When she landed back in Minneapolis last weekend after another extended New York stay, Dessa did not immediately head to a favorite hangout or hook up with friends as if she were homesick. Instead, she wound up at a Kinko’s.
Take it as a sign the rapper and singer with the ever-expanding NYC footprint has never really left town. That, and she never really stops working.
“This probably proves I’m about eight years behind, technology-wise,” she said — her Minnesota self-deprecation still on point — after enlisting Kinko’s help on lyric sheets to go with her new album.
Dessa’s tenure in the music business is long enough and by-the-bootstraps enough that she spent ample time in her early 20s at various Kinko’s locations making fliers to promote shows with her still-banging rap crew Doomtree. Those ink-stained, staple-stabbed DIY days are over, but her work as a hip-hop artist is far from finished.
Her first record in five years, “Chime,” arrives this weekend following last week’s news that esteemed New York publisher Dutton Books will issue a collection of Dessa’s essays Sept. 18. Titled “My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love,” the book “pretty intensely airs out my secrets,” she promised.
The announcement from the publishing world follows the buzz that Dessa earned in Broadway circles over the past year and a half working with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda — you know, the guy who used hip-hop to ignite the biggest musical of the modern era.
Miranda featured her on the No. 1-charting “Hamilton Mixtape” and enlisted her for a charity single for Puerto Rico hurricane relief.
Last year, Dessa also landed in front of a new audience back home in Minneapolis, playing two sold-out performances with the Minnesota Orchestra — shows that also made a bit of a splash in the science world.
She not only bridged the hip-hop and classical music worlds, but the Orchestra Hall gigs also involved a fascinating TED lecture with help from University of Minnesota scientists, exploring the effects of heartache on the brain. Some of that ultra-nerdy work will play into her book.
The blender-like whir of it all surprised even her: “I still can’t believe how some of these projects bled into each other,” she said.
After exploring all those new genres, the question wasn’t just when and how Dessa would find time to make another hip-hop album. Did she even want to make another hip-hop album?
With the kind of burning, ardent but thoughtful delivery that still defines her lyrics, the Minneapolis native born Margaret Wander, 36, answered with an emphatic yes.
“For me, rap feels like the one common link tying all these other things together,” she said, pointing first and foremost to how her rapper background shaped her writer future.
“Hip-hop is the music genre that prizes linguistic achievement over all others. It’s why I took to writing in the first place. And just like writing, it’s very hard. Making good rap music is hard, and stays hard. Trying to stay relevant as a rapper or a writer is always a challenge.”
Of course, “Chime” isn’t strictly a rap album.
With the help of composer/arranger Andy Thompson — who’s also all over Dessa pal Jeremy Messersmith’s new album — several tracks incorporate classical orchestration, including “Chime’s” dramatic centerpiece, “Velodrome,” about trying to escape life’s rigmaroles. There’s also one song, “Half of You,” that’s a straight-up love song and synth-pop tune (and a mighty good one, too).
Still, a lot of “Chime” also involves Doomtree producer Aaron “Lazerbeak” Mader and harks back to the same booming, electric but also elegant and dramatic hip-hop sounds heard on Dessa’s two previous full-length solo albums, 2013’s “Parts of Speech” and 2010’s “A Badly Broken Code.”
One of the singles already issued, “Fire Drills,” combines the classical influences and hip-hop base — and a little sitar by way of Istanbul — to stand out as one of her fiercest rap songs yet. It’s based on the advice and raised eyebrows she often faces being a woman traveling alone.
“You shouldn’t try to stay too late or talk to strangers,” she sings. “Stay close, hems low, safe inside/That formula works if you can live it/But it works by putting half the world off limit.”
Explained Dessa, “From a young age, women are told things like, ‘Don’t stay out too late’ or, ‘Don’t go there alone.’ It really never ends, and at what cost are we constantly being told that?”
While she touches on several other feminist topics and universal themes, many of “Chime’s” best songs — including the first single “Good Grief” — once again come from deep in her personal life. She lost a grandmother she was close to during the writing. She also suffered another go-round in what she called “my bad track record for relationships.”
At least Dessa’s music career has impressively stayed on track. Ever the hypester, she announced a “10 Days of Chime” Minnesota rollout that includes everything from a Glam Doll Donuts party (noon Sunday), a poetry reading at Loft Literary Center (6:30 p.m. Monday) and a lecture at Augsburg University (11:30 a.m. Thursday).
Then comes another long tour, including an instantly sold-out First Ave gig on April 6. She’s working with a new band this time out. Longtime collaborator Aby Wolf is still serving as her co-vocalist, but her other local bandmates “had a couple babies and other projects to work on,” she said.
So she hired a Chicago group, MONAKR, as her backing band, featuring members of Hey Champ and her old friend Matthew Santos, known from singing on Lupe Fiasco’s 2007 top 10 hit “Superstar.”
“It feels really good with them,” she said, laughing about their trial-by-ice set in the Super Bowl Live series on Nicollet Mall last month, where they overcame bad weather and technical glitches. “It was a good bonding experience for us.”
Despite having new bandmates from Chicago and a home base in New York, Dessa said there’s still a familiarity with her new album and the upcoming tour that she is relishing.
“After everything else I’ve been doing,” she said, “this feels like a homecoming.”
Apparently, she was a little homesick after all.
Here’s more of what Dessa had to say on her various adventures of late.
On living part-time in New York: “I’ve got to say, it lives up to the hype for me. My mom’s family is from there, so I’ve loved it since I was a kid. Living there feels enormous, brilliant, vicious, expensive. Especially expensive! I’ll never lose that Minnesota side of me that can’t get used to spending as much as it costs to live there. But I still return home often enough to be spared the long, hard salvo of loneliness that can happen when people move there to make it there.”
On her work with Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Toward the beginning of ‘Hamilton’s’ meteoric rise, he published a list of songs that inspired him, and one of mine was on it [‘Dixon’s Girl’]. That turned into an internet friendship, and it took off from there, as can happen nowadays. It has been a genuine thrill to work with him. On so many levels, he just traffics excellence, not only in how he works but who he works with. I really had no exposure to the world of Broadway before him, so I didn’t know how the people in it act. At least in his case, he surrounds himself with really good, inspiring, hardworking people.”
On writing her upcoming book: “I’ve been very interested in writing since college. I took a class [at the U] on creative nonfiction, which just sounds boring on the surface, but it really sparked something in me. And I’ve been doing it ever since, throughout my musical career. Whenever I had time, I’d send an essay off to the New Yorker or wherever to try to get it published. Finally, I was able to put a real proposal together and pitch it properly, and it worked. It’s essentially all true stories from the last 10 years of my life in piecemeal form.”
On her Doomtree crewmates worrying about any possible dirt in the book: “One thing I know is that to write a compelling story, there has to be a decent amount of conflict in it. So my book definitely has some of that [laughs]. I was very careful, though, to ask permission if I thought anything might in any way be off-limits, whether it was members of my family or members of my crew. I sent out a lot of e-mails with essays attached asking, ‘Hey, Mom, are you OK with me writing this?’ or, ‘Hey, Sims, what do you think of this?’ Fortunately, they’re all very supportive of me, so I mostly got all green lights.”