Three Great Things: Dessa

The multi-hyphenate tells us about books, food, and her outlook on the eve of a new live album.

Three Great Things is our series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the release of Sound The Bells: Recorded Live At Orchestra Hall, rapper-author-poet Dessa gives us some advice on reading and life.
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

1. Mary Roach books

Mary Roach is this outrageously talented, smart, funny science writer. She manages to relay even really challenging information in completely approachable and entertaining ways, usually in books that have one-syllable titles. She wrote a book about death called Stiff and she wrote a book about sex called Bonk. She wrote one about military science called Grunt. It’s the kind of stuff that you might lean into because it’s entertaining to recount at a bar; it’s just patently interesting, but it’s also really funny and moving.

Some things I’ve learned from her books… The chocolate rations that soldiers were given by the US government had kerosene in them so people didn’t snack on them just for fun. In some cultures women put sawdust in their vaginas to create a dry sex, which is preferred in some regions. In some places people will marry as-yet-unborn and sometimes unconceived daughters in a community when there’s a shortage of women. She’s just incredible. She had sex with her man in an MRI machine to better understand the mechanics. Stiff was the book where she really made her name. People were so interested in the secret lives of human cadavers. Sometimes they’re used for crash test information! You wire up sensors along the bones in these dead bodies and then submit them to accident forces to better understand what we’re trying to protect living passengers from. It’s super intense. 

2. European gas stations

Genuinely even just hearing the phrase “European gas stations” conjures a lift in my mood. So much of your time as a touring musician is spent at gas stations or in the car. Your commute is between four and nine hours for a 1.5 hour work shift, essentially. A lot of your provisioning is done in the snack aisle at the Super America or Amoco. When you get to go abroad for the first time and do a tour of Europe, to see this oasis of hot, fresh food and 100 different kinds of milk chocolate, all of which are foreign to you, and clean restrooms, and oh my God they’re making a cappuccino to the right of the cash register. It just feels like you seriously leveled up. I find myself saying, “Are we out of gas yet? Maybe we should top up!” 

None of this is best practices, but in America a lot of us live on energy bars or bags of salted cashews. And if you’re tired and can’t resist, some variety of pastry that’s been existing at four degrees above room temperature. I hoard stuff, and I’ve heard that other musicians do, too. You’re just so not in control of what you eat, and so often the consumption of calories is without any clear delineation of meals or any of the social accompaniments that usually go with eating. There are other people chewing nearby, but we all have headphones on and are maybe on the verge of being carsick, or a little hungover from last night’s show and a little anxious about this evening. It really divorces food from culture in a weird way. To have it restored a little bit is great. When you’re in Europe, there’s lentils! I can put anything I want on this hot piece of bread? There’s butternut squash soup! This woman has clean hair! It’s very exciting.

3. Grace under fire 

I don’t want to frame this exclusively in a political context, but there are a lot of opportunities in pop culture and in the halls of power to see people taking cheap shots. Every once in a while they get one off that’s funny and well delivered, but that’s a lot of high fructose corn syrup and not a lot of substance. It’s classy when you hear someone say, “I fucked up and I’m sorry” or “I disagree with you, and I’m not gonna call you names.” I like that stuff, you know? 

To hear people like Michelle Obama talk about the high road, that’s not our default mode of communication when we’re in contentious situations. It’s very classy, and it makes me want to follow suit.

I was reading the other day about Lizzo sorting out a claim to her song. I don’t know the full breadth of her response to the writers who had some claim to her song. But I like her response, which was, “I am sharing my success with the person who wrote this initial scrap of lyrics because they earned it. And I’m not sharing it with these other people, because they didn’t.” I liked the simplicity. Every once in a while Colbert or Trevor Noah do something with some restraint or elegance when talking about complicated issues. I am sometimes surprised at how much one person in a position of power can effect change. I was surprised at how strong that tidal pull is. It’s amazing how much the conduct of one person in the spotlight can shape the conversation for good or ill. Elijah Cummings, who recently passed… I think maybe that’s why I was thinking about this, reading some of the things he said to really vitriolic comments. He was so classy. 

Dessa is touring now; you can find those dates here

(Photo Credit: Matthew Levine)

Dessa is a rapper, writer, and public speaker whose extraordinary career spans many genres. As a writer, she has contributed to the New York Times, the Star Tribune, the hit podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and literary journals around the country. She’s hosted radio and TV events, delivered keynote speeches around the country, contributed to The Hamilton Mixtape, and tried every dessert that was ever offered to her. Dessa has toured North America, Europe, Australia, China, and South Africa, both as a solo artist and as a proud member of the Doomtree hip-hop collective.

In August of 2019, featured a talk on heartbreak and neuroscience that Dessa delivered in Hong Kong. In the weeks since, her speech, titled “Can We Choose to Fall Out of Love,” has accrued more than a million views. Other recent career accomplishments include 2018’s acclaimed album Chime, a Super Bowl 2018 performance, in spring of 2019, she performed her sixth straight sold-out show with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall.  The Utne Reader called her simply a “one-woman powerhouse.”

(Photo Credit: Matthew Levine)