Love Isn’t Dehd: A Conversation with Jason Balla & Emily Kempf
Introduction by Jason Balla
Interview by Jason Balla & Emily Kempf
Illustration by Cece Martin
Dehd started as an excuse to go on a really long date. Emily and I first met playing a show together at Cafe Mustache in Chicago. After, we'd run into each other on tours between Chicago and Atlanta. We wanted to go on vacation so we wrote a couple love songs and booked a tour. Eventually we invited Eric to join us on drums and have been a proper band ever since. Making and sharing music has been at the heart of our friendship since the beginning and it holds us together to this day.
(When Emily Kempf and Jason Balla aren't playing in their multiple separate other projects, Vail, Lala Lala, NE-HI, and Earring, they make up Chicago's Dehd along with drummer Eric McGrady. With deep bass and drum lines, the unassuming trio whisks you into an aura of true self expression. Playing the third party interviewer, Emily and Jason ask each other about first times, burrito rolls, and juggling the musician life.)
Do you write songs about each other?
Emily: Yes, pretty much all the time.
Jason: They always say write what you know.
What’s your favorite part about being on tour with Dehd?
Emily: Eric’s one liners and well timed laughs.
Jason: Ditto! Eric literally puts me in stitches. I'm not sure anyone makes me laugh so hard. He's so damn sassy.
Both your side projects have a lot darker tones than Dehd. Where do you think that comes from?
Emily: Haha. Gotta have the dark to know the light.
Jason: I think evil is my natural default lol.
Emily: Jason always talks about being secretly evil.
What’s a great record/ band you recently purchased that you’ve got on repeat?
Emily: Jah Wobble & The Chinese Dub Orchestra, Not Waving, Jan Jalenik, and Cha Cha Guitri.
Jason: I bought it a couple years ago, but all I can listen to is Talking Heads' "Little Creatures" right now.
Emily: In Dehd we all just pick up our instruments and start playing. We are fully open to each other and we say “yes” more than "no" and let the magic channel through that. We write a lot, and we write fast. We are busy in other bands, so it’s a sorta binge writing process (kinda). In Lala Lala, Lillie writes a song by herself and brings it to the band and [then] we all write parts to it. In Vail, I write the backing tracks with different producer friends, or I painstakingly make the beats myself. I put lyrics I have laying around, usually from my journals, to tracks every couple months and sit down and write one to three Vail songs. It's kinda a slow burn, no rules take your time, and be experimental, and the most free project.
Jason: It's very intuitive and we all just give each other space to explore before we start to explore. Also! I get to wiggle around in this band. I love the bendy notes. Since Emily sings a lot of the songs, I get the chance to make tricky guitar lines I wouldn't otherwise be able to play. I think playfulness and a willingness to fail or have stupid ideas is my favorite part.
Dehd played last night and Emily, you literally got home the same morning from Lala Lala. I've been writing music for NE-HI everyday the whole month. What's your process for switching gears and mindsets between bands?
Emily: I have to have at least one practice to switch my mind and muscle memory back over. I have two marching bass (jaguar short scale). One is for Lala Lala and has Lala Lala “notes” all over the neck and the other is for Dehd and has all the Dehd “notes” all over the neck. I believe each bass holds the energy and power for each band. I also like having a set list, it makes me feel safe and together when I see that little piece of paper on the ground
Jason: A little practice definitely helps. I think sometimes it doesn't happen until I'm on stage and hit that first note and it's sort of like "oh right, here we are!" Each band has its own attitude, which brings out different parts of my personality. Just being up there with my respective band mates let's those parts of me come out.
What music did your mom and dad listen to?
Emily: Dad listened to classic rock and "dad stuff." Def Leopard, Paul Simon, Beatles, steel drum soundscapes, and old reggae. Mom listened to classical music, piano stuff, opera, and NPR.
Jason: My parents didn't really listen to too much music that impacted me. Mom was the light FM and oldies, but we used to play a game in the car where we'd guess who the singer was. James Taylor or Andy Williams, etc. I was pretty bad.
What was the first song you memorized?
Emily: "Heart & Soul" by Hoagie Carmichael.
Jason: "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen.
What was your first tape/cd?
Emily: Nirvana, R.E.M.
Jason: Not surprisingly, my first CD was Queen's "Greatest Hits."
When was the moment that you realized music was the THING? Like spend all your time on it kind of thing?
Emily: I was 23 and asked to “perform” in a freaky jazz noise experimental group called "Omelet" in Atlanta. On stage I had a literal come to Jesus moment where the heavens parted and a light shined down and I knew that I would do music for the rest of my life and I would go to any length to practice this craft. Even though at the time I started it was the scariest and most uncomfortable thing I ever experienced, I hated it and couldn't live without it in equal turns. Like I wanted to throw up and couldn't stop shaking and my mouth got dry and my heart raced.
Jason: Either my first performance (8th grade talent show, Blink 182 cover band) or probably my first basement show in Chicago. It was all just raw stupid energy and fun.
How does dance figure into the music that you make?
Emily: I dance for myself and I dance best alone when I move around on stage because it helps me be a free and honest performer. I think the more I can let go and move whether dancing alone or “dancing” with my bass and voice, I am releasing my inhibitions and reaching for my most honest truest self and asking those around me to join. I like when the crowd's energy and my energy is in communication. I like to ask for them to be their most honest free selves as well. Or I am at least showing them it’s safe to do so or something...? It’s an invitation in form of movement. In Dehd specifically, Jason and I definitely speak the same language of movement on stage. and Eric’s got some moves too, he just shows them off stage.
Jason: Being on stage is definitely one of the only times I'm fully inhabiting my body and how it moves. It also helps me play better being able to act out the music. If I were just standing straight still I doubt I'd be able to hit a note.
What was your first kiss?
Emily: A boy named Christopher outside the track field in 9th grade at a catholic private school. It was disgusting. Utterly horrifying.
Jason: Still waiting.
What are some of your weird, cool hopes for the future?
Emily: Make a marriage pact with Jason that when we're 70, we'll be old weird grumpy people together with maybe a poodle. And to be signed to Domino Records, to have Peyton as our tour manager, and to save the planet from global warming
Jason: Buy a house and fill it with jungle plants. Maybe go dancing more. Help record bands that I love.
What have you learned from each other?
Emily: I learned how to not complain about cold weather, how to keep up with Jason on bass lol, how to bike in the rain, and a lot about love in its apparent one million forms.
Jason: I learned how to be less critical of myself and the art that I make. "Fearlessness," I guess you'd call it. Also the "burrito roll" for packing t-shirts on tour. And how to scam Starbucks for the most espresso for the cheapest price!
When you're writing how do you tell a Dehd song from anything else?
Emily: i just know.
Jason: It's gotta have that wiggle.
Keep up with Dehd on Instagram.