Dessa stays busy even as pandemic changes her approach to work

A woman poses for a photo.
Writer, singer and podcaster Dessa on a south Minneapolis rooftop on April 2. She's had a very productive pandemic, releasing a single every 15th of the month for her "Ides" series, producing a science podcast “Deeply Human” for the BBC World Service and APM, as well as writing new fiction and radio drama.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Sitting atop an apartment building in south Minneapolis, Dessa admits the start of the pandemic was hard.

"You know, curled beneath the blanket trying to figure out what our new life would look like," she said.

For performers used to rehearsals, touring vans and live gigs, pandemic life didn't look like much. But after a while, Dessa began looking for alternatives.

"I did feel ready to release new music, and I thought because we are in this new environment, where touring isn't possible, there really was no reason to adhere to the tour cycle from the 'before times,'" she said. "You know where you work on a bunch of songs, you put them out and then you run around promoting them.”

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“So instead I decided to do a single series."

She named it the “Ides” series, as she releases a song on the 15th of each month. This one called "Terry Gross" came out in April.

“Ever since I was a little predator
Mom’s like, don’t get ahead of her
I was on the hunt for something better than the regular
And I knew there was candy at the register
So not about to settle for the vegetables.
Full grown, still got a sweet tooth
still tryna climb all the walls I can see, you
take your influences wichoo,
everywhere you go.
Mine were Carmen Sandiego
Lauryn Hill and Terry Gross.”

She says that as she wrote, she began recognizing that during the pandemic, isolated listeners bouncing through playlists on their devices would approach the music differently and have different needs. Like shortened song intros.

A woman poses for a photo.
Instead of producing a group of songs that could become an album for the basis of a tour, Dessa created the "Ides" series, where she releases a single on the 15th of every month. Part of it was to give fans something to anticipate — but also to keep her focused on making new music.
Courtesy of Dessa

"You are getting to the meat of the tune right away because you can't afford to mess around — lest you be skipped," she said. "So like looking at the ways the format informs the content itself."

Dessa is known for her punchy, spitfire lyrics, and she develops them by hitting the pavement, sometimes for hours on end.

"Yeah, I have put a lot of miles on those boots, walking out those lyrics," she said.

Occasionally she'll draw inspiration from something she happens upon as she walks, but a lot of it is just playing with words, cadence and an idea or challenge. For years she’d wondered about writing a song entirely without verbs.

"Like a movie where you just see images," she mused. "So maybe there's like a cigarette burning in an ashtray. You know what I mean? And then ice melting in a tumbler and you are creating this kind of world and story without seeing the action first hand? I like that."

The result of those particular musings is the May “Ides” song "Talking Business."

Fake name
Number on a napkin
Check please
Room key
More coke for the captain
Lipstick on the filter
Sign out on the door
Seven hours til turndown services
On the second floor”

Dessa says the “Ides” songs might appear in album form at some point, but she has some other projects going, too.

She jumped on the chance to do a science podcast for the BBC World Service. The first season of “Deeply Human” is wrapping up. She says it's allowed her to dive into questions like: Why do we experience deja vu? And why do we feel it's necessary to tell everyone about it?

A woman poses for a photo.
Writer, performer and podcaster Dessa is wrapping up the first season of “Deeply Human,” a science podcast for the BBC World Service and APM.
Courtesy of Dessa | Photo by Jessy Gonzalez

"How do little kids learn to lie, and why is it considered by a lot of psychologists to be a really important milestone in their development?" is another theme, she said.

And then there is the show about menopause and society's lack of understanding of it.

"That's like a really big deal for a lot of people, and we just have some dumb jokes on sitcoms about hot flashes. That's inadequate,” she said. “And also, dang, how come I don't know about what I'm in for? This wasn't in health [class] that I remember."

In addition to podcasting, Dessa took a foray into the world of radio drama (watch for an announcement on that) and had a couple of short stories accepted for publication, too.

Now Dessa is wondering about the return to normalcy. She recognizes society's excitement about shedding COVID-19 restrictions, but after a year of pandemic conditioning. she sees an almost Pavlovian fear too. Maybe that's a podcast for the second series.