Dessa is fresh off a world tour in support of her third full-length solo album, Chime, which has kept her on the road for most of the past five months, from Chicago to Chengdu. “I’m feeling pretty spun,” she confesses over coffee near her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “It’s like an adrenaline hangover.” But if she’s flagging, it’s impossible to tell. Whether leaning into a microphone or perched on a café stool, the tall, platinum blond 37-year-old rapper, poet, and essayist radiates a sharply focused, magnetic energy.
That’s a good thing, because even if Dessa were the type to take a breather, she wouldn’t have the time. Her debut essay collection, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love, was published by Dutton in September, and now she’s touring as an author—though, she admits, “that word doesn’t feel real yet.” When her agent first reached out to her, she thought it might be a prank call. “I’m a wallflower in the lit-world scene,” she says. “I go to readings and sort of stand uncertainly with my backpack.”
But Dessa has built a career and a following on her linguistic dexterity. She started out as a spoken-word poet before joining the Minneapolis-based indie rap group Doomtree in 2003, and she’s earned comparisons to Dorothy Parker and Mos Def for her clever, candid lyrics and wide-ranging allusions. To wit: On one track from Chime, Dessa pairs a reference to 13th-century metaphysician Thomas Aquinas with a catchy pop melody; in a sly interlude, she quips: “Always a bridesmaid, never an astronaut!”
That flair was first evident in her poetry chapbooks, one of which impressed Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who invited her to contribute a song to The Hamilton Mixtape. Dessa’s “Congratulations” has been praised as one of the album’s standouts—“All hail @dessadarling and her incredible band,” Miranda tweeted when the song went live. The praise continued with the arrival of her new album: NPR called the fierce rap track “Fire Drills”—a searing critique of the ways in which women are asked to limit their ambitions in order to “stay safe” rather than follow their dreams—“one of the most powerful songs of the #MeToo movement.”
The essays in My Own Devices balance that outspoken feminism with what initially seems like a contradictory impulse: being hung up on a guy. How to avoid waxing sentimental about a longtime lover? Dessa’s first foray into professional writing was a gig drafting guides to help doctors install pacemakers—deploying language to fix the heart—and she says technical writing has helped her “explore sensitive emotional content without becoming maudlin.”
It’s a technique that finds its clearest expression in the essay “Call Off Your Ghost,” which picks up a line from her song “Half of You”—“What if I could cure me of you?”—and turns it literal. The essay recounts her experience working with a brain-imaging specialist and a neurofeedback clinician to design a “scientific protocol to fall out of love,” a Pavlovian effort to alter the pattern of her brain waves and recondition the lovesick region of her mind. Did it work? “I still feel a blueness when I think about it, but I don’t stay crying,” she says with a laugh.
It’s one thing to write a torch song, another to detail a heartsickness so intense that you’d turn your brain over to researchers for reprogramming. “I think there’s an emotional vulnerability in the songs,” she says, “but you can do that in a stylized way as a songwriter.” Writing it all down in a book raises a different set of stakes. “When you have to say the names and details, that feels very different. It’s a very well-lit room to be naked in. But I think being vulnerable is the only way to tell a true story that’s good.”