Dessa is part of the Doomtree collective out of Minneapolis. As a solo artist, she released her debut album, A Badly Broken Code, last year to much acclaim. Her latest release, Castor, The Twin, features reinterpretations of previously released material, along with one new song, as performed with a live combo. Currently on tour supporting this release, she took a moment to talk with us during a stop in Madison.
Scratched Vinyl: You’ve just released a new album, Castor, The Twin. You’ve kind of presumed that people would be asking you about this title, posting an explanation online. Was this a story you were already familiar with?
Dessa: I’d love to say, that yes, I have a Greek or Roman mythological reference for most facets of my life, but I totally don’t. But I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination in the classics, in Greek and Roman mythology, but I needed a record title pretty bad. And I wanted to choose a title that would do two things - first I wanted to express the fact that this record has a much more chamber or even orchestral bent than my last one, and two, I wanted to be frank with listeners about the fact that a bunch of these songs are songs that they may be familiar with in dramatically different arrangements on my other projects. So I figured that choosing a record title like Castor, The Twin could hit both stones with one Castor. In that the twin expresses the idea that these songs have been released in other formats, and then Castor is, in Greek and Roman mythology, the brother of a dude named Pollux. Castor and Pollux are joined at the hip, they have childhood adventures together. Pollux is immortal, both of them being sons of Zeus. And Castor is mortal. Castor get murdered, and in the throes of fraternal mourning, Pollux, his brother, asks his dad if he can split his immortality with his brother, so they spend every other day in Hell. And I like that idea because I work with the Doomtree dudes, who are pretty fierce warriors, in a lot of ways, right? And with this record, there’s a mortal, tender touch to it. So it seemed like this was a project much more of the Castor bent than the Pollux.
SV: I think you one-upped Astronautalis on the mythology reference. Because when he dropped that Sisyphus line, I was like, “I know that...”
Dessa: But from whence? Yeah, I think that increasingly, Astronautalis and I, now that he moved to Minneapolis, particularly, are going to be involved in a lot of Sunday rounds of total nerd one-upsmanship. He’s a literary dude! He’s more fashionably dressed than I am, but you know I’m ready to hang on some esotericism or something.
SV: Was the idea for this record one that you had for a while?
Dessa: It wasn’t like, “I need a new record. I know! I’ll do all my old shit!” That was definitely not the thought that came to mind. I’m working on a new record now, I have been, just after the last one, A Badly Broken Code in 2010. The record cycle is fierce - you gotta get back in the studio faster than you feel ready.
SV: Especially since that album got so much praise.
Dessa: I’m actually knocking on the bench that Chi Chi and I are sitting on, but it was well received.
SV: We actually named it the Best Album of 2010.
Dessa: You’re freaking me out, dude! This is where the sophomore slump comes from!
SV: No pressure.
Dessa: Well, it was well received, and I wanted to do a strong follow-up, so I’ve been working on this record that is as-of-yet unreleased. In the mean time, I changed up my live show pretty hard - I perform with a trio. I’ve got a stand-up bass, played by Sean McPherson [of Heiruspecs]. And then a really hot shot drummer, Joey Van Phillips. And then a cat who play keys and guitar, sometimes at the same time, you know? So like his right hand is running up the keyboard, and his left is playing the fret board hard enough to be heard. Really bad ass shit. His name is Dustin Kiel. We went on this West Coast tour, and by virtue of their musicianship, all of the arrangements began to drastically change, because we have all these dynamics that are available to us as a live trio, that weren’t really available with a deejay. You get power with a deejay, right? It’s massive, big energy...
SV: You can pump that shit up.
Dessa: Yeah, dude. With this live ensemble, you get this responsiveness, so if the crowd is feeling it, you can loop it again, man. And if it’s a quiet moment, you can pull energy and tension to like a taut moment, and then let it go with huge drum crashes. So you have this enormous range in play. So by the time I got back from this tour, all the songs were totally different. And by the end of the run, a lot of cats were like, “Do you have that version?” So I was like, “No.” But maybe it’s worth making that version, so we went into the studio and recorded them.
SV: So were there songs that just leant themselves to the process more than others to make the cut easier?
Dessa: Yeah. It was 99% esthetic decision making and maybe 1% business decision making. I didn’t just want to do a redo of A Badly Broken Code with live instruments, you know? So we decided to include some songs that hadn’t been included in that record, that were in fact drawn from more obscure Doomtree releases. Then maybe people would have an opportunity to get into some of them.
SV: Kind of nudge them in that direction.
Dessa: Check this out, dude, hey! And then there were a few songs that translated pretty well to the live trio, but not with the same brio and oomph that the tunes that we chose were. So we picked ten tracks, and then I added the single from my new record. We had thirty to choose from, but I think we chose the best ones.
SV: Did you do the arrangements yourself? Or did you contact Lazerbeak or Paper Tiger?
Dessa: No! That’s a good question. Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger, and MK Larada and Cecil Otter provided the original tracks. Then the musicians that I’m working with departed from it, essentially. Or reinterpreted for the best presentation. Occasionally the producers I worked with would come by and check it out, but the trio that I’m working with are the finest. We were doing time signature changes, and key changes. Then we brought in some string players, and there’s some vibraphone on the record, and a little bit of mandolin. Also, the players leant their expertise and their ears, because they know their instruments better than anybody in the room, and much better than I do.
SV: You recently revealed that you started taking vocal lessons. What led you to that decision?
Dessa: I’ve been performing for about seven or eight years and very regularly for three. I feel like I’ve gotten better at a lot of shit. I’ve developed some strengths that I didn’t have when I began, but also there are weaknesses that I had then and I have today. So I thought there are still a few areas that I’d like to get better at, and obviously I’m not figuring this shit out very swiftly on my own. So I figured a vocal coach is the way to do it. Also, I started dating a dude that’s been trained operatically, and he talked about the fact that the best opera singers, top of their game, still take lessons. It might be an indulgence of ego. A lot of us consider ourselves to have met that professional bar, and stop actively training. And I thought, “Good point, dude.” It’s interesting that in the classical spirit, voice cats train until they’re done. And violinists don’t. It’s a cultural thing, I think. And certainly the rap culture doesn’t encourage vocal lessons.
SV: Punk and hip hop don’t necessarily encourage lessons.
Dessa: Totally. And maybe at the end of trying it I’ll think that’s a good thing. I’m only two lessons deep right now. But it seems worth it. If I can pay someone fifty bucks to solve the problems I encounter every night on stage, dude - I’d give you three pints of blood to help me get over that shit. So I think it’s worth a shot.
SV: When you performed in Austin, you pulled your brother on stage to sing “The Chaccone.” Was there something particular that made you pick that song?
Dessa: My brother’s got the most beautiful voice. But he doesn’t do a lot of singing in public - he’s a drummer. He’s spent most of his musical life behind a kit, where you’re less directly engaged with the audience. So to my great surprise he was scared shitless about singing, so I thought that was the perfect opportunity as an older sister to put him on the spot. And also because I knew he’d do a good job. So I asked him to come and do “The Chaconne” because it’s an easy part to learn - you don’t have to remember too many words. It’s a chorus that repeats a phrase. And also because I wanted to see him squirm. And then I wanted to see him win. And he totally won. I listened to the videotape of the performance you mentioned, which was a SXSW gig, and his pitch is so much better than mine.
SV: You mentioned that you’re working on a new album. Do you have a direction to it yet?
Dessa: Yeah. I know it sounds like a sound bite, but working with the Doomtree dudes, I’ve had the opportunity to access some really aggressive production. Like big drums, brutal bass lines, driving shit. And then working with this live combo, I’ve had the opportunity to sing and rap on some delicate, nuanced production, where you’re very exposed. Every “T” can be heard, and every break in your voice can heard, for better or for worse. So for the next disc, rather than choosing between those two extremes, I’ll just have a broader palate of skills and sounds at my disposal for every song. So if there’s a moment that’s supposed to be beautiful and heartfelt, I can now say, “I know what an orchestral snare drum sounds like. I know what a mandolin sounds like. Let’s do that.” My ears are more educated.
SV: You’re more familiar with a broad range of sounds.
Dessa: Yeah. I know what an 808 is, and now I know what a stand up bass is. I know what a lute is, right? So you can more precisely pick your poison and pick your scalpel off the tray. So for the next disc, I’m just going to trust my gut. Like when I came out with A Badly Broken Code, certain people on my team were like, “I like these songs, but you can’t put them on the same album. You can’t have some hymn-sounding shit and a rapping brag track.” I understand the concern, and I don’t think it was ill-founded, but I think people are more concerned whether or not music is good than what to call it, the genres of it. So I figure I’ll just make the best fifteen songs I can, and I’ll trust that there is some sense of cohesion in them, because they came out of the same time of my life, and I’m thinking the same thoughts, and I have the same voice and the same mind. So if I’m just true to the experience, then magically a them will emerge that will unify them.
SV: Which is what made your last album work so well.
Dessa: So I’m going to try. I don’t want to think about it too hard.
SV: You don’t want to be too self-conscious...
Dessa: About it. Because then you’ll get weird about it. So that’s what’s I’m trying to do. Make fifteen or sixteen really fucking great songs, and then pick like the thirteen best, and include them on the disc. And sequence them carefully enough so that if there are big sweeps in mood or sound, the listeners are ushered there gradually enough so not to be jarred.
SV: You’ve got a short tour lined up, and then the Blowout at the end of the year. Is there pressure to out do yourself from last year?
Dessa: Oh yeah dude. We paint ourselves into a corner. Absolutely. Each year we try to outdo the last, and this is the first year where I’m like, “Maybe we should be careful about how much we outdo last year, because we’ll make it so much harder the next. So this year, we upped the ante considerably. So The Blowout is an end of the year label showcase that we always do, which is like non-stop, full throttle, Doomtree cats all night long. You know, all out. So this year, we’re doing five nights at a little room that holds two or three hundred people. That’ll be curated buy each of the five emcees. So I got Tuesday night. We rolled the dice on an iPhone. Then we finish back-to-back nights in a really big room that holds like 1800 people. So it’s a lot of bodies. We have a lot of work to do to fill that up. If you try to hit a bigger mark each year, then there are no laurels to be rested upon. Every year you gotta grind hard, and harder yet.
SV: It seems like it’s been paying off the last couple of years.
Dessa: The last couple of years have been awesome! But of course, now it’s so much bigger than, just larger enough to get nervous about. Like last year was dope, but this year is bigger, so you gotta grind to fill it up.
SV: Finally, if there are three artists you could work with, who would it be?
Dessa: Bertrand Russell, David Foster Wallace, and Bach.
For more information, visit: http://www.doomtree.net/dessa/