Although Dessa has won acclaim for her clever, innovative rap songs, she’s equally expressive as a singer, as she shows on her latest single, the evocative ballad “Bombs Away.” That song will be released on February 15 as part of what she calls her “IDES series,” in which she will put out a new song on the 15th of each month.
“I thought it would be cool to do a series of singles where there was something regular to look forward to,” Dessa says, calling from her New York City home. “It’s both an aesthetic and a business response to the pandemic. The bulk of indie artists’ income was made on the road. Now that touring is off the table, it’s tricky to figure out exactly how to monetize the work we’re doing.”
Dessa—who’s also a member of the Minneapolis-based Doomtree hip-hop collective—shows her particular skill for writing introspective, intelligent lyrics on “Bombs Away.” When writing, she says, she thinks about “What are the knots in your life that don’t untie easily, because it’s some point of friction that very often renders a set of words with enough conflict to maintain interest.”
For “Bombs Away”—and the rest of the songs in the IDES series, Dessa has a three-person team in place. “It’s me, my long-time collaborator Lazerbeak, and a producer and composer named Andy Thompson,” she says, “and then every once in a while, [there will be] other folks, too.”
To adapt while working during this pandemic, “I dropped some coin on a better mic to be able to record well in my own closet,” Dessa says, “and I’m engineering my own vocals, which is something I did before, but I’m focusing more on that now.”
Dessa says technology also played a key part of her process when she started writing “Bombs Away.” For this one, I used an app on my phone called ThumbJam that I use a lot when I’m starting a composition,” she says. “For this particular app, you can select an instrument, and there’s a lot of instruments with which I’d be unfamiliar, a lot of sounds that I might not otherwise have on deck or in my imagination.
“Very often I’ll pick a scale from a faraway place, like maybe a Hungarian minor scale, until something really catches me,” she adds. “Then I’ll start to record loops and slowly build the instrumentation of the song.
“I don’t read music, so for me, there’s a lot of experimentation,” Dessa continues. “I’ll usually come up with some melody lines that I really like, and start to draft some lyrics to that. Then I’ll send it to my production guys and say, ‘What can we do percussively that’s interesting?’ Then we move into the more professional tools as we go.”
Dessa says she particularly enjoys writing lyrics, as working with words was the skill she knew she had when she was growing up in Minneapolis. “I was writing poetry. I was writing essays. It wasn’t super polished or anything, but that was where my big passion was,” she says. “Then in my twenties, I got encouraged to go compete at a competitive spoken word [event]. It was there that I met the hip-hop community in Minneapolis. Hip-hop has a lot in common with spoken word poetry, obviously.”
Dessa quickly realized that her poetry writing fit perfectly with that genre. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a genre that prizes words more than hip-hop does,” she says. “If you’ve got a really complex conceit for the song, rap gives you a really high word count. You can get hundreds of words into a rap song.”
Joining the Doomtree hip-hop collective, she has appeared on all of their EPs and albums since 2005, and she still is an active member. Her first full-length solo album, A Badly Broken Code, came out in 2010. Since then, she’s put out three more solo albums (the most recent one, Chime, was released in 2018), all of which made appearances on various hip-hop and indie music charts.
Since the pandemic hit, Dessa has shifted her focus to singles instead of albums. Her astute wordplay nabbed attention in January when she released the track “Who’s Yellen Now?” A whip smart ode to Janet Yellen, the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, it’s an unlikely focus for a rap song, to say the least.
“The Yellen one was a very special case,” Dessa says. “That was the brainchild of the public radio program called Marketplace that asked me to do it. I’d visited with them a couple of times as a guest when they had questions about the economics of being an independent musician. So we had kind of a connection. And then [President] Biden cracked that joke after he had nominated Janet Yellen: ‘[Lin-Manuel] Miranda should do one about her.’ It was a gag.” But a Marketplace producer thought Dessa could actually pull it off. “They hit me up and said, ‘Would you be interested in writing something for Janet Yellen?’ And I said, ‘That sounds hilarious!’”
“Who’s Yellen Now?” turned out to be so adroit that Yellen herself, via social media, publicly thanked Dessa for it, quipping “your tune is ‘money’” in a January 26 post. “I was delighted when she responded,” Dessa says with a laugh. “And then my head exploded when the Treasury Department tweeted [about it].”
Normally, though, Dessa is left to her own devices to come up with ideas for her songs, for which she says she draws from her environment. Recently, she’s drawn inspiration from bucket drummers busking in a New York City subway station, and seeing a dog tied up outside a store and yearning for its owner. As for how and when any given musical and lyrical elements will show up in a song, even Dessa herself can’t say for sure, especially given the pandemic-driven uncertainty.
“I’m only working two months ahead of the release schedule [for the IDES series], instead of releasing an album that was written maybe twelve months ago, which is usually how you go about stuff,” Dessa says, adding that she’s choosing to view this as a positive: “I can now be more responsive to the times that we’re living in.” It should be interesting to see what innovative ideas she’ll bring to listeners with each IDES release, and beyond.