Analogue Music | Dessa


By Matt Conner

Sound the Bells feels like an important place to stop—or at least pause for longer than usual.

From the outside, Dessa's latest release resembles the sort of creative pause taken by many veteran musicians, a sort of commercial deep breath that allows fans to catch up on the catalog. If you thought Sound the Bells was easily filed into such a category—the folder that contains such Greatest Hits efforts or reworked tunes for a new, easy package—you're missing on the importance of it all.

An important aside: if you're new to the world of Dessa, there's a lot of catching up ahead. The Minneapolis native is a celebrated emcee in the dynamic Doomtree collective (P.O.S., Sims, et al). She's a lecturer on myriad topics ranging from the arts to science. She's a poet, essayist, fiction writer and, most recently, the author of My Own Devices, a hardcover memoir that released last year (Dutton Books). She's a curator, philosopher, artist, and speaker—a Renaissance woman who's gaining momentum and opportunity with each new turn.

That's what makes Sound the Bells as important as it is inspired. In the midst of so much creative output, it's a chance for her (and her fans) to reflect on the wonderful body of work she's released to date from 2010's A Badly Broken Code to 2018's Chime. Dessa does many things well, but Sound the Bells reminds us what she does best—and it does so by dynamically re-arranging everything you've heard before.

Analogue: Sound the Bells is your new album that features the Minnesota Orchestra. Were you surprised by how much some of the songs were reinvented?

Dessa: Well, the process by which that happens is collaborative, too. What happens is that an arranger named Andy Thompson in this case will listen to the recorded stuff and then reimagine a song and translate it into an orchestral environment. I'm fortunate to work with Andy who is a phenomenal orchestrator. The translations he has created for my songs are super-ambitious. The song really is obliterated and then resurrected again to make use of the orchestra's power. It's not just adding strings. It's incinerating and rebuilding fresh from ash and light and violence. [Laughs]

Sound the Bells
Sound the Bells

Analogue: Andy was also a contributor to the original tracks, is that right?

Dessa: Yes, he was on some of them. That's right.

Analogue: Does that help him know where to take them being so familiar?

Dessa: That's interesting. I'm not exactly sure what he would say his relationship is to the songs that he re-designed, where he was involved in the original version and then also the orchestral arrangemnets. I don't know how different the process feels to him than translating someone else's studio work.

I will say I know for some of the tunes, particularly for those that have a lot of layered percussion, a lot of intricate syncopation, that a drummer who used to be in my live band, Joey Van Phillips, was called to contribute to a couple of the drum treatments on this record. So Andy asked him if he'd be willing to come in and write some percussive parts as well.

Analogue: With so many different creative elements at play, how much do you find that's helpful for you or how much do they compete?

Dessa: Now that Sound the Bells is out and I'm trying to figure out the next step or two in my career, there is a competition practically between forms, meaning writing an essay or writing a poem does compete with writing a song for hours in the day. The forms compete for time but there are a lot of artistic interests, I guess, and drives that I don't think one single form meets on its own.

I think an analogy in romance might be apt. If you're asking your partner, your boyfriend or girlfriend, to be everything—your soulmate, your bowling partner, your confidante, and your spotter at the gym—it might be the case that the relationship starts to get taxed. You're asking too much of it. I think the same thing starts to become true at some points with art. I can't ask music to give me the space to investigate a complicated intellectual idea that needs 10,000 words to cover it. Similarly, I can't ask writing a book to make me feel an adrenaline rush on a weekend night.

Those disciplines serve different roles in our culture and they're better designed at times for chasing a particularly interesting idea. Not every idea is best presented in song or poetry or essays, so it's nice to be able to maneuver between the forms to satisfy a curiosity or an artistic interest.

What am I legitimately interested in instead of what would be the natural follow-up or what would sell the easiest?

Analogue: Does that create a hunger to return to the other forms?

Dessa: I would say so. I think it can, anyway. After spending some time in one lane or on one discipline, all of the different scrap material I would have collected for rap songs now starts to weigh heavier after I've emptied the prose ideas. I think it's natural. I jump around a bit, which can be challenging career-wise, because I find it very satisfying as an art-maker.

Analogue: How do you decide on what's next? Is it a matter of following what you're interested in?

Dessa: I would say yes, but this job is very much comprised of a series of gigs, you know? You're hired to perform and that means you have a job for approximately 90 minutes. Then you have to go and get a new job. [Laughs] So I would say that plotting my next steps is too hard. I don't have a 10-year plan. I do, however, probably have a two-year plan. That's as far as I ever go, but right now it's taking curiosity seriously. What am I legitimately interested in instead of what would be the natural follow-up or what would sell the easiest? What do I actually give a fuck about? Can I find something I give a fuck about that not too many other people have already given a fuck about so I can do something fresh with it? [Laughs]

Then I look at what partners I have in exploring and financing that. Is it a song I can get done with Doomtree Records and then put it out? Yeah, sometimes it is. If it's a bigger production that's going to take a lot of musicians, then I gotta figure out who's game to play. So I would say it's both interest and curiosity but it shares the wheel with the marketplace factors of who I might be able to partner with to put what I'm most excited about.

Analogue: How do you guard yourself from the shadow side of the marketplace?

Dessa: Oh, I think for the most part if my career has had some challenging moments with the marketplace, it wouldn't be that I've had an influx of huge amounts of money that have watered down my career. It's 'how do I get the marketplace to invest in this fantastic idea?' [Laughs]

I would say so far, even if it's been really frustrating sometimes to have ideas that I'm excited about seem like they're too risky for big partners to invest in, I haven't been seriously tempted to try to dilute the work in an effort to make it sell. If it were just an issue of selling things, there are easier products to move than intellectual songwriting. So if it were really just about the money, there are other lines of work that you can make more money more easily.

Analogue: This record feels like a clean slate of sorts. Sound The Bells gives you a chance to reinvent some of your songs in this new way. That's gotta be exciting, but is there also a longong to get after something new?

Dessa: In my head, I don't see this as a clean slate. I mean, I don't feel like I've hit reset. I do have a bunch of half-formed rap verses banging around in the Macbook Air that I haven't placed yet. Generally when I'm writing, I have a slush document of the words or phrases or two-bar patterns that I could then try to assemble when it was time to finish a song. I was noting the other day, 'Oh, Jesus, I have a lot of clay!' I haven't turned out a lot of plates recently, but there's a lot or raw material I can round into something.

Analogue: Is that a telling factor for you for what is next?

Dessa: Maybe, yeah. I think at this point the usual cycle after an album release is that you turn your attention to touring for a while in order to share that music around the country. I'd say the next two months for me will involve a good deal of touring. Next week, I start on the East Coast and I'll be performing with my regular live band and a string quartet to present some of the orchestral feel to our live shows. For me that's a hugely ambitious touring party. But that old drive is slowly regenerating, too.

VISIT: Dessa