The Chicago trio’s sophomore record is a spacious, self-assured follow-up to their 2019 debut.
If Dehd’s 2019 debut record, Water, is a “relationship album,” then the Chicago band’s sophomore record, Flower of Devotion—out today via Fire Talk—could pass as a friendship album or a companionship album. But really, it’s an I’m-not-giving-up-on-you album.
“In the garden of emotion / I see the flower of devotion / Admiration, affection, obsession, / Give me your attention,” vocalist / bassist Emily Kempf howls in album closer “Flying.” “To know you is to care / But to know you is a bit unfair.”
“This record was more about processes of grief,” Kempf told AdHoc over Zoom last week. “All of us had different versions of grief that we went through [while] we maintained our friendships in the band. Music was the unifying force, which is a common thread we’ve always talked about. I think this record is more like, ‘We love writing music together. Here is our art.’”
Dehd officially announced Flower of Devotion in May with the release of lead single “Loner,” but the first glimpse of the album actually came in October when the band shared “Letter” with a video of Kempf getting flowers tattooed all over her body.
“It’s such an intimate and painful and vulnerable process, and very difficult,” says Kempf of the endeavor. “And I thought it mirrored how I felt about the whole situation. I thought it would be really cool. In a sick performance art way I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I really want to capture this on film.’ So we just went for it. I had no idea how I was going to react but I was like, ‘I want this to be captured because it’s gonna be real, it’s gonna be raw, and it’s gonna be the only thing I can imagine to encapsulate this song and this energy that I’m singing about.’ It was really intense.”
Flower of Devotion pulses with that vulnerability, that energy, that intensity. It’s a spacious, self-assured follow-up to Water, but more importantly it marks Kempf, vocalist / guitarist Jason Balla, and drummer Eric McGrady’s continued evolution as friends and bandmates.
We caught up with Kempf and Balla about the record, heaven and hell, and skateboarding—plus Balla’s favorite show from Dehd’s last record release tour. Check out the interview and listen to Flower of Devotion–which is out now–below.
AdHoc: Last time we spoke you were getting ready to release Water, but you were already working on the album that would become Flower of Devotion. How’d the record evolve from the writing phase through recording and production?
Jason Balla: We just took everything a lot more seriously and really leaned into the studio and what it could do—taking our time and exploring in there rather than just getting in and playing the songs a couple times and getting a good take. We definitely took our time a lot more.
How did the songs themselves evolve?
Balla: We started messing around with some new components like synthesizers and drum machines and stuff. I think in general we just tried to push ourselves with arrangements and song structure. The last record was all about being stripped down and with this one we were trying to make it seem bigger.
You described Water as “a relationship record” even though you wrote it during your actual break-up. What are the themes on Flower of Devotion? And how do the records compare?
Emily Kempf: When you write a record and then it gets released like a year or two later, the timeline of your life and what you’re writing about versus the public awareness of the timeline is always so different. So for a while we’ve been like, ‘Yes, we were dating. Yes, we broke up. Yes, we are friends.’ We’re hoping that this record is the record where it’ll sink in, like, ‘It’s chill, dog.’ You know? We have a life outside of romantic love.
This record was more about processes of grief. All of us had different versions of grief that we went through [while] we maintained our friendships in the band. Music was the unifying force, which is a common thread we’ve always talked about. I think this record is more like, ‘We love writing music together. Here is our art.’
I wanted to ask about your “Loner” video which is sort of like a short film starring Alex Grelle, who also starred in your “Lucky” video. How’d this video come together?
Kempf: We’re huge fans of Alex. He’s obviously an amazing super star. I love working with him and I love having these videos like “Lucky” and “Loner” that he’s performed in where we have little to no presence except for the music.
I like that people are confused about who Alex is, like ‘Is Alex the singer in the band?’ It’s also confusing [in terms of] gender. Me and Jason’s voices often get confused, and then Alex is playing a female character. I love that even though this record is a lot about binaries—heaven and hell, angels and demons, sinners and saints—it’s also about the grey area, the opposite area, the nonbinary. ‘Who’s voice is this?’ I like to make people question preconceived notions about specific art or bands or singers.
I don’t know when we decided that we were gonna make this year’s theme heaven and hell. But I feel like last year there was an apocalyptic vibe on the horizon and now we’re in apocalyptic-ass times and we’re all just trying to survive and thrive and stay alive.
What’s the deal with the exchange between Alex’s character and Sarah Squirm’s character in the middle of the video when he says “I’m thirsty” then turns and walks away from her?
Kempf: I just wanted Squirm involved and I said to Alex and Squirm, “Y’all just write your shit. If you want to improv, go for it. Tell whatever story you want to tell.” We took that take a bunch of times.
So the dialogue was different each time?
Kempf: Yeah, Sarah just [improvised]. Every time was different and we just picked that one—not even because of the content but because of the sound quality. We had a lot of trouble recording in the desert because it was really windy and a lot of the sound was super fucked up. But Alex being like “I’m thirsty”—that was all improv. Later he orders a glass of milk at the bar.
You released “Letter” back in October, well before you announced Flower of Devotion. Do you see that song as a bridge between the two records?
Kempf: That’s a really good way to put it—it’s like a bridge song. It was sort of like stepping from one record to the other, stepping from one phase of our mutual lives into the next. And for me personally, I was like, ‘This is the last song I’m going to write about this [romantic relationship] then I’m moving on.’ Jason’s harmonies are like, ‘Yeah, me too dog.’
Are you actually getting tattooed in the “Letter” video?
Kempf: Yeah! The idea was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to get tattooed?’ It’s such an intimate and painful and vulnerable process, and very difficult. And I thought it mirrored how I felt about the whole situation. I thought it would be really cool. In a sick performance art way I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I really want to capture this on film.’ So we just went for it. I had no idea how I was going to react but I was like, ‘I want this to be captured because it’s gonna be real, it’s gonna be raw, and it’s gonna be the only thing I can imagine to encapsulate this song and this energy that I’m singing about.’ It was really intense.
What tattoos did you get in that session?
Kempf: They’re just a bunch of these black flowers, and I got them all over my body and my arms. My friends were seated around me and someone would say action and they would all start tattooing. It was really interesting. The pain, obviously, I wanted to capture that in my face. I also had to sing the song, and then my vanity was like, ‘And also look hot!’ I had no idea if I was going to be able to succeed at that.
Everybody had a different hand pressure, different types of pain. I could feel their personalities while they worked simultaneously. It was a total mindfuck. Random people were standing, watching.
Shifting gears a bit, what are some highlights from your last tour? I remember you were looking forward to some West Coast dates with Together Pangea—who else did you end up playing with?
Balla: We played with Too Free in DC and that was one of my favorite bands that we saw. They [make] incredible techno soul music, it’s really cool. Then we had a really amazing fun tour with Together Pangea and this band Vundabar. Everybody was like best friends. That was the whole West Coast. It was the middle of summer, insanely hot. We were trying to skateboard. We learned how to skateboard.
Kempf: [laughing] Jason learned how to go off a curb.
That counts! Is there anything else you guys want to share about what you’ve been up to recently or what’s next for you?
Kempf: We’re pretty active in mutual aid here in Chicago with Black Lives Matter and COVID and protesting and using the band as a platform. Can we talk about any live streams we’re having?
Kempf: Okay, stay tuned!