Dessa Separates Head From Heart, With A Little Help From Science

Mar 1, 2018
Originally published on March 1, 2018 7:20 am

Dessa is kind of a science geek. She doesn't use those words to describe herself, but it's clear from the musician's recent projects that she is fascinated with how the brain works.

"I'd had this really protracted breakup: As soon as we started dating, we started breaking up," she explains. One day, after the relationship had faded, she got an unexpected call from her ex. "And I just got this bloom of feeling in my chest – like, hope. But I know better than to hope; we've already sorted this out. So I'm alone in my car, in the rain, yelling, 'Why can't you stop hoping?' And I decided to do something really drastic."

Inspired by a TED Talk, and with the help of an fMRI machine and a team of scientists willing to use her as a case study, Dessa set out to isolate the parts of her brain responsible for romantic love. With the data in hand, she then worked with a clinician to see if she could loosen the grip those feelings held on her conscious mind.

"It's not as though I'm electrically lobotomizing myself," she says, laughing. "It's more like training a muscle: You want to be able to be flexible and strong, but you don't want to be cramping."

Her experiment became a major source of inspiration in the creation her latest album, Chime. Speaking with NPR's Rachel Martin, Dessa explained how the dissonance between her head and heart ultimately resolved, and reflected on her long tenure in the Minnesota rap crew Doomtree after a shaky start in the world of slam poetry. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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The musician Dessa is kind of a science geek. She doesn't use those exact words to describe herself, but it is clear from recent projects that she is fascinated with how the brain works and how the head ends up affecting the heart.


DESSA: (Singing) They say that your heart is the size of your fist. I can tell you firsthand, I know how that glove fits. It takes your life just to teach it two tricks. It beats and it attacks.

MARTIN: Dessa got her start in music more than a dozen years ago when she became the sole female member of a popular Minneapolis rap crew. It's called Doomtree. Before that, she didn't have a lot of musical experience. After she graduated from college, she was armed with a degree in philosophy and a dream to become a writer. But she didn't have a lot of options.

DESSA: I got this gig tech writing. I wrote about diesel engines. But my bread and butter was about cardiac technology. So I learned...

MARTIN: Did you know anything about cardiac technology?

DESSA: I knew nothing about cardiac technology. And I think my very first project was (laughter) a courier came over to my, like, apartment that I shared with three other people. I mean, it was very much, like, a college dive, you know, apartment. And he delivered this package of CD-ROMs and I put them into the laptop that the firm had lent me, and I was watching, like, a pig's heart pump water. And I thought, I have no idea what I am looking at or what the task that is being asked of me is, you know? But I got the hang of it.

MARTIN: There was something in there that resonated with you because you do - you're interested in how the body works.

DESSA: Yeah. You know, and I think that's probably why I stuck it out even though I was kind of freaked out. I like the science, I think I always have, learning how the world worked. And I like that kind of right-angled system of the scientific method of making a guess and a prediction and then comparing that to an outcome.

MARTIN: On the side, she tried writing more literary stuff.

DESSA: But I wasn't, you know, I really wasn't getting any traction in that world. You know, I wrote some essays. I'd send them off to places like The New Yorker, and then just sort of wait for the form letter. So I went from writing essays to then performing essays on a slam circuit. So the, you know, competitive poetry.

MARTIN: Do you remember the first poem or work that you slammed in a public setting?

DESSA: (Laughter). It wasn't very strong. It was, I think, a rhyming piece about empiricism, like, the philosophical...


DESSA: Tradition. Yeah, I was pretty cheesy.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DESSA: It was pretty cheesy.

MARTIN: But clearly she had some talent. Eventually, a local hip-hop producer saw one of her slams and invited her to try her hand at rapping.

DESSA: And after texting a friend to make sure he wasn't a creep, I went over to his house and tried. And learned, you know, what that delivery was like and how it differed from stage performance.


DESSA: (Rapping) I don't need an agenda. I just tell the truth. Yup. Let it off the leash and don't touch it - it knows what to do. And I'm running a tight ship. Every deckhand here has a five-year plan and a ice pick. They can write code, they can drive stick. I got an octave on you and a high kick.

MARTIN: On her new album, Dessa brings her two passions, art and science, together. It is an album about heartbreak, but she takes a very different approach.

I'm going to have you explain your collaboration with the neuroscientists at the University of Minnesota (laughter).

DESSA: Well, I'd had this really protracted breakup that, like, as soon as we started dating, we started breaking up. And we tried for a lot of years. And I was sitting in a parking lot of, like, an all-you-can-eat sushi place in the rain, and this dude called.

MARTIN: The guy. Your guy.

DESSA: The guy.


DESSA: And I just got this, like, bloom of feeling in my chest, like, hope, right? But I know better than to hope. Like, we've already sorted this out. And so I'm in my car, alone in the rain, yelling, why can't you stop hoping? And I decided to do something really drastic.


DESSA: (Singing) But what if I could cure me of you? Am I so sure which pill I'd choose?

I ended up watching a TED Talk by an anthropologist, actually, named Dr. Helen Fisher. And she described a study in which she had isolated the regions of the human brain that seemed to be involved in romantic love. And I thought, OK, well, if she's found them, maybe I could turn them off (laughter) in me. So I ended up assembling a team of people who were willing to design a proper case study to see if we could do that. So I got to go into, like, an FMRI machine - you know, which are those, like, huge tube-like magnets - and looked at pictures of my ex-boyfriend and pictures of another guy who just sort of looked like my ex-boyfriend, and he was the control.

MARTIN: So they were seeing, they were measuring your brainwaves and how you were reacting to these people.

DESSA: They're measuring which parts of you are engaged. So we found the love. Then I ended up connecting with this clinician.

MARTIN: And you wanted her to turn your brain off?

DESSA: Yeah. So I was like, hey, could we just dud this?


DESSA: No. It's not as though I'm, like, you know, electrically lobotomizing myself. It's more like training a muscle. You want to be able to be flexible and strong.


DESSA: But you don't want to be cramping.

MARTIN: Right.

DESSA: And I wasn't able to respond appropriately to my circumstances, right? Like, why are you hoping in the rain every time this guy calls you?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DESSA: So we did this, you know, over the course of a couple months. And then I went back in, and we tried to determine whether or not there was any difference.


DESSA: I don't want to overstate it 'cause I'm only one, right? So that's, like, the worst sample size. Exactly. But, it worked. Yeah. And it was amazing. I, like, got really misty eyed looking at my brain, you know, in cross section without the activation that it had demonstrated on the first visit.

MARTIN: And it created all kinds of musical inspiration for you.

DESSA: It did.


DESSA: (Singing) I want that good grief, the one that heals me, that leaves me clarified by fire when I'm burned clean.

MARTIN: Dessa actually performed this song on stage with the Minnesota Orchestra last year. And she had props, including a blown-up up scan of her heart-broken brain.

So here's my question, though, for the philosopher. The heartbreak is part of you.


MARTIN: It made you write songs, and it made you grieve. Was there some part of you that thought, there's something to feeling this kind of pain, and I should just sit with it instead of trying to make it numb?

DESSA: Year two? Yes. Year five? Yes. Year 10? Yes. And after that. I've written those songs.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DESSA: You know what I mean?

MARTIN: Right (laughter).

DESSA: And I'm just bumming people out, man.

MARTIN: Just need to change - you've just got to change (laughter).

DESSA: I'm running no risk of exhausting a supply of melancholy material.


DESSA: (Singing) They say there's good grief, but how can you tell it from the bad? Maybe it's only in the fact.

MARTIN: Dessa's new album is called, "Chime."

It was so fun to talk with you. Thank you so much.

DESSA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD GRIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.