This is Part I of our interview with Dessa, which focuses on her solo work and new album Castor, The Twin.
Castor, The Twin captures these new arrangements for ten of Dessa’s strongest previously released songs. It also includes “The Beekeeper,” the haunting advance single from Dessa’s new album due in 2012. Vibraphone, piano, viola, mandolin, and stand-up bass give the record a classical, sometimes orchestral sound for a beautiful and somber effect. The album is immediately identifiable as an intimate recording of live players, with fingers sliding on frets and raw, expressive vocals. The organic instrumentation pushes Dessa’s lyrics forward, showcasing the imagery and narratives that define her as a songwriter and an emcee. The album title references the twin brothers Castor and Pollux of Roman mythology, the pair of bright stars in the Gemini constellation. Pollux was part god, a fighter with metal hands. Castor was the mortal of the pair, but the two were inseparable. After cutting her teeth with her Doomtree cohorts behind the boards, this is Dessa’s first record with a wholly organic sound—more tender, human versions of the best material she’s released so far.
Do people ever find it surprising when you tell them what it is that you do?
Most people don't expect the tall brunette with glasses to be the rapper in the room. Very rarely someone will ask if my work is mostly seasonal--thinking that I am a professional gift wrapper.
I initially fell in love with your music because I thought it was a breath of fresh air in a genre that is very much dominated by men. What are your thoughts on this – the way that female MCees are often not as appreciated or popular as their male counterparts – and how has this affected you personally?
Man, I've got so few real insights on this issue. I don't know why there aren't more female emcees. To be honest, I don't know if women are slept on in a way that male emcees aren't--I mean there's plenty of unappreciated talent out there. Perhaps there just aren't enough women in the game to beat the odds. I know sometimes people are skeptical of me because of my gender...but on the other hand, some people are attracted by the novelty of it. At the end of the day, all I can do is write strong songs and trust that good art will speak louder than any public statement I could issue on the topic.
On a related note, I read some some tweets a while back regarding another hip-hop collective that’s “buzzing” right now, so I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on the current state of hip-hop?
There are some mainstream artists I really dig--Andre 3000, for one. I've got nothing against famous and successful artists per se. But think we've got a shortage of really bold innovators at center stage. And I think popular music culture overemphasizes the importance of cars and money, often at the expense of genuine human stories.
How did you approach the recording and song writing process of the new album Castor, The Twin? Were you involved in the making of the music as well?
The original arrangements for most of the songs on Castor, The Twin came from Doomtree producers Paper Tiger, Marshall Larada, Lazerbeak, and Cecil Otter. Most of the most important decisions about the re-arrangements were made by the members of my live trio: Sean McPherson (bass), Dustin Kiel (guitar and keys) and Joey Van Phillips (drums and vibraphone). I guess my role on instrumental aspect of this disc is probably best described by a term like "executive producer," with those dudes doing most of the heavy lifting. Their influence is especially evident in the most "musical" moments--the key changes, sophisticated chord voicings, and meter variations. The only real exception would be the song called "The Beekeeper," on which I played and arranged the piano.
How do you decide when a song is “done?” And have you ever written a song and decided to scrap it altogether?
I've got a lot of half-finished songs on the shelf at the moment, which bothers the hell out of me. Sometimes, though not often, I'll toss out a song completely. But usually I can tell halfway through an idea whether or not it's got promise.
Who have been your biggest influences on these two records – lyrics and music wise?
To be honest, I don't know. I know what I listen to, and I know what I like. But I'm not sure those actually constitute the most significant influences. I think most of us are affected by variables of which we're not even aware.
People often find it difficult to open up about their feelings, so I always find it extremely inspiring when musicians pour their hearts out on the music they create. You happen to be one of them, as your lyrics seem to be deeply personal. Have you ever felt nervous and/or vulnerable to be sharing yours with such a large audience?
Generally, it's a lot easier to tell a crowd full of strangers about my feelings than it is to tell my family or friends. That said, I think it's important to voice the darker parts of our experience; to do otherwise would be to forfeit a lot of our lives.
What about performing them for thousands of people? I imagine that to be a little more nerve-wracking than writing these songs in the comfort of your own home or studio.
I try not to include lines in my songs that would air out other people's secrets--I don't want to impinge too much on their privacy. So when I do include charged content from my personal relationships, I tend tweak or omit details that would reveal the identities of the people I'm writing about. I usually make the hard decisions about what to share and what to safeguard before I hit the stage.
Many of our readers checked out your music because it made a lot of our “end of the year” lists in 2010, as I’m sure many others will due to these interviews. I could sit here and come up with thousands of reasons as to why they should check you out, but how would you describe yourself and your music in your own words? What reason would you give a stranger to listen?
There are a lot of singers with better voices than mine. And there are certainly more gifted arrangers. But I'd go up against any songwriter, anywhere, and offer decent competition. I love language, I'm deft with words, and I know what kind of stories can sound a tuning fork in the people who hear them--stories that will ring with an important aspect of a shared experience.
Great interview, Eda! I loved hearing her angle on spilling the secrets of others, tweaking details to safeguard people's identities, especially since a lot of what I write (prose, not lyrics) has to do with personal experiences, and I've often had that same dilemma along the way.