Scene Not Heard shifts the focus from the individuals who create the best albums to take an inside look at the behind-the-scenes jobs that keep the industry running. Go beyond the music and meet the people who keep your favorite bands in the public eye…
A collection of essays fills the pages of “My Own Devices: True Stories From the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love,” the latest amalgamation of true stories from rapper Dessa, published in September 2018 by Dutton. An extremely talented individual, Dessa spills her heart, thoughts, love, and experiences into a variety of different artforms. Her latest full-length album, Chime, released in early 2018 via Doomtree Records, is a challenging dive into love and the path the artist took to change the way her brain saw her ex.
How does Dessa approach change when writing prose versus song lyrics?
“Prose and song lyrics rely on some of the same fundamental techniques—metaphor, parallel structure, vivid description—but the two disciplines are really pretty different. In writing a song, you’re aware of the fact that a human voice will ultimately deliver the work, and that voice can add emphasis, humor, tenderness, or anger. In writing for the page, ink is your only weapon. Every pause or joke or double entendre has to be communicated in the sequence of letters and spaces you choose.”
“For someone calibrated to songs and short stories, writing a book-length work was a big endeavor. I knew I wanted to include a candid account of my experiences as a touring rapper, but I didn’t want the book to be only about me or music—I wanted to incorporate science and philosophy to investigate what it means to balance ambition and fear, love and independence. I focused first on writing each essay so that it could stand alone. Then, I worked on threading them together to create a cohesive narrative.”
What is Dessa’s advice to aspiring writers?
“I worked through a literary agent to sell ‘My Own Devices’—thanks, Sam!—but generally, I’d suggest collecting a really strong body of work before reaching out to business partners. A lot of artists, myself definitely included, get excited about sharing the work before it’s quite done. I rely on a few trusted readers to help me refine my drafts; I ask them to indicate which parts of a new essay are confusing or boring. By the time I share my work with a potential publisher, it’s already been through many iterations.”
Dessa is an artist I have respected for years because of the way she is able to sell her various pieces of art with both prestige and care. There’s a lot of meticulous detail in every sense that piles into her resolve. Whether it’s music, prose, or a performance, Dessa is unique in that ability, and she was willing to open up and share some of her wisdom.
“Oh, man. I just made a very tender face in a coffeeshop. Thank you for the compliment. For understandable reasons, a lot of artists are seriously uncomfortable about the self-promotional part of the job. I’m sure there are a million ways to handle that discomfort, but here’s my approach in a nutshell.”
“You can never make anyone like your art. The task is to connect to as many people who share your taste [as possible]; let everyone else go and find something that aligns with theirs.”
“Genuine enthusiasm is something we recognize in one another. Same goes for bullshit. Communicate accordingly.”
“Try to make every interaction artful, even if it’s just a tweet announcing a show or the reminder that new music is available. Take a photo or write a sentence with a little humor or a little beauty. That way, every exchange rewards your audience’s attention—a finite resource for them and one critical for us as art-makers.”
“Cleverness is like white sugar: It’s a quick slug of pleasure and the appeal is almost universal, but it’s not substantive. To make something meaningful, you’ll need more serious components—and not just intellectually compelling material but the emotive stuff too. You have to learn how to be a person on the page, not just a writer.”