Dessa is best known as a member of Doomtree, a hip-hop collective based in Minneapolis. But there's much more singing than rapping on her latest album, Castor, the Twin, which puts a jazzy, melodic spin on some of her previous work.
Dessa says the title refers to the brothers Castor and Pollux from Greek and Roman mythology. Castor, she explains, is the milder of the two.
"I liked the idea of a more human, tender, mortal take on what had been pretty aggressive songs," Dessa says. "Pollux is said to have had metal hands, and he was this great warrior. And the producers I work with in Doomtree are like my metal-handed friends.
"In making this new record, I thought, I had songs that played really differently when they were performed with live instrumentation," she adds. "So we have grand piano, mandolin and stuff that you would associate more readily with an orchestral vibe."
NPR's Guy Raz speaks with Dessa about making Castor, the Twin and turning her literary background — including a philosophy degree — into a music career.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Time now for music and a singer of a different stripe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIXON'S GIRL")
DESSA: (Singing) Oh, someone taught your walls to talk, but if they ask me, I ain't heard a thing...
RAZ: This is Dessa. And clearly, this music is soulful, jazzy, as is every song on her new record. But it might surprise some listeners to learn that these songs started life as hip-hop.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIXON'S GIRL")
DESSA: (Singing) There was a snowstorm in Jackson, where you and I met, at a club called Saint Sebastian, but the sign says something different. I remember thinking that I didn't have a shot at Mississippi television, told us which roads they were closing. There goes a rap show.
RAZ: That is the same song. Dessa's part of a hip-hop collective in Minnesota called Doomtree. And her latest album is a jazzier take on her past work. This one's called "Castor, the Twin." And Dessa joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome.
DESSA: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
RAZ: The album title, I want to ask you about that, "Castor, the Twin." This refers to the mythological twin brothers, I'm assuming, Castor and Pollux?
DESSA: Castor and Pollux.
RAZ: Castor is the - kind of the milder, the mortal of the two.
DESSA: Yeah, exactly. And I liked the idea of a more human, tender, mortal take on what had been pretty aggressive songs. Pollux is said to have had metal hands, and he was this great warrior. And the producers who I work with in Doomtree are like my metal-handed friends.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "551")
DESSA: In making this new record, I thought I had songs that played really differently when they were performed live. So we have grand piano and mandolin and stuff that you probably associate more mentally with kind of an orchestral vibe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "551")
DESSA: (Singing) She's a latter day saint, but she's a Saturday sinner suicide Sunday dessert for weekend drinking her dinner. The worry keeps her slender, the pills keep her awake, and men can't make her happy but he helps to still the shakes.
RAZ: You studied philosophy. You have a degree in philosophy from University of Minnesota. Could you have imagined that you would have become a hip-hop singer and performer?
DESSA: I think I would have been really, really surprised. I didn't have, like, that childhood fascination with hip-hop. I stayed home and studied a lot. So very often, I heard my parents' music, and that was Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. And then my father was a classical guitarist, so I heard him playing a lot, you know, the nylon string acoustic guitar in the sewing room. And I think the kind of chords that were featured in the classical music that he was playing have shaped my tastes more than a lot of other musical influences.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MINESHAFT")
DESSA: (Singing) The list of things I used to be is longer than the list of things I am. Ex-lover, ex-friend, ex-communicated atheist, and an ex-patriot living in the heartland, living on the small chance, luck would save the last dance for an underrated writer, overrated rapper, undecided major on an unrelated matter.
RAZ: On the song, "Mineshaft," you refer to an underrated writer and an overrated rapper. Who are you talking about?
DESSA: That would definitely be me. You know, when I started performing, I came from a background that had a real literary bent to it. And I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't know how to do that, whereas it seemed like a much clearer path to success as a performer. You know, you worked small clubs and then you worked bigger clubs, right? And so in some ways, when I started rapping, it's like I knew all these rappers who were so much better than me, and it felt like I was lucky enough to receive kind of that first surge of attention, whereas I'd been working for years to try to become a really good writer and I still wasn't sure how to, like, get an attraction on that front. So that was an autobiographical little lament and moment of braggadocio, I guess, combined.
RAZ: In that same song, you say: prose is as close as I've ever been to feeling like I've found it. In other rhymes, you're dropping the names of William Blake and Anna Karenina. It's - I mean, it's amazing stuff. It's great. And lyrically, it's great. It's just - it's so different.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DESSA: You know, one of the guys in Doomtree when I started rapping, I played him my - a few of my first songs. And he kind of nodded along, and he said, OK, OK. And we were sitting a Ford Festiva in the parking lot of an Old Country Buffet, and he said, why don't you just try to rap one of your essays? You know, why don't you just write hip-hop like you write everything else? And he knew that I was shy, so he got out of the car, and he hammered with his fists on the hood of the Festiva to create a beat, and he had me roll down the windows and then try to rap an essay. And that, for me, was one of those seesaw moments, you know, where I thought, oh, instead of trying to be like a rapper, I should just rap.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALIBI")
DESSA: (Singing) Now, I don't mean to be your mother, got my own kids to raise. And I don't aim to blow your cover. It's your own hell to pay. But the word on the street is a page out of Blake. Your man made money but he made mistakes. Now that Revelations coming looks to you for a break, you've always been cunning with those brave escapes but...
RAZ: Dessa, you, in a lot of your lyrics, I notice an absence of bad language, which is, you know, I mean, for better or worse, is the hallmark of hip-hop. And I wonder if that's something you do consciously, intentionally?
DESSA: Sure. I think on my previous records, you know, I don't - I'm not totally blue. I'm not swearing up a storm. But there's definitely adult language. In fact, when I came in today, you know, I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and I was like, Dessa, no swearing. You know, we're doing a radio show and you're not allowed to use the language that you do with your friends. But there are definitely some words that I avoid. And when I work with other artists, I'll say as much, hey, I don't want to appear on songs that use the six-letter F word and the C word for women. And the N word, to be honest, is not a word I use. So I'm real conscientious about those, not necessarily because they're profane but because I think they forward a really regressive world view that I have no interest in participating in.
RAZ: You've been getting a lot of attention for this record - articles and interviews - more than you've ever had in your career. Presumably, it's good for you, and you're happy with it, but I wonder has it changed what you're able to do and who you're able to perform in front of?
DESSA: The short answer is kind of, I guess. The longer answer is, you know, as a kid, I was really into, like, the gold stars in school. You know, I wanted As. I was really into all that - those, like, sanctioned way that we externally validate kids. You know, I dug that stuff. I wanted all of it. I think it would have really messed up my tender, little head if I had made a good record at 20. I think that I was spared that kind of, like, egomania that can come from praise early because it was humble for so long, and I don't imagine that any of this lasts too long either. And after 10 years of trying, I feel like I've got a chance to try to make a meaningful contribution.
RAZ: That's Dessa. Her latest album is called "Castor, the Twin." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Dessa, thank you so much.
DESSA: Thank you. Thanks, Guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PALACE")
DESSA: Oh, all that trouble you've been looking for came looking for you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.