While the term lyricist is, by now, wildly overused, in the case of indie rap phenomenon Dessa there is no distinction more appropriate. The only female member of famed hip-hop collective Doomtree, Dessa is, at her core, a beautiful writer. And like all good writers, Dessa’s words are purely instinctual. A student of philosophy with a language obsession, Dessa’s lyrics are moving and provocative. These characteristics are often associated with Lauryn Hill, India Arie and Erykah Badu, but are rarely found in today’s artists. Dessa’s upcoming release, Parts of Speech, features her most personal, introspective work to date. While rap about Margiela, balling out at the club, and bitches and hoes is all well and good, it is a great pleasure to find a female artist blurring the lines between poetry, spoken word, hip-hop and indie. We caught up with Dessa to chat about her upcoming album, the farce of inspiration and her infatuation with conversation.
Your biography is quite unorthodox for someone in the realm of hip-hop. How did you transition from being a medical writer to being a hip-hop artist?
I’ve always loved language. My mom says that my first aspiration was to have a conversation—although I didn’t know the word yet. I wanted “to do the thing where you talk, then I talk, then you talk.” I feel most comfortable and most capable when I’m trafficking in words whether that means writing a rap song, an essay, or the instructions to implant a pacemaker.
How does your educational background inform your music?
I graduated with a degree in philosophy and that field of study informs most of my mental life. I don’t write explicitly about philosophy very often—that would get to be a tired gimmick pretty fast. But the names and the ideas of the theorists that I studied are available to me when I’m trying to craft a metaphor to relay some part of my daily experience. Detailed knowledge, about anything really, is grist for the imagination.
Where do you seek inspiration for your lyrics?
The more I think about it, the less I buy into the whole inspiration thing. I’ve had very few moments where I feel drawn toward some shimmering, promise of a song. My experience seems better described as an appetite—more elemental. Maybe a little darker too. You sleep when you’re tired, not because you were struck by a sudden bolt of inspiration to go lie down. I write songs when that feeling of I-gotta-go-write-this-down.
How did you come to be a part of Doomtree?
I was a fan of Doomtree before I met any of the members. And I was a friend before they asked me to join. When I was invited to become part of the collective, they all sat me down in the living room to make the offer. And I said yes. One of the most pivotal moments of my life.
What is it like to be the only female in this collective?
I’ve been working with the men in Doomtree for almost a decade. If there were some novelty in being the only woman, it would have worn off by now. They’re my brothers and I’ve spent my whole career with them; I’m not sure what it would have been like to come up in another family.
Where does the name Parts of Speech come from?
I’m always been attracted to language, both in theory and in practice. I tried writing from a few new perspectives on this disc, telling the story from a part other than the one that I played in real life.
What are some of the themes that run through this album?
I’ve always been attracted to big themes: love, loss, death, and communion. This album is the most dynamic one I’ve made to investigate them. It’s got some of my toughest and some my tenderest songs.
You’ve also published works of poetry and fiction. What are you reading lately?
I’m reading a book on the history of poisons. I figure that sort of information might come in handy for some future lyric.
What is your favorite and least favorite thing about touring?
Touring is incredible because you get to travel around the country (and sometimes the world) with your friends, performing music that you made up together. Touring is a drag because you have to do it sleep-deprived and stiff, sitting upright in a van that is full of gear and merch, but has no room for your legs.
What do you have coming up following the release of the album?
I’ll be touring this record very, very hard. In May, we’ll be on the East Coast. In July, we’ll be on the West. I’m not sure how many nights I’ll be spending in by bed between Labor Day and Christmas, but I know we’ll be putting a lot of miles on Mountain, our tour van. We’ll post all of our dates on Doomtree.
Parts of Speech will be released on Doomtree Records June 25th. Pre-order here.