Dehd’s Emily Kempf: Youth is no obstacle to sobriety, music, art or anything else

Emily Kempf
The Chicago indie rock band Dehd is, from left, Jason Balla, Emily Kempf and Eric McGrady. (Photo courtesy of Alexa Viscius)

There’s a saying in the rooms of recovery that has proven to be a blueprint for Emily Kempf’s life.

The Ties That Bind Us“Lost dreams awaken and new possibilities arise.” As the bassist-vocalist for the Chicago-based lo-fi indie rock band Dehd, she’s living proof that sobriety opens doors she never thought possible. Eating dinner over a Zoom interview with The Ties That Bind Us, her life is full beyond anything she could have conceived of 14 years ago, when she got sober at 21 years old.

Then, the only thing she knew was that she wanted the pain to stop. A career as part of a band that gets profiled in a cachet indie publication like Pitchfork … a side hustle as a respected tattoo artist … even the ability to embrace new opportunities for her band in spite of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic … none of it was on her radar. But because she got sober, she said, doors opened.

And thanks to sobriety, she summoned the courage to step through them and embrace the potential she found on the other side.

Basically, I contribute all of my musicianship to being sober,” Kempf said. “I didn’t even know I could play music and sing or liked performing — it was just the sheer product of walking through fear and learning how to do stuff sober that was scary. The blossoming of discovering who I was as a young person — I skipped all that being blackout drunk for six years straight, so at 21, I didn’t know who I was or what my dreams were.

“I was trying things out, walking through these fears and learning to face myself — and then music showed up. I talk about it like it was a calling, because it did feel like the heavens opened up and light shown down, and even though I was scared and would shake and my mouth would dry up, the first time I performed, I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do forever. I have been called. I have been summoned.’ It’s all about walking through fear, and it’s very meditative.”

Because when she’s on stage with her two bandmates in Dehd, turning grungy punk rock clubs and basement shows into sweaty cauldrons of cacophonous celebration, there’s no room for fear, she added. Before every show, she makes a conscious decision to leap into the unknown void, the only certainty is that the faith she has in herself, nurtured by the work she’s done in recovery, will sustain her.

“You have to let go of everything. You can’t hold onto anything. You have to just jump — and I learned that in sobriety,” she said. “In early sobriety, I had a lot of rage, and I got to let that out on stage. It was almost violent, the way I was throwing my body around, because I had all this crazy energy funneling through me, and I was able to channel that into the world in a way that was safe and not destructive to myself and others.”

A love affair with booze is born

Emily Kempf

Courtesy of Alexa Viscius

Since then, Kempf has found myriad outlets in which to channel her passion. Her entry into the life of performance was an unorthodox one, but not all that surprising, given the creative genes that run in the family. She grew up in Atlanta's Buckhead community, the daughter of a writer-turned-painter (her mom) and a key grip for the film and television industry that has made Atlanta the “Hollywood of the South” for the last couple of decades. It was, for all practical purposes, an idyllic childhood, she said: Her folks have been married for 38 years, and her mom has been sober for 36 of those. Art, music and sobriety were familiar touchstones growing up, she said.

“I had an amazing childhood,” she said. “I have a sister and a brother, we played outside all the time, we read lots of books, my parents are still married and still in love. Mom was a writer and encouraged us to read. It was a very healthy, wholesome childhood — which just goes to show, anyone can become an alcoholic.”

Kempf was 15 the first time she tried alcohol, as a high school freshman hanging out with a group of seniors. It was New Year’s Eve, and the crowd drank it all — beer, wine and liquor — and smoked weed on top of it. By the end of the night, she said, everyone else was passed out, but Kempf was prowling the stupored masses, pouring half-finished drinks into her own and quaffing it.

“If that’s not alcoholic, I don’t know what is!” she said. “That night, I remember thinking that drinking and drugging were the best things ever. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to do this forever.’”

From there, whatever inhibitions she may have had about drinking were excised from her brain. She went full bore, and she remembers certain examples that, in hindsight, set her apart from teenage peers who overindulged as part of their own rites of passage. After all, she pointed out, not many teens would snatch a bottle of wine in the middle of a group of adults, stuff it under their shirts and made a mad dash for the woods, where they drank and rolled around on the ground until a blackout overtook them.

By the time she was 17, her parents set a firm boundary: Get help or leave. She chose the latter, and shortly thereafter was supporting herself while she finished her final year of high school wasted almost every day, she said.

“Once I took it into my hands, it got very dark,” she said. “But I didn’t really think I had a problem until I was, like, 20. I would make jokes all the time — ‘Oh, I’m an alcoholic! I can drink you under the table!’ — because I could literally drink like a sailor. Shotgunning beers, shooting liquor, it all just seemed normal to me and not weird at all. I had fake IDs, I dated drug dealers, so I barely paid for anything, and I figured out how to get booze everywhere I went.

“I remember one particular time, I was waitressing, and I remember sitting at the bar, drinking my beer, and the person next to me was drinking his beer, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think I drink the same way this person does. I literally have to drink this.’”

Sobriety looks good on her

Dehd: Jason Balla (from left), Eric McGrady and Emily Kempf. (Courtesy of Alexa Viscius)

By that point, she said, she felt stuck in a feedback loop: drink to excess, drink some more, blackout, wake up hungover, stagger through the day, repeat. Until one day, the blackout wasn’t so black, and what she saw while within it was pretty damn horrifying.

“I just had this moment of clarity where I was totally wasted and in a blackout, but I could still see what was going on,” she said. “It was very strange, like watching a movie happening, except I was watching myself, and I was trapped. I saw myself doing these things and saying these things, and it was pretty horrifying. I didn’t do things like that. I didn’t say things like that. And that’s when I realized, maybe alcohol was connected to this weird body snatcher moment I was having.”

Combined with a growing penchant for drug use on top of her alcohol intake, she decided to wave the white flag and seek help.

“By that point, I had been on meth for three years straight,” she said. “I was very fried, I could barely form a sentence, and I weighed 120 pounds. I looked and felt very rough. But I got in there, and I was just desperate to not feel like I was feeling. I was desperate to feel happy.”

The pain of staying the same had become greater than the fear of change, and so Kempf — who still felt the discomfort attached to an unknown future that didn’t include the miserable-but-comfortable routine of wake, drink, pass out, repeat — became willing to push through it and see what sobriety looked like.

And upon that foundation, a glorious new life began. Kempf embraced visual art as a medium, but eventually, music began tapping her on the shoulder — gently, at first, but then more insistently. She started out playing banjo, but eventually began cobbling together a band from the arts and music community of which she was a part, and the Back Pockets became an Atlanta band that had to be experienced to be truly appreciated.

“In the beginning, people were shocked that I was sober, because the band was this crazy, performance art, and the shows were really wild,” she said. “I wanted to present something that felt like everyone was on acid but wasn’t. I wanted everyone to feel like they were on drugs, like they were high, and because of that, a lot of people thought I was on all kinds of drugs.

“In early sobriety, I was a wacko freak, but the punk community was very accepting. Everyone is very inclusive and accepting of differences, so there’s a lot of room for growth and experimentation. That’s what drew me to that community — the combination of thinking outside of the box, of living on the edge, the idea that nothing matters, but only because everything matters.”

Emily Kempf gets Dehd

Emily Kempf

Courtesy of Alexa Viscius

Her first punk show, she added, was a Red Hot Chili Peppers arena gig as a teen, but the first show that grabbed her with the ferocity of a hungry animal was one at Eyedrum Music and Art Gallery in Atlanta by the noise rock ensemble Rotten Milk.

“I remember, the bass was vibrating so loud, I had to sit down — not in a panicked way, but because it calmed me down to a state of stillness,” she said.

As a newly minted punk, she played some of her first shows at WonderRoot, a nonprofit, now-closed Atlanta venue, and the Beep Beep Gallery where the proprietors gave her the freedom to build shows in whatever manner struck her fancy.

“That’s where I learned to perform,” she said. “It was everything — the loving audience, helping take money at the door, everyone hanging in the parking lot.”

Those places also nurtured the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic that’s a badge of honor among indie bands, something that would serve her well in later projects like Dehd. In fact, she added, few things touch her soul even now more than playing in grimy, grungy venues through sound equipment strung together by sparking wires and electrical tape, inches from audience members who might very well join her on stage, erasing lines between performer and fan.

“I feel like DIY and punk house shows, if you grow up in that, it keep you humble and grounded to an extent,” she said. “For me, I feel like it’s kept me very grounded and humble as a musician — and also, I just like trash! I like things that are lo-fi and crappy. I struggle with playing nice stages, because it sounds too clean to me.

“I’m used to playing in a cement box or a basement, where the PA is in front of you and you can’t hear anything and you have to go off of your vibe. It’s still cool, though — I just ask the sound guys to put everything in my monitor, very loud. They’re like, ‘Are you sure?,’ but I need it to be insane, to be fucked up, or I can’t get into the zone.”

Back pockets broke up for good in 2012, and Kempf left Atlanta, eventually landing in Chicago. There, she started performing under the stage name VAIL, worked occasionally with singer-songwriter Lillie West in the project Lala Lala and met her future Dehd bandmates as part of that scene. She and guitarist/singer Jason Balla began dating, Eric McGrady joined them on drums and Dehd started out as a lo-fi side project while the three focused on other musical outlets.

In 2017, Kempf and Balla split as a couple, stayed together as a band and crafted Dehd’s debut full-length, “Water.” That record wasn’t released until 2019, and the band followed it less than a year later with “Flower of Devotion,” released last July. It’s a glorious collection of the more psychedelic elements of Best Coast, combined with the ambient undertones of a band like Black Angels, combined with the poppier sensibilities of The Coathangers.

Jumping off into the 'Joy Void'

"Flower of Devotion," by Dehd, was released in July.

Since Dehd has become a full-time project, the band has earned a healthy following and gained respect by the indie press. More importantly, there’s a buzz about the group’s live shows that runs on that most treacly of fuels: love. It’s something that’s grown and deepened over time, Kempf said, and given where she’s at in her life these days, she appreciates it more than she ever thought possible.

“All of us listen musically when we’re playing, and we give each other a lot of space,” she said. “We listen to each other and make sure everybody has a voice. Just running the band and making songs, I’ve learned a lot about listening, and I’ve learned a lot of forms of love with Eric and Jason, and that’s cool. That feels special.

“Now, there’s a lot of joy that’s funneled through us, and people can see that. They have access to it, and they can participate in it. Our live shows are so joyous — we sort of become this void, but it’s the right kind of void! It’s not this endless pit of despair — it’s more of a Zen void. The joy void, if you want to call it that, and we like to invite the crowd to join us in it.”

Even COVID-19, which has decimated the music industry, hasn’t been powerful enough to kill that “joy void.” The members of Dehd — at Kempf, at least — are often subject to a sad-boi tone when fans or peers ask them how they’re holding up because tours have been canceled, but she’s nevertheless chipper.

“It’s cool! We’ll just go back out next year, hopefully when a vaccine happens or something, and tour hard, and we’ll probably write another record this winter,” she said. “I didn’t know this, but you don’t actually have to be on the road for something to be successful in the digital age. And really, it’s all about timing. I think this was the album for us, and it didn’t matter that it came out during a pandemic — it was supposed to pop off, and it’s gone really well.

“We’ve gotten a lot of accolades, but for me personally, this person who’s been touring and doing music in this scrappy, DIY style for over a decade, this is actually cool! We’re really good at videos, and we’re getting ready to shoot a video this weekend at this isolated cabin. We’re just going to do that until the world opens up again.”

Just because clubs and concert venues are closed, however, doesn’t mean that life has come to a halt. Kempf continues to see those lost dreams awakened and new possibilities arise every day she draws a sober breath, and while the future may be murky, of one thing she’s certain: “Music and art is what I’m on this planet to do, in whatever form it comes out,” she said.

“At first it was just art; now it’s music and art, and film is included in there, too,” she added. “I’m just very sure of this one thing, and I’ve put all of my chips toward it. It could all go away at any second, but until then, I’m going to live it to the fullest. This life I’m leading — I get to play music for a living, I get to tattoo people, I get to travel. I wake up at 11 and go to bed at 3 a.m. I still, even though it’s been so long now, can’t even believe I’m a musician. Sometimes, it feels like I was possessed, like I was doing someone else’s life, but then a door opened up, and I got to walk through it.”

Emily Kempf: Sobriety doesn't have an age restriction

Courtesy of Alexa Viscius

Life isn’t without its challenges — when she turned 30 several years ago, she went through something of an existential crisis that led her to quit music, get a job in an office and put her attentions toward a career and a life of domesticated bliss. It didn’t last very long, she said with a wry laugh.

“It didn’t work out, and I got suicidal,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m poor — I have to make music and art. It’s just what my life’s purpose is, that and spreading joy to others.”

She’s able to do that, she added, by ensuring that her own life is filled with joy. Yes, that means sobriety, but the more time she notches — 14 years now — the more complex that becomes.

“Sobriety means being physically sober, but it also means emotional sobriety,” she said. “And for that, I do many things — recovery, therapy, I’m on medication now, yoga, acupuncture … I’m constantly trying to figure out how to take care of my physical and spiritual body, because even though I’m sure I’m supposed to create, I’m not attached to how it happens. All I know is that it could happen, and I have to be ready.

“Music popped up when I was 23. Tattooing popped up when I was 30. And something else might pop up, but I can’t have anything unless I have sobriety. That’s the cornerstone of all of it, literally, because for me, it’s the middle of everything.”

And for others who embrace it with the enthusiasm and fervency that she has, it can open similar doors of potential. That she was able to get sober as a young woman only lengthens the amount of time she gets on the other side of those doors, and Kempf’s sobriety is an example that anyone, no matter how young (or old, for that matter), can get off the ride of addiction or alcoholism before they travel too far down those tracks of ruin.

“I love it when someone gets sober while they’re young, and they turn it into a career in art and music,” she said. “I love doing stuff like this, and I’m living proof that you can absolutely make a living doing your dream. You absolutely can be sober and crazy and love your life.”