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Making new old sad country music: an interview with Dehd

Chicago's Dehd released "Flower of Devotion" earlier this year and I fell in love. An aspect of their music that is unique is Emily Kemph's voice. Like Patsy Cline or Jimmie Rodgers she pushes and plays with it. It's no surprise that she mentions her love for old country singers in this interview. Not just the cry break that they, and she uses effectively, but their songwriting too. Here we talk old country music, the nature of love, and the flower of devotion with Dehd's Emily Kemph.

Let’s talk about “Flower of Devotion.” I really love your voice. I love how you play with your voice. At times it’s unexpected, and at times it’s really playful, there’s so much going on that I think is really fun. That playfulness makes the album and makes the songs. It’s not a natural thing to do because it’s not straightforward singing. How did you find the license to do that?

Thank you. That’s cool to notice. It’s been interesting actually, this album in particular more people have noticed the way that I choose to sing. I often talk about the voices that I channel as going into a closet and picking out different outfits. They’re all me, but some days I think, what would it be like if I tried to do this with my voice? It’s very playful and it’s challenging to see what I can pull off and what I can get away with. I’m good at emulating sounds that I hear, almost like a bird. If I hear anything I will try to duplicate it. Some of it’s conscious, but some of it is unconscious. I will sometimes feed my brain certain albums. If I’m recording or if I’m trying to write I will listen to only Roy Orbison or Angel Olsen for a month, and then I know that I’m going to internalize that and probably copy it a little bit. When I sing, it’s like an ingredient that’s going to come out.

Like method acting for your voice.

I don’t have one voice, I have many outfits of voices that I like to try.

When did you realize that you could do that with your voice?

I realized it when I was 16, but I didn’t know I was a singer. Looking back, I know that’s when it started. I had, for instance, a Britney Spears CD that I would listen to on repeat and force my voice to be exactly like her voice. Everybody sings along, but I was like, I am going to become exactly this, the tone and the note.  I was teaching myself how to sing in this weird way. Later on, Neutral Milk Hotel would sing these really long notes and I would try to hold the note as long as he could with the same power. It was a different version of learning to sing, but my goal was to be exactly what I heard. This thing would happen where I would lock in and our voices would become one, and I’d be like, I did it. I still didn’t know I was a singer until many years after these experiences, but I think I’ve just had it from the beginning. 

How did you know that you were a singer?

I got sober when I was 21. When I was 22 or 23, I was experimenting with my creative life, thinking, what do I want to be, or who do I want to be? The writing came first and then the singing. I was writing, and I was like, this writing sounds like lyrics. It was so childlike. I don’t know when the moment was when I was like, “And now I will sing them.” I started singing and then let someone hear me one time by accident and they told me I could sing well. I was like, no I can’t, you’re just being polite. Then I started doing open mics. It was really scrappy, and I didn’t believe everyone for about a year. They would be like, you have a great voice, and I just thought that is what people say when they don’t want to be rude. I thought I was one of those people who can’t sing and people were just being nice to me, but I couldn’t stop doing it. I had to sing. I love doing it. I started believing them around year two, and now I’m fine. At the beginning I thought everyone was lying to me, but I couldn’t stop.

Do you enjoy writing or singing more?

It feels like asking which child you like more. I love them all.

I do think of my voice as an instrument but I use that instrument to portray words. I am very intentional about how I write and what I write. I don’t believe in writing fluff. It has to be good. It has to mean something and be honest. I guess I’m a writer first and the singing supports the writing. I’m not really into scatting, just using my voice to scat around. But I can. I could do that.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

In the novel world, Maggie Nelson is amazing. When I was little I used to read a lot of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. I was really into dark science fiction for a child, and I didn’t realize I was reading dark science fiction until I was older. I would go back and read some of the books I was reading then like, damn, this is kind of creepy. Creepy and realistic. 

It prepared you.

It really did. It’s like a Philip K. Dick novel is unfurling today, in 2020.

As far as songwriters go, a lot of the old country songwriters. It’s mostly songs. Patsy Cline, a couple of hers. It’s like, how did someone write such a perfect song? A Johnny Cash song here and there. I just got into Blaze Foley very recently. I don’t know if that’s like saying I just discovered the Beatles but I didn’t know about him until last week.

For my birthday last year I wanted to do karaoke but I wanted to do old, sad country karaoke. I was like, no one wants to hear this. We’re going to go into a bar and me and my buddies want to do Clay Pigeons. I bought a karaoke machine so we could do Blaze Foley in my living room and not annoy everybody.

Blaze is a real one though. He’s great.

“If I Could Only Fly,” I’ve listened to it maybe 200 times. I’ll probably listen to it five times today. I’m obsessed with that song. His voice reminds me of Eric’s voice from Dehd.

What is it about Blaze Foley and the song that you like?

“If I Could Only Fly” in particular is a song where the writing is really smart and simple. It’s simple smart writing where there’s only a couple of words but you’re like, oh my God, this is relatable on many levels. It’s a song that makes you want to cry-smile. When I’m listening to that song I just want to cry, but I feel happy about it. It makes me have an emotional response. That is the kind of writing that I would like to do. I want to make people cry. Not in a bully way but in a beautiful, very touching, moving sort of way. I appreciate music that pulls those heartstrings in a real way and not in a candy way. Some songs are like candy, you want to repeat them over and over and eat them up, but then there’s songs like “If I Could Only Fly” where I am so deeply moved by his relatable writing that contains so many different emotions. It’s hard to talk about. When you really like a song or a piece of art it’s hard to find the words because the point of why it’s so good is that it doesn’t need to be explained.

What is the song about?

He’s talking about being lonely in a way that sounds cool. I find loneliness to sometimes be embarrassing. Everybody’s lonely, but he’s talking about loneliness in a way that makes it sound cool. He’s talking about wanting to be with someone. I relate to it as a touring musician because he talks about being on the road and wishing that he could take this person with him when he goes again. I’m always leaving, always coming and going. Whether it’s romantic or friendship, my communities are everywhere and I’m never in one place for very long. Except for this year. It’s loneliness in a cool way.

I think he does loneliness really well. In a couple of his other songs he’ll talk about being on a bus and seeing someone, and there’s an empathy there, but a solitary empathy. He has something that is really hard to do. I feel like we’re the same there because we love sad songs. We love Blaze, we love Angel Olsen and Roy Orbison. They get to that feeling. It’s hard to be simple because you are trying so hard to get people to feel that emotion that it’s easy to overdo it.  Being simple with it is a really difficult thing to do.

I feel like you can’t do that unless it’s coming from a real place. I don’t think you can write a good sad song. If it’s coming from the heart it’s going to reach the heart. It has to come from somewhere real. Even if it’s Dolly Parton vibes, where she would write from other people’s perspectives that weren’t necessarily from her life experiences, that was her talent. She was very real with being able to channel in that way. The realness reached the realness in all of us. Then there’s Angel, who I don’t know but I assume is writing from her own experience. As for myself, I’m writing from my own experience, so it’s coming from a real place. When I’m writing a song, every time I perform that song I have a picture show running in my head of what I’m writing about. It’s healing to relive and go back to that emotional place, to be able to admit that emotion and share it with the audience publicly. Some nights I’m crying because of a song and sometimes I’m like, I hate this part because I have to hit that note that is literally impossible, why did I write it like that?

Have you ever started on a song and thought, I don’t want to relive this?

No. It’s weird to make choices for your future self but I only write songs that I am obsessed with. If I am not obsessed with it or the band isn’t, it will just die. If it wants to live it will continue forward. Occasionally I will get sick of playing a song, especially singles because we have to play them every set. We may get bored for a while but it’s never excommunicated forever. 

What is the Flower of Devotion?

That line came from a lyric in the last song, “Flying.” I was writing about a person and I was trying to speak about the moment, maybe not when you fall in love with someone, but when there’s all that questioning. How do you know when that happens? Is this love? Even if it’s a friend and you’re like, oh my God do I have a crush? I think my feelings are different than I thought they were. It’s that moment that I was trying to write about.. I was looking at emotions as a garden. Going back to Neutral Milk Hotel, he would often talk about the garden, and I always thought he was talking about vaginas or something. About sex parts. I actually don’t know. This may be too much of a deep dive but I was using the garden metaphor for emotions and seeing different flowers bloom in different seasons. The flower of devotion was wanting to be devoted to someone. It’s very powerful. I don’t hear the word devotion used very often. It could be used as a religious term. There are other words I use in that paragraph that weren’t the album title, like obsession, attraction and attention. It is the opposite of the other single, “Loner,” where I was talking about wanting to be autonomous and that cool solitude that Blaze Foley seems to emulate so well. Wanting to be that person, but writing from a place where I wasn’t that person yet. I was more the person in the song “Flying,” where I was obsessed, interested, attracted, devoted to people a little too much.

I think that is one of the hardest emotions to figure out. We have this word “love,” but what does that mean? You break it down into, love is devotion, and obsession, and lust, and caring and sacrifice. I think it’s smart to break it down like that, instead of wondering what I am feeling when I have this singular word that is supposed to mean all of those things.

It has a lot of facets. In our band we talk about love a lot and we talk about it from many angles. Me and Jason used to date so we would talk about the love of our romantic relationship. Now we’ve been broken up for three years but we are still devoted to each other, me, Eric and Jason, as a friend family. We’ve been around each other for six years, which is so long in my mind. We’ve gone through all of these different levels of devotion, intention, love. Love is like the word “God,” it is too big to discuss. But everyone can relate to it, everybody wants it whether they want to admit it or not. Everybody does have it to some extent. I like looking at it from all of the different angles and making my meager attempts to write about it. It’s such a big thing to try to capture.

I think that you’ve done a great job. To end, I want to talk about voting because we’re in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is always a swing state and a close state. What are your thoughts on voting?

Vote! If you’re young, if you’re old, if you’re in the middle. We gotta get that guy out of there. He’s gotta go. To people who say they’re going to vote: are you registered, have you figured that all out? Go figure it out now. Come election day, there’s no time for that anymore. You have to be on it. It’s your homework. Go online. I post stuff on my Instagram stories all the time about registering to vote and figuring out if you’re going to the polls or mailing it in. Do it now.