“I feel like I’m in the shell of a firework and it’s being lit,” says bassist and vocalist Emily Kempf of Chicago-based trio Dehd. “I might be launched into the sky or explode on the ground, but we’re all feeling just really hopeful.”
There’s good reason for Kempf’s optimism. Blue Skies, Dehd’s fourth album (and their first on Fat Possum), is a collection of hope-inducing jams with a poppy post-punk vibe. From single “Bad Love” to ending track “No Difference,” it’s hard to find a skippable song.
“Sometimes it’s hard to remember to have fun and be happy when things are fucked up,” Kempf says. With Blue Skies, Dehd offers an antidote: themes of connection, redemption and fun woven throughout tracks in a not-in-your-face way.
After the release of 2020′s Flower of Devotion, the band got a cold call from Ami Spishock, who manages bands like Beirut, Grizzly Bear and Kevin Morby. Spishock fell in organic true love with the album, just before Pitchfork named it a “best new music” pick of the year. Suddenly everyone was knocking on Dehd’s door.
But true love was the winner and Spishock was the best “mama bear” manager the band could have hoped for. Dehd then signed with Fat Possum, who offered a type of support the band wasn’t used to, including substantially more studio time.
“We’re really not an expensive band,” Kempf says. “But being able to be in the studio for a month instead of four days took away that ‘Okay, you have an hour to get this right’ feeling.”
This extra playtime allowed for guitarist and vocalist Jason Balla to further build his producer chops, while drummer Eric McGrady and Kempf injected each track with fresh energy.
“Sometimes I’ll sing in this really challenging way and it works really well,” Kempf shares in reference to “Bad Love,” a raw and honest love song with a Springsteen-like lyrical quality. She laughs and says, “Then I’m like oh, now I have to always sing it that way.”
Those challenging moments are what makes Blue Skies stick out. Kempf and Balla both push their vocals into new ranges, and when that drive is paired with catchy melodies and interesting hooks, the songs are stick-in-your-head fun with genuine emotional depth.
That’s true of “Bad Love,” which is about rectifying romantic faults, “Memories,” which is about lost friends, and “Windows,” the album’s pseudo title track. In addition to urging the listener to look ahead (“I was wondering how the rain was getting in/Was it from all this crying?/Or was it from Heaven?”), “Windows” is about battling the urge to destroy oneself, culminating with an Orbison-style croony repeat of what’s coming: “blue skies.”
Like Flower of Devotion, Blue Skies was written both for the studio and the stage, which gives Dehd a “they sound just as good or better live” designation. After all that time in the studio exploring new sounds—a symbol here, a Wurlitzer there—the result is a repeatable, enhanceable live experience.
“We love our songs and we love playing to a crowd,” Kempf says. After years of sobriety, she shares that for her, music is partying. Performing and creating provides an unbeatable release and connectivity.
To further their reachability, Dehd’s website has a hotline where people can call in and leave messages or ask questions. The most recent prompt was “Share bad love stories.” An upcoming prompt is “Ask Jason for recording advice.”
“We just want to help people,” says Kempf, who is used to the help-each-other-out atmosphere of Chicago’s music scene.
Kempf recognizes that there’s an enormous amount of competition, inequality and heaviness in the world. She also believes that “it’s also okay to just let go for a second. You don’t have to suffer to take care of the world, either.” So it’s fitting Blue Skies insists that even when times are dark, it’s important to gift yourself some fun.
SEE IT: Blue Skies is out May 27th on Fat Possum. 9 pm Saturday, May 7, Dehd plays the Wonder Ballroom, NE Russell St., 503-284-8686, wonderballroom.com. $17.