Even in this age where musicians regularly collaborate across different musical genres, the relationship between hip-hop singer Dessa and the Minnesota Orchestra seems unusual. Now after a series of concerts over two-and-a-half years they are releasing a live album of their collaboration.
"As I always joke to people, I think we are the first major orchestra to have an album drop that was produced by a hip hop label," said. Sarah Hicks, the principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall for the Minnesota Orchestra.
And Dessa agrees.
"I think there is a sort of unlikely friendship that's developed, you know," she said. "So I would acknowledge that. I mean I think it is kind of part of the story and part of the charm too."
The orchestra began working with local bands a few years back but this time around they were looking to take it to a new level.
"Dessa was game," Hicks said, "And created this incredible evening that was immersive and had a narrative."
That show revolved around the neurological processes of falling in, and out, of love, a topic Dessa explored in her album “Chime” and then her memoir "My Own Devices."
"The orchestra loved playing with her. She is such an intelligent performer, and charismatic. And immediately we wanted to work with her again," said Hicks.
Hicks saw an opportunity to fulfill a longstanding personal dream of recording a live album with the orchestra.
Dessa says they had to find common ground on many things.
"I had arrived feeling a little bit self-conscious about the fact that I had a lot of learning to do," she said. "I don't read notated music. I was really shy about that in the beginning.
“But a lot of pop musicians don't,” and orchestra musicians know that, she added. “Members of the orchestra listen to stuff other than classical music."
It helped that Dessa traveled with the orchestra to South Africa during its five-city tour last year. She went to cover the tour for Classical MPR, and took the opportunity to talk to musicians about how they approach the pieces they play.
When it came time to plan the live recording they put together a program of Dessa's music, including her singles and a few new pieces.
Both Dessa and Hicks commend the arrangements by Andy Thompson. They recorded the show live in front of an audience at Orchestra Hall earlier this year.
The crowd loved it, but Dessa was still nervous about how the finished recording would sound.
"I got rough mixes from Andy. And I was at the Kowalskis [grocery store] on Hennepin and Uptown. And I was so relieved that it was so beautiful that I started to like tear up walking the frozen food section," she laughed.
Dessa's label Doomtree is releasing the album, which is called “Sound the Bells.” She says the next challenge is getting it in front of audiences.
"As you might imagine it's tricky to figure out exactly how to tour an orchestra record because I can't ask all of the Minnesota Orchestra to get in the van," Dessa said.
She can however travel to other orchestras. On Thursday, she'll play two “Sound the Bells” shows in the UK with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Then she will tour the US with Chicago three piece band MONAKR and local string quartets.
Sarah Hicks predicts the record will attract both rap and classical fans, as well as people in search of something new musically. Dessa hopes “Sound the Bells” will break down some musical silos. Ultimately, she thinks audiences will want it because it's good.
"I think at some point you can't script the future of a project," she said. "You just have to trust the lantern that you hang will act as an attractant."
And while there are no plans announced at present, Sarah Hicks says another Minnesota Orchestra collaboration with Dessa is a real possibility.