"Dessa writes beautifully about a wide range of topics, including science, music, and the pain that comes with being in love; it's a surprising and generous memoir by a singular voice."
--NPR, Best Books of 2018
Dessa defies category--she is an intellectual with an international rap career and an inhaler in her backpack; a creative writer fascinated by philosophy and behavioral science; and a funny, charismatic performer dogged by blue moods and heartache. She's ferocious on stage and endearingly neurotic in the tour van. Her stunning literary debut memoir stitches together poignant insights on love, science, and language--a demonstration of just how far the mind can travel while the body is on a six-hour ride to the next gig.
In "The Fool That Bets Against Me," Dessa writes to Geico to request a commercial insurance policy for the broken heart that's helped her write so many sad songs. "A Ringing in the Ears" tells the story of her father building a wooden airplane in their backyard garage. In "'Congratulations,'" she describes the challenge of recording a song for The Hamilton Mixtape in a Minneapolis basement, straining for a high note and hoping for a break. "Call Off Your Ghost" chronicles the fascinating project she undertook with a team of neuroscientists to try to clinically excise romantic feelings for an old flame. Her writing is infused with scientific research, dry wit, a philosophical perspective, and an abiding tenderness for the people she tours with and the people she leaves behind to be on the road.
My Own Devices is an uncompromising and candid account of a life in motion, in music, and in love. Dessa is as compelling on the page as she is onstage, making My Own Devices the debut of a unique and deft literary voice.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Up on Two Wheels
I started rapping seriously, if inexpertly, at about the same time I fell in love (also seriously and inexpertly). I did both with the owner of a Ford Festiva. If you're unfamiliar with the model, it's a cartoonishly small car. 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.
He was a chain-smoker, former drummer in a hardcore punk band. I was a chain-smoker, former valedictorian. He rapped with a group of guys who called themselves Doomtree; their CD featured a line drawing of a dead bird with Xs for eyes. I'd just started making music and I thought the stuff he produced was strange and incredible; he recorded performances that I would have scrapped out of hand as imperfect-vocal takes where he forgot a line and giggled, where his voice broke, where he was nearly out of breath. His songs didn't sound like the product of an artist in a big studio; they sounded like the proof of a person in a big feeling. He conducted even little, daily tasks in ways that would have never occurred to me. When I saw that he'd entered my number into his phone under eff oh echs, I asked, "What does that mean?"
"You'll get it."
I thought for a moment. "I don't."
He laughed. "You're a fox."
At twenty-two, being loved by him was one of the best feelings I'd ever had. Now, single at thirty-six, and having traveled the world many times over, not too many feelings have compared.
IÕd grown up in South Minneapolis as a brainy middle-class kid. As a girl, my parents called me Chatty Cathy-a nickname derived from a doll popular during the sixties with a pull string on her back, who emitted a constant stream of chatter until the spring rewound. My mom says I announced my first real life goal from the throne of her office chair: ÒI want to have a conversation-you know, where I talk, then you talk, then I talk-but all about the same thing.Ó In grade school I was skinny, headstrong, but still eager to please. When I hit fourteen, dark moods started to cycle through. I cut off my long hair and walked down to the riverbank to dye it pink in the Mississippi. I started drinking and dressing as a boy; I ran away from home and slept outside for a few days, woke up fully clothed under a hedge to discover IÕd started my period. Wearing a Lakers cap pulled low, gas station clerks called me sir when I paid for the candy on the counter. I nursed coffees at the Hard Times Cafe, a sanctuary then for happy anarchists, busted-ups, and punks. ÒJust so you know,Ó the barista said, then reached beneath the counter to lift up a stack of posters with my face on them. My mom had papered the city, but the barista assured me Hard Times wouldnÕt hang them; I was safe there. ItÕd be a decade later, in a Saint Paul psych ward, that IÕd learn there was a word for those moods, and that they often linked to menstrual cycles. But they were intermittent through my teens and I kept my grades up, managed to stay clear of any real trouble. By the time I went to college, I was brunette again. I studied philosophy, attracted by the imaginative depressives who spent their workdays debating the design of the world. I finished my coursework in three years with honors, leaving with a degree, a functional angst, and a burning ambition that wasnÕt affixed to a particular objective. I knew I wanted to devote myself completely to something-I wanted to be like the stressed-out lawyers on TV dramas who paced through the night with loosened ties and take-out boxes. I wanted to be considered a success and I wanted to be on the right side of a hard fight. But I wasnÕt sure what job or even what field to pursue. I was carrying a jet engine under my arm, looking for a plane.
Meanwhile, the boy who'd eventually drive the Festiva did his growing up in an apartment unit, with a devoted single mom. He was a smiley, round-faced kid, with catlike, almost-black eyes. His dad split when he was six. He loved his mother effortlessly and absolutely, but had an irrepressible independent streak even when he was very small. Once, locked in the closet by a cousin, he managed to attract an adult rescue by banging against the door, his little muffled voice shouting in the dark, "You can't keep a black man down!" At fourteen, he got his first tattoo-leopard print on his left shoulder. He spent his teenage years skateboarding, learning to play bass, then drums. He recorded his bands onto cassettes, carried a rat in his pocket, did enough drugs to swear off them for a while, and eventually got expelled from high school for distributing anti-prom propaganda.
We spoke for the first time on the steps of The Playhouse, an arts compound in Uptown, Minneapolis. I was there visiting a friend, Yoni, who lived in the building. Although it's since burned down, The Playhouse had twelve bedrooms, a recording studio in the attic, a slide that went from the second floor to the basement, and an iguana that I remember as the sole occupant of one of the third-floor units. Yoni had recently invited me to join his band, a hip-hop outfit where I'd be one of three rappers. Initially, I'd been hesitant to accept. I knew how to write essays-I'd taken writing classes in college-and I had a good singing voice-I slayed Sheryl Crow and Fiona Apple at karaoke-but I'd never rapped before. Yoni had extended the offer based on the strength of a few pieces he'd seen me perform at a poetry slam. Fuck it, I figured, it was exciting to be asked. And I needed a place for my jet engine.
I was sitting with Yoni on the cement steps, mid-cigarette, when the Festiva pulled up. It was summer, late afternoon. The little car parked across the street and a two-hundred-pound man stepped out, dressed entirely in black: dress shirt, shoes, bandanna, slacks-much too hot for the day. "Coming from work," the man said by way of explanation.
"What are you, a ninja?" I asked.
He was a friend of Yoni's, it turned out, and they went in the house to chat.
As soon as they were inside he asked, "Who's she?"
He made me a mixtape of rap songs. On our first date, we drank whiskey under a bridge. He left me little notes in his tiny lowercase script that said, i like your face and if we're careful, we could do this for life. I slept at his house most nights, listening in on the 3 a.m. recording sessions in the basement. I went to all of the Doomtree rap shows, sweating along with the other fifty attendees at a grimy basement club. Each member of the crew had his own brand of charisma; they were funny and angry and impulsive and a little bit sad and their show was always one second away from falling apart completely-like they were rounding a corner, up on two wheels, for the whole set.
During the day my boyfriend and I rode around running errands in the Festiva. He kept a long list in his head of the people he knew and the things they might want; this index allowed him to barter for items that he himself wanted but couldn't afford. He knew, for example, that the clerks at the record shop would be hungry mid-shift. He knew that his friend at the sandwich shop could hook up free meals when managers weren't around. So if he gave the sandwich friend free passes to the next Doomtree show, he could get some bagged lunches, which he would then deliver to the record shop in exchange for a copy of the limited-edition twelve-inch that hit shelves yesterday but cost more than he had on hand. He didn't feed meters. He signed his credit card slips Punk Rock. He broke every rule-with a flourish. And everyone seemed to love him in spite, or maybe because, of it. I'd had boyfriends before, but falling in love with him felt like converting to a new worldview-where almost anything was possible and almost nothing was mandatory.
In the car, he played me all sorts of underground hip-hop: Vast Aire and Sage Francis, acts signed to indie labels like Def Jux and Anticon, and local groups like Traditional Methods. He played some hardcore punk too, from bands with names I can't remember. My formative experience as a rapper happened in his Festiva, idling in the parking lot of an Old Country Buffet.
He was behind the wheel, I sat shotgun. He put a beat on the stereo. "Alright, rap."
"Man, I really don't want to do this." I hadn't written many lyrics yet and was painfully self-conscious about performing them in front of someone so good.
"You gotta just do it."
"I'm too shy with you right here."
"Okay." He opened his door. "Roll down your window a little."
He left the car, came around to my side, and started pounding a beat on the metal roof above my head.
I started a verse, quietly at first, then louder.
He listened through the cracked window.
When I was done, he got back in the car. It was good, he said. He thought I had real promise. But, "Why don't you rap like you write?"
My rap verses were mostly just lightweight wordplay. My essays, some of which he'd read, were different: they had extended metaphors, literary allusions, subtext. It had never occurred to me to try to write rap like that.
Later, back at the Doomtree house, he helped me count bars properly. There are two snares in every bar, he explained. Then he explained what a snare was.
The first Doomtree producer to let me write a song over his production was MK Larada. He was one of the more reserved members of the group, with fair hair, a sharp tongue, a blazing intellect, his own frequent dark moods, and a slight tic when he was onto a strong creative idea. He became one of my closest friends. Drinking into the early hours of the morning, we recorded a song that would be called "Hawks & Herons" in the Doomtree basement. I realized I'd fallen asleep at the microphone only when my beer hit the floor and woke me up.
Within a year or so of meeting them, the Doomtree guys sat me down in their living room. In a sea of crushed cans and brimming ashtrays, they officially asked me to join the group. This did not feel like a job offer; it felt like being asked to join an expedition that would last many years, maybe my whole life. They were my brothers now and I was their sister. Giddy, I called my mother to share the news. She asked what a Doomtree was. I told her. She warned me to watch out for cocaine. "Mom. We don't have any money for cocaine." We could barely afford flyers.
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. So Lazerbeak handled the money; Sims sorted out merchandise manufacturing; Paper Tiger and MK Larada designed the CDs and posters; I helped write artist bios and press releases. We all met once a week to scheme on the next big show or recording project.
Today's conventional wisdom says that the best way to live a life is to keep all the components partitioned-love, money, friends. You're not supposed to date your boss, or go bowling with your analyst, or borrow large sums of money from your drinking buddies. We think of ourselves as a store-bought cake with a sheet of wax paper separating all the slices so that they never touch: neat, single servings.
But hanging out with Doomtree, it was all one thing-social, professional, romantic. I did all of it with the same people and often at the same time. There were no hobbies and no off-hours, no work-life balance; there was just writing songs and walking to SuperAmerica for cigarettes and drafting set lists and drinking with the guys and making album budgets and goofing off and collapsing into sleep tucked into the leopard print of my boyfriend's left shoulder. None of it came apart from the rest.
On stage, we were still a mess, and that was part of the magic. Someone was always bleeding into his microphone or trying to catch the mixer before the bass rattled it off the table and crashed it to the floor. The precariousness of the live show was like a watermark that proved to the audience it was all real: we hadn't rehearsed these moments, choreographed these feelings-that was not a staged fall, that was just a fall-fall. I sweat through my clothes with the rest of the guys, full of whiskey and adrenaline and youth and anger. Stage was a place for all of the outsized feelings that didn't fit neatly into daily life. You can't scream in love or fury in line at the Walgreens pharmacy; you can't roughhouse with grown men at the post office; and you can't calmly explain to your parents that you'd rather sleep outside, under a stranger's hedge, than in your own bed. But with a little songcraft, those dark moods were perfect grist for performance-we rattled up the biggest feelings in one another, and anyone else close enough to hear.
We started getting some good press, building a decent draw. While the whole group often performed together, we played and recorded individually too. Everyone was both a member of the crew and a solo artist. My boyfriend released an album, strong enough to get picked up for rerelease by a larger label called Rhymesayers. Soon his rate of ascent started to outpace the rest of ours. He was getting real gigs, more money, legitimate interviews in shiny magazines. He started touring regularly, and landed a spot on a full North American routing, where he got to travel on a tour bus with a couch and video games in the back. He was gone for many weeks at a time. And was excited to be away.
Back in Minneapolis, I was earning some accolades too. But I still wasn't supporting myself on music, and there was no clear indicator that I ever could. Rappers are like violinists or gymnasts: they start when they're knee-high and they're famous before they can rent a car. In my midtwenties I was old enough to be a retired rapper, moving into comedic movies.
Table of Contents
Up on Two Wheels 1
Breaking Even 27
Lights from Above 49
A Ringing in the Ears 59
The Mirror Test 81
Going Empty 91
Life on Land 105
The Fool That Bets Against Me 115
Slaughter #1 131
Daylight in New Orleans 145
Household Magnets 161
How Hockey Breaks Your Heart 169
Call Off Your Ghost 205
The End of the Night 255
Thank You 259
About the Author 261