My Interview With Dessa Of Doomtree

December 19, 2011 by Chris Grosso

Dessa’s first full-length record, A Badly Broken Code, introduced her to a national audience as a rapper, a singer, and a potent, imaginative lyricist. It earned a binder of superlative reviews from sources like NPR, The Seattle Times, and AM New York. To tour the album, she assembled a small cast of talented instrumentalists to re-interpret the disc for a dynamic live concert. Part rap show and part cabaret, the elegant presentation charmed both audiences and critics—not a negligible feat in hip hop, a genre with its share of purists.
Castor, The Twin captures these new arrangements for ten of Dessa’s strongest previously released songs. It also includes “The Beekeeper,” the haunting advance single from Dessa’s new album due in 2012. Vibraphone, piano, viola, mandolin, and stand-up bass give the record a classical, sometimes orchestral sound for a beautiful and somber effect. The album is immediately identifiable as an intimate recording of live players, with fingers sliding on frets and raw, expressive vocals. The organic instrumentation pushes Dessa’s lyrics forward, showcasing the imagery and narratives that define her as a songwriter and an emcee.

*The following interview was conducted via email on 12/18/11. – C. Grosso

The Dessa Interview

TIS: Castor, The Twin, is the re-envisioning of some of your previously released work, this time performed with live musicians and the result is tremendous. Was the decision to make this album your own or was there some influence by the fans (as your shows are often performed with live musicians)?

Dessa: After re-arranging and re-voicing a few songs with the band, I knew I wanted to capture the material. But I was also nervous about asking Doomtree for a budget to do so–seemed like it could be a risky endeavor. In the end, I was heartened by the responses of listeners, who seemed to really get and appreciate the musical differences between A Badly Broken Code and the more organic and orchestral interpretations.

TIS: Live Hip Hop is a tricky thing to pull off successfully, especially when incorporating actual musicians but you and the band seem to have all but perfected the craft. Was there a particular vision or specific criteria you had for yourself and the musicians you work with when you made the decision to try it out?

Dessa: If you’re not careful, a lot can get lost in translation when you ask a live band to perform a hip hop record. Part of the appeal of rap production is that’s it’s layered, it combines all sorts of varied sounds and textures, and it draws from musical sources that span genre and era–you just can’t get that with a live band. So we decided not to try. Instead of trying to simply play the songs on guitars and keyboard and drums and bass, we decided to undo and reconstruct them completely. And we aimed to do so in a way that showcases the strength of working as a live ensemble. There’s a dynamic kind of performance that you get when real people play together in the same room–a dynamic that isn’t readily available in produced music. We’ve also got the ability to easily and naturally make changes: key changes, metric changes, and minute changes in the intensity of our performances. My band (Sean McPherson, Dustin Kiel, and Joey Van Phillips) knew how to avoid the pitfalls of live hip hop, which call all too easily get cheesy or jam-bandy.

TIS: Can you tell me a bit about the name “Castor, The Twin” and why the album is titled as such?

Dessa: Castor and Pollux were twin brothers in Greek and Roman mythology. Their father was a god, their mother human. Consequently, Castor was born human, while Pollux immortal. To me, many of the songs on Castor are the more organic ‘twins’ to the versions that were recorded for previous, highly-produced projects like A Badly Broken Code or Paper Tiger’s Made Like Us. There’s a human quality to these recordings that I hoped to convey in the title.

TIS: And you have a new album dropping in early 2012. What can fans expect with that release?

Dessa: All the projects I’ve done to date have taught me new skills (or painfully honed old ones). For the next record, I hope to employ the whole arsenal, without regard to genre. There will be hard rap, there will be ballads. But I think a shared lyrical style will serve to collect and connect all of the songs–my first love was language and that’s the part of songwriting about which I’m most fanatical.

TIS: Do you have plans on releasing future literature?

Dessa: I do. I am working, at an almost imperceptible pace, on a new collection of essays and stories.

TIS: The new Doomtree album “No Kings” dropped last month. How’s that been received so far in comparison to the prior albums?

Dessa: (Furiously knocking on wood). So far, we’ve received great reviews. The album was something of a departure from our previous stuff, and it departed in a bold, aggressive direction. But listeners and critics are on board and we’ll be touring it like maniacs in 2012.

TIS: Were there any goals for the “No Kings” album that Doomtree set as a collective?

Dessa: We wanted to make this record cohesive and truly collaborative. Toward that end, the producers worked together to create the beats and most songs feature at least three of the five emcees.

TIS: What does 2012 and beyond have in store for Dessa as a solo artist and Doomtree as a whole?

Dessa: On Janary 19th, all of Doomtree sets off on a massive tour. We’ll be hitting dozens of US cities, and a few Canadian ones too. You can check out the routing here:


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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.