Local Current Blog

Hi, Dessa: My awkward transition from fan to critic and back again

Dessa; aka my longtime desktop photo (Emmet Kowler for MPR)

If your parents or teachers are your role models, well, good for you. I haven’t been so lucky. As a young adult, I grew attached to a musician/writer named Dessa, looping her lyrics through my brain; processing a not-break-up through her music. For the last two years, I’ve been watching those bonds fray.

It’s not that Dessa’s done anything to turn me away; the trouble’s in my profession. Since falling for this local artist, I’ve become a local music journalist. While I used to embrace her art without reservation, I now evaluate it. Worst of all, she knows who I am.

This no-longer-one-sided relationship has taken its blows, but I’m happy to report I’m a fan once again. Like Dessa, I count words as my first love; music came second. By releasing her essay collection/memoir My Own Devices, she met me in a safe zone, offering up a warmth I hadn’t felt from her since I became a critic; the thrill of devouring a book in one day; and the joy of loving art with my heart and not my ear.

***

If a lot of My Own Devices takes place on the road, it’s fitting that’s where I found Dessa. My Skullcandy earbuds wound back to a metallic orange iPod Nano, stuffed with files ripped from CDs. My family’s van caught the bottom lip of Lake Erie and pointed east toward New York.

I sat in the back right on family road trips, which we took seriously and often. My sisters and I would chew through “travel cookies” — my grandma’s, stuffed with oatmeal and chocolate chips — and seasons of USA Network crime shows. My family never had much money, but there was always enough for a few tanks of gas and nights at the Comfort Inn.

I’d saved enough to buy my iPod a couple of years earlier — just a 16-gigabyte model, so I was pretty ruthless in deciding which songs made the cut. I gutted Bat for Lashes and Sia albums, often keeping two of the dozen or so tracks. Select hits from Peter Gabriel, Janet Jackson, and several other ‘80s artists made it in.

I’m pretty sure I learned about Doomtree from The Current. As a teenager, I liked “Little Mercy” and “Bangarang” but was seriously disillusioned when I heard “No Way,” the “f—ing filthy” No Kings kick-off.

Hearing “The Crow” for the first time was a different experience. I was trying to take a nap, wedging a pillow between my head and the bench seat in front of me, stealthy so as not to tip off my territorial sister in the middle row. Listening on shuffle, I squinted at the song, preparing to chop it from my library. Then, Dessa sang, “Nobody fears the height/ You all just fear the fall/ Go to the edge sometime and prove your body wrong.” My eyes pricked with tears.

***

I liked to think I was similar to Dessa. A self-described “linear kid” (footnote: Dessa Deconstructed, published June 24, 2013), she grew up curious and self-assured in the Minneapolis area. So did I. She could make her words draw feelings out of people, like charcoal to toxins. So could I. We both earned undergraduate degrees before we could legally drink.

That’s why I only wanted to meet her one time. I believe in meeting your heroes, but staking it all on one experience — one story you can tell later on. It went well? Treasure that forever. Could’ve gone better? Assume it would’ve next time, but don’t give life the opportunity to prove you wrong.

It went well. My friend dragged me over to Dessa’s corner of the Triple Rock Social Club, where I’d just experienced my first Doomtree show. We waited for her crowd to disperse and started chatting with Sims, who suggested he and I take an “awkward prom picture.” I’d never been to prom — in fact, I grew up homeschooled, all but isolated from high-school dance culture — so I had no idea where to put my hands. I settled them on his hips, inadvertently swapping gender roles, and tried to stop sweating. Awkward for sure.

But Dessa was the easiest person to talk with. She defended me and my friend from fans who made fun of our low-tech cameras. She told us a juicy story about our alma mater. The T-shirt she signed that night still hangs in my closet.

***

When I joined The Current’s staff over two years ago, I became the point person. The one who could say which year chapbook Spiral Bound came out. Which authors Dessa read and referenced. I could name each time she ever sang about kites.

I had a hard time transitioning into a professional. Some of you may remember Andrea Swensson’s account of coming face-to-face with Ani DiFranco. She struggled to muster the bravery to talk with her idol. But once she started to ask questions, she relaxed into the situation.

My story’s a little different. Dessa wields her sentences. That’s why we love her, right? Like an arrowhead, each word has grace and a point. This backfired on me as journalist. I’d enjoyed generous conversation at the Triple Rock and other encounters around town. But as she writes in My Own Devices, “I go to great lengths not to appear vulnerable or overtly emotional in my professional transactions.”

Dessa interviews you back. She evaluates the questions and sometimes challenges their premises, and I had a whole ton of intimate ones I jumped into far too quickly. Plus, I couldn’t keep my breathing under control, and I’m sure I sounded like I was about to choke not just figuratively but also literally. As well-prepared as I was to ask questions, I had not planned on the two-way street.

***

One night in November 2017, drummer Joey Van Phillips hosted a promenade of local hip-hop greats at Icehouse. The bandmate behind Castor, the Twin’s warm, vibraphone-suffused sound, Van Phillips released his debut album Punch Bowl in front of fans and friends. Dessa appeared onstage to perform their collaboration “Broken Arrow.”

I expected Dessa to step back into the crowd after the song, but she and the band glided right into “Good Grief,” a single from Chime. Only it didn’t sound like Chime; it sounded like Castor. Organic and throbbing, it dumped the cool synths and put her vocals first.

I swelled, then deflated. Knowing I may never see this version of Dessa’s band again, I considered recording the performance. But I planted my feet on the wood floor and kept my eyes ahead. Afterward, I tugged on my boyfriend’s arm, walking us over to the deserted back booths. And I cried.

***

I didn’t like Chime. To my ear, this 2018 album — Dessa’s fourth — is crowded with string swells and superfluous percussion. It’s not polished; it’s shellacked. But then, I’d become a critic by the time it came out, increasingly jaded about having to judge this person’s music. How could I not pick out the album’s faults?

I loved My Own Devices. I expected to keep it at a distance, but on the first page, my nose started burning. Page two triggered tears. While I’d grown accustomed to metaphors and parries, here was the plain truth. I’d reached for a handshake and been greeted with an embrace.

***

About a year ago, my boyfriend read a poem of mine and cracked, “Someone’s been listening to Dessa.” It felt both minimizing, in the way that musicians must feel when they get compared to other artists, and exhilarating.

I still think Dessa and I share habits and traits. It’s funny to think that just like the story goes in My Own Devices, I got through my heartache by putting up boundaries. I used to spot her everywhere in her old Minneapolis neighborhood, ducking away before she could notice, but we’ve only had one run-in since she moved to New York. I used to accept all interview opportunities, but at this point I’m happier communicating over email. As ironic as it sounds, I may not be able to form unadulterated opinions of Dessa’s music until it’s not my job to critique it. But I’m thrilled about her new book.