I first heard Dessa (aka Dessa Darling, aka Margaret Wander) listening to one of Welcome to Nightvale’s live podcasts. She and Paper Tiger performed “Call off Your Ghost” and I thought, well, that’s pretty cool, I should find out more. So I did, and discovered that Dessa is a singer, composer, songwriter, rapper, and spoken word artist from Minneapolis. I listened to a few songs online and then acquired both of her albums. I listened to them over and over on my ipod on the way to work and back. I listened to them while I did yoga in the basement. I don’t think I listened to anything else for a month. I still go through Dessa phases.
Why do I love her work so much?
It’s not just the music, though I love the melodies and the interesting sounds she finds and uses. It’s not just the confidence that comes through in so many of her songs, though we live in a culture that’s not used to woman being assertive about their art and ambition. The rap influence is probably at play here (she has a song called “The Bullpen” explicitly about being a woman in that world) but her expression of it is unique. I think that’s why these songs made me uncomfortable, because I’m not nearly as confident as the woman in songs like “Fighting Fish”, in which she states: “I wanna try, I wanna take risks/I don’t wanna walk, rather swing and miss/I’m not above apologies but I don’t ask permission/I got a lot of imperfections but I don’t count my ambition in them”. This seems to me like a profoundly female statement of ambition: she’ll aim high, but she’ll apologize if she needs to, because who needs another jerk on the stage. She has no interest in being bound by conventions of genre. She’s rapped, sung, arranged music for a choir, and collaborated on classical compositions.
I love her because she loves words, which I suppose is what you’d expect from an artist who started as a poet and has a degree in philosopy. She loves wordplay, literary allusion, consonance, alliteration, upending cliches, and all the other tricks that writers use. Most of all, she seems to love story (it’s no surprise that she writes both fiction and non-fiction prose). Most of her songs contain a strong thread of narrative that drags my own imagination into the words and summons up histories and futures for her characters. She sings about a difficult musical genius (“The Chaconne“), about watching a lover descend into mental illness (“Annabelle“), about admitting to the betrayals that destroyed a friendship (“Dear Marie“), and about offering advice to a relative caught up in something criminal (“Alibi“). Even her love songs are richer and darker than the run-of-the-mill romantic fodder in popular music.
Best of all, for me many of her songs have an edge of the fantastic. I have no idea how intentional any of it is, but all my fantasy-honed buttons get pushed by songs like “Skeleton Key” (I come from over the horizon, every dozen years/go home, tell of my arrival, Skeleton Key’s here/….I’ve found work and welcome everywhere I’ve been/cause everyone’s got someplace they want to be let in) and the apocalyptic dreamscape of “The Beekeeper“(In the shadow of the mountain/we work when work abounds/and we wear out all our prayers/when the work runs out).
If those songs are fantasy, then “The Lamb” contains an undercurrent of horror. It’s a song about caring for an aging relative (father? brother? uncle?) guilty of an unspecified childhood abuse towards the narrator. The lyrics move between acceptance of the call of blood (but blood is blood/and what’s done is done/yeah, blood is blood/and it’s burden is a beast) and the desire for vengeance, or at least power (you’ve got a way with words/you got a way with murder/now our roles reverse/and your table’s turning). Gets me every time.