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Dessa on staying connected to fans, the music community, and herself

Dessa onstage at First Avenue, 2018. (Emmet Kowler for MPR)

As Minnesota prepared to shelter in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Morning Show host Jill Riley caught up with Dessa.

Jill Riley: Calling in from, well, her apartment in Minneapolis, I’ve got Dessa on the line. Dessa, how are you doing? How are you feeling?

Dessa: Hey, good morning Jill. I’m okay.

Yeah, I think that’s a good answer. That’s an answer I’ve heard from a lot of people is, “I’m okay” or “we’re getting by.” What have you been up to since the coronavirus pandemic has really hit our country and affected the music industry in such a big way?

Well, I had been working on a project in London when the news first started really accelerating. And so I was one of many Americans kind of checking my phone semi-regularly wondering if this was going to become like a big enough deal that I should think about going home, which feels kind of counter-intuitive when you’re a gig-worker you kind of have the idea that you stay until the job is done. But when the travel ban passed, like a lot of people, I scrambled to try and find a last-minute ticket home to Minneapolis to do my self-isolation here after returning to the country. And I’m now sitting in my one-bedroom apartment in Uptown and like a lot of people probably, cooking way more. I’ve got my MIDI keyboard out on my table, [laughs] maybe more aspirationally. It’s seen a little bit of use but not that much in the past couple weeks.

Are you feeling creative right now or are you just trying to get through the day-to-day like the rest of us?

I’ve got to admit that that impulse to write new material, I don’t feel like I’ve totally been struck by that because a lot of my headspace is occupied with wanting to stay abreast of what’s going on. I don’t think I’ve ever consumed news as voraciously as I have in the past couple weeks. On the other hand, like every other performing musician, you have weeks and then months and then many, many months of work cancelled very quickly. And I know that’s also true for hairstylists and bartenders and servers. There’s this huge kind of gig economy that supports our world.

I think that the impulse to get connected with people is there, but I haven’t been bowled over by inspiration. Little jibs and jabs, you know. I walk around the lake a lot with the same beat on muttering to myself and trying to get a few bars down. But this evening actually I’ll be doing a live poetry reading on my Instagram live just to feel a little bit connected. I invited people to dress up from the waist up just to like, feel human again if they want to put on a cocktail dress.

I wanted to ask what you’re doing on social media. You just mentioned a poetry reading. If you’re like me, [you’ve been] over-consuming social media right now…

Yes.

But it’s just the only thing that we have to connect, that human connection right now.

Yeah, totally. So online I’ve also been scanning for live concerts — which I admit that in my regular life I don’t do quite a lot. I guess I go to a lot of concerts, I work at concerts usually, so I get my fill of live music there usually. But I have been scanning the gig lists. Doomtree just launched our Patreon account, which we’ve been talking about for a while. Patreon is a subscription service so essentially you pay ten bucks a month and then you get regular content: videos, music, and goofing off. And if there were ever a time to try to launch it to feel connected to people, now felt like that time. So yeah, I think I’ve been consuming more and thinking about ways to create something that feels, even if it’s lo-fi, feels high-quality if that makes sense.

Patreon has been such a great way, outside of the coronavirus pandemic, such a great way for artists to really have a great connection with fans.

Absolutely. It’s interesting as text messages are flying…I don’t think I’ve ever texted so much either, as people are trying to find a way to stay connected. But if you do have a favorite artist and you’re wondering how you can help in a time when they might be really struggling with this totally unforeseen unemployment stretching kind of indefinitely into the future. I would even just say reach [out] on a place like Instagram. Find out if they have a Patreon account, and I don’t think any musician is insulted by a question like, “Hey I like your stuff. I know this is tough, can I help?” And that may mean, “Yeah I’ve got a live concert coming up, here’s my Venmo page.” It may also mean, “Hey sure, how about a commission for the birthday of a friend or an anniversary that’s coming up for an indie musician.” So yeah, I think that Patreon is one of many ways that people who dig the arts can find a way to support.

Dessa, thank you so much for checking in this morning. We appreciate your phone call and I don’t know if you watched Governor Walz give his address yesterday.

Yeah.

What was the first thing that kind of hit your gut when it was like: oh, a stay-at-home order for two weeks. Okay, here we go?

Oh man, I think it was probably twofold. And one of these sounds really nerdy but I don’t know if publicly…I don’t know if we’ve got the scientific education to speak in those granular terms very well. I hope I’m wrong, but I was watching the PowerPoint on Facebook Live and there were a lot of graphs. And I’m leaning into the screen to look at them but I’m like, I don’t know if we’ve done a good enough job at educating ourselves in basic science to be able to follow what all these exponential growth curves mean. I hope so, I hope so.

That said, I was like, two weeks? I think my initial gut reaction was it’s going to be longer. Also just…I’m anxious anyway but trying to find a way to also just like move my body and reminding myself that, no matter how much I may like to think of myself as a mind floating in space, unless you get some cardio you’re going to lose your mind. So, I went online and bought a very stupid rowing machine and it’s like the only fixture in my one-bedroom apartment right now. It’s the centerpiece. But yeah, I think we’re in for the long haul is my guess. And I also hope everybody complies, you know? I hope we can team up. What was yours?

Well my first reaction was, okay, we’ve been doing this for two weeks already right? And so what is going to be different? And thankfully I have colleagues in the MPR newsroom to kind of break it down for me which is really appreciated. But also, I was just thinking, okay, two weeks. Will it be two weeks? Will it be extended? What does this mean for my friends that own businesses? And my friends that are self-employed and just the friends that I know that are creatives and trying to make a living doing music? I thought of that as well.

And I also thought, boy you can tell that Tim Walz used to be a teacher with the way he was explaining things on the TV. So, I appreciate the layman’s terms, but yeah, staring at those graphs like I think I follow what he’s talking about but I had the same reaction. Like, will people really understand the science behind this?

Yeah, yeah, and when you say it’s already been two weeks, I mean I wonder in some way if those of us who have been working remotely in many ways are already doing the shelter in place thing. But maybe this shift will be harder for people who are just starting now to make that transition, figuring out what it’s going to mean to work in their bedrooms or at their kitchen tables and stuff.

Well Dessa, we’re going to let you go and I think that’s such great advice about moving your body. Thinking to yourself, “okay, I have to keep the blood flowing so that I can keep some sanity during this time.” Dessa, I appreciate you and I appreciate you checking in.

Thanks for having me. Say hi to Har Mar.

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