Local music: For Dessa, the gloves are off

She’s rapping less, singing more and showing her vulnerability on the most ambitious album yet from the Doomtree crew.

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Dessa, photographed at Uppercut Gym in Minneapolis, is that rarity in hip-hop — a vulnerable presence in a genre built on trying to appear invulnerable.

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com,

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Walking around Logan Park in northeast Minneapolis last week, far from any bar or low-lit hangout where musicians tend to talk to music journalists, Dessa made a confession that might put a permanent chink in her cool-chick armor. Or maybe it makes her the coolest rapper in town. Or at least the most honest. It might be dishonest to still call her a rapper, though.

“I drove around listening to my record in the car today,” she admitted, lowering her voice as if a kid at the playground would make fun of her. “I wanted to give it a normal kind of listen, not critiquing every detail.”

Far from normal, she added, “I was so nervous I’d get caught, and have somebody I know pull up next to me cranking my tunes and be like, ‘Really?!’ ”

Really.

With her tall frame and cocksure vigor, Dessa seems as confident and together as any performer in hip-hop today. And for good reason. No butt-kissing, she has always come off as a total pro in the many varied ventures I’ve witnessed.

Teach a college class about the music business? No problem. Interview a bluegrassy string band for TV? Point her to the banjo. Write fiction and poetry books? Been there, done it. Perform at a car wash during South by Southwest? Just bring the wax. Model a slinky dress for a photo shoot in a boxing gym? Don’t forget the jewelry (which nearly happened, but Dessa caught the mistake).

Wouldn’t you know it, she’s also said to be quite a pro when she enters a boxing ring with gloves on, not accessories. She first did so about a year ago under the tutelage of St. Olaf College philosophy professor and boxing writer Gordon “Doc” Marino, who offered to train her as a trade for her lecturing his class.

“She could be a competitive boxer if she wanted,” Marino said, no bulling.

 

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Talk to her awhile, though, and it’s clear Dessa’s not so tough. As the story about her mobile listening session attests — name one other hip-hop artist who wouldn’t have their car woofers at full tilt listening to their own music — the Minneapolis native born Margret Wander, age 32, can also be self-conscious, a perfectionist and a bit of a nervous nelly.

That’s why she took so long to sing as much as she does on her new album, “Parts of Speech,” which arrives Tuesday with the most ambitious (and expensive) national push yet for a Doomtree Records release.

“To this day, my mom is one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, so I always felt a little substandard,” she said. (Sure, blame Mom.)

It’s also why she still records nearly all of her vocals — rapping or singing — in a closet at her one-bedroom Uptown apartment, despite having access to primo studios. “I’m going to want to do the same part 70 times, and doing that in a studio inevitably makes me feel self-conscious,” she explained.

It’s why nearly all of her songs are autobiographical. “I don’t think I can deliver a made-up story as well as I can a true one,” she claimed. One of her best-known hits, “Dixon’s Girl” — from her 2010 full-length debut, “A Badly Broken Code” — reads like a novella but is based on a real-life encounter at a snowed-out gig in the South with a female rapper whose husband mistreated her.

It’s why she took umbrage with the word “dark” to describe the new record, going so far as to demand a rating on a 1-to-10 darkness scale — “Elliott Smith being like a 9,” she said. I gave it a 7, to her dismay. As if there’s a light side to Adele-like post-breakup lines such as these, from the second single, “Call Off Your Ghost”: “I know that jealousy is a perfect waste of time / But left to my own devices, I’ve spent far too long wasting mine.”

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  • DESSA

    This Saturday: 8 p.m., Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, sold out.

    Next Saturday: 9 p.m., First Avenue, Mpls., sold out.

    Free in-stores: Signing and listening party 11:59 p.m. Mon., Fifth Element, Mpls. Performances at noon Tue., Electric Fetus in Duluth; 5 p.m. Tue., Electric Fetus, St. Cloud; and 8 p.m. Tue., Electric Fetus, Mpls.

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