Dessa talks “My Own Devices” release
Minnesotan rapper, singer, essayist, and self-described science nerd Dessa can now add full-length, hardcover author to her life’s resume.
In her new collection of short essays, “My Own Devices,” published by Penguin Random House, she delves into deeply personal, honest, and thoughtful musings on life through love, music, and touring.
In a chat before the book published, Dessa touched on her writing process, the emotions within her essays, and what Rochester can expect when she stops by Café Steam on Wednesday, Sept. 26 on the book tour.
How does the difficulty of writing “My Own Devices” compare to your other work?
I think making anything genuinely excellent, for me, has always been hard. I have an aptitude for the language arts, but I’ve demonstrated nothing akin to prodigy. So, for me, trying to get really good at any craft has taken a lot of work. To write something that’s worthy of a hardcover release, isn’t done quickly or easily. It ended up being a book I’m really proud of, but I think it took a lot of reiterating. I think this is the twentieth draft… Working with a hot shot New York publishing house isn’t easy – it’s hard!
Touching on your process as a writer, do you use a Moleskine notebook, iPhone notes?
For me usually the beginning of a song, poem, or essay arrives with a little phrase or a sentence or two and I try to just capture that in whatever means is easily available. So whether that’s jotting out an iPhone note or writing something on the back of a gas receipt, or in a Moleskine notebook, I’ll do that to kind of capture that first idea. And then after that, I’ll move pretty quickly, when I’m beginning to assemble a final product, I’ll move pretty quickly into Microsoft word.
How’d you weave through to pick and choose moments in your last years to write about within this collection?
Well, I think that the genre – which is called creative non-fiction and encapsulates this kind of work – is akin to photography. So like a painter starts with a blank canvas, picks a palette and then dreams something up from nothing or a reference, a photographer is waiting for or posing an image in the real world that is worth sharing.
Similarly, I think creative non-fiction is like that. You wait until art wanders in front of your pen, you know, and sometimes that can be a single vignette. Sometimes that’s a story that takes five or six years to unfold, and I think both kinds of those stories are in the book. I have stories that originated from backstage conversations between Doomtree. We have a habit – like every other road trip group – to play a lot of “Would You Rather.” Expanding from a child’s game into more of a serious adult’s game, and then into more of a philosophical game of who and how we love and what we would give up to do so starts to feel less hypothetical after you’ve done this thing for ten years. Being on the road makes it difficult to have lasting human relationships at home and just making it possible. All the sudden you’re living a game of “Would You Rather” and not just playing it in the back seat.
And then every once in a while, there will just be a cool science fact that has some artistic potential. So one of the essays is about the mirror test, which is a test that animal researchers use to try to determine which creatures are self aware, and they do that by noting which creatures seem to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror. That was an opportunity to question not only what self-awareness was and which creatures pass that test, but also to explore the idea of vanity and aging. You only think until and include what all is fascinating, and then you cut the rest. It’s like cropping a picture, right? I think part of the job of creative non-fiction is knowing when to start and stop writing.
Obviously, these are all true accounts and thoughts in your life, but has your relationship with any of them changed?
I think that even if the tone changes, the thematic concepts to which I’m most attracted, very often holds firm. So, for me trying to figure out what it means to be human and where we’re supposed to look for meaning, how and when we find our most valuable connections with other people and how to handle loss – I think those are the themes I circle around a lot. And then because I’m a science geek, I like trying to examine those very often emotionally-laden topics through a technical lens. So, incorporating genetics or neuroscience or aviation principles to a very personal story – I like doing that, kind of varying the technical and the intimate details.
Now that the pen’s down and the book is out, will discussing these topics and stories on the book tour dates bring you back the emotions of these memories?
Will it hurt? Yeah, I think it probably will hurt sometimes. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to feel. It’s a more candid account than my albums have been for sure, so there is a degree of weirdness that can arise from talking to strangers about your most intimate feelings, but at the same time I sort of feel I’ve been in cross-training for that with the records.
I think if you just say it plainly, if you decide it’s not a secret, that helps. Like, ‘Hey, I’ve been totally busted on occasion,’ Well most people have, too. There’s this pageantry that we run around looking professional for most of our lives. We all fundamentally understand that that is untrue. That the way people are on Instagram is not a full picture of them; that the way people look on Monday mornings when they’re reporting to work is not copying a look on Sunday afternoon. So I think there’s a shared fiction that we can dispose of when we’re talking about real shit, if someone invites us to.
With all of these personal accounts that people will be reading, I’m not sure if there’s an end goal for you, but if there is, what are you hoping people walk away with?
Yeah, I mean I hope they are moved, and I hope that there are turns of phrase that have kind of burrowed into their memories. But to be honest, neither in music nor in writing do I identify an objective goal that I hope my readers or listeners will experience. I figure that’s on them. In the same way that a solidly constructed song may resonate for slightly different reasons, which isn’t to say that it’s completely subjective and could be about anything... That’s not what I mean at all; I know exactly what the book is about – I wrote it that way. But I figure which parts resonate and why they resonate are probably going vary from reader to reader because they’ve all had different experiences. So, for me, it’s just trusting the book to do its own work, in the same way I try to trust songs to do their own work. You make them really well, if you can, and then there’s a new relationship that sparks between the readers and listeners at that point.
You’ll be having these stops in Seattle, New York, Boston, etc. Why did Rochester get on that list as well?
Minnesota is my home state, and now I split my time between Minneapolis and New York. But Rochester’s been a place that has always been really welcoming to me and my band. Especially in the past five to ten years, there’s been a real commitment and enthusiasm to cultural events, and it’s been a really good. I’m hoping there will still be some interest in the new project.
Have you thought about what a book tour means for you? Do you still get hyped up before a book stop?
I think in both cases it’s trying to figure out what the realest experience I can provide is. So, if you don’t feel like jumping up and down and creating a party, then don’t do that, you know? For me, maybe that’ll mean picking slightly different passages to read from or having different conversations. But I think reading the room, trying to figure out, is it a late night where people are trying to flirt and play and have a glass of champagne or does this feel like a crowd in a well-lit room that’s eager to really engage in philosophical ideas? I try and engage in the vibe of the room and time as opposed to opposing my plan upon the people gathered – it’s always been trying to use the energy in the room as raw material to build something.
Is there anything else you think people should know before diving into the book?
I think if I’ve done it well, I think the book will speak for itself. For me, I’d be excited if people are game to come through and come say hello at the Rochester appearance – I’ll be looking forward to it. They’ll either dig it or they won’t when they get it!