Rapper Dessa Does It All, From Hamilton Hits to Exploring the Intersection of Science and Romance | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Rapper Dessa Does It All, From Hamilton Hits to Exploring the Intersection of Science and Romance 

Minneapolis is an unexpected hub for intellectual hip-hop, due in no small part to it being the headquarters for Rhymesayers Entertainment and home to such underground fixtures as Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, and Brother Ali. But there's another loaded, fiercely intelligent crew in the Twin Cities area known for stylistic experimentation and complex wordplay: Doomtree.

The collective is led by Dessa, a chameleonic poet-emcee, record producer, and author who's a killer singer, too. (In fact, she sang the national anthem at the Minnesota Twins's home opener in April.) But she's at her best when laying down candid raps, such as this lyrical nugget from "Shrimp," a playful forty-five-second song on her most recent album: "Talk real fast when I get nervous/Rap real fast, but that's on purpose."

The world outside of Minnesota is quickly getting acquainted with Dessa (real name Margret Wander). Most notably, she worked with Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and was featured on the Hamilton Mixtape, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Her fourth studio album, Chime, dropped this spring on Doomtree Records to widespread acclaim.

Ahead of her Saturday night show in Carrboro, we caught up with Dessa and discussed her ever-evolving live performances, her writing career and how she tried to sic science on romance.

INDY: What's your live setup like these days?

DESSA: I'm touring with a full band this time. It's full of multi-instrumentalists, so we've been able to put on a show that sounds a lot like the record. We've got some really cleverly designed electronics onstage and three-part harmonies and live drums. It's a five-piece ensemble. For me, one of the most exciting parts is being joined by the energy of live players, but also to be able to pull off the harmonies live. I'm a sucker for vocals, you know?

What challenges have you encountered with bringing your recorded sound to life?

It's been interesting because it takes a specific skill set to do that well. I saw this band from Chicago that I just really admired as a listener. I asked if they wanted to join forces—they could open the show and then become my band when I took the stage with them. I was super impressed by their ability to perform electronic music. They said yes, and we've been on the road together for the past four months.

You've had work published in The New York Times Magazine. What's your earliest memory of putting pen to paper?

In college, I wanted to be a creative nonfiction writer, which means essentially telling true stories but using all of the techniques of a novelist to make those stories interesting and suspenseful. But I wasn't sure how to go out and be that after graduating college at twenty. So, I wound up onstage in part because I wasn't sure how to get published. I fell in and fell in love with the Doomtree guys and toured with them for a long time. After having lived in a tour van for over a decade, I was able to write up the stories of the road and found a New York publishing house that was interested in taking me on as a first-time author. My first hardcover collection of essays is due out in December, and that one's called My Own Devices. The themes that overlap in my book most often are ambition, art, love, and science.

What realms of science fascinate you specifically?

I did a case study on my own brain at the end of 2016 with the University of Minnesota to see if you could identify and ultimately eradicate the feeling of romantic love from the cortex. It was part art project, part science project, part effort to get over an ex. In an effort to write about love in an interesting way and to understand love from a different perspective, I went pretty deep into a scientific investigation.

Did you reach any conclusions?

I mean, with a sample size of one, I can't say any of my conclusions are scientifically significant. But I did emerge from that experience feeling changed, yeah. There's one essay that centers around my relationship with my little brother, who sells legal weed in Seattle. To investigate our relationship, I bought a 23andMe genetic testing kit so we could sit side-by-side and look at the genetic levels of our relationship and our shared history of growing up with mom and dad.

What did you discover through that process?

I got some lousy news about Alzheimer's disease, actually, and learned some fascinating facts about the origin of people, the proportion of my genes I inherited from Neanderthals and how my propensity to move in my sleep is linked to the way my brain processes a particular chemical.

You've written about the concept of an "adventure tax." Basically, as a touring musician, you spend so much time on the road and miss out on milestone events for the people you love. Do you regret stuff like that?

All of us make those choices every day. We only get so much time, and we have to live it linearly. In all our lives, we're aware that we can't do it all, and we do our best to make choices about what makes you happy, what serves the people you love and what feels purposeful and contributive.

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