fire linguistic lashings.
“The beats came first,” Dessa explains. “I'd listen and try to hum or rap some nonsense to get a feel for the lyrical pattern that might serve the beat well. I'd consult a sort of slush document I keep on my desktop, about 150 pages of little turns of phrase, short ideas and four or five rhyming lines. And then I'd assemble a cohesive song from those lines, filling in where need be.”
Despite her brazen way with beats, Dessa still has to fight an all-too-familiar bias. Rap is a boy's club, and everybody wants to know how she got past the “No Girls Allowed” sign out front. She's not a rapper—she's a female rapper.
“I can understand why female artists get so indignant that their gender is so much a part of their identity,” Dessa says. “But I also understand that there aren't a lot of women in rap music, so there's a degree of novelty there, and novelty is interesting in all facets of life. It's the burden on me as an artist to make sure that factor is not a defining one.”
Dessa—who happens to be smoking hot—struggled at first to strike the right balance with her appearance.
“At the beginning, I would wear size 12 and 14 pants cinched with cord and huge oversize sweatshirts because I didn't want anybody to say that I was on stage for the wrong reasons, or that I had somehow lucked into my position because I'd been favored by some male artist or promoter.
“Now, after considering it for a while, it seems as though I would still be responding to public expectations and pressure if I concealed my femininity in an effort to fit into rap music. Probably the best thing to do is to be as feminine or as sexy on stage as I feel comfortable being off-stage.”
That's not to say she's busting out all over the place. “I still don't like it when people parade their bodies so much that it's an essential part of their act. Maybe it's just bad strategy. You've got great tits for 10 years, but a mind that you've got to continue to express for many, many years after that. It's short-sighted.”
Self-expression seems as effortless as breathing for Dessa, who last year published Spiral Bound, a slim book of prose and poetry. In her songwriting, she pits toughness against vulnerability, an appealing lyrical tug-of-war.
“Vulnerability is fundamentally uncomfortable,” she says. “But I am comfortable talking about it. That's one part of the lyrics I've thought a lot about: how to titrate that, what proportion am I going to have vulnerable content. If you rely only on that, it's got kind of a confessional, ‘poor me' vibe that has come to define a lot of genres, like creative nonfiction, which is sometimes confessional and exhibitionistic. I want to avoid both of those terms if I can.”
Instead, Dessa skillfully probes her world and inner workings, from failed romantic relationships and fear of death to the alienation caused by comparing “your private self to everybody else's public face.”
“Broken people make good art,” she says. “We're all busted in tiny ways.”
Dessa performs with P.O.S. and Grieves on Saturday, Feb. 20, at The Loft at UCSD. www.myspace.com/dessadarling.