It’s also why she kept her now-steady boyfriend, Ben Burwell of the twangy rock band Taj Raj, at arm’s length when she met him. “He told me he was studying law, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, tell me about that,’ ” she recalled. “Then he told me he was also in a band, and I was like, ‘OK, see you.’ ”
Of course, those nervous tics are also why words like “human” and “tender-hearted” are often used to describe her writing style; why esteemed national rock critics compare her to Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco and other songwriting heroes who have nothing to do with rap; why she’s on the verge of breaking out beyond a faithful local fan base.
Dessa is the rare vulnerable presence in a music genre built on trying to appear invulnerable. People identify with her — not just the young women at Doomtree shows who always seem more enamored of her than her handsome male cohorts Sims and Cecil Otter; but also the older, jaded hipsters who probably would’ve given up on hip-hop were it not for artists like her.
What a fan base, though: Both of her album release parties — this Saturday at the Fitzgerald Theater, and next Saturday at First Avenue — sold out the day they went on sale. Each will feature her live band of the past two-plus years plus guests, but she believably promises they will be distinct from each other.
“Parts of Speech” itself is damn tough. There are heavy and hard musical moments on it, such as the Paper Tiger-produced first single, “Warsaw,” which almost sounds like Nine Inch Nails and was written “like a flip-book of images,” she said. The one outright rap track, “Fighting Fish,” reflects on the physical toll that heavy touring has taken on her.
“Just spending nine hours in the van from day to day, I get home and still ache,” she said, seeing irony in the fact that many of the Doomtree boys have settled down with new babies or marriages over the past couple years while she’s been most active on the road. “I keep waiting for some biological clock to go off and tell me I want to settle down, but so far I haven’t gotten any memos.”
Even some of the balladic and feminine tracks are hard as nails under the surface, like “Annabelle” — one of several to showcase bandmate Aby Wolf’s vocal flourishes — which offers a sharp look at losing one’s grip on reality.
The harrowing epic “The Lamb” sounds so frayed and torn that Dessa begged off from saying what inspired it, offering only this: “I think a lot of women have stories about becoming women that are kind of sinister, and that one is mine.”
Even the cover of the dudely Springsteen hit “I’m Going Down” — dropped into the middle of “Parts of Speech” — sounds downtrodden and darkened, thanks partly to guitarist Dustin Kiel reworking the chords to suit Dessa.
“I think we first played it because we had a longer set to fill, and I wound up liking it — more than the rest of the band did, actually,” she remembered.
Her bassist, Sean McPherson, who pioneered live hip-hop locally with Heiruspecs, admitted to skepticism about the Boss cover. But he sees it as one of many ways Dessa stepped up as a music arranger and asserted herself as, well, the boss.
“She’s quickly picked up a lot of the technical know-how and language that it took the rest of us musicians many, many years to learn,” McPherson said.
He saw firsthand how fans reacted to the new material on the couple of tours Dessa played this year, including one last month built around a one-month residency in New York.
“By now, her fans know they’re not getting a traditional throw-your-hands-in-the-air hip-hop concert,” he said. “They’re getting Dessa.”
She tries not to pay attention to her crowds’ DNA from gig-to-gig — “feels like focus-grouping," she said — but she knows it can vary from being almost entirely a Doomtree crowd one night to one that probably wouldn’t know P.O.S. from P.O.D.