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Chicago trio Dehd released their third record Flower Of Devotion in late July, but there was a point in vocalist/bassist Emily Kempf’s life where she thought it would never happen — and it almost didn’t.
At 31-years-old, the amalgamation of Kempf’s life choices sank in. She looked back on all the years she has dedicated to being a musician but didn’t feel as though she had “made it.” “I’d just given up everything to be a musician and I thought maybe that I fucked up,” she says on the phone while unpacking a grocery delivery. Kempf had decided college wasn’t the right path for her, instead she wanted to travel and to explore her passions. But as she reflected on her twenties, Kempf was worried she made the wrong choice. “I’m not successful yet. Should I buy a house and get married and have a baby and go to college?’” she found herself wondering. “So I quit.”
Kempf traded in her graphic tees for starched, office-appropriate clothing that hid her tattoo-covered body. “I basically tried to conform,” she recalls, “which did not work out because I’m too punk.” Kempf persisted for a year in the corporate world before the disillusionment was too much to handle. Without music, her main driving force, her life felt purposeless. Kempf quit her corporate gig, boxed her business attire, opened a tattoo shop in Chicago’s East Humboldt Park, and once again realigned herself with music. Eventually, Kempf’s quarter-life crisis subsided and she realized “being in your thirties is literally the same as being in your twenties except you’re hotter and wiser.”
Kempf’s newfound self-assurance is clear on Flower Of Devotion. But returning to music wasn’t so effortless. Kempf formed Dehd in 2014 with guitarist Jason Balla and drummer Eric McGrady at the onset of her budding romance with Balla. After nearly five years, Kempf and Balla decided to amicably split ahead of 2019’s sophomore album Water. Understandably, navigating a breakup within the band was strenuous. “I wouldn’t recommend it but it is possible,” Kempf says with a laugh. But Kempf thinks focusing too much on their relationship does a disservice to Dehd’s music. “It’s not all about romance,” she says, adding: “Our songs transcend our relationship.”
It’s true that Dehd’s music isn’t about Kempf and Balla’s relationship alone, though their music wouldn’t be the same without working through the breakup. A reliance on communication is at the heart of Dehd’s dynamic, who fondly adopt the label “the mutt of the rock genre” when speaking about their lane of indie music. Coined by Balla, the term encapsulates the scrappiness of their sound and nods to the way Dehd relies on equal collaboration between all three members to produce something that is more visceral than other indie rock groups. The result is a record that examines the interplay of Dehd’s overall experience with intricate relationships while oscillating between the themes of love, loss, and isolation.
Take their track “Loner,” a song that unpacks all those themes and one Kempf took the lead on writing. A warm-toned guitar undulates as Kempf comes to terms with being alone and seeks healing through detachment. “I want nothing more than / To be a loner,” Kempf howls during the chorus. Kempf explores the differences between being lonesome and being isolated in the song, something she’s been working through since leaving a recent relationship. She’s since realized comfortable solitude isn’t a breeze, rather, it takes a commitment to introspection.
Processing her emotions through lyrics, Kempf learned she can be her own best friend, her own partner, and her own parent. “I just want to be okay alone and happy with my sick ass life and not feel the pain of being lonesome,” she says. Still, there were times Kempf was struck with pangs of loneliness and needed a way to work through it. Kempf and Balla wrote “Haha” during a charged studio session when the two bounced ideas off of each other. The track juxtaposes lyrics about laughing through tears against an upbeat guitar that plays a classic ‘60s-sounding chord progression. The contrast is a tongue-in-cheek reminder that sometimes something is so painful that you can’t help but laugh at it.
Laughing through tears is cathartic but at the end of the day, being committed to close relationships is the most gratifying experience of them all. Dehd’s album title, Flower Of Devotion, imagines interconnectedness through a metaphor of a garden. If nurturing a relationship is akin to tending a garden, the feeling of being in love is when that first flower, the flower of devotion, unfurls its petals to bloom and signals the rest will follow. While the idea originated as a romantic love, their album title continued to blossom as an analogy for the platonic love of their tight-knit friendship. Kempf, Balla, and McGrady are all devoted to each other and to their music, and that loyalty has persisted in the face of personal grief, failed relationships, and even briefly quitting music.
Flower Of Devotion is out now via Fire Talk. Get it here.