Before she was selling out shows at First Avenue's Mainroom, Dessa could be found at a poetry slam at the venue's second-floor bar.
She says she learned "what mastery of craft really looked like" watching her competitors perform there as a young adult.
Now an acclaimed artist, Dessa's story mirrors that of so many other local artists who have progressed their careers on First Avenue's stages. As the venue fights to survive the pandemic, Dessa and 18 others have donated songs for a new compilation album series to benefit First Avenue.
"First Avenue cares about music. And artists. And the culture of our city. That’s not true of everyone in this business. Let’s show them the support they’ve shown us all along," she wrote on the First Love Project website.
First Love launched its first iteration this week. The compilation features local artists such as Molly Maher, The Hold Steady, Har Mar Superstar, Semisonic, and the Suburbs alongside national acts such as Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who contributed a cover of Neil Young's "The Old Country Waltz."
"They were lovely enough to lend us these songs to keep Minneapolis amused in a very dark, ugly winter," says Mary Beth Mueller, who is spearheading the project.
The $25 subscription fee, which goes directly to First Avenue, gives listeners access to this month's album and all forthcoming installments, including at least two more in January and February. Organizers hope to continue to recruit artists for new compilations each month until the pandemic is over.
Once doors open again, Mueller says she plans to take the entire project offline so that listeners can direct their funds to live shows.
Mueller, known for founding Kill Kancer, met her husband Karl Mueller at First Avenue shows as young adults. She worked as a server at the nearby, now-defunct Faegre's, and he was a linecook at The Loon. Karl, who died of cancer in 2005, played bass in Soul Asylum, one of several '80s and '90s alt rock groups that jumped from First Avenue's stage into the national scene.
"There’s an entire generation that didn’t do anything other than go to First Avenue," Mueller said. "We’d go to work, go to First Avenue, and go home."
After hearing about a similar benefit project in North Carolina, Mueller started to investigate — could she and her friends from the Minneapolis music community do something similar? A few dozen emails later, she had a crowdsourcing success story.
With help from Babes of Toyland's Lori Barbero, Mueller said, she rounded together a "committee of concerned citizens." Every artist that the committee asked to participate said yes, she said.
"People love that club. It’s an important milestone in your career," she said.
As the crew prepares future installments, they welcome suggestions from fans and hope to represent additional generations, Mueller said, adding she's "absolutely crazy" for Dizzy Fae and Gully Boys.
Among other highlights local music history fanatics can watch for: an unreleased track from the Replacements' Tommy Stinson.
"Things would shift in the world if First Avenue wasn’t existing. There are very few places in our country that are like that," Mueller said. "It defines our community."