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'Sound the Bells' — where Dessa and the Minnesota Orchestra meet

The live hip-hop album features a selection of Dessa’s hip hop work with a group of vocalists and the full Minnesota Orchestra behind her.

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A woman with short dark hair wearing a green shirt in front of a blue wall
Dessa in the MPR studios on Sept. 18, 2019.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

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.

Dessa and Sarah Hicks.
Dessa and Minnesota Orchestra Conductor Sarah Hicks rehearse in 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

"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."

Q&A - Dessa on her book, "My Own Devices"
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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.

The lights of Orchestra Hall shine on the Minnesota Orchestra.
The lights of Orchestra Hall shine on the Minnesota Orchestra and Dessa in a 2017 rehearsal.
Evan Frost | MPR News

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.

Q&A - Dessa on the relationship she developed with the Orchestra
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“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.

A woman performs in front of a crowd outside.
Dessa traveled to South Africa as a blogger covering the 2018 Minnesota Orchestra tour for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. During a visit to the elementary school in the Elsies River township outside Cape Town the locally-based gospel group 29:11 encouraged Dessa to perform, much to the delight of the township residents.
Euan Kerr | MPR News 2018
Q&A - Dessa on traveling South Africa with the Minnesota Orchestra
by MPR News

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.

Q&A - Dessa on how "Sound the Bells" was made
by MPR News

"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.

Q&A - Dessa on listening back to "Sound the Bells"
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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.

Q&A - Dessa how to promote an orchestral album
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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.

A woman with short dark hair wearing a green shirt in front of a blue wall
Dessa says her collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra was a learning experience both for her and the Minnesota Orchestra musicians. She said while there are similarities in the ways they work, sometimes they look at somethings completely differently.
Euan Kerr | MPR News