Rock and Roll Book Club: Dessa's 'My Own Devices'

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Dessa PledgeHouse SXSW
Dessa performs at PledgeHouse, The Current's day stage at South by Southwest. (Nate Ryan | MPR)

There's never been a music memoir quite like Dessa's. My Own Devices is at once a behind-the-scenes look at a professional musician's life, a meditation on the tumultuous love affair that has inspired much of her music, an affectionate account of her family life, and a scientifically-oriented consideration of What It All Means. In short, it's pretty much everything any fan has ever hoped for from a music memoir.

You wouldn't have expected anything less from Dessa, one of hip-hop's most deliberately self-aware artists — and a seasoned writer who's long exercised her extra-musical skills in essays and spoken-word poetry. It's clear that she had a vision for what My Own Devices would be, resulting in a completely realized book that will hold interest even for readers who haven't followed her musical career as a solo artist and with the hip-hop collective Doomtree.

For Doomtree fans, the book is a poignantly candid look inside the dynamics of a famously collegial group that, we learn here, has also been the site of a decade-plus, hot-and-cold, always affectionate and sometimes erotic but often platonic relationship between Dessa and one of her bandmates. She refers to him only as X in the book, but the opening passage leaves no doubt who she's describing.

Imagine a large black man, dreadlocks tied in a blue bandanna, and a ponytailed brunette beside him; add cup holders and a stick shift, then laminate those people. That's a Festiva. And that was us.

Thus, My Own Devices is both about a musician's love affair and about a love affair with a musician. Yep, it's complicated. Dessa realizes that, and she hasn't come to spill tea: she's come to open her heart, as well as her mind. The final section of the book, which could stand alone as a long article, details her attempt to use neuroscience to get that man out of her head...romantically, that is.

Her bandmate has given her permission to write all of this, because — as she often says — he's a great guy. So are the rest of Doomtree's members, all of whom come across as supportive and companionable. In one passage, Dessa describes the self-sustaining ethic that's defined the group's successful reign.

Maybe because there are no major labels based in Minneapolis, a DIY ethic prevails. Doomtree didn't have a manager or a publicist or a booking agent — not all of us even had phone numbers. [...] Today's prevailing wisdom says that the best way to live a life is to keep all the components partitioned — love, money, friends. [...] But hanging out with Doomtree, it was all one thing — social, professional, romantic. [...] None of it came apart from the rest.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards might be able to record albums and tour stadiums without speaking to each other, but that wasn't going to work for Doomtree. Finally, Dessa explains, she asked her bandmates for a hiatus so she could move to New York and try to get some headspace. Did it work? Yes and no.

Between the musical and romantic interludes, Dessa lovingly describes her family members. There's her father, who built his own glider and became an expert at it, to the point where she considers framing a set of plans for the vehicle: "That set of blueprints would better represent my father than a framed portrait anyway." There's her mother, a pithy character who decides to start growing her own grass-fed beef and recruits her daughter to capture her first slaughter on video. There's her brother, who works "in the edibles sector of the legal weed market," giving another meaning to "grass-fed."

One of Dessa's skills is developing a metaphor in a way that feels balanced and natural. That's paid off in her lyrics, and pays off here in sections like her story about filming the underwater music video for "Sound the Bells." To complete the long takes, she had to learn about her own breathing process and master it.

"I'd been practicing exactly the wrong thing," she realizes. "I'd been filling myself with as much air as I could and holding as long as I could stand to. But really, the trick was to un-hold one's breath."

Beyond Dessa's talent for balancing the lyrical and the informative, My Own Devices stands out as a book about a work-in-progress. Dessa's a nationally successful musician, but she's not a universal household name like many of the artists you read books about: Joni Mitchell, Beyoncé, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan. Although she writes about life as a musician, she doesn't actually write much about her music as such. That's one reason the book remains accessible to people who didn't come to Dessa through her music, while of course being fascinating for those who did. It's the story of a journey, one that's continuing.

To read Dessa's own reflections on My Own Devices read part one and part two of her long conversation with The Current's Andrea Swensson. Near the beginning of their talk, Dessa explains why she decided to put so much of herself into this book, even knowing that it will inevitably affect her relationships with her peers and her fans.

"I don't think you can do a collection of true stories and make it interesting if you only make yourself look cool," she says. "I don't have any interest in telling secrets for the telling of secrets' sake, but unless you make yourself vulnerable, then there's no stake. Why would someone care?"


Dessa will be performing with the Minnesota Orchestra this Friday and Saturday, Oct. 5 and 6.

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