Dessa on 'total boss' Janet Yellen and her 'Hamilton' style tribute song

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Janet Yellen being sworn in as Treasury Secretary.
Janet Yellen being sworn in as Secretary of the Treasury at the White House on January 26, 2021. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
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Dessa on her Janet Yellen tribute
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We've been playing Dessa's new song, "Rome," on The Current — but there's been a lot of chatter about a new song that Dessa came up with for Janet Yellen, so that connection has been kind of blowing our minds. What started as kind of a wisecrack from the new President of the United States has led to a song that has gone viral.

Jill Riley: Before we get into your, well, Hamilton-style musical song about the new Secretary of the Treasury I do want to talk about "Rome." We're playing a new song. So what have you been working on?

Dessa: As the pandemic has sort of rearranged the life of a musician along with, obviously, most lives on the planet at the moment I've been working on a series of singles. Sort of putting to bed for the moment the idea of, like, a collected group of songs on an album, then you run around and tour, because there's no need to release music in that way right now. So [I'm] kind of working on projects song by song with Andy Thompson and with Lazerbeak, who I've worked with for a long time. That's been the focus of late and it feels good to be putting out music more regularly instead of saving it up. So we're putting out a song on the 15th of every month and we're calling that whole song series IDES.

Okay, so we can look for a new one on February 15, then.

February 15, yeah, that's the next one.

Excellent. We're looking forward to hearing another one. Well, Dessa, you've been up to a little something else. I guess what started as a joke turned into a challenge put to you and you came through. President Joe Biden, he made a joke that Janet Yellen needed a Lin-Manuel Miranda style, Hamilton-style musical. Now, Alexander Hamilton would've been the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury. Well, the news this week is that Janet Yellen was just sworn in as the first ever female Treasury Secretary, and so Joe Biden had cracked this joke like almost putting the challenge out to Lin-Manuel Miranda to do it. So how did this sort of get offered to you, Dessa? What's the background on that?

Yeah, after like President Biden made some sort of off-hand joke the radio program Marketplace Money, which covers the economy, they kind of took him up on it. So I think they had like an internal meeting. They were like yeah, wouldn't it be funny if we actually found a way to make that song real. And so they called me. I had been a guest on the show just talking about the kind of financial realities of living as a working musician, and they said, "Would you be game to try to write this song? It doesn't have to be long, you know, just a minute and a half or so," and I thought that was really funny.

So I called my collaborators again, Andy Thompson and Lazerbeak, and was like, can we make this happen? And they were like when is it due and I was like really fast. And so it was like we didn't even have time to get it mastered — just a mix. But it was so much fun to write. Not all, but most of the stuff I write is pretty serious, and so to just like have free range...I don't often go off on some kind of geeky wordplay for 90 seconds. It was fun, and Andy and Beak put this really catchy, legit song together.

Yeah, I mean taking out some time to have fun but I mean you still took this pretty seriously. You did your research; you did your homework.

I watched a lot of online tutorials about fiscal and monetary policy, because first, I wanted to be sure that Janet Yellen was somebody that I feel comfortable, even just in a silly song form, [celebrating], and so I listened to a lot of her speeches. I read about her history as an economist and she's brave, man. Like, she's gone to bat speaking about how the really dramatic and growing inequities in our society run counter to American values and that kind of introduction of like societal good, you know. Moralizing essentially wasn't usually considered the domain of people in her role, and so the fact that she was like game to talk about structural racism and wage gaps and inequity was exciting to read about. She ends up being a total boss.

Yeah, to feel that kind of inspiration and to have fun with it but to still, you know, be inspired enough to not only just hand something in to Marketplace like okay here, I took you up on the challenge, here you go, but to actually really feel inspired by someone. I was kind of wondering: well, okay, so the song is out there really going viral in the past week and so I was wondering I wonder if President Biden has heard it, but the song has made its way to Janet Yellen, hasn't it.

It has been surreal. It's just so absurd. I got an email from, like, the Treasury press secretary like hey, Janet likes...it's utter insanity. So yes, I know that Secretary Yellen has heard it and I think she digs it. I know that it's sort of making its rounds like on the flak feeds in the new administration, so that's been outlandish and it has been played on like CBS and NBC. It's really weird and then delightful and also like totally goofy, you know what I mean? It's like you grind for 17 years writing really serious music, right, and you have two weeks to put together a goofy 90 seconds and there you go.

And there you go. You never know what's gonna hit; what's gonna stick. But yeah, Yellen saying on social media, "Dessa, your tune is 'money.' Thanks for the mood music. I'll take it from here."

I know this is obvious, but just a really quick shout to Lin-Manuel Miranda. I mean, I am just sort of walking on the trail that he already took a machete to, right? There's a primrose path for me because he made treasury secretary rap a thing, so.

Right. And you have a connection, as you were one of the featured artists on that Hamilton Mixtape. It's nice to hear you give a shoutout to him because I wonder if he's thinking ahh, Dessa did it; I could've done it and Dessa did it.

If you followed him on Twitter, let's say, or even just kind of are vaguely staying abreast of like that world, that general world populated by like Broadway and film stars, he's so busy with so many things, so I imagine that he could at the drop of a hat, if his schedule had permitted, written the tune about Janet, but he did send me a little text to say he dug the song, which is awesome.

Well, you know what, I just love hearing about a story like this right now as we start a new year and we're looking forward to what's ahead and just trying to keep a smile on our face the only way that we can. I wonder, before I let you go, what have you been thinking about? Like, what are your hopes and dreams for this next year?

To your point about like making time for a few smiles, I think in the past year there's been an increased appreciation for how much work there is to do to make our world better and fairer, and so it has felt really good. It has felt really good even just in the past few days to like say yup, but also this is also really goofy and funny and to find a way to celebrate the wins in those moments as well.

I think for the next year, to be totally frank, even if this is kind inside baseball, like a lot of other musicians I'm trying to figure out are we gonna get to play again. Right know it's like, make the best truest music that you can, but like everybody else, I'm really watching the news in the public health sector hoping that not too far from now we might be able to sing in harmony again.


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