Local Current Blog

Dessa on her recent burglary, branding, and playing big stages

Dessa (Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR)

Dessa has spent much of this year on the road in support of her new album, Parts of Speech. And along the way, she’s also picked up some dramatic stories, some of which sound more like the lyrics in her songs than things that typically happen to touring indie artists.

Just last month, her touring van was burglarized and she and her band lost a significant portion of their equipment; her fans were so concerned about the loss that they raised over $33,000 in a period of roughly 24 hours to help get them back on track. A few weeks later, Dessa found herself at the Xcel Center being shuttled around by a handler and performing to 15,000 screaming teens. And in the midst of all that excitement she also managed to release her third chapbook, A Pound of Steam, via literary publisher Rain Taxi.

I caught Dessa in a rare quiet moment (she was about to head to a cabin to begin work on Doomtree’s next album, and when she returns from that she’ll leave for the next leg of her neverending Parts of Speech tour) to talk about all of these recent developments. And as happens when one gets Dessa on the phone, our conversation took quite a few surprising twists and turns.

Local Current: So I was really hoping that the next time I talked to you, my biggest question about playing Buffalo, NY would be about what it’s like to perform at Ani DiFranco’s church. But now we have a burglary to talk about instead. 

Dessa: Yeah. [groans]

What happened?

So the band and I played in Buffalo, NY two weeks ago, and we played Babeville, which is a venue that Ani DiFranco owns. A lot of us in the band are big fans of her work. The show went well, and after the show we went to grab mozzarella sticks and some greasy bar food indulgences nearby. We ran in, inhaled some mozzarella sticks, and Ander—the eighth member of Doomtree—went out to the van, and he sent us a text message that said “Van has been robbed. I repeat: Van has been robbed.” And I think Dustin [Kiel], who plays guitar and keys in the band, he and I felt our phones vibrate first, so it was still this moment of revelry around us, people are toasting to a good show, getting our bill and getting ready to go, and Dustin and I look at each other and both just sprint out of the restaurant and start running down the block.

We parked the van under a streetlight, so we run down the block, and then it just sort of begins; we start taking inventory of what’s been taken. It was horrible. I felt horrible. I’ve never had an experience like that, as the leader of an organization. I couldn’t help, in those first few moments, but feel horribly guilty.

How long were you actually away from the gear?

How long does it take to order mozzarella sticks? These were better mozzarella sticks than most, so I’m going to say 15 minutes from sitting to finish, and then probably another five minutes figuring out the bill. So 20, 25 minutes maybe.

That’s pretty fast.

It was quick, yeah. You know, when you’re on tour you’re in a van, and that van has a trailer, and you have out-of-state plates—there’s nothing stealth about it. You really do advertise the fact that you’re a touring band. So I think a lot of people who are looking to break into cars scout people like us.


Dessa and her tourmates (Photo by Ricardo Zapata)

It also happened pretty quickly that you broke the news that this happened, and then posted the Indiegogo page asking for help. What led to the decision to turn to your fans for financial assistance?

I think the honest answer is—so, a lot of my stuff was stolen. I had a computer stolen, an iPad stolen, and the stuff that I use to run the tour. I manage my own tours so I keep all the books and I keep all the receipts and do all that kind of daily math. I think if that stuff had been stolen I would be pissed, and I would have too much whiskey, and I’d be frustrated, but Doomtree would have been able to support us financially for at least part of the way. But because there’s so many people in the band and there’s so much gear, the scale of the loss was so big.

And we had a friend with us, Ricardo [Zapata], who was documenting the tour—and it was because of Ricardo that I didn’t really waste too much time in posting the ask. Because I thought, ok, I had my stuff stolen and that makes me angry. My band had their stuff stolen and that makes me feel hurt and angry, because these guys sacrificed so much to go on the road, and it just felt like insult to injury to work so hard for so little and come home with less than they left with. But Ricardo, he’s coming out here for the love of the game. He’s here because he likes us and he believes in the music. So the idea of returning him to the place where he lives with no way to make a living just felt totally unacceptable. I felt horrible. So I thought, ok, we have to get some camera gear for Ricardo, because he works as a photographer at home. He takes pictures for a college football team, so he needs cameras to be able to earn his keep in his real life.

So as I looked around me at 3 a.m. in Buffalo, I was like, ok, I’m definitely going to ask. Because this kid has to go home in five days, and we’ve got to find a way to get him taking pictures again.

When you use a site like Indiegogo, how quickly does that money actually reach you, and what did you do with it?

I know when you look at the page and see the total rising, the total rises there significantly faster than it does in a banking account. And I don’t know if that’s because some PayPal accounts need extra confirmation, or IndieGogo has to wait for funds to be available. All I know is that some donations go through right away, and some donations seem to take a day or two. But they all got there.

While we were on the road, within 36 hours, the first thing we did was decide, ‘What do we need to play our set again?’ And that will be priority number one. And Ricardo’s gear will be priority number two. Because we decided we were going to stay on the road, and that meant we needed to get to Pittsburgh. And that was a long, long drive, and we were up really late. So we set a van call time, we got in the van, and then we started Googling on our phones to try to figure out if there were stores along the way where we could pick up the gear that we needed to play our set.

That night in Pittsburgh we played our set, and it was a little shorter and a little more guitar-driven, because we didn’t have any of the gear we needed to play keyboard, so we arranged more folkier versions of a lot of the songs we play every night. Songs like “Call Off Your Ghost” and “The Lamb” and “Dear Marie” all became guitar songs, whereas on the record they’re all keyboard songs.

And then one of the first things we did was buy a couple computers so I could start keeping track of our tour again, collecting receipts and booking the hotels we would need to get us home. And we got the camera gear for Ricardo; we got him one camera and one lens so he could start shooting again. In the mean time, at a stop he ran off and by the time he came back to the van he had purchased disposable cameras, so I heard a very weird sound in the van, neeeh neeeh neeeh, as he’s winding a disposable camera to be our professional documentarian. It was awesome. It was super sweet. My heart grew two sizes in my chest. He said, “I’m back, mother****ers.”

I’m curious, when you look at the total amount that you raised, did you have any thoughts about what would happen if you sailed over that goal? How did you figure out how to allocate those extra funds?

We asked for $30,000, which felt really big. So my first thought wasn’t “What are we going to do with the extra?” My first thought was, “Oh my god, we’ve lost so much stuff.” And then, as soon as it hits, there was this enormously emotional period where that number was rising so quickly. Every half hour, someone in the van would go, “16!” And then it would be quiet for 20 minutes. “17,500!” We just couldn’t believe it. And I turn around and Aby is verklempt in the backseat. If you’re going to get robbed, it was a really uplifting way to be robbed. It was just this incredible outpouring of support.

So what do we do with the overage? That was not one of my first questions. But then I saw that it hit $30,000, so the first thing I did was tweet, “Thank you. We hit our limit!” But then it kept growing, so we called Indiegogo and said, “You’ve got to shut it down. We’re good now.” And I don’t think Indiegogo fields that many requests like that. So they said, “We can shut it down in three days.” And I said, “No, you have to shut it down now.”

I mean, it’s surreal. Stop! The generosity is too much! One of the things we did talk about, though, is—we’re still purchasing some light items now, the stuff that wasn’t crucial. Several pedals we didn’t use when we were on the road, and a lot of personal stuff that I didn’t need immediately. But if we do have money left over, one thing we’re going to do is strengthen Mountain’s theft defense. And if there’s still money left over, there’s an organization that helps musicians who are in trouble, I’ve researched them a little bit. So we’ll announce that, if it looks like there are funds that aren’t really needed. We want to be able to forward that to other musicians who are in trouble.

If you could give some advice to other touring musicians, what are some things you’ve taken away from this?

My first bitter impulse is like, “Don’t play in Buffalo!” I admit, that’s ridiculous. But I think that even a grate in the back—there’s nothing spy-like about that even, or secretive. You know, when you see work vans that have expensive material, they’ll sometimes have a locked grate. We’re looking into it; I thought that was a really good idea. Just to make it a little harder. If it takes another 15-20 minutes to haul away, my guess is it’ll end up staying in the van.

Also, the common sense stuff. There’s no trip away from the van that’s too brief. And some of the stuff, I would have never brought into a restaurant to begin with. I’m not going to bring all my microphones and my in-ear equipment and set it up on the chair next to me. You know? No one’s going to be like, hey, we’re here with our bass amp to eat at Famous Dave’s. But I think I will end up hauling more stuff around. And I would say back-ups, too. I’ve always known that’s important, and I admit I got kind of lazy. But Justin was awesome. I think that the last time he had backed up all his data was like nine minutes before we went and got mozzarella sticks. He’s just really, really faithful about it.

Well, speaking of super surreal experiences that you’ve had this past month, can you tell me about playing the Xcel Center for We Day? 

Oh man. Super weird. We played one song at the Xcel, and it’s full-on TV stuff. I know that makes me sound like a nine-year-old kid, but when you see somebody really famous on TV and there’s big LED light displays behind them, and they’re walking around on stages that light up from within, and people are reaching out their hands to be touched—all that Hollywood stuff, there were elements of all that. Except for everyone in the room was 15. Which is maybe the same as it is at a Beyonce concert, I don’t know. But yeah, it was strange. In some ways it felt like, here’s a cool opportunity to visit this world that I haven’t had a lot of experience in, to see what I make of it, and to see if I’m any good at it. I admit that in my trajectory, I have some really ambitious plans, but playing arenas hasn’t really been on that list. That isn’t where I eventually see myself landing.

That was literally my next question, written down here.

Really?

“You have characterized yourself as ‘very ambitious.’ Does that include arenas?”

[laughs] No, I guess I didn’t. For whatever reason, that’s not where my imagination goes. When we’re on the road right now, our draw is nothing like it is in Minneapolis. We are certainly not playing First Avenues every night. We’re playing little clubs. Sometimes 100 people come, sometimes 90 people come, and if we’re lucky, and we’re in Seattle, maybe 450 come. But that’s sort of our range. So the difference between playing to 450 people and playing for 15,000 people is big. And it feels big; if feels like a totally different thing.

I think, just playing that one song, I learned a lot about the way I would do it again. If I have to walk across the stage at First Ave, that’s like 20 steps? 25? Something like that. And having to walk across the stage at the Xcel to the furthest point into the room, the third stage that they encourage you to walk all the way out towards, I was out there and I was singing, and they had told me that you have to be back on the main stage by the time the song is over, and I looked back and I was like, oh my god. I have 8 bars. How do I do this without dropping my microphone and just running and sliding on my stomach? I’m not going to make it. They told me, “When that wall comes down you better be on the other side of it, because we can’t get you easily.”

That’s terrifying.

It was horrible! It was like Indiana Jones. Just way too athletic. And I totally forgot, because I was focusing on how to not look like an idiot out here on this lit-up stage, and I thought, ok, I’ve got 25 seconds, and Aby [Wolf, Dessa's back-up singer] looks so small and far away, and I have to be back there. So I was singing hard, and then every moment there was a break in me singing I was taking as many fast steps as I could. Singing hard, and being comfortable and trying to deliver my line authentically, and then taking like 19 fast steps. I got there. But you just don’t have to cover that kind of terrain typically, and it doesn’t ask so much of you athletically. So there’s an opportunity to become breathless really easily when you’re operating on so much real estate.

Maybe that’s why Bruce Springsteen slides around on his knees.

Yeah, just to get places! It’s quicker!

I want to talk a bit about the new book. You had some interesting things to say recently about the differences between the music industry and literary world, and how it is tougher to gain traction as a DIY writer as opposed to a DIY musician. Can you expand on that a little, and explain why working with Rain Taxi to release your new book was appealing to you?

I think when people self-release music, people are still generally willing to give it an ear, and if it’s good, they take it seriously. Whereas even the language in printing and publishing is a little different. If somebody makes their stuff and pays for it and puts it into the marketplace in music, that’s called self-releasing. And in publishing, that’s called vanity press. It’s a vanity publication. And that also implies, hey, you’re not going to move any of these, you guys made it so that you could say you wrote a book. But that’s just a really different lens to look at it through.

I mean, I get it, sort of. There is a real drive toward curation in the literary world. There’s not that many indie museums, you know. The curatorial role is very important. There’s somebody there who is managing the collection and has got an eye on quality control, and who’s vetting the people with whom they work. I think that’s how the lit world still leans. Whereas in music, you’ve got a lot of rogue agents, and you’re just trusting the free market, essentially, to determine what ought to rise to the top. At least in the indie world. And then you have institutions, the Current being one of them, who start making those curatorial selections—but they’re making that selection by deciding what should get distributed, not based on who should be able to make stuff or be taken seriously. You look at all your CDs on your desk, and then the ones that you like, you play, and the ones you don’t like, you don’t play. But you don’t look at them and say, oh, this guy, he puts out his own music, he probably shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Do you think the digitalization of media is going to change the lit world, though? I feel like what’s made the music industry more accessible to independent artists is this idea of the digital revolution.

I think so, but I’m probably making the guess with all of the expertise that any armchair cultural observer would. Because I’m not really in the writing world. I mean, I’m a writer—and to be honest, I think I’m a good pen, I’m good with language. But I don’t think I have an insider’s perspective on the publishing world, because I’m very much an outsider.

And that’s what made me excited to work with Rain Taxi, because I thought, well I spent a lot of time honing a craft, I wasn’t able to get any purchase in the business three years ago, but now I’ve made a name for myself, at least regionally, as a musician. So in some ways it feels like I’m cashing in the chips that I earned in music to have an audition in the literary world. And then Rain Taxi is like, hey, we liked your stuff, and I think we can help you, because we know how hard it is to be taken seriously unless you have someone established who vouches for you. And I thought, that’s exactly right. That would be awesome.

So they said, well, we expect that you’ll participate in a rigorous editorial process. And I was challenged by that, and excited too. Because I know that I’ve become really headstrong after so many years of arguing, “I can do this! Give me a shot!” And then you have to do an about-face and be like, “Well, no, I’m not really very good. I wonder how this could be better. I wonder which of my favorite parts ought to be cut from this piece.” You have to chill out on the advocacy and really humble yourself. And then after you’re done humbling yourself, humble yourself some more.

Do you think that mindset can translate to your songwriting?

It’s funny, that made me feel defensive. I thought you were going to—I was like, “Don’t tell me what to do!” So there’s that answer. You mean this immediate, impenetrable shell? If it can translate, I guess it’s not translating. [laughs]

I have a question that might be too abstract.

I hope it’s just a series of sounds.

I’ve been reading a lot of your press this year and following you on tour, and I’ve noticed that the Dessa brand is becoming more defined now than ever. You’re a rapper who is super literary, and drinks whiskey! And it gets repeated again and again. Are you able to separate Dessa the artist from Dessa the brand? Are you thinking about your brand when you sit down to create something?

That’s heavy. Ok, I’m going to answer the second part of that question first, and while I’m doing that I’m going to make up an answer to the first part. Do I think about the brand when I’m writing? To the extent that I am able to, I do not. I try to keep a lot of things out of my head when I’m writing, because I think they might get in the way of honest and potentially high-risk expression. If I think, “What are people going to think about this?” Well, people are probably for sure going to hate that. So I try not to think about how it’s going to be perceived.

For a while there, I was this squeaky clean person, and it was like, “Who should we get to raise the children? Dessa!” And I’m proud, in a lot of ways, to be called a role model. But at the same time I don’t want that role to be so all-encompassing that I’m not allowed to be an adult and talk about adult stuff with adult words. So, particularly in writing this last record, sometimes I’d get mail that was like, “Hey, just want to thank you for not swearing.” And I was like, “Since when do I not swear?” You know? It was just that songs that were getting radio play created this impression of a woman who was a little bit more Sunday School than I was. So I don’t think about that when I’m writing, and I don’t think about the brand, how this will fall into the way that I’ve been distilled as this whiskey-drinking, literary rapper.

And the first part was, is the brand different from the artist? Hm. I would say the brand is shorthand for the artist. It’s true; it’s me. It’s not something I invented. It’s just that nobody is going to indulge you in a full hour and a half to figure out who you are, by listening to all your stuff and watching all your interviews. And you’d be absolutely mad to imagine that anybody owes you a three-hour audition. So you’ve got to find a good way to communicate what you’re about in brief—knowing that when they really get in there, there’s obviously a lot more facets.

I struggle with that too, as a writer. Trying to get the point across in a really concise way without being superficial.

Sure. Even like a Match.com profile—I mean there’s a hundred things you could say, right? What’s the truest representation of you? Of all the true sentences that you could say, what are the most representative sentences?

Right on. I’m going to go think about all of this now. Thanks so much for the great conversation!

Thank you!