Dessa In-Depth: Musician, Writer - KMSP-TV

Dessa In-Depth: Musician, Writer


On a night sparkling with metaphor -- and maybe with her, they all are -- the beat ricochets in her head. The words pulse in her corpuscles, they are that much a part of her.

Dessa, who grew up Margret Wander, will unify the trinity of beat, word and melody -- just ask those who know her.

“Everybody looks you in the eye and goes, ‘She's the real deal,’” says Mark Wheat, of 89.3’s “The Current.”

Wheat continued, saying, “I think she's perfectly poised right now because of the way the industry is changing. It's like she's the perfect amalgam of all these forces coming together and being the perfect artist for the time and place.”

Her reach extends beyond Minneapolis, too. The musician and writer has been compared to Joni Mitchell, a comparison that Dessa said is “surreal.”

“It makes me feel like I'm reading about a third party,” she said.

It isn't often that Dessa doesn't come up with just the right word. Wheat said she pays homage to the spoken word, and her language can be as precise as a surgical laser.

Dessa’s mother, Sylvia Burgos-Toftness said, “A few words, a few cadences and you have a picture.”

Her lyrics build a picture in the form of a nuanced poem -- which is another art that Dessa engages in, saying her love of words began “immediately.”

“Some of my first memories were about learning new words and being excited about that as a kid in a high chair,” Dessa said. “I remember greeting my father's friend, ‘Oh, hello Tom. I haven't seen you in a fortnight,’ and being so excited I got to use this adult word.”

So, how exactly do you get from a fortnight to (expletive) which, you know, can be the language of rap? Burgos-Toftness said it came as a surprise when her daughter chose to lend her voice and love of words to rap and hip-hop.

Dessa said she tells much of her own story musically.

In a song about her childhood, she reveals that her mother and father are both writers, and her father is also a classical musician. She also reveals a deep love for a younger brother.

“I remember zipping him into a sleeping bag in my closet to make sure he was safe. I would make little books to try to teach him what I had learned in school that day,” Dessa said.

Dessa also remembers being sad as a child.

“(I was) probably about 8 years old,” Dessa recounted. “I started to get blue in a way I think concerned her.”

She also said she became deeply restless.

“So, I ran away from home,” Dessa said.

Hers was a brief journey, but she said it made an impact.

Dessa said, ”I'm torn because there's something I want to defend in that impulse, but on the other hand, there's just so much pain and fear and when I look at a 14-year-old now. They're found faced and flat-chested and young -- so young.”

Later, her parents divorced.

“After so many teenage years of being pitted against your parents, I was on their side for a moment because I thought, ‘That's heartbreaking for your guys. That sucks. Your love didn't work,’” Dessa said, adding that “there was almost a truce in the parental relationship to kind of collectively mourn the broken spousal relationships.”

Despite the blues and her brief departure from home, Dessa excelled at Minneapolis Southwest High School.

“She'd get an A and worry, ‘@hy didn't I get an A+?’” Burgos-Toftness recalled.

Dessa said her bookish concerns were obsessive, almost worrisome.

“I do remember how that felt,” Dessa said. “I remember as a teenager feeling blue and thinking, ‘In your 20s, you might not feel this anymore, and that doesn't make it less authentic.’ I remember writing sentences like that down.”

Dessa studied philosophy and took a writing course. She won a poetry slam and eventually worked up the courage to start singing the words.

“My mom had such a beautiful voice that I didn't imagine that, if your voice wasn't even as good as your mom's, then you should aspire to be a professional musician,” Dessa said. “As I got older, I realized a lot of pop musicians couldn't out-sing my mom.”
In the end, Dessa built a home for her voice in the rap genre. When asked why, Dessa said the decision happened “in part, circumstantially.”

At the time, Dessa had become close with a crew of rappers known as Doomtree, whose music and philosophy she admired.

“It sounded so authentic,” Dessa said, adding that she is also drawn to the genre “in part because -- unlike most other genres of music I'd be attracted to -- I get the luxury of such a high word count per song.”

“I can get hundreds of words into a rap song.”

But it would be a mistake to think of her only as a rapper.

“I've been focusing on logistics,” Dessa said. “I get teased by the guys. They call me Stressa.”

Consider a six-song set a microcosm of not just her music, but of her approach to her career.

During her interview with FOX 9 News at the Fine Line, Dessa said, “There's one new song in my set today. It’s a very emotional song. It was to write it, too.”

The song is also different from most of Dessa’s repertoire. The songstress gives them enough of what they expect so that she can take a brief detour.

When asked if it is scary to bare her emotions and experiences through song, Dessa said it can be.

“Yeah, to some extent. I'm just hoping the work will be strong enough to constitute a big departure and still float,” she said.

That’s a maneuver that only an artist who has earned an audience’s trust can pull off.

After the performance, Dessa said she thought the song was well-received.

“The fact they were attentive means a lot,” she said. “We asked for 3.5 minutes of super patience. I think they liked it though.”

Wheat said the introduction of new and different material shows Dessa has “great inner strength.”

“She’s a unique talent. She’s very, very smart,” he said.

Wheat’s colleague, Barb Adney, agreed, saying, “She’s got something to say that a lot of women would like to say. She’s a strong, strong woman. She’s empowered.”

She is also a keen and chronic observer of the human condition. Even a late night ride is ripe with material, be it in the form of snippets of conversation penciled in moleskin or filed electronically.

“After a few are caught like flypaper, when it's time to write an essay, I'll flip through the file and flip through the pages of my moleskin (and) see naturally what themes have congealed,” Dessa said.

When composing, she will sketch a scene, flip an idiom inside out and spin a sophisticated metaphor.

“Interestingly, she has the grace to deliver it in a very non-threatening, humble way -- which, again, is very rare,” Wheat said.

Her song “Seamstress” is a rich allegory about a relationship steeped in pain and obsession, but is still sophisticated in its introspection. She is a girl who does not always play the victim.

“There's a kind of darkness to it where the singer, the seamstress, doesn't seem completely innocent,” said Dessa.

When asked if people get the message of the song, she replied, “Yes and no.”

“I’d say one of two,” Dessa estimated. “It’s hard.”

Now, she is facing a hard challenge of her own: to stay smart and still appeal broadly enough to have relevance.

“I hate it when writers dumb down their work because -- dumb down, that sounds so presumptuous -- I want to be accessible but not at the expense of sophistication,” Dessa said. “I'm still figuring out how to ride that line.”

Dessa certainly is in a business where claiming your line and defending it can be very, very difficult.

Adney said, “You see a lot of gals in the hip-hop community -- not here, not in the Twin Cities, but in large -- that have to get sleazy to get their messages across, and I don't see Dessa doing that.”

“She works hard at it,” said Burgos-Toftness. “It’s not easy for a woman to strive in that industry -- some of the models are very unattractive.”

That is why the staff at “The Current” say they think it’s more likely that Dessa will become the model, rather than followt hem.

“We often joke, ‘Grab on to her coat-tails, ‘cause Dessa's going to go somewhere and who knows where it's going to be,’” Wheat said.

It could be easy to get caught up in praise like that -- and the glowing reviews, but Burgos-Toftness said she hopes her daughter won’t.

“My prayer for her is that she will not be distracted by shortcuts and things that glitter that are not gold,” Burgos-Toftness said.

Yet, contemplative types tend not to get swept up by accolades -- and Dessa said there is still a sadness that creeps in at times and drives her to write more.

“The thing that makes me a little melancholy is the same thing that makes me like words, so I don't wish it away too readily for fear of losing what I understand to be the core of me,” she said.

Dessa admitted that she finds her sadness a bit embarrassing at times, if for no other reason than she knows things are going so well now. She said she considers herself privileged that this city has embraced her.

“I've got the kind of life that I would design if I could design it with Crayola on paper,” Dessa said. “I've had an amazing life here in this city.”

Dessa is among the most popular local artists played on “The Current.”


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