Wed. Sep 27th, 2023

Our Well With series chats up notable locals to share their fitness routines and what wellness means to them. Someone you’d like to hear from? Send their name to [email protected].

Sure, she’s been the spokeswoman for YWCA Minneapolis and has the Michelle Obama arms to show for it, but Dessa’s fitness philosophy is just as much mental as it is physical. We caught up with the lyrical virtuoso in a rare moment of downtime and learned how being a chronic ruminator influences her overall well-being—from gamifying her daily step totals to engaging in self-hypnosis for consistent rest. Because being an expansive thinker is categorically its own wellness practice. 

I would love to know what your interpretation of “wellness” is beyond the typical fitness/meal plan routine.

I’ve heard health care experts lament the fact that medicine in our country is often conceived of as combatting illness instead of promoting well-being, and I think that distinction is well made. For me, feeling healthy means that my limbs, my spine, my muscles, my mood, and my thinking mind all feel limber and responsive.

In your Deeply Human podcast, you take listeners on a deep dive inward to confront the implicit and explicit motives behind our thoughts and actions. Of all the topics you explored in those two seasons, which particular subject matter or cultural revelation resonated with you the most? Why?

I interviewed a psychologist and philosopher named Bruce Hood whose work particularly resonated with me. We talked about pattern finding: the eagerness with which human minds see connections in data—finding faces in the clouds, figures in the stars, or a ghost in the creaking steps. A lot of the art that I make runs on exactly that sort of pattern finding; metaphor is just the recognition of a similarity between seemingly dissimilar scenes or circumstances. And I thought it was fascinating to learn how chemistry might affect our propensity to pattern-find: alcohol might change it and, as I recall, the menstrual cycle might inform it as well.

Your lyrics are so complex and rich, which serves as a balm for some people (us creatives in particular!) who are looking to get “unstuck.” When it comes to dreading or not wanting to do certain things that you have to do—exercise comes to mind for me!—be it professionally or personally, how do you push yourself? What tactics or mind games do you employ to get yourself unstuck?

I am a natural ruminator. So sometimes the trick is to disallow myself anymore deliberation. You’re past the point of diminishing returns—pick an option and start doing it right now! Then I’ll course correct as necessary. I also talk to myself a lot: Alright, Dessa, it’s time to go to the gym and you want to be out the door in 10 minutes, you got this, let’s go.   

In one of your essays within My Own Devices, you chronicled your experience with experimental medicine. Did that serve as a gateway into exploring other types of revolutionary therapies or treatments? If so, which one has stuck with you?

I’m not really an early adopter—a little gun-shy about possible side effects. But I’m fascinated by the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation for depression. The process delivers an electrical impulse through the skull and to the brain of a waking patient and has some pretty impressive success rates so far.

I’m always fascinated by how people with transient jobs, like yourself, can create and maintain and course correct their routines. How has your wellness routine changed or evolved on the road since you first came out on the scene?

I think wellness apps can foster some sort of obsessive behaviors, but I will say that having a pedometer on the cell phone has been very helpful. The gamification of my daily step goal often prompts me to take a break for a walk. For all sorts of reasons baked into our profit-driven society, healthy behaviors are easier when there’s money to support them. Being able to get snacks at Trader Joe’s or a co-op results in healthier fare than when the touring party was shopping at the Amoco en route to the club. And I try to book a hotel with a gym when at all possible. 

Going back to your ‘cast again, you dedicated one of your episodes to the science of sleep—a topic that resonates pretty deeply with our following, we’ve learned. How do you power down and just … shut it all off at the end of the night?

I’m a lousy source of advice on sleep because I suck at it. But I’ll say that I do a lot of self-hypnosis. And after speaking to experts, I’m less stressed about waking up at 3 a.m. and staying up for an hour or two—I’ve learned that historically a lot of people have slept in two shifts per night, so it feels like a legitimate way to go about resting.

When it comes to the realm of social wellness, what feeds your writing? Your songwriting? Your soul?The behaviors that benefit my career and my art-making aren’t always the ones that feel healthiest—late nights, elevated stress levels, monomaniacal focus that suppresses my appetite and wakes me up in the middle of the night. For me, trying to offset the physical costs and build in some recovery time is part of finding a balance between competing interests. Today, for example, I’m coming off three big shows with the Minnesota Orchestra. I slept in this morning and really needed the rest. Today I’ll walk the lakes and hit the gym and maybe try to coddle my nervous system a bit—I’ve asked a lot from it these past few weeks.

Tell us something surprising, wellness-related or other, that most people don’t know about you.

I’ve got a grade-schooler’s enthusiasm for jump rope tricks, both Double Dutch and single rope.

Lastly, at your Orchestra Hall show last weekend, you wove in a little existential monologue between songs about some recent dental work. At one point you talked about pain and healing, and gave a shout out to your physical therapist. Have you had much physical therapy? Can you tell us more about that?

First, I should be more careful with my language! The person who I referenced on stage is a massage therapist, based here in the Twin Cities. I was fascinated to learn how much of his training involved honing his sense of touch—his cohort was asked to scatter grains of rice in an open phonebook, then cover them with a sheaf of pages so that a partner could run their fingertips down the paper, feeling for the rice Princess-and-the-Pea style. Separately, I’ve also visited a physical therapist and got teary eyed when he told me that the considerable pain in my knees could be alleviated by some focused exercise. (Shout-out here to the massage therapists at The Doorway for BetterHealth and Dr. Bershow at Allina Health.)


By admin