This Wednesday, June 27th, Dessa will be performing at World Café Live Upstairs, with Monakr opening. She’s a highly active creative force, not only putting out her album Chime and going on a world tour, but also contributing to the #1 album The Hamilton Mixtape, covering The Mountain Goats’ “Balance” for the podcast I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats, and putting out her book My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road, Music, and Senseless Love, available September 18th. Chime is a knock-out record, every track deserving of either a Grammy or a Pulitzer. With its sharp-witted raps and rich musical textures like the darkest of chocolates, it requires close listening to pick out all the metaphors, gut-wrenching feelings, and technical dexterity. Between her various projects, Dessa found time to answer a few questions for WQHS:
WQHS: Part of this album was inspired by neuroscience and using EEG to visualize your brain waves. Can you explain a little on how you incorporated this into your songwriting process and how you first had the idea to use science in your album?
Dessa: I struggled with a long and pretty turbulent romantic relationship throughout most of my twenties and part of my thirties. Even though mine wasn’t a happy stable, love, I couldn’t seem to turn it off. When I heard that a researcher named Dr. Helen Fisher had identified particular structures of the brain that were associated with romantic love, I thought, “Maybe if I could find my love, I could take it out.”
I collaborated with a of team neuroscientists from the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research at the University of Minnesota and a neurofeedback practitioner named Penijean Gracefire, to try measure the romantic activation in my brain–and then try to retrain it to respond in a more flexible, adaptive way. Of course, this wasn’t a proper scientific study–it’s just the anecdote of one woman–but it was an eye-opening experience on how the body, the mind, and subjective experience are interconnected. And at the end of the project, I did feel a little better.
I was working on my most recent record, Chime, during this part of my life and so some of the experience naturally wound up in my songwriting. It’s by no means a science album–I’m not rapping about neuroanatomy or anything–but the lyrics tackle some of the questions posed by the science I was reading: How free is free will? Can we cure ourselves of bad love?
WQHS: Your book, My Own Devices is out this September from Penguin Random House. With your experience with slam poetry, spoken word, and hip hop, how do you approach language differently in your book than you do in your other projects?
Dessa: I’m attracted to language at a granular level–I love a clever turn of phrase, a funny accident in a translation, a killer metaphor. I think I like sentences even more than paragraphs, which I’m not sure is true for most prose writers. I’m also pretty sensitive to meter; if a sentence doesn’t have a pleasing pattern of stressed and non-stressed syllables, I’ll rewrite.
WQHS: You’ve written an episode for Welcome to Night Vale and covered The Mountain Goats for I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats. What other podcasts do you listen to while on tour?
Dessa: The most-played podcasts in my personal library include:
The New Yorker: The Writer’s Voice
The New Yorker: Fiction
News in Slow Spanish
Terrible, Thanks for Asking
WQHS: Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re in Philly?
Dessa: As confirmed radio nerds, the band and I pretty damn stoked to be taping with World Cafe Live. And Philly’s a great place to walk–important to a person who spends most daylight hours in a moving vehicle.
Be sure to check out Dessa’s show this Wednesday, June 27th at World Café Live – Upstairs, with Monakr opening. Tickets are available here. Dessa’s album Chime is available now on Doomtree Records. Her book “My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love” is available for pre-order here.
Photo courtesy of Chad Kamenshine.