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Philosophy grad Dessa brings headiness, pop savvy to hip-hop

Updated May 3, 2018 - 5:42 pm

Four tracks in, St. Thomas Aquinas gets name-dropped.

That is what happens when you get a philosophy grad on the mic.

The song is “Velodrome,” and it provides one of the more overt nods to the educational background of singer-rapper-writer Dessa (aka 36-year-old Minnesota native Margret Wander).

Over strains of somber cello and intermittently plunked keys, Wander opens the cut by pondering free will, singing at first, her voice hinting at radiance, like partially sunny skies.

Then her delivery accelerates and she punches her syllables with more oomph, adopting the staccato cadence of the spoken word performer she once was.

Wander’s academic past also manifests itself in more subtle ways than her allusion to one of philosophy’s most influential minds.

What distinguishes the field’s most acclaimed thinkers is the ability to take complex, often abstract ideas and make them digestible, to convey them in a way that enables others to get their heads around heady things.

“I think part of the reason I was attracted to philosophy was because of how deft the major writers are with figurative language,” explains Wander, a University of Minnesota alum.

This is a skill that Wander possesses as well, though it’s complicated emotions that she’s making more readily absorbable, passions in place of postulations.

‘I like pop songs and I like literature’

On her latest album, “Chime,” Wander intermingles dexterously rhymed bursts of indie hip-hop cred-building with longingly sung pop daydreams, the connective tissue among the album’s diffuse sounds being a strong lyrical voice that befits a lover of language.

“I like pop songs and I like literature, and I think that you can do that at the same time without exploding some sacred rule of form,” Wander says. “I get that not every pop song has to have a Pulitzer Prize-worthy set of lyrics, but I don’t think it hurts a pop song to have really well-written lyrics. It doesn’t render it not pop.”

On “Chime,” Wander blends tunefulness with thoughtfulness, candidly addressing the loss of a loved one with different spiritual beliefs on “I Hope I’m Wrong,” challenging societal norms that demand women to be vigilant about their safety to the potential detriment of life experiences on “Fire Drills.”

“We don’t say, ‘Go out and be brave’ / Nah, we say, ‘Be careful, stay safe,’ ” she rhymes on the latter cut. “In any given instance, that don’t hurt / But it sinks in like stilettos in soft earth.”

“That’s not a way to live,” she adds. “That can’t be what a woman is / That gives her nothing to aspire to.”

Wander doesn’t lack said aspirations.

Once a burgeoning writer, she took a circuitous route to a music career, first getting into spoken word poetry at the urging of a friend after a bad breakup. While on that circuit she was discovered by Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree, who recruited her for the group. She’s since released four solo albums as well.

‘Compelled by true stories’

In one of the more intriguing tangents to her rising music career, Wander collaborated with her alma mater to try to develop a protocol to help her fall out of love with a former flame.

“They showed me pictures of my boyfriend and we were able to map the pattern of activity in my brain that corresponded with that feeling of romantic love,” she explains. “Then I was outfitted with a bunch of electrodes on my scalp that measured my brain waves, and we tried to change the way that my brain was behaving using a technique called neural feedback, which provides a little audio signal — a burst of vibraphones, in my case — that would alert my brain to the fact that it was behaving a certain way.”

Did it work?

“Partially, yeah,” she says. “It was more like going to the gym to try to retrain your body than it was like going to a plastic surgeon to alter it by force. I would say that afterward I did feel peace. There was a new sense of calm.”

In conversation, in song, Wander’s a candid presence.

She’s an open book, one found in the nonfiction aisle.

“I’m most compelled by true stories,” Wander says. “Mine are the only secrets that I have any right to tell. If I only tell the curated, manicured, presentable parts of my life, it just doesn’t make much of a story.

“I share my more private or vulnerable moments,” she continues, “because that’s where art happens.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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