One of Dehd’s greatest strengths is their ability to write disarmingly simple songs. As a trio, they’re a band that embraces their limits to make the most of what they have: Emily Kempf’s powerful, shout-sung vocals and effortless basslines, Jason Balla’s reverb-heavy, single-string guitar melodies, and Eric McGrady’s insistent, pulsing percussion. The Chicago indie rockers don’t need anything more than that.
“Really cool stuff can happen when you’re only given three tools, so figure it out,” Kempf tells SPIN over the phone. “You can only rely on your imagination when there are not a lot of tools.”
On the group’s fourth album, Blue Skies, Dehd refused to second-guess themselves. After their 2020 breakthrough record, Flower of Devotion, catapulted them to new levels of success and critical acclaim, they decided to keep doing what they’ve always done. They wrote some more songs just to see what happened.
“The record got more instrumentally complex, but there aren’t a million different parts going on,” Balla explains in a separate phone call. “Everything is built to add texture and support what’s happening in the vocals and the emotions that are going on there.”
This time around, the key difference in the band’s creative process was that they allowed themselves more time in the studio. Balla has produced every Dehd record, and he reprised his role at the helm for Blue Skies. Although the core sound of the band remains intact, there are some glimpses of novelty littered throughout. Opener “Control” deploys keys and lush synth strings with no guitars or drums in sight. The jaunty “Bop” makes use of rapid-fire, drum machine handclaps to propel the song forward. But even with these new flourishes, the three-piece didn’t change up their songwriting methods in the slightest.
“With every album, we try to polish up a little bit more and hone our craft,” Kempf says. “We don’t wanna stray too far from the center. We know how to write a good pop song. We know how to write well with each other — and Jason, his realm is production and recording. So with each album, he hones his skills a little bit more.”
As for the producer’s take, Balla estimates that “95%” of the band’s songs stem from them jamming in their practice space together.
“Someone will start an idea, whether it’s a drum machine — or maybe I’ll play a guitar line, Eric will play a drum beat, and Emily will play her bass,” he says. “It’s one little seed, and then everyone hops on that idea, and then the song gets written pretty intuitively, pretty quickly. We try not to do too much editing or self-editing right away and let all the ideas pour out.”
From a lyrical standpoint, Dehd’s songs chronicle the multidimensonial nature of love. While it may sound like a simple concept, Kempf and Balla’s songwriting show how “love” takes shape in many forms. Kempf self-deprecatingly describes herself as a “basic bitch” for her dogged infatuation with the subject, but there’s also a timelessness about love songs.
“I always write about love,” she says. “I go in and out of beating myself up about that, like ‘Why can’t you write about anything else?’ But it’s always crushes, finding love, losing love, love with friends, the one you can’t have. Every form of love that you can write about, I tend to be very skilled at doing.”
There’s also a prevailing undercurrent of hope running through Blue Skies. It’s an aspect of the record that resonates with both members. Kempf acknowledges that the “world is going to shit,” and Balla expounds on the album’s themes of “optimism in the face of darkness.”
“There’s always something around the corner or something that you can look forward to,” he says. “No matter how bad it is right now, it’s gonna get better.”
“You’ve gotta hold on to those little moments of joy, and stay alive,” Kempf echoes. “Don’t take yourself too seriously. We need our buddies to stay alive.”
Dehd best capture this feeling in their song “Window,” beginning with the Kempf-sung opening line of “There’s a hole in my window / I was wondering how the rain was getting in.” As the track continues and the rain subsides, the two singers flip the unpleasant situation on its head. When they take a look at the view outside their window, they’re welcomed by an idyllic scene full of Blue Skies.