Those American Music Awards could have used a dash of Dessa last week.
The singer/rapper/poet would’ve been a delightful break from sundry pretentiousness. Her day will come — at better awards shows, no doubt — and when it does, authenticity will not be an issue for Dessa, who relishes the moment. The awesome Dessa brought it during our interview after a rehearsal for her recent, second, collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Early on, I asked, did she ever envision a day when she’d perform with the Minnesota Orchestra?
“No,” she said, smiling. “No, I did not. When the e-mail first came from the orchestra from Grant [Meachum, director of Live at Minnesota Orchestra], I thought it was maybe spam. It was such a flattering request. It was so exciting to be asked to collaborate.”
Dessa’s work ethic guarantees that she arrives ready to play, which is just something else to admire as she cuts a path through the artistic world. The former CEO of Doomtree Records is brilliant, something I intuited before learning she was a high school valedictorian and a philosophy major in college, and that brightness illuminates her memoir, “My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science and Senseless Love.” It is funny, heartbreaking, insightful and scientific, because she is a science geek. When told that one bookstore can’t keep her memoir on the shelves, she said, “Thank you, Minnetonka Barnes and Noble. That’s awesome.”
When I let her know that I had learned Dessa is Latin or Greek for “wandering,” there was a bemused arch of the eyebrow, from the woman born Margret Wander but now identified on her passport as Dessa Wander. She looked into the camera and playfully said, “Heeeey. What’s up, research?” Here’s Part 1 of our interview.
Q: You don’t need a PR person because you are not hiding much?
A: I have to say this was a frank account, the book stuff. Even in the songs, I’m usually, like, pretty open emotionally, but it was different to write a book.
Q: You are “a credible professional” (see page 202 in her book) in so many disciplines. What aren’t you good at, I want to know?
A: Aw man, I feel like I’ve been on the road a lot the past year. My cooking. I never met anybody who used to be a good cook and now sucks. I think that’s me, though. I’ve been so disappointed to find out how completely rusty I am.
Q: What did you formerly cook well and now not so much?
A: A vegetable quinoa dish — just can’t get the texture right.
Q: Did being a record company executive make the transition to artist easier or tougher?
A: Doomtree, essentially, is artist-owned and -operated. So all of us just learned the business skills that were necessary to keep the thing afloat. So we kind of learned on the job. But yeah, I think having those business skills, for me, makes the art part not just easier but viable — to figure out how to keep the machine running, figure out how to market yourself a little bit and also how to look after your bottom line.
Q: You’re somebody who is brimming with creativity. Is there part of the day you’re more creative?
A: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. I think like the time where I’m supposed to go to bed. If I listen to music within two hours of going to bed, I know I’ll be up for a long time because it loops [she closing her eyes and makes a sultry circular gesture under her hair over her left ear with her hand], you know what I mean? If being asleep by 2 a.m. is important, there can be no music after midnight. So for me, I’m probably a night owl. Uh-huh.
Q: How is promoting your book different from promoting your music?
A: After you make something big, like an album or a book, you have to figure out how to share the news and share an honest enthusiasm for it. But you have to do it without sounding like a broken record of a promotional machine, which I take really seriously. Twitter: I don’t like following people who only say “Buy my thing.” I think that’s obnoxious. If I am going to ask people to check out the book, let’s say, to try to do so in a way that feels mindful of their time, that’s either beautiful or funny or poignant. If that means, I don’t know, hiring an [actor] to do like a dramatic reading from it, well then, it feels like that’s a little piece of art. It’s not just an ask to buy. Not just marketing; it’s like a tiny little art campaign. Sometimes it feels for me the marketing and the art itself is connected, even blurred.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.