PledgeHouse: Spotlight Interview with Dessa

Published: March 14, 2018

This year we’re excited to partner with PledgeMusic and Kenneth Cole to bring you, from Austin, TX, PledgeHouse – FOUR DAYS of day parties with over 40 bands across two stages. Taking place March 13th through March 16th at The Blackheart, we’ll open doors at 11:30am each day as we welcome 11 artists across two stages, with our friends at The Current live streaming our indoor stage performances each day.

RSVP for all the PledgeHouse shenanigans here:

To help get you ready for the musical melee of PledgeHouse, here’s our PledgeHouse Spotlight interview with Dessa (playing Friday, 3/16 on the indoor stage).

NoiseTrade: By my count, your newest album Chime is your fourth solo album and it sits alongside a couple solo EPs and a trio of albums you’ve done with Doomtree. For those who have heard even one of your previous releases, what are some of the new sounds and themes they can hear you tackling on Chime?

Dessa: For most of my career, I’ve been trying prove that I can rap or sing or write with enough skill to be considered a contender. But I’m more confident in all that now. While not every listener or critic is going to love my stuff, I know what the hell I’m doing over here. On Chime, I let myself express a little more and showcase a little less. I like pop music, so I wrote a “Half of You,” pop song. I’m not always a well behaved academic, so I wrote “Ride,” a track that references lust and boredom and includes some dark commentary on race and gender relations. I’m sometimes goofy, so I recorded 46 seconds of nonsense and called it “Shrimp.”

NT: Of the new Chime songs I’ve heard so far, I can’t seem to stop spinning “Fire Drills” because there seems to be a new line that sledgehammers me anew with each listen (currently, it’s “The big win is not a day without an incident”). First, how difficult or easy was it to craft these lyrics? Second, can you tell us the story about the Turkish field recording you sampled for the song?

Dessa: Writing lyrics is usually a pretty meticulous process for me. I knit together words, phrases, and imagery one line at a time, editing as I go to accommodate for timing and continuity. Musically, “Fire Drills” had a weird trajectory for a rap song: it started with an iPhone voice memo I recorded in Istanbul of a man playing some dinner music at a café. I gave that recording to my collaborator Andy Thompson and he selected a few snippets to use as motifs for an orchestral composition that we debuted with the Minnesota Orchestra. Months later, when I turned my attention fully to finishing Chime, Andy and I worked with my Doomtree cohort Lazerbeak to turn the orchestral composition into a studio rap song.

NT: Along with your musical career, you’re also an impressively prolific writer, poet, and speaker. How does the non-musical side of your creative output inform the musical side (and vice versa) and what can you tell us about some of your forthcoming written works scheduled to release this year?

Dessa: In September of this year, Dutton Books will publish my first hardcover collection of essays. It’s called My Own Devices and I’m stupidly excited about it. I’ve had dreams of becoming a writer long before I was seriously involved in music.

For me all writing—songs, speeches, poems, or essays or little plays—happens under the larger umbrella of language arts. I’ve been drawn to and moved by words since I was a little kid and I’m interested in almost any forum where words can be used creatively. I’m presume working in each medium informs the others, but I admit that I’m not sure I know exactly how because it all feels so connected. I can say that performing as a musician has made me more comfortable delivering speeches. I’ve got a better understanding of the gestures and pacing that are effective in large rooms. And writing essays and poems keeps the blades sharp—I look up familiar words all the time—did so during this interview, in fact—to make sure I really understand their nuances and the precise meanings they convey.

NT: Focusing on SXSW a bit… You’ve been a number of times, so what are you looking forward to experiencing again and what new experiences are you hoping might transpire this time around?

Dessa: In the past SXSW has been a frenzy of activity—racing between venues, scrambling for gear, texting logistics, eating on the run. This time around, I want to make a point of slowing down to enjoy it all. I want to race-walk a little less and listen to a little more music.

NT: Are you altering your normal setlist/show in any way for the SXSW audience? What song of yours are you most looking forward to playing live for the SXSW audience?

Dessa: I always try to read the room before creating a set list. The set that works at a packed club at midnight in New York on a Friday isn’t the one I’d play at an outdoor festival in the sunshine in Berlin. There are a lot of variables I like to consider: the time of day, the sound of the band who played before me, and the level of intoxication of the audience, the lighting. I also like to mix it up a little so that people who come to more than one show feel like they got a different experience each time.

NT: Are there any bands or panels at SXSW that you are planning to check out yourself?

Dessa: I’d love to check out Tank and the Bangas. It’s been fun to watch them win from afar—and I bet it’s even more fun to watch them win in person.

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