Yelp and condiment-hoarding: The food tricks of a traveling musician

Kai Benson

Dessa is a singer and songwriter, a rapper and a poet, who travels constantly with the rap collective Doomtree. The image of music stars on the road is pretty glamorous: star chef suppers, special treats. But in the real world, how does an indie rap queen eat on the road?

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Is food something that you really are into, or is it just the fuel that keeps you going?

Dessa: I try to be mindful of daily calorie intake. I plan my days around my next meal. But so much of my life is spent stowed in the backseat of a van, where we're not moving very much.

LRK: You perform at night. A couple of hours on stage, then maybe you get some sleep, and then you're on the road heading to the next gig, right?

Dessa: It's funny. In one way, you can conceptualize your workday as being 2 hours long -- the time that you're on stage. And in another way, you could consider your workday as maybe 19 or 20 hours long, because everything you're doing is in the service of performing, even if you're not actually on stage.

I usually wake up around 10 a.m., and say good morning to Lazerbeak (the president of Doomtree Records). We go brush our teeth and then everybody hightails it for the tour van, knowing that if we don't get on the road right away, we're likely to miss soundcheck. We might travel 5 to 8 hours to the next gig, we scramble out of the van, load in all the gear and check our microphones. If there's time, I might get away for dinner, but before long, the doors are open and it's time to perform. So we do that, leave the stage, sell some T-shirts, sign some CDs and maybe get out of the club by about 3 a.m. Then we go to the hotel to do it all again.

LRK: So in the midst of all that, when do you get a chance eat anything, let alone eat well?

Dessa: There are a lot of gas station stops. Food that doesn't come wrapped in foil is the exception on the road. I do like eating fresh; I really like produce. I'm a pescetarian, so I don't do a lot of gas station hot dogs. There is this distant, mirage-like oasis of a sandwich or a salad that I am always thinking about on tour.

I try with very limited success to collect lettuce when I find it and grab ranch dressing from an Amoco and stuff it into the pockets of my jeans. The members of Doomtree are like, "You have maybe a half-pound in single-serving condiments here. You have to use some of these before you fill up any more cup holders in the van."

I'm 31 years old now and it feels different than when we started. I used to sleep on the floor and not think too much about it. At 19, you just kind of pop back up, get back in the van. Now your joints are letting you know exactly where you've been and for how long.

LRK: So when you get a chance to sit down to a meal, what's joy for you on a plate?

Dessa: Man, if I can find a sushi spot that's open between soundcheck and doors, I am gone. I use apps on my phone like Yelp quite a bit to try to orient myself in cities I've never visited. We'll stop for gas and I'm waiting to take off like a sprinter because I've seen on Yelp that there might be a grocery store in one block. I'm like, "OK, if we need $103 worth of gas, that gives me 4 minutes. If the produce section is near the checkout line, I could get this dream salad."

LRK: Are there foods that help your voice?

Dessa: I'll say yes, but with a caveat. A lot of us don't have a really good understanding of why we're doing what we're doing. It almost amounts to superstition. I've heard that Mariah Carey will always eat potato chips backstage before she performs on a big night. But I think that's just because Mariah Carey likes potato chips.

That said, the standard fare that you'll see vocalists trading backstage is fresh-cut lemons. Everybody will suck on them. Ginger is good, either finely sliced or steeped in some hot water. And almost everybody uses honey. Everything is aimed toward lubricating the vocal chords.

LRK: And the stuff that's really bad for you?

Dessa: Dairy. A lot of people don't eat dairy beforehand.

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