Q&A With Dessa & P.O.S. of Doomtree
By Bryan Cipolla
Minneapolis MCs Dessa and P.O.S. have been injecting the music scene with their own brand of innovative hip-hop for the past several years. Dessa’s newly released album A Badly Broken Code, has been eagerly awaited by fans, capturing her dynamic sound as a rapper, singer and poet. P.O.S.’s latest release Never Better is a maturation of the MC’s punk-infused hip-hop, creating a sonically chaotic landscape built with inventive lyrics and soulfully unique beats that make for a truly striking listening experience. I was able to catch up with both of the artists at the Philadelphia date of the Every Never Is Now Tour.
You got in the game pretty late in comparison to other people. Did you feel any pressure to catch up?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of these guys started when they were 12, 13 years old and I was still off in my academic world at that point and I didn’t focus on a large breadth of topics. I was pretty one-track minded. So there was a lot of pressure, most of it internal, to try to catch up if this was something that I really cared about, to try to refine my stage performance and percussive patterning. Even though, I had been working on the writing stuff in the years proceeding.
Writing stuff meaning…
Page stuff. But developing a set of skills that at least in part, translate between the formats.
Was there anything that happened that made you make that decision and want to perform?
I saw a poetry slam and some of that stuff I really dug and then I heard of Doomtree and I was like, “Wow, this is really powerful stuff.” So I was a fan of that collective long before I was a member.
When I was listening to your album, A Badly Broken Code, I was wondering which songs stemmed from actual, personal events and which songs stemmed from fiction. Do you write based on just personal experience or do you like to tell new stories?
Most of my songs are much more autobiographical and the parts that aren’t are usually obviously not because they talk about like…flying over the city in the talons of a crow, so flights of fancy are obvious. But most of the stories are about me and my life [laughing].
A lot of your songs deal with personal issues. Do you find music to be a therapeutic outlet? Is that where a lot of your motivation comes from?
I don’t. I know that is the case for a lot of other writers and artists because I hear them talk about it or because I hear critics talk about it. But I do my healing and getting better on my own time and art is art time. So it would probably feel good to write a song that was like, “Fuck you, man!” But that’s not cool art. That’s just indulgent exhibitionism.
No other Doomtree MC’s have any features on this album, A Badly Broken Code. Was that a conscious decision or is that just how it happened, since you’ve been working on this album for a long time?
I don’t think it was a completely conscious decision. P.O.S. joins me on one song, [“The Crow”], for backup sung vocals where he’s just singing an octave below me. I think I’ve been real deliberate in crafting this album in an attempt to make a calling card because I knew it was way over due and I knew I needed an album that I could confidently hand to people to say this represents what I do. So I was probably more focused on like eking out my voice and trying to create a sampler platter of some variety, than I was about working collaboratively. And throughout, all of the collaborative projects got eaten up on other releases, like all of the most recent False Hopes and the self-titled one. Like I’ve been working on this album since I was like eight so if there was a good collaborative song that came out usually we would devote that towards a collaborative release.
A lot of the tracks reference you as being a little kid or in your teenage years. Have you ever taken things that you’ve written during that time and then reworked them into things that you’re working on now?
You know that’s a really good question. There are some lines in my head that I’ve been meaning to use for a long time, but I don’t know how long they’ve been there. Some of them I remember, “Oh, I wrote this one last year and I haven’t found a home for it.” And then some of it, it feels like every song I write, I’m trying to figure out like, “Could this line that I’ve been thinking of forever go there?” So I don’t think that there are a lot of lines that I actually wrote when I was thirteen or fourteen that would have made it into the album, but I think that there are some common threads of fascinations. I’ve always liked flight and would write about that kind of stuff. And I like personifying ideas and values and that kind of stuff.
You’re kind of a singer + rapper + slam poet. When you write do you attack songs from one of those angles first and then take it from there?
I would say if I’m writing a song then usually I’m deciding whether I should deliver a lyric as sung line or as a rap line. And I know a lot of people are saying, “Oh, and it’s kind of spoken word too,” and I guess that’s true but it sort of bums me out cause I don’t really like spoken word-ish rap. But it’s easier for me to think of melodies than it is the staccato rap patterns. So usually I’ll kind of listen to a beat ad nauseam on repeat. Sit with it. Be there a blank page or some kind of scattered lyrics and then try to figure which presentation seems to best suit the beats. If it’s a really driving beat with a deep rhythmic pocket then I’m going to be unlikely to kind of want to sing along legato lines over it. I’m going to try to want to find a pattern that’ll work with it, and if it’s on the other hand, pretty simple with a lot of instrumentation then I’ll probably be tempted to try to sing something on it.
In a lot of your album I feel like you could have a band backing you. Do you ever feel lonely on stage or want more behind you? Do you ever see yourself playing with a backing band?
I do play with a backing band in Minneapolis. I hire players for every gig but usually it’s a really talented set of players from the live hip-hop band in Minneapolis called Heiruspecs, so it’s Sean McPherson on bass and then their guitarist Josh Peterson. Then there’s a woman who I met at a bar, she was the barkeep, who plays violin and clarinet who joined us. Her name is Brynn Vice.
So is that weird going from that to solo onstage?
A little bit yeah. It’s a different kind of performance and it’s a different kind of obligation because on occasion in a live band setting somebody else is doing something awesome onstage where I can just sort of run away and take a drink of water or cool out and step out of the light and catch my breath, whereas that kind of thing is not possible with a DJ.
The first track on the album, “Children’s Work,” is about you and your brother. Was that a kind of mini-dedication for the album to your family? I was curious to hear more about that track and what it’s about.
So there first track is about me and my brother comin up, and yeah, I guess in part I decided to open with that because of the sonic value of the track and it’s sort of a hybrid. There’s some sing-songy-ness to it, there’s some rap to it as well, so it might be kind of a representative sample track if such a thing can be said, of what I understand is some pretty scattered music on that disc. Yeah, I suppose in some way it was to provide like a character sketch of the narrator for the entire thing. So hey, this is where I came from and then to launch into the various topics of the album.
So there’s a very conscious order to when those tracks happen?
It is but a lot of it was made sonically, so trying to not jar the listener too dramatically by going from a really, really aggressive song to a pretty low key one.
As a woman in hip-hop, do you feel you’re some sort of role model for other women who want to get in the game? How does that weigh on your shoulders?
I guess I am sometimes careful about my behavior because I know that there that is a public element to it, at least when I’m onstage, or if I’m out and about in Minneapolis. But no I don’t presume to be a role model. I guess more of my behavior is trying to adhere to more of the values that were laid for me by my role models, and that’s hard enough. I worry about that a lot to be honest.
So who would your role models be?
My dad was a big one and he’s an amazing dude but with a really inflexible idea of right and wrong, and I definitely inherited that from him. And so I think I stress honoring that enough and probably way more than I worry about being a good example. Although, sometimes I do imagine like if I fuck up that it’s embarrassing, so that’s the public nature of it. Like, “Oh man, people respected me and now they…” ya know I messed up in public and maybe they won’t anymore. But it’s not so much because I’m trying to set a standard, as it is that I’m trying to follow the standard that was set for me.
So your past album, Never Better, has seen lot of success thus far….
[Laughs] Yeah, I feel like it’s done better than anything else I’ve ever done, which is really exciting and really cool. I don’t know that I would personally call it a huge success. People keep comin’ up to me like, “You blew up.” I didn’t blow up. I mean I still drive the same 2001 Ford Econoline as my vehicle and it’s still real life. But it is nice to have people that know the words to the songs.
A big message of this album is pretty much to get off your ass and to make something and do something creative. Is that a critique of something you saw in music or even in the art world?
Nah. I think the art world, even music, is the art world and music so that’s people still doing something ya know? I think it’s more just inspired by a whole vibe and a whole structure set up in everybody’s life that’s set up to just chase money endlessly as hard as you can and people forget to go do something they enjoy doing. They go to school to get a sweet-ass job that pays a lot and then they go get a bunch of stuff and they spend their whole life doin’ that instead of finding a bigger, truer kind of happiness.
This album, Never Better, is more abrasive than your last album, Audtion. Never Better doesn’t have those big anthems like in Audition. Was that your whole mind space of where you wanted to be at that time? Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, it was. I didn’t want there to be anything like “De La Souls” on the record, I didn’t want there to be anything even like “POS Ruined My Life” on the record. I wanted it to be more the kind of thing where if you were going to get into it, it wasn’t going to be because it was really easy to listen to right off the bat. It wasn’t going to be because it was catchy. It was going to be because you actually were going to dive into it.
Do you have a favorite track on the album?
My favorite track is “Never Better.”
For any particular reason?
Yeah, I just like how it came together. The guy that sings on it is my friend Judah from the band The Velvet Teen and he really came through. I didn’t tell him what to sing or what to say or anything like that. [He] added something that sealed it for me. I’m really pleased with how the beat came along and I just feel like it’s a well-made song.
I feel like the album expresses two different directions in that you sound as if you are burdened by something, but at the same time, the album is very freeing in the different creative avenues you took. Is there anything behind that dynamic?
I wanted it to be dense and I wanted to say as much as I possibly could and in the plainest terms but still keep it stylish. But musically I really did want it to be aggressive and heavy and have kind of an urgency to it, like a tumbling disaster kind of feel. And Lazerbeak mixed the other half of the beats and he is of course just got it in this big, tight…monster beats so, it worked out well.
You made a lot of the beats yourself for this past album. Is that just how it worked out, or was it about making it a more personal effort?
Not really. I just knew what I wanted to hear and pretty much every beat that I used that I didn’t make, all the Lazerbeak beats and the one Paper Tiger beat, it just struck me as a good fit for what I was already making. But I definitely set out for a feel for the record. But I didn’t want it to be all about me. I think that I was just trying to make it as good as possible.
You were the best one to make what you heard…
It was just that I knew what I wanted to hear. It’s really difficult to explain feelings, ya know? Like I want it to feel like this…And you can’t really do that until you make a few beats and then play those for people and that’s what it was. Lazerbeak would come over and hear kind of what I was workin on and I’d play him the beats of like “The Basics” or “Drumroll” or something like that and he’d be like, “Alright.” And then the next batch of beats I’d get from him would kind of have more of that feel. Like “Let It Rattle.” He gave me a tape and that beat just stuck out and I just [grabbed it]. But with the Beak beats, he has a really distinct feel, but somehow he managed to keep his feel intact, while kind of absorbing what I was going for. He really made the record work the way it was supposed to I think. Because I can’t make the stuff he makes and he can’t make the stuff I make, but when we’re reaching toward each other I feel like I dunno…songs like “Purexed” happen. And it was really cool so.
Your last tour was the Pac Sun Tour. Do you feel like you get pigeonholed into either the punk scene, like on the Pac Sun Tour, or the hip-hop scene. How do you work around that or how do you work with that?
I know that I enjoy touring with bands because it’s really fun to be a rapper that people aren’t expecting to see on a show. Or it’s fun to have a rock crowd with a handful of people that have heard of me in the middle and then a few songs later have everyone kinda goin crazy and having fun. I feel like whatever offers come my way, I weigh them out and see if they’d be fun, see if it makes sense and then do it or don’t. I don’t really think about it. I know I’m tryin to get away from that scene a little more though, just because I feel like I grew out of it a long time ago.
A lot of the lyrics on the last album are very stream of consciousness. When you write do you think of one concept and run with it or does it just come out?
I don’t really write songs like that. I feel like it definitely comes out…I’ll have an idea in mind and if I chase and try to make a very literal song about that idea it usually comes off sounding like something I wouldn’t use. It comes off corny or it sounds tired. But if I just kind of relax and just rap, let it happen, there’s usually a common theme that comes up in the verses and if it doesn’t make sense I don’t use it.
So it’s just through the whole process of writing it just kind of comes together?
Yeah, just through me learning how I write, I’ve learned that I’m better at just going for it without an idea in mind instead of plotting out the whole map and trying to achieve that. I’m just better at kind of feelin it out.
As far as your label, Doomtree, goes and the whole state of the music industry right now, it’s kind of exciting because you guys get this chance to really break out and expose yourself to people. But at the same time, people aren’t selling CD’s and that sort of thing. Do you guys know how you’re going to work with that or are you going to keep doing what you’re doing?
It’s a tricky thing. I think it’s probably a longer conversation than we have right now, but people don’t have to buy records for any of us to continue loving making music. Dessa has kind of specific words she uses about how we put this label together from essentially nothing and the fact that there’s anybody that cares about it at all is so huge to us and it’s so important. It started off being about making songs and figuring out how we’re going to get them to people. And that’s kind of just where it remains as we make songs and then we want to figure out what we’re going to do with them. So I don’t know if we’re even at a point where we’re big enough to think about the state of the industry or like where we fit in it. We just like doing it. We like making songs and we like growing this thing that we’ve been trying to make for so long.
Why do you think people care? What about your music do you think speaks to people, because I feel like you guys have grown a lot since you first started.
[Shakes his head and laughs]. I don’t know…I think it’s important to all of us to be as genuine as possible and as honest as possible in our lyrical content. Even with some of our earlier releases when we were comin’ out bragging and just like whatever…we all kind of just naturally grew out of that and stopped doing that kind of writing. We mostly just write about things that we do or think about…
I think that being honest is a big part of it.
As fans of music, we find ourselves listening to music that we feel is more honest than others. I know me personally, I have a hard time enjoying music if I can’t find some way to attach myself to it. Not just relating personally to things but like if the beat moves me that’s one thing, there’s lots of things like that. But like, for all the beats I like, nothing still moves me like lyrics that I can actually identify with and care about and get behind. I think that’s important to all of us, is being able to get behind stuff. Like I swear all the time and I say dumb things all the time and that’s whatever. But I feel like whatever I do say I can completely stand behind all the time. There’s no point where I feel like I have to go back and explain myself or have to own up to something.
What are your future plans? I know you have a dual album in the works with Astronautalis.
Yeah, we starting working on it…we started thinking about making it in 2004 and we’ve both just been very busy.
Because you guys both appeared on each others’ albums. (P.O.S. appeared on the final track of Astronautalis’s album, Pomegranate, and Astronautalis appeared on the hidden track at the conclusion of Never Better.)
We did that since we had the two songs we acquired since we started trying to make our record together. We realized that when our records were about to come out at a similar time and we were about to turn them both in and it was just like, we got these two songs…this one sounds it’d work on yours, this one sounds like it would work on mine. It’s like that.
Do you have any other future plans?
When this tour’s over I’m probably going to dive headfirst into another P.O.S. record and then Building Better Bombs has a bunch of songs we haven’t put out yet. Marijuana Death Squad is a project that people don’t know about.
What is [Marijuana Death Squad]?
It’s crazy. When I started touring heavily for P.O.S. stuff, the rest of the guys from Building Better Bombs didn’t want to just not make music while I was gone. So they kind of made this whole other insane, insane like ya know it’s mostly like synths and samples and drums and noise and it’s really cool and I look forward to working on that kind of stuff. Doomtree will probably one of these days pretty soon start forming up the plans for the next record.
And I heard about [some project] with you and Bon Iver?
You’re talking about Gayangs.
Yeah, what is that if you don’t mind me asking?
It’s a soft rock band. I don’t really know what else that I should say. I’ve said something about it before and gotten in serious trouble, just because…You never know the rules are of what you’re supposed to talk about with our gang called “Gayangs.” Just look it up. Look up “Gayangs.” It’s a lot of really talented musicians making music that they don’t usually make and it comes off being really fun to listen to and it feels like an entire album of guilty pleasures and you don’t even have to feel guilty about it because why would you ever feel guilty about something you enjoy?