Colin talks to Dessa about comedy, community, and the unlikely possibility of Dessa-inspired cookware
COMMON GOOD BOOKS: As soon as I saw your performance at The Triple Rock I couldn’t wait to ask you what it was that I had seen. I don’t know what I was expecting, but your performance struck me as an insouciant amalgamation of storytelling, stand-up, poetry and song. How often do you perform this way?
DESSA: I almost never perform events dedicated to storytelling. The game plan for me is to build a reputation as an artist for her voice and approach more than for any one medium. I like being able to blend those forms of expression. It gives the performance an elasticity. I’ve been calling it monologue: music combined with moments that are more conversational. I did a show at The Fitz that was a mixture of rap music and story with a slow thematic development.
How did you prepare for that night?
I had a skeleton for that night’s story, so it was just a matter of filling in the wording. Part of my job is not to reveal which seemingly minor details might be pivot points for themes that will continue to develop. I like presenting material that at first seems incidental and becomes important as the story goes, and I like having the ability to move between moods quickly. It’s like in detective movies when you just know shit’s gonna point back to the fingerprint on the knife--I’ve always felt dissatisfied by that. I prefer the idea of important moments only being revealed as the story unfolds, only recognizable with the benefit of hindsight. So there are themes, but they’re invisible. The Callback comes as a surprise. I like a lot of Callbacks in my set. I think that’s a comic’s term.
I think of that in terms of writing and reading, too: what you’re reading the first time through that might be important as you continue, incorporating phrases that turn out to unfold into a double entendre or triple entendre. But with live music you can feed off of the crowd, whereas when you’re writing you’re not in real time, so you have to fake a kind of real time.
I’m glad you mentioned “Callbacks” because for as well as you’re
known as a songwriter and vocalist, I left with the impression that I’d just seen stand-up comedy of the highest form. Do people know how funny you are?
Thank you. Trying to be funny feels so risky to me, so I would probably never brand myself a comic. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. I’m not really interested in wading into a field where I don’t see an opportunity for excellence. But I do like the idea of incorporating humor into deep material. I think we get affected by hyper-delicate treatments of the profound subjects of our lives, and I’m interested in knowing if deep poetry can be hilarious--actually hilarious, not smirking-while-drinking-martinis hilarious.
Do you perform comedy with Doomtree?
A couple of those guys are so effortlessly funny it would probably be a bad idea. Lazerbeak actually texted me last night to see how it [the Triple Rock performance] went. In Doomtree, it’s such a fast-paced show with all of the emcees on stage--and I think a lot of the humor I pull off depends on pauses, negative space, and good lighting for facial expressions. If you imagine being in a club with low ceilings and strobe lights you can see how that environment is less likely to make the kind of comedy I do effective.
But you do write songs. How would you differentiate writing songs or what you do on stage vs. writing poems?
Well, I would say that the area in which I’m most comfortable is creative nonfiction, the second would be as a lyricist, and the third would be a page poet. I’m interested though in developing a poetic skill. I figure if I can write good lyrics and decent prose I’d have to have a lobotomy to not write decent poems. I’m actually working on a new collection tentatively titled The Perfect Burn, inspired by the funeral pyres of India.
How then did you decide that the poems in Spiral Bound were suited for the page rather than, or in addition to, live performance?
Well, I had meant it as a project to determine the viability of future projects. Could I be taken seriously as a writer by members of the literary community, and would rap fans be interested? As it turned out, the latter was much easier to achieve. Rap fans were like, “Is it fiction? Is it poetry? OK, it’s kind of a blend.” It was much harder to convince the literary community, not even to take it seriously, but just to read it. Bad reviews suck, but they’re endurable. If someone said, “This is garbage,” I’d blush and drink some whiskey. But I think I’d see what I could take from them to make my work better. But a lot of reviewers didn’t want to check it out at all.
All in all, my sense that hip-hop is an open marketplace for new talent was reaffirmed. There are a lot more networks and connections to be jumped through in the literary scene. I think a lot of hip-hoppers are treated like kids who don’t have any interest in fine art, and that’s not true. But the opposite--in my experience--the transition from pop art to fine art was harder.
Why do you think that is? Did you have a hard time getting the book out there?
On the commercial side of things, you’re not being vetted by retailers for literary merit. I would go personally from bookstore to bookstore and play the consignment game. “I’ll sell you the first few cheap and if they move we’ll upgrade to a reasonable rate of return,” and that worked. The hardest part was critics.
As far as even looking at your work?
Exactly. I think it would be vain to think that every artist is going to get a fair look. And maybe there was resistance, in part, because the book was released by a rap label, as opposed to a literary press—I think people hear a rapper’s got a book and think of some insane book by Wu Tang--but the lack of attention seemed disproportionate. It just felt like I was battling a head wind due to the fact that my background was not in the literary and MFA community. And I like those communities, too. I was a sucker for it as a kid, the whole idea of living in New York and being a writer. So I won’t say I don’t see any romance in it. But we would all do well to be more interactive. I mean, this is Minneapolis we’re talking about. It makes you wonder, are we working at our best as a meritocracy here? It seems there are other variables in the way.
Do you expect it to be easier the second time around?
I don’t want to say yes and jinx it. If it isn’t easier to push this second collection then at least I better understand how to support it without the help of the literary community in the twin cities. That said, organizations such as Rain Taxi have been very supportive. I love art books, so I’ve talked with them about possibly collaborating on a chapbook in the future.
In addition to your book, you’ve got the t-shirt, now a lipstick… have you thought about coming out with a line of Dessa-inspired cookware?
You know, I wasn’t terrified to sell t-shirts, because that became so much a part of the merchandise as soon as people stopped buying CDs, but the lipstick I was uncomfortable with. But then after meeting with the woman who owns The Elixery, a local cosmetic house, and pours every stick by hand, I felt really good about it. I can make money for a charity that I don’t make enough to contribute to myself. I have to be careful in interviews to explain why I’m doing this, because I think that makeup can be a cautious, fear-based, anti-women thing in a lot of ways, and I don’t like the idea of cheapening one’s self. But that was my rationale.
You mentioned having taught writing in your set, but can you talk about what attracted you to writing in the first place? Did you always have your sights on writing lyrics?
No, I was working as a waitress, writing manuals, and a friend of me saw perform slam poetry and suggested I try it over a beat. But I remember getting a prize for a vocabulary contest in my after school program. I would look up through the windows in camp and at school, and whenever anything caught my eye I would make up a definition for it, just like in the dictionary. So I would say, “hydrant--noun” or “wheel—noun—a round shape used in mechanical engineering…” and so on. I’m not totally sure. But of all the stories that seem to me indicative of a developing writer, I think it had something to do with that initial interest, that fascination with language.
Dessa's Spiral Bound now available at Common Good Books