Emcee | Writer

From its first track, Dessa’s new full-length Parts of Speech (out now on Doomtree Records) announces itself as something different. The Doomtree veteran and inveterate wordsmith — having proved her mettle in the fields of creative non-fiction, spoken-word and hip-hop — jettisons all genre expectations on “The Man I Knew” and croons a heartbreaking lament to a disintegrating relationship at an explosively-building clip.

From this moment on Dessa — oft–described as “Mos Def plus Dorothy Parker” for the wit and flow shown off on previous solo albums A Badly Broken Code and Castor, The Twin — proves she has truly coalesced as an artist, transcending the restrictions of genre to reveal an astonishing multi-platform voice.

“I wanted to investigate the idea that a cohesive record isn’t always made cohesive by having twelve songs that sound the same. I figured when you make a mixtape for a friend, you can get away with a range of genres and a lot of dynamic change. Why can’t I approach an album like that? The sequence has to be just right, and we worked hard to nail it, but the thing that holds this record together is the sensibility of the lyrics, rather than a uniform theme.”

Track two kicks off a stunning hat-trick of the record’s standout numbers. “Call Off Your Ghost” is an admittedly haunting dirge on the “struggle for grace in the wake of a long relationship.” An arena-sized chorus tucked into a melancholy lullaby, “Ghost” has that unique ability to perfectly soundtrack new love or bitter breakup at the same time.

Dessa then puts her fists up for “Warsaw.” The track boasts a beat like Azealia Banks playing Pacman, which provides a background for our emcee’s confident, hypnotic flow. Narrative takes a backseat to mood here, as Dessa spits impressionistic one-ups like “I sleep with both eyes open, standing up,” daring you to blink first.

“Skeleton Key” contains Parts of Speech’s mission statement: “I haven’t met a locked door yet.” An ode to female self-reliance that doesn’t waste ambiance for message, the track plays like a great, lost M. Night Shyamalan movie, calling forth an era out of time in the story of a woman, a key and a bottomless reserve of courage.

“This record involves multiple narratives. It explores the same themes of love, loss, connection and communion as a lot of my work, but the angle and lens through which they’re explored sets this album apart from my previous ones. The production techniques were new for me too — we spent a lot of time crafting a record that could include live players, Doomtree production, and sometimes a blend of the two.”

While the album is born of Dessa’s artistic vision, it benefits from the collaboration of her varied friends. Parts of Speech owes much of its impact to its diverse production. Dessa got her start as a member of Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree — eventually going on to help manage the group’s business affairs as they launched their own label — and members Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger lend their production to several tracks.

The players in Dessa’s live ensemble all contributed to the record, as did several top-flight Minneapolis musicians working in rock, folk, and opera. She even enlisted a cellist she found on Pandora to make the gorgeously-layered foundation of penultimate track “It’s Only Me.”

Dessa, born and raised in Minneapolis after her parents met at a Duluth music store, was valedictorian of her high school, eventually skipping a year of college and graduating with honors before she could legally drink. Armed with a philosophy degree, the intrepid Midwesterner spent her nights as a waitress and days writing reference manuals used by doctors in the implantation of pacemakers.

“Language and verbal communication were important in my family. If I could argue my way into a later curfew, that argument was entertained. My parents may have regretted that policy later but it was a great motivator to help me develop a facility with words.”

A love of words is evident in both Parts of Speech’s title and its ethos, as Dessa’s philosophy training surfaces too. The rousing chorus of “Fighting Fish” references the Greek philosophical paradox of Zeno’s Arrow. “Beekeeper,” polished up from a starker appearance on Castor, finds Greek god Prometheus repossessing fire from the humans. “Sound the Bells” sings of Mercator, the cartographical genius who pioneered flat maps of a round world.

Parts of Speech could be made by no one but Dessa, but in its evolution and awareness it is the perfect culmination of the journey started with 2010’s A Badly Broken Code. Middle album Castor, The Twin was in many ways a blueprint for Speech. The earlier albums were praised widely for their focus and depth, but Speech shows a fantastic breadth.

By uniting a wealth of different tones and narratives under Dessa’s unmistakable poeticism, Parts of Speech greatly resembles Sherwood Anderson’s modernist fiction classic Winesburg, Ohio. Dessa creates a new world, populating it with complex characters, beautiful sonic landscapes and refreshing, assertive production.

An album that can boom out of a car window after its summer release, or soundtrack a November night in, Parts of Speech marks a highpoint in Dessa’s career and demonstrates the crossover power of the rising star’s burgeoning arsenal.

Bio written by Zack Rosen

–Chicago Tribune

“Dessa has emerged as one of the most diverse and talented artists in indie rap.”

“A one-woman powerhouse…with a literary sensibility and an aversion to genre clichés”
–Utne Reader

“If wordsmith-songbird Dessa isn’t the future of hip-hop, she should be.”
-Insight News

“Profound and moving”
-Star Tribune

“equal parts Ani Difranco and Mos Def”
-Rift Magazine

“Dessa combines the dry wit of Dorothy Parker with the beat of Mos Def”
-Minnesota Public Radio

“clear-eyed candor…understated realism and dark wit.”

“witty, sardonic, and keenly observant of human behavior.”

“Absolutely brilliant.” (London)

“A paramount, intimate look into an astonishing human being.”

“Dessa stands alone in her brand of music.”


False Hopes
Spiral Bound: a short collection of essays and poetry
A Badly Broken Code
Castor, The Twin
Parts of Speech, Re-Edited

Dessa's Blog

Tuesdays with Dessica

Posted on August 21, 2012

Every so often, and only in the cover of darkness, I like to sneak into Lazerbeak’s penthouse loft and take his blog. Just snatch it away. A week later I sneak in to return it to exactly the same spot. On some Gaslight shit. 

No time for ninja braggadocio, however. Been a busy week. A mere seven days ago, Paper Tiger’s Summer EP dropped. You can listen to a song or pick up a copy right here.  The very next day, the P.O.S pre-order started. (Now, do it now). 

And today, the pre-order opens for one of my new projects: The Elixery “Dessa” lipstick.

Some months ago, I partnered with The Elixery (an indie cosmetic house in Minneapolis) and make-up artist Crist Ballas (Emmy-winning bad-ass) to create a product to benefit the CARE charity. The lipstick turned out a killer shade of matt red, it’s cruelty-free, and each stick is hand-poured by Karoline the chemist. She runs the Elixery and formulates all of its products herself. I’ll be donating 100% of my take (20% of profits) to CARE’s initiative to help educate girls around the world. To preorder, click HERE. Or here. Or even here

This is me, wearing the “Dessa” prototype. Very meta. 

This is Karoline. Please note the tailored lab coat. 

You can read all about the color, the science, and the team here

In more musical news, the band and I are in high-gear this week, recording some new songs and rehearsing for a couple of upcoming gigs. On August 26th we’ll be at Hell’s Kitchen with a bunch of pretty exceptional artists, pictured below. Tickets are still available; click here for info.

Then, on August 31st, we’ll be at the MN State Fair Grandstand. This is a big one. Mom’s coming out. It’ll be me, Jeremy Messersmith, The Jayhawks, and Semisonic. Mic stands make for Mics-on-a-stick, right? (Don’t hate.) 

In literary land, I posted my second essay with the Star Tribune. This one is about what’s ownable. Can you really own an digitized melody? A genetic sequence? I compare Apple to Monsanto to explore the idea. I also share a story or two from my childhood–a strange time in my life, as evidenced by the photo below. Click the bonnet to read the post. 

Okay. Lipstick, rap music, and patent law–that’s all I got this week. Now to sneak this thing back into the penthouse. 

Tykes tykin’. Fancy blogtown. German shnapschotz.

Posted on August 03, 2012

Dessa here, and with no time to waste. Doomtree is setting off for Chicago today to perform at Lollapalooza tomorrow. Further ado:

I’ve announced a couple of benefit shows recently. I’m often reluctant to do benefit shows, not because i’m not cold-hearted (snaaake, look into his ey-eyes), but because I think they’re really hard to do well. That said, my visit to the South Side Family Nurturing Center (which operates in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood), proved compelling enough to overcome all of my hesitations. 

Every aspect of the center seems so carefully tuned to the kids’ interests. Physical therapists, teachers, grad students, social workers, all working together to provide bigger-picture services to kids at risk of abuse and neglect. To safeguard kids, SSFNC makes lasting, genuine connections to parents to help provide the resources they need to provide safe, affectionate homes. Even the dolls come in the same colors as the toddlers who spend their days at SSFNC.

After my visit, I wrote a letter to ask some other artists to perform at a benefit with me. Here’s an excerpt from the email I sent to Jeremy Messersmith, Gabriel Douglas (from 4onthefloor), Toki Wright, Coroline Smith, Taj Raj, and Robbie Robinson (who stole the show at my O’Shaughnessy gig). All of them agreed to play. 

   Some months ago I received a message from the Southside Family Nurturing Center, which serves little kids and families in the Phillips neighborhood. The story is a familiar one: a struggling non-profit faces staggering funding cuts. But the note–written by Barb Olson, Executive Director–was unusually compelling. The degree to which Barb and her colleagues devote themselves to bettering the lives of the families and children that they serve was genuinely arresting. In a visit to the center, Barb explained that when kids enter kindergarden without having had a lot of interaction at home, they often haven’t developed the motor skills to hold a pencil–a serious hurdle to literacy. She also explained that kids with behavioral problems (hitting, tantrums, etc.) may not have had the chance to develop the speaking skills they’d need to express their frustration verbally instead of physically. So, at the Center, they practice moving their bodies. And speech therapists focus on helping kids with the two types of language development: learning how to understand speech and learning how to form it in their own mouths. All the while, the center visits the children’s families every week. A lot of families have had lousy experiences with social services, Barb explained. So instead of marching in and telling parents not to spank kids, they ask “What do you need? How can we help you?” Then they develop lasting relationships with families and offer parenting resources after having earned their trust.

   A lot of the Spanish-speaking families experience the challenges of generational poverty with the added challenge of isolation; their neighbors might not speak their language. So Barb opened up the center to the Latina mothers in the neighborhood, organized a regular little pedicure day where they could come for free, talk, and listen to each other. “Oh cool,” I said, “so you found a salon willing to donate the service?” “No,” she said. “We all just bring polish and do it ourselves.” Those of you who know me know that I’m a vocal atheist. But man, first thing I thought was, Uh, this is like biblical–they’re literally washing feet. I don’t know if that story moves you or not, but for me the thought of all these underpaid, highly trained professionals on their knees to serve was a striking image. 

So if, you’re free on August 26th, consider coming to Hell’s Kitchen to catch the show. All 7 groups will be doing short, stripped down sets. I’m hoping for a listening-room kind of feel: artists, listeners, and organizers in a small room, listening to special, casual performances from some of Minneapolis’ best. None of the artists are getting paid and Hell’s Kitchen donated the space; all of the proceeds go straight to SSFNC. Tickets are available HERE

In other news, I’m excited to announce that I’ve signed on as a blogger for The Star Tribune. My first post, titled “Drowning in Milk” is live now. Click on the image below if you’re inclined to check it out. 

I’ll leave you with a few images from Stuttgart, Germany, where Doomtree recently played the Hip Hop Open Festival.

Photos courtesy of Nobbe K. 

Alright, Chicago traffic. MOUNTAIN the tour van is coming to join your inching, halting ranks. 

Dessa in Warsaw.

Posted on July 21, 2012

This is Bartek. 

Bartek is a Polish visual artist who lives and works in Warsaw. We were connected by a friend of his (who I met while standing in line at the University of Minnesota’s commencement ceremony) seven weeks ago. Our emailed exchange went something like this:

“When will you and Doomtree be in Europe again? Maybe we could work together on a project in Poland.”

“Um, we don’t really get to Europe too often. But I’ll be there in a month, which I imagine is way too soon.” 

“That’s impossible. Not enough time.”

“I know.” 

“Give me a few days to try.”


“It’s not possible.”

“I know. Well, maybe ne–“

“Buy your tickets. I have an idea.”

Bartek and I met for the first time when I stepped off the plane.  Both of us later admitted we weren’t sure the other would show up. At the airport, Bartek’s mom (who had volunteered to drive me) held a little paper sign with my name on it. 


In downtown Warsaw, there is a quasi-abandoned hospital called Jerozolima. The Nazis used it during the war to treat their wounded soldiers. Post-war, it became a children’s hospital. Now it’s mostly empty, many of the dark rooms crumbling with exposed pipes and swirling plaster dust. There are a handful of artist studios where people like Bartek paint. There are a handful of squatters.

Bartek’s idea was to stage a show at Jerozolima, to transform the whole structure into an enormous art project. This is me, with Bartek’s mom, moments after arriving to see his plan. 

In Jerozolima’s walled courtyard, Bartek and his team of friends built a wooden stage 12 feet high. Standing on it, I could smell the fresh-cut lumber.

A dozen people, talking in fast Polish, ran wires around me. Fearing rain, they strung a tarp above my head. 

When darkness fell, Bartek and his team flipped a dozen switches. Suddenly, Jerozolima became an installation of colored light, with storeys of glowing windows. 

A little overwhelmed, I sound checked. A little frantic, Bartek adjusted his lights. Doors opened. People came. Bartek and I drank sweet Polish liquor from the bottle, blinked at each other, and said something like, “Shit. This is actually going to happen now.”

photo by Piotr Olkowski. 

I performed, backed by only my laptop. It was imperfect show–I stumbled a few lines–but I haven’t been as moved by one night of in a long time. 

Photo by Michał Ossowski

The evening ended in a wash of Bartek’s colored lights and a wash of honey flavored shots. We took the tram home and I remember almost all of the ride. 

The next day Bartek, his girlfriend Maria, and their friends Mat and Paul showed me the city. Marmalade-filled almond pastries, courtyards designed for communist rallies, ice cold thimbles of vodka, a rooftop garden of oxidized copper, a working class snack of raw meat and eggs. Even through the hangover, I felt a feeling I hadn’t had since camp–I wanted to write home to say, I’m making friends. 

I’m still a little jet lagged, which may be dulling my native skepticism, but for the moment a bunch of platitudes are ringing pretty damn true. Art is universal. We are more alike than we are different. Where this a will, there’s a fucking rap show in Warsaw. 

Thanks to Paul, Mat, Maria and Bartek. If you guys ever make it to Minneapolis, I owe you one.  

(Additional photographs by Mateusz Kaźmierczak. To check out some of Bartek’s other projects, visit


Posted on July 17, 2012

As you may have surmised from the new images on the site, I’m involved in a rather unconventional release this fall. To my knowledge I am the very first member of the Doomtree collective with a metynomic shade of lipstick. (After learning that word, metynomic, I have waited years for the occasion to use it. And now, in the midst of my big moment, I admit to feeling a bit let down. That word’s just… not that tight. If I had it to do over again, I’d say simply, “the lipstick is called “Dessa” and I’m very flattered somebody named something after me.” However, there is no going back. Blogs, like the human spirit, must bodly forge ahead.)

Some months ago, Bo Hakala (who you may know as the director of such cult classics as Doomtree’s “Beacon” music video), connected me with a chemist named Karoline. Karoline owns an indie cosmetic company called The Elixery here in Minneapolis. The outfit is all around bad-ass, with an emphasis on good science, cruetly-free practices, and meticulously sourced ingredients. Karoline herself formulates The Elixery’s colors, working in a little lab full of magic powders, which I got to visit.

Karoline said that the Elixery was interested in naming a shade of lipstick after me. I’d get to pick the shade and I could select a charity to receive a share of the proceeds. I said ‘yes’ right before I was pretty sure she was done talking.

Karoline brought in a third member of the team: makeup artist Crist Ballas. Crist’s professional resume is nuts. He’s built a name for his beautiful work, but also for incredible transformations: aging actors with prosthetics and fashioning latex monsters for Hollywood films. Here’s a picture of Crist, whistling while he prepared to show me how one of his creations could be manipulated by an operator on set. 

Crist, Karoline and I met at a coffeeshop, and at the lab, to start talking color. I got to learn some industry terms (like ‘pay-off,’ the amount color deposited by each swipe of a lipstick) and some science (like how light interference pigments reflect some colors but absorb others; in lipstick they can create a 2-toned effect, like the candy paint jobs on lowriders). 

I happen to be a big fan of classic, matt reds. So Crist worked to build a color from raw pigment that wouldn’t lean either blue or orange. (For readers who are not purchasers of lipstick, very often you’ll buy a shade, bring it home, and find that’s it’s a much different color on your face than it is on the tube. This isn’t true for most other cosmetics, like eyeliner or blush. But in lipstick all sorts of hues become visible during wear that aren’t evident when you’re looking at the product in its tube. Not being a homeowner, lipstick is the item I most associate with Buyer’s Remorse.)

After we picked a color, Karoline showed me how she hand-pours each stick using a layered mold, 1920’s technology. 

She let me suit up and a pour a batch too, one of my favorite parts of this project. 

After the molten lipstick cooled, we laid the mold on its side and opened it up, revealing rows of perfectly formed lipsticks, each with a little beveled edge. 

After landing on the perfect shade, we scheduled a photoshoot to capture an image for the campaign. You’ll see more of the finished images soon, but here’s a snapshot of the whole team. 

And a shot of me wearing some of the first batch of the color. 

I decided that my earnings (20% of the profits) would go to a charity called CARE, an organization I’ve admired for a long time. I’ll be posting more about CARE as we get closer to the launch, but here’s the short story: The project I’m supporting is called the Power Within, which finances girls’ education around the world. Research indicates that girls who are literate and educated marry later, have fewer kids, have them later. Girls’ education changes not only the lives of the girls themselves, but can create changes that reverberate throughout whole communities. For information and videos, you can visit CARE’s site here

Tuesdays with Lazerb–DESSICA!

Posted on June 26, 2012

What a dashing readership. Let me assure each and every one of you that you have made a wise and virtuous choice in deciding to read today’s blog. Your taste = effing impeccable. 

Lazerbeak, who you may know as our newest Doomtree dad, hasn’t slept in like 6 days. On our hour-long conference call today, he made about 8 minutes of sense. Sooo, I’m taking the keys to the blog for this week, to allow him to slump over his dining room table and get some rest. 

Happily, I’ve a good deal to report this week. For one, the band and I just returned from a little Midwest run. We hit Grand Forks (a weird, cool, museum gig), Fargo (sold out!), Rochester (riling the Lutherans), Sioux Falls (shout out to Soulcrate) and Omaha (fjords!). Here are a few pictures from the trip: 


Proud to have played this little dude’s very first show: 

Dinner with the team:

In all, the run exceeded our expectations in every way. Thanks to everyone who came to a show—double thanks to the crew that drove in from Denver to catch us in Nebraska. 

For those of you who live in the Twin Cities, the band and I have just confirmed our only big hometown play for the summer: The MN State Fair. On August 31st, we’ll be playing the Grandstand (guaranteed points with mom). We’ll be sharing the stage with Jeremy Messersmith, The Jayhawks, and Semisonic. Tickets go on sale this Friday at 11 am and will be available here

I’ll be announcing another little run of shows later this week; stay tuned for dates, cities, and couple of genuine surprises—I’m doing some weird shit this fall. 

Your second-favorite Doomtree blogger,

On the road again

Posted on June 11, 2012

Oil up the compass, and fish the sextant from the junk drawer; it’s time to hit the road. In just over a week, the band and I will set off on a little Midwest tour*.

For the first time, we’ll be bringing Aby Wolf along; she’s an incredible singer and a major contributor to the set. With her singing harmony, we’ll be able to play some songs that we’ve only performed at home Minneapolis–bestill our pounding hearts.

That’s Aby.

If you’re in the neighborhood, check us out. We’re friendlier than you might think–particularly if you think we’re unfriendly. Our full routing is below.

Tuesday, June 19th — Grand Forks, North Dakota Museum of Art (Box office: 701-777-4195)
Wednesday, June 20th — Fargo, The Aquarium TICKETS
Thursday, June 21st — Rochester MN, (Free, 1st Ave SW & 1st St SW)
Friday, June 22nd — Sioux Falls, 605 Summer Classic TICKETS
Saturday, June 23rd — Omaha, The Waiting Room TICKETS

* Yes–you singularly astute geographical mind, you–I know there are no mountains on this route. That was the only pretty tour picture I kept on my phone. After years of independent touring,  you eventually stop pointing your camera at the passing scenery and your mind curls within itself to contemplate the nature of motion, the inexorable passage of time, and the suppression of a desperate need to urinate in the interest of arriving to soundcheck on time. So, for the sake of this post, that’s the great Nebraskan Range. Deal with it.

Your friendliest friend,

On The Road Again

Posted on June 10, 2012

Oil up the compass, and fish the sextant from the junk drawer; it’s time to hit the road. In just over a week, the band and I will set off on a little Midwest tour*.

For the first time, we’ll be bringing Aby Wolf along; she’s an incredible singer and a major contributor to the set. With her singing harmony, we’ll be able to play some songs that we’ve only performed at home Minneapolis–bestill our pounding hearts.

That’s Aby.

If you’re in the neighborhood, check us out. We’re friendlier than you might think–particularly if you think we’re unfriendly. Our full routing is below.

Tuesday, June 19th — Grand Forks, North Dakota Museum of Art (Box office: 701-777-4195)
Wednesday, June 20th — Fargo, The Aquarium TICKETS
Thursday, June 21st — Rochester MN, (Free, 1st Ave SW & 1st St SW)
Friday, June 22nd — Sioux Falls, 605 Summer Classic TICKETS
Saturday, June 23rd — Omaha, The Waiting Room TICKETS

* Yes–you singularly astute geographical mind, you–I know there are no mountains on this route. That was the only pretty tour picture I kept on my phone. After years of independent touring,  you eventually stop pointing your camera at the passing scenery and your mind curls within itself to contemplate the nature of motion, the inexorable passage of time, and the suppression of a desperate need to urinate in the interest of arriving to soundcheck on time. So, for the sake of this post, that’s the great Nebraskan Range. Deal with it.

Your friendliest friend,

T minus 8.

Posted on April 12, 2012

In the realm of competitive blogging, Lazerbeak has seriously trounced the rest of us. Sundays are for Jesus; Tuesdays are for Lazerbeak. Nonetheless, I (Dessa) am dusting off the cobwebs, firing up the electric typewriter, and preparing to fax this blog entry to the home office.

I’m 8 days away from my show at the O’Shaughnessy, which is my biggest headlining gig to date (a quick search around the office confirms that the quiet, anxious mewling is, in fact, originating from myself). I toured the theater twice this past week; it’s a scope of a new magnitude.

I’ll be joined by the full live ensemble: Sean on stand-up bass, Dustin on keys and guitar, Joey on drums and vibraphone, Aby on angel sounds. To make the evening a one-of-a-kind endeavor, we’ll be debuting some brand new music.

I’ve also asked a few of Minneapolis’ finest musicians to write a new piece for the concert. To our collective benefit, they agreed. At the show, we’ll hear new collaborations from the following artists.

Jeremy & Cecil Otter

Aby Wolf & Alexei Moon Casselle

Black Blondie & Robert Robinson

I had the chance to sit in on a bit of Aby’s rehearsals, and was really impressed but what she’s pulling together.

I’ve never partnered with a visual artist for a performance, but for this show I’ve commissioned work from the figure theater artist Michael Sommers. I met Michael for the first time two weeks ago, we met at the Open Eye Theater where he stages his own productions. A compelling character. Paces when he thinks, talks with his hands, goes dead still in contemplation, and then fluttery when inspired—the kind of guy you’d cast in your movie about artists.

Even a lowly blogger is entitled to a few secrets, so I’ll just let the images of Michael’s work stand on their own and leave the reveal for the O’Shaughnessy. If you’d like to catch the show, tickets are available here.

See you next Friday,


Dessa in Milwaukee this Saturday

Posted on March 28, 2012
Date City Venue Country
Tour: Welcome To Night Vale AUS/NZ Tour w/ Dessa
02.06.16 Dessa in Auckland Skycity Theatre New Zealand
Time: 7:00pm. Admission: $69. Age restrictions: All Ages. Address: 78 Victoria St W. UPDATE: The venue for this show has changed to Skycity Theatre. All tickets purchased for the Maidment Theatre shows are being honored at the new, larger venue, and some tickets are still available. Buy Tickets

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Posted on December 01, 2011


And a big one. The entire Doomtree crew will balance on two axles and make our way around the United States (and a few Canadian cities to boot). More tour dates to be announced soon.

Advance presale tickets for the No Kings tour are on sale right now here. Use the login “doomtree” and password “tickets” to gain access to the presale!

Without further ado….

No shows announced at the moment.

No shows announced at the moment.