Her Own Devices: Dessa Talks About Her New Book of Love, Life, and Science

Interviews
10/09/2018
Kelsey Brannan
all photos by Alley Rutzel (view set)

To fans, it's no secret that Dessa hustles hard. In addition to her musical work as a solo artist and a member of Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective Doomtree, she's an incredible writer, poet, and public speaker. In between the release of her latest solo album Chime this February and preparing for an ambitious performance with the Minnesota Orchestra this October, Dessa released her first memoir, My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love.

The book is a collection of essays that beautifully illustrate her life, both in and out of the music industry, presenting earnest reflections on the experiences and people that have most significantly shaped her life. Notably, Dessa dives deep her tumultuous relationship with a fellow Doomtree member and the lengths to which she went in order to put it in her past — including an experimental brain scan and neurofeedback treatments. 

While in Seattle for a reading at Third Place Books as part of her book tour, Dessa paid a visit to KEXP to talk in more detail about these experience, and My Own Devices. Listen or read below.


Towards the beginning of the book, there's a glossary that outlines jargon for non-music industry folks as kind of a primer for the music industry and I found that striking because you work in so many different media. I would imagine that your audiences for your poetry versus prose versus music are very different. How much does that factor into how you approach your work in each of these arenas

Dessa: Yeah, I mean in some ways I think I'm lucky to have a life where I do traffic in really different circles. That's one of the things that I really like about performance is you get to meet like genuinely different types of people — whether it's architects at a professional conference or physicians or women at a women's shelter or a room full of kids. But yeah, I guess I am aware of the fact that I want to communicate with terms that are familiar to each of those audiences if I can, in the same way that I hope they would do the same favor to me. So if I'm talking to a physician they might drop some of the Latin phrases and use plain English to describe what they're talking about. And I'm sure when they're talking to other physicians it's like nothing but acronyms. 

Do you think that all of these different media come together to represent different parts of your identity? Thinking about "where do I want this idea to live; how do I want to communicate that?"

Yes and no. I think that while the exact words with which I communicate an idea might change a little bit depending on who I'm speaking to, I hope that there is a casual and curious and intellectual bent, maybe, that feels legit and genuine at the core of all of those communications. So I like it when you find a scientist who's really excited about what they do, but who communicates it casually and street language. So I think for me, usually, if there's an idea I'm really stoked about, my hope is that it would be interesting to a lot of people across demographic demarcations if I can present it well and just honestly tell the kind of reasons that got me excited about it. 

Do you think that you're able to dive into certain topics deeper in certain medium? 

Yes, it's a scope issue. I think that if I'm really interested in some part of botany or something, that's going to be a super lame rap song, for a lot of reasons. But, you know, you need a lot of ink to investigate some ideas. And no matter how fresh the beat is, an 18-minute rap song is still too long. And then also because rhyming suffixes is very lazy in modern rap. It's just super lame to rhyme a suffix with a suffix and a lot of technical words and really predictable three or four letter suffixes. 

I never thought about that: it's not just a topic thing, it's a technical thing, a language thing, and antics. 

I think in part when people might hear about this [science] stuff, I jump in to explain that I'm not going to be like the Bill Nye of hip-hop. That I'm not rapping explainers or something. My goal is to write a rad song, not to try to teach somebody some facet of organics. 

Do you think that, for publicity purposes, people will shoehorn you into that category? 

Yeah, and I get it. It's like "weird things are coupled" — that's how headlines work, right? "Rapper who is expected to be drug-addled and dim-witted learns this science thing!" In part, you do become accustomed to that. But I admit, particularly on the science stuff — because science really is under fire in our culture right now — that one particularly does grate on me because I'm really careful in how I talk about science. I want to make sure to honor the data, to be an empiricist. And so when people condense and then further condense and then sensationalize a headline, I'm not so much sweating what it does to my reputation — because very often it results in clicks — I'm sweating about how it communicates science and our culture. I do think that's legitimately important and I don't want to be part of the problem. 

So, anyone who is familiar with your work knows how hard you hustle. I mean, you can be releasing an album one month and then a couple of months later, you come out with a book or you have a show with an orchestra. It's all different things and they're huge projects that you take on. There's a part in the book that I was really struck by where you talk about being maybe 14 [years old] and thinking about purposefulness and valuing that over happiness or maybe prioritizing it over happiness. I'm wondering if you think of purposefulness and happiness as mutually exclusive things. 

I definitely don't. I think they very often coincide. If you were to create a Venn diagram, maybe it's the case that you would only have a very minor crescent sliver in which those two things don't coincide and don't overlap. But I do think that there are distinct. If you're a painter and you've got a gallery showing in a month and you realize when you get up, "You know what? This isn't the direction I wanted to take. I have to start over." That might make for a really bummer month: "I got to stay up all night. I'm going to be high on paint fumes. My mom's going to be bummed because I'm not going to go on the trip that I planned with her. My personal relationships are going to be taxed. But it's important to me that I get this right." And that just doesn't happen in one night — that can happen many times. Those sorts of decisions over the course of a life where you decide "I want to be physically uncomfortable and probably also manifest some challenges in the relationships with everyone I love and everyone who loves me," in the interest of trying to do this thing that I understand to be contributive. 

You talk a lot about fear and pain as primary motivators in creative work, and maybe work in general. Are there things that you do, either in your work or in your personal life, that mitigate the toll that those things can take? Especially if you're throwing yourself into a creative process where you know you're going to be dredging up a lot of fear and pain? 

In some ways, it doesn't seem like the work itself is responsible for the fear or the pain. Although I do write a lot about painful stuff, the pain itself is coming from some outside factor: personal relationships or fear of aging or whatever you've got. The work doesn't render the pain painless. I think that finding some way to make meaning of the maelstrom of constant experience makes the pain ordered. It makes it feel like it's part of an experience that I can imbue with purpose and meaning and that makes it more tolerable. I know that sometimes people do like mindfulness or hypnotism in which they still feel pain; they're just less concerned with the sensation of that pain. 

And it's interesting you talk about time to running out of time, racing the clock. That's something that comes up a lot in your book. I'm wondering if you think that your work is feeding the desire to be purposeful. 

I think you're right in the idea that this is all fleeting unless you find a way to make it, otherwise, it will have been futile. 

It's making the most of these things — time and energy and skill and beauty and all that kind of stuff — while you have them. I think that feeds into the purposefulness mentality. 

And also I think some of it's just probably built into my blueprint. Like, you'll be a little neurotic and maybe more neurotic as you go. I've always been one of those kids who thought a lot about death, even when no one was super sick. I think that's always been top of mind. And I was always also someone who, as soon as I think I loved something very much, I'd immediately start to forecast the losing of that thing. 

Absolutely. I relate to that so much. Being an anxious kid, being an anxious adult. And then you find something to attach your anxiety to. It helps if I can make something of it. You write so beautifully about your relationships with so many people, both in this book and in your music as well. You talk about relating to each of your loved ones through a very unique passion — like with your dad, it's the plane that he's building. I'm wondering if there is an element of adding utilitarianism to emotions there and if collaborative and creative relationships perhaps are the most intimate? 

Hmm. That's heavy. Yeah, I would say that if there is any way during the course of a day that I can find some way to wring meaning out of a given minute, then I would. Like, if I can hang with friends and enjoy their company, but also find a way to make it feel purposeful. It's that much more fun — and if it's in the service of an idea that we're excited about, all the cooler. To be honest though, I'm realizing that I've maybe dialed that up a little too hard. It's hard to wind down, hard to get the brain to turn off in a way that I used to be proud of. But yeah, I would say that from my friendships and my personal relationships are often collaborative. 

You write a lot about your relationship with your dad in the book and there is a passage where you talk about his voice being in your head when you're working on a song. That reminded me a lot of the notion of an "audience of one." As a performer or someone who speaks a lot to the masses, being coached to think of delivering a message to just one person so that it will come off that much more strong and emotional. I'm wondering how much of your dad's opinion matters to you in your work — or any one person's opinion — versus maybe just a creative way of personifying that audience. 

Well, that's interesting. To be honest, this is my first exposure to that idea. I'd be curious to know if there was some sort of empirical way to test like how much that helped and how much that hurt. I mean on occasion, I was aware: "I don't know how representative your dad's taste is of the people that you're talking to." This particular gig — like is it appropriate to be so hung up on even his imagined response? The little passing comments that he made about me, or more often about other performance art in general, did loom — and continue to loom — outsized, in my general understanding of aesthetics, art, and the way to live a life. 

You talk about how, in your line of work as a member of Doomtree, a lot of relationships kind of cross boundaries that they normally wouldn't in a lot of other lines of work. In the book, not by name, but you do reveal your relationship and history with [fellow Doomtree member] P.O.S. You've addressed this [topic] in songs and kind of more veiled terms before. How does it feel now to have that narrative kind of most explicitly out in the open through this book? 

It feels like this is a story I've lived, so it's good for me. Feels like a relief, in some ways, not to be worried about keeping that secret. Secrets take energy. 

Yeah, they do. 

I don't want to put anyone under the bus — that's important to me. So seeking the blessing of the people who are mentioned in the book was important to me before publishing. There's a "you can't f*** with me" vibe. Like, what would you say? Not that it's completely empty, but my closet has a lot of empty hangers now, and you just can't out me on much stuff. I know that that's kind of like an Eight Mile vibe, like "you battle yourself." Still, there is that kind of freedom. 

Did it feel like a secret before? 

It felt obvious in some ways to me. But yeah, it wasn't something that I talked about. On the other hand, [I was] talking to Sims from Doomtree before the book came out. I was worried about what people might think about all of it: "you're making some pretty intimate thoughts and behaviors and history public and..." Sims shut me up after a second and was like "Yo, honey. No one is going to read this!" So much of that little tiny microcosm of the world who would actually care about my secrets is probably not going to read this book. 

Was he referring specifically to the Minneapolis scene? 

Yeah. Because I know other places, there is no real reveal. People break up and die and have divorces and have amazing tragedies and victories every day and they're only rendered interesting if you have some connection to those people. So, I know it's a little scene where I come from but of course, it's the one I live in. 

Was there some catharsis in taking ownership of your narrative and having control over how that was shared, and how much was shared? 

Yeah, I mean there's an acid bath contingent element to it. You feel tempered. It's hard to do but you feel clean afterward. I mean, I don't want to paint it in too sunny of terms. It's going to be uncomfortable at book readings. Personal questions. Like, there will be squirming for sure. But yeah, it feels good to just be open. 

Has that come up so far? 

See, it's only six days in. So on day four, the horror of people having read it before they arrived started. Yeah, I think I'm lucky in that I think I have unusually rad listeners who are smart and respectful and interested in truth, for sure, but they're not all that gossipy or concerned with sensationalism. So I've been surprised how cool people have been in engaging with it. Content that they could take in a gossipy way. And then also I have been surprised at how common my experience has been. That so many people — men and women, young and 50, 60, 70 — have come up and said something to the effect of "I loved her for 27 years." Like wow, man. I'm not saying everybody does it. I'm just saying that I thought that this was this rarity of an experience — how long I was struggling with this romantic relationship. And I was wrong. Because there is no real point in a conversation where you would offer that information to someone unless you're super, super close to them. So I think a lot of us didn't realize how many other people were out there doing the same thing. 

The book does not come across as gossipy, it doesn't come across like a tell-all sensational thing. It is very easy to empathize with it and it's very easy to relate to. I'm sure that, for a lot of people who you're encountering and maybe some people that you will never meet, this is probably helping a lot of people. I want to dig into the intersection of art and science a little bit and talk about the neurofeedback treatment that you underwent to get over this relationship. You had your brain scanned to kind of identify the scientific basis for these feelings that you were having and you talk in the book about how this is a project that you were proud of, from an art project perspective. Going into it, did you think of it as an art project or did you think of it more like something that you needed to handle emotionally?

I thought of it as both. It was like "OK, I've been working through these feelings for a super, super long time." And by my own appraisal, it was taking a lot longer than seemed either reasonable or commensurate with other people's experience. It's like a skinned knee that just stayed skinned for a decade. So there was a personal element of wanting to investigate a way, scientifically, that one might tackle a problem that proves protracted and prevalent. But the other thing was — just as an intellectual person who's curious about the world, I was stunned that there was a part of the brain that would reliably light up in romantic love. It hadn't occurred to me that that might be the case. My curiosity was aroused, not only for my own sake but just for an understanding of how human beings work. That fascinated me. Neurofeedback is a process by which you attach a lot of electrodes to your scalp, essentially, that are measuring your brainwaves. The attempt then is to try to change your brain waves by having a computer analyze your data in real time and give you a little series of tinkling music when your brain behaves within certain thresholds. So learning more about that, I was excited to learn that love is this systemic experience. Love isn't your brain — that's too reductive — but your brain participates in love in an observable way. In the same way that when you're involved in a sexual encounter, we know that that involves all sorts of systems: your cardiovascular system, your hormones. It doesn't mean it is your hormones, but the whole system of you is engaged. I'm not trying to remove memories but to see if I could strengthen my emotional resilience in the same way that you might, like, strengthen a muscle. 

You also talk about how, after the sessions were done, you did feel noticeably different. It's been a little bit since you've been through that and then released the book. I'm wondering how that holds up now. 

Yeah, I would say that I did feel different after doing these neurofeedback sessions, but I was also aware the sample size of one does not an experiment make. That could be because I've been talking to scientists about my love life in some serious forced talk therapy. It could be a placebo. It could be anything. But the scientist would care about that. The woman was excited to feel a little bit better. I would say since then I've definitely had some ups and some downs. Like, if you went to the gym for eight weeks, a year and a half later, I don't know if you'd expect to still have a six-pack. 

Well, it's also life. Life has ups and downs. Even going through this experience and having maybe changed some of your brainwaves, that doesn't change life and how you're going to interact with it. 

Totally. It's not like changing how your brain works for a while is a permanent physiological change. The same way that, if I do yoga for two months, I don't get to permanently fit into whatever bikini. It's a lifestyle that you're going to maintain. I did feel excited about it. Afterward, I thought that there are people with so much more skin in this game, for people who really could use this and more than I can. Not in an "I need to get over my boyfriend" sort of way but "I gotta get over my man and mother my kid" sort of way. You know? There are people who are suffering real trauma that I thought might be interested. 

A lot of this served as a basis for Chime, your most recent record, as well. How much did the art part of this and the science part of this work in tandem to bring about this change that you've been feeling? 

I think essays felt like the mode of expression to talk about the science. That content, to me anyway, does not lend itself to a "hot 16" in a rap song. But some of the questions that underlie that experience do. Like in the song on Chime called "Half of You," where you're wondering how much is enough. Can you celebrate loving someone even if it didn't end well? Those kinds of questions do feel like song questions. There's one other tune on the record called "Velodrome" that one questions free will — I think a lot of us have at some point thought "if I could choose to love this person, I don't think I would because it's too difficult." And I also I think sometimes, some of us anyway, have thought "if I could choose to love this person, I would. I would choose to love and commit more if I could turn it on, because what an exceptional human being." So that question of "are we at the helm of our own emotional responses, or not?"

with her band, outside of KEXP

 

Another thing that you talk about in terms of getting over us in this experience is taking a sabbatical from Doomtree and moving to New York. And again, it's been a little bit since you've made that move. Can you think back to making that decision and then delivering that news to the rest of the Doomtree crew? What Were some of the things you were thinking about at that time? 

Yeah, I just thought they were going to be so mad I already had all these rebuttals ready. So then when they were like "oh, babe," I wasn't ready for that. They were cool. They get it. They're my family. I moved halftime to New York. I'm still there halftime and have played many Doomtree shows since. 

Do you think some of those rebuttals were almost something that you needed? 

I don't know why I thought that. It's so difficult to explain what a rap crew is because it sounds silly. It sounds juvenile, maybe. And maybe it is because it is juvenile when you join as a teenager [or in your] very early 20s. There is this, like, blood brother/Lost Boys pact that you take. And I was worried that it would be perceived that I was breaking the contract. Loyalty is phenomenally important. Yeah, I guess that was it: I was worried that they would think that if I needed to back up, that that was a sign of betrayal or something. Or that I was insufficiently loyal to the pledge that we'd all take into one another. And then the fact that they reacted so lovingly was further proof of that pledge of work. 

That's like its own brand of loyalty. Do you feel like any of that loyalty has been sacrificed in this process? 

I was so worried then, but I feel really reassured. So we're good. Thanks for asking. 

Of course! So what's ahead for you, creatively? What's coming next? 

For the next few months, I'm going to be preparing and then performing with the Minnesota Orchestra. They're the most prepared-for musical performances. It takes a classical arranger to melt down all the songs and reforge them, essentially, from orchestral metal. I'll be performing on stage with four other vocalists who are really great and all of them are soloists in their own right. I'm building a lot of awesome vocal harmonies and then having a sequined cape made. 

That's amazing! And this isn't your first performance with the Minnesota Orchestra? 

I made my debut, I guess, in 2017. So this is my second stint with them. Then I'll be heading to the U.K. with Aby Wolf and Matthew Santos, my longtime collaborators, to do a brief tour of the UK. 

Exciting! Congratulations on all of that. And on the book. It's beautiful. 

Thank you. 

I hope that you're feeling all of that love and gratitude on the road from people who it's resonating with them. 

Thanks. Thank you so much. 


My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love is out now via Dutton Books, and her most recent album Chime is out now via Doomtree Records.

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