About two minutes into her band’s raucous breakup ballad, “Loner,” Dehd lead singer Emily Kempf unleashes a cathartic howl, gleefully drawing out all the “o’s” on the eponymous chorus in an act of unabashed, gleeful defiance.
Yoko Ono might have trademarked the primal scream, but the 21st-century version of that spiritually enriching outburst has a new practitioner in the 35-year-old Kempf. And if any song could summarize the rise-from-the-dead ethos of Dehd’s latest album, “Flower of Devotion,” it would be “Loner” — a ramshackle garage rock banger that perfectly encapsulates the unique nature of the three-piece Chicago band.
“Oh yeah, ‘Loner’ is definitely the anthem of the album,” said Kempf, whose band opens for singer-songwriter Julien Baker at the Fox Theater on Nov. 6. “It really captures how I feel about everything — about having confidence in yourself, despite everything. I’m not sure if it was the first song written for the album, but it acts as kind of the anchor for everything else on the record.”
Writing about rebounding from heartache isn’t distinctive, but Dehd’s interpersonal band dynamics add an extra element of romantic intrigue to the sound. Kempf, who plays bass and sings in the band, used to date Dehd’s guitarist Jason Balla, who shares lead singing vocals in the group. (Drummer Eric McGrady rounds out the trio.) But unlike other bands with competing relationships (I’ll just say it: Fleetwood Mac), Dehd’s approach to the subject is less about settling scores with unrepentant ex-lovers and more about reveling in the glorious unknowns of a newly autonomous life.
“I’m in recovery, so I’m all about speaking publicly,” said Kempf. “I’m an open therapy kind of person. And this album is about being open and honest and independent.”
Released last year, “Flower of Devotion” is Dehd’s third album and represents an apogee for a band that has steadily evolved from its loveably lo-fi roots. The group’s first two albums, 2016’s eponymous release and 2019’s “Water,” were full of teetering, wobbly pop and punk nuggets. The riffs were blunted and thick — musical outbursts that felt like gentle gut punches and playful head noogies. The dynamic worked because Dehd’s course corrected in just the perfect time — the moment the wheels felt a little too loose, Balla would rescue the band with a biting guitar lick or Kempf would swoop down with a hair-raising vocal delivery.
For “Flower of Devotion,” the band tightened up the production and technical prowess just enough to take the leap forward without abandoning the accessibility and the austere emotional authority that defined their first albums. New songs like “Flood” and “Flying” are uncharacteristically roomy and atmospheric, aided by new elements like synthesizers. Still, they are unmistakably Dehd tracks.
“We wanted to keep our roots but polish up the sound just a little bit, so we brought in an outside person to mix the album, and I was pretty amazed by the results,” said Kempf. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel or anything, but we wanted to add subtle shifts for sustainability and longevity. But our personality will remain the same over the long haul.”
The philosophy of more of the same, but better, has certainly paid off for Dehd. “Flower of Devotion” received the coveted Best New Music review from cultural tastemaker Pitchfork and the band recently completed a headlining tour of the Midwest featuring a string of sold-out dates. It also played a starring role in the Pitchfork Music Festival, held this past summer in its hometown of Chicago.
That band persona is rooted in the deep connection between Balla and Kempf, which should come as no surprise given their shared history. But unlike other bands with male and female vocalists, the distinction between Balla and Kempf is amorphous and ever-changing. Neither has a traditional voice and their dueling interjections are androgynous and ephemeral. It can be legitimately difficult to determine who’s singing, and the agender nature of the deliveries shifts constantly. Sometimes Kempf bellows out bass-y, breathy sentiments and other times she’s high-pitched and squealing, and the same can be said for Balla.
The nebulous nature of their voices adds an aura of universality to their songs. They feel less overtly confrontational and adversarial and more about the general theme of survival and resilience. When it’s difficult to determine who’s saying what, the finger-pointing dissolves into a mantra that everyone can get behind.
“Until recently, I had no idea that people couldn’t distinguish me from Jason,” said Kempf. “It’s not intentional at all, but I do like that there is some mystery to who’s singing there.”
Behind that melded vocal mashup are plenty of songs about perseverance and self-love. While there is the occasional classic kiss-off song like “Letter” and “No Time” (sample lyric: “You only want me when you’re sad/and I got no time for it”), most of the tracks on “Flower of Devotion” focus on the future and not the past. “Flood” is about loving someone while simultaneously leaving them, and “Desire” ends with an urgent and insistent measure: “Let me out,” a sentiment that feels uproarious and inspirational when Balla and Kempf are belting out the words in unison.
The record also features a lead vocal from McGrady, the first time he’s taken on that role for the band. And even though he avoids tackling thorny subjects like lost love, his grim acceptance of embracing old age fits with the theme of moving forward with life, despite the obstacles.
With the addition of McGrady in the songwriting mix, the makeup of Dehd is more coherent than ever, and while there is certainly an egalitarian creed that drives the band, “Flower of Devotion” does feel like a coming-out-party of sorts for Kempf. From the opening moments of the album —when she booms out “BAAAAABY” to kick off “Desire” — Kempf is in control, assuming her largest role to date in shaping Dehd’s sound and approach. Whereas in the first two albums, Kempf’s vocals were buried under layers of reverb, her singing on “Flower of Devotion” is much clearer — veritable clarion calls compared to prior efforts.
“This band works because it’s about the three of us,” said Kempf. “We might add new wrinkles or elements to the sound, but it will always be based upon the three of us making music together.”
While Dehd will remain a tightly cloistered project revolving around its three-legged core, the band’s message of gritty resilience should only continue to resonate with a larger audience. Whether it’s Kempf, Balla or McGrady who’s delivering those street fighting sermons, the Dehd credo will have plenty of adherents. They may sing about being loners, but they are definitely not alone.
IF YOU GO
Julien Baker, Dehd, Illuminati Hotties
Where: Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 6
Contact: (510) 302-2250, thefoxoakland.com