Walking around Logan Park in northeast Minneapolis last week, Dessa made a confession that might put a permanent chink in her cool-chick armor. Or maybe it makes her the coolest rapper in town. Or at least the most honest.
“I drove around listening to my record in the car today,” she admitted, lowering her voice as if a kid at the playground would make fun of her. “I wanted to give it a normal kind of listen, not critiquing every detail.”
Far from normal, she added, “I was so nervous I’d get caught, and have somebody I know pull up next to me cranking my tunes and be like, ‘Really?!’ ”
With her tall frame and cocksure vigor, Dessa seems as confident and together as any performer in hip-hop today. And for good reason. No butt-kissing, she has always come off as a total pro in the many varied ventures I’ve witnessed.
Teach a college class about the music business? No problem. Interview a bluegrassy string band for TV? Point her to the banjo. Write fiction and poetry books? Been there, done it. Perform at a car wash during South by Southwest? Just bring the wax. Model a slinky dress for a photo shoot in a boxing gym? Don’t forget the jewelry.
Wouldn’t you know it, she’s also said to be quite a pro when she enters a boxing ring with gloves on, not accessories. She first did so about a year ago under the tutelage of St. Olaf College philosophy professor and boxing writer Gordon “Doc” Marino, who offered to train her as a trade for her lecturing his class.
“She could be a competitive boxer if she wanted,” Marino said, no bulling.
Talk to her awhile, though, and it’s clear Dessa’s not so tough. As the story about her mobile listening session attests — name one other hip-hop artist who wouldn’t have their car woofers at full tilt listening to their own music — the Minneapolis native born Margret Wander, age 32, can also be self-conscious, a perfectionist and a bit of a nervous nelly.
That’s why she took so long to sing as much as she does on her new album, “Parts of Speech,” which arrives Tuesday with the most ambitious (and expensive) national push yet for any Doomtree Records release.
“To this day, my mom is one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, so I always felt a little substandard,” she said. (Sure, blame Mom.)
It’s also why she still records nearly all of her vocals — rapping or singing — in a closet at her one-bedroom Uptown apartment, despite having access to primo studios now. “I’m going to want to do the same part 70 times, and doing that in a studio inevitably makes me feel self-conscious,” she explained.
It’s why nearly all of her songs are autobiographical. “I don’t think I can deliver a made-up story as well as I can a true one,” she claimed. One of her best-known hits, “Dixon’s Girl” — from her 2010 full-length debut, “A Badly Broken Code” — reads like a novella but is based on a real-life encounter at a snowed-out gig in the South with a female rapper whose husband mistreated her.
It’s why she took umbrage with the word “dark” to describe the new record, going so far as to demand a rating on a 1-to-10 darkness scale — “Elliott Smith being like a 9,” she said. I gave it a 7, to her dismay. As if there’s a light side to Adele-like post-breakup lines such as these, from the second single, “Call Off Your Ghost”: “I know that jealousy is a perfect waste of time/But left to my own devices, I’ve spent far too long wasting mine.”
It’s also why she kept her now-steady boyfriend, Ben Burwell of the twangy rock band Taj Raj, at arm’s length when she first met him. “He told me he was studying law, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, tell me about that,’ ” she recalled. “Then he told me he was also in a band, and I was like, ‘OK, see you.’"
Of course, those nervous tics are also why words like “human” and “tender-hearted” are often used to describe her writing style; why esteemed national critics compare her to Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco and other songwriting heroes who have nothing to do with rap; why she’s on the verge of breaking out beyond a faithful local fan base.
Dessa is the rare vulnerable presence in a music genre built on trying to appear invulnerable. People identify with her — not just the young women at Doomtree shows who always seem more enamored with her than her handsome male cohorts Sims and Cecil Otter; but also the older, jaded listeners who probably would’ve given up on hip-hop were it not for artists like her.
What a fan base, though: Both of her album release parties — this Saturday at the Fitzgerald Theater, and next Saturday at First Avenue — sold out the day they went on sale. Each will feature her live band of the past two years plus guests, but she promises they will be distinct from each other.
"Parts of Speech” itself is damn tough. There are heavy and hard musical moments on it, such as the Paper Tiger-produced first single, “Warsaw,” which almost sounds like Nine Inch Nails and was written “like a flip-book of images,” she said. The one outright rap track, “Fighting Fish,” reflects on the physical toll that heavy touring has taken on her.
“Just spending nine hours in the van from day to day, I get home and still ache,” she said, seeing irony in the fact that many of the Doomtree boys have settled down with new babies or marriages over the past couple years while she’s been most active on the road. “I keep waiting for some biological clock to go off and tell me I want to settle down, but so far I haven’t gotten any memos.”
Even some of the balladic and feminine tracks are hard as nails under the surface, like “Annabelle,” which offers a sharp look at losing one’s grip on reality. The harrowing epic “The Lamb” sounds so frayed and torn that Dessa begged off from explaining what inspired it, offering only this: “I think a lot of women have stories about becoming women that are kind of sinister, and that one is mine.”
Even the cover of the dudely Springsteen hit “I’m Going Down” — dropped into the middle of “Parts of Speech” — sounds downtrodden and darkened, thanks partly to guitarist Dustin Kiel reworking the chords to suit Dessa. “I think we first played it because we had a longer set to fill, and I wound up liking it — more than the rest of the band did, actually,” she remembered.
Her bassist, Sean McPherson, who pioneered live hip-hop locally with Heiruspecs, admitted to skepticism about the Boss cover. But he sees it as one of many ways Dessa stepped up as a music arranger and asserted herself as, well, the boss.
“She’s quickly picked up a lot of the technical know-how and language that it took the rest of us musicians many, many years to learn,” McPherson said.
He saw firsthand how fans reacted to the new material on the couple of tours Dessa played this year, including one last month built around a one-month residency in New York.
“By now, her fans know they’re not getting a traditional throw-your-hands-in-the-air hip-hop concert,” he said. “They’re getting Dessa.”
She tries not to pay attention to her crowds’ DNA from gig-to-gig — “feels like focus-grouping,” she said — but she knows it can vary from being almost entirely a Doomtree crowd one night to one that probably wouldn’t know P.O.S. from P.O.D.
“I’ll have people in their 40s or even some grandmothers come up and say, ‘Oh, I really liked that hard rapping one,’ ” she said, “and then I’ve often been surprised by a young kid in athletic gear coming up and saying, ‘Hey, I really liked that ballad.’ ”
Maybe it’s her audience that needs to admit it’s not so tough.
This Saturday: 8 p.m., Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, sold out.
Next Saturday: 9 p.m., First Avenue, Mpls., sold out.
Free in-stores: Signing and listening party 11:59 p.m. Mon., Fifth Element, Mpls. Performances at noon Tue., Electric Fetus in Duluth; 5 p.m. Tue., Electric Fetus, St. Cloud; and 8 p.m. Tue., Electric Fetus, Mpls.