“I consider myself a writer and lyricist first and foremost,” Dessa said. “But on my recent album ‘Parts of Speech’ the ‘musician’ term works just fine too from my arranging on piano.”
The Minneapolis hip-hop vocalist will be bringing those dual talents to Opolis Nov. 9. Dessa is an early 30-something woman who looks like she could be comedian Sarah Silverman’s little sister. She began her performing career in spoken word and rap. Although most closely associated with both hip-hop and rap, Dessa has been fearless exploring a variety of genres and styles.
“There’s some ballads and torch songs on the discs I’ve done as well,” she said. “Generally, I try to keep labels if they’re necessary as broad as possible.”
Torch song is a term not commonly heard in the 21st century and particularly not from a young person. It’s an indication of Dessa’s love for words and her affinity for expressive speech.
“I’ve long had an infatuation with language of the 1940s and '50s,” she said. “I like writers such as Dorothy Parker, the classic New Yorker essays and E.B. White, so there’s an import of that aesthetic in small doses into the work I do.”
The work she does is massive. Songs range in vibe from jazz and blues tunes to Mos Def comparisons.
Being language-driven means Dessa’s songwriting focus is on the words. She uses an uncommon method.
“I’ll write down snippets of overheard conversation where a particular word catches my ear goes by on a radio broadcast or elsewhere,” Dessa said. “Then later I’ll set about the work of emptying out the butterfly net of fragments and try to assemble a song.”
She admits it can be a slow and laborious process and doesn’t come particularly easy to her. Dessa describes her drive to create as an inner nagging appetite that’s not necessarily romantic but keeps her connected to the world.
“There’s a lot of cursing, furrowed brows and stomping around my apartment,” she said.
Not attracted to regional art herself, Dessa is reluctant to ascribe the place called Minneapolis with having a profound influence on what she does.
“I’m sure it does because all my formative experiences happened here,” she said. “But I don’t have a control group and wasn’t able to run the experiment in another locale to see how much impact there was.”
Dessa’s songs tend to the universal themes of love, death, loss and communion.
“If there’s a signature that I have it’s in the sensibility with which I approach them,” she said. “My defining feature isn’t so much the themes that I address but in the way I address them. I work hard on crafting innovative metaphors that reward a second, third and fourth look.”
Dessa is one of seven members belonging to Minneapolis’ Doomtree Collective. Formed in 2008 they’re known for tapping a panoply of genre’s beats and having a richly creative way with words. Before joining their ranks Dessa received a Doomtree CD serendipitously from a friend. She was attracted to the genuine and spontaneous sound from the disc. Guessing the creators were in the Pacific Northwest it turned out they lived two doors away from her.
“For the last six years everything I’ve done has been under the Doomtree banner,” she said. “We run, operate and own everything we do.”
Dessa plans to conquer Norman in a single evening. It’s her first appearance at Opolis and she had a few pointed reconnaissance-related questions to assist in that adorable plot.
“I’ll be playing with my full live band,” she said. “There will be five of us total on stage but there will be a lot more instruments than that. Several of the musicians in my touring ensemble are really, really good.”
The band has been touring for the past couple years.
“We started a little tentatively; we’re certainly not perfect for every performance,” Dessa said. “But it would be tough to find a more spirited show working in pop music that crosses so many boundaries. I think we put on a really good show.”
Earnest songwriting rendered in close vocal harmony, tight musicianship and numbers of total abandon with all musicians perspiring through their clothing was the promise she made.
“Some we’ll play from the stage and some I’ll probably end up playing from the floor,” Dessa said.
If You Go
What: Dessa in concert.
Where: Opolis, 113 N. Crawford Ave.
When: 9 p.m. Nov. 9
Minnesota hip hop diva Dessa in Norman for one night only.