Emily Deahl is a Nashville-based independent singer-songwriter currently releasing her latest project, “The Ice Cream Girl Presents: Ghost Stories.” She specializes in high-concept, artistic music videos that accompany her songs, along with children’s books that correspond to her albums. Her creative and ambitious projects have earned her an audience of over 100k followers on TikTok. Emily spoke to The Power Thread about her experiences and the challenges of being an independent artist, as well as the importance of empowering others.
Where are you from? Where do you live now?
I’m originally from Columbia, South Carolina. I moved out to L.A. when I was 17. I lived there for 5 years, then I moved to China for a few months, which is a crazy story, then back to L.A., then back to China for a year, then back to South Carolina, and now I live in Nashville!
What inspired you to get involved with music?
I grew up as a dancer. I danced since I was three and did it competitively. As I got older, I ended up doing really well in it, and I had a foot in the door in L.A. with an agent. I told my parents at 10 that I was gonna move to L.A. when I was done with school, and I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, so I started taking high school courses early– so that I could graduate early–and I just packed my bags and moved out there. Toward the end of senior year, I started to realize that I didn’t want to just dance anymore–it was right when Glee and High School Musical were very popular, and I was like “man, I really want to do it all.” I started seeing my career and my artistry in a different way, like if I want to be creative and I want to do all of these things, I’ll have to learn to sing, and act, and do it all.
I moved to L.A. and I got hooked up with a voice coach who was incredible, and he was basically like, “I’m starting to get to know you and understand how your mind works, and I really need to teach you how to write your own music, because I don’t think you’re ever gonna be fully satisfied as an artist if you don’t write your own songs.” He taught me how to write, and I like to say the rest was history. I was pretty much hooked after that, so I started singing and making music, and dance took a backseat–it also wasn’t really working out for me. I don’t think I booked one single audition that I went on, and it was crazy because dance had gone from being my entire life–winning at it and doing all these really great things through it–to just completely failing at it. It’s almost like music found its window into my life and took me in a different direction, creatively. I guess I was in L.A. 10 years ago now, but it feels like yesterday.
What inspires your content?
It’s evolved over the years–I’ve really, really struggled with making music that I’m proud of, that I’m confident putting my stamp on. It’s honestly taken until this very moment to be so stoked about the art I’m creating. In the beginning, when I started at 17, I was treading water. I’ve always been more driven for success than I’ve been talented–I’ll work harder than anyone else in the room, and I’m hungry for success, but sometimes my talent has to play catch up to that. When I first started writing, I was constantly writing lyrics and doing anything I could. I didn’t play any instruments yet, so I was searching for producers on SoundCloud to send me beats, and I would just write over the beats. In the beginning it was just silly pop songs–I just wanted to be a pop star. They were all kind of party anthems and what not, and then I ended up getting the opportunity to go on tour in China, and I became a Chinese pop star for a minute. I ended up doing very dancey pop, with backup dancers, and a DJ and the whole thing, and I was still very stifled creatively– it was cool and fun, but I didn’t feel like an artist. It sort of felt like I was a prop. When that all came to an end, I moved to Charleston, because I realized that if Iwanted to continue to do this, then I had to get better at my craft. I had to just zone in on some instruments–I needed to get better at songwriting, I needed to get better at playing live, I needed to learn to play live in a different way–and then my songwriting took a turn for the better.
I got linked up with Mark Bryan, who is the guitar player for Hootie & the Blowfish, and he took me under his wing and taught me how to write songs from scratch, which I hadn’t done before. Writing songs while writing chords on the guitar and piano, that’s really when I was able to start telling a story, and the story was everyday things in my life that inspired me. Still through that entire time I wasn’t happy with the music. It had gone from all this dancey bubblegum pop to now singer-songwriter acoustic, and I’m not either one of these extremes. I have to be somewhere in the middle, and so I ended up having this idea to tell my story.
I wrote this song called Ice Cream about someone breaking your heart, which is another thing that continuously happens to me a lot, and it ended up being really cool. I filmed a cool video for it, and I had this idea to write a Dr. Seuss-style children’s book, that was a children’s book for adults, that told the story of this song. I released it chapter by chapter, and then had the song and the video be this kind of conclusion to it. I called the project “The Ice Cream Girl,” and the name stuck. I just kind of became the Ice Cream Girl, and after that I wanted to make an EP or an album. I wanted to take this to the next level, I wanted to do a whole book where each chapter had its own song and its own video, like a musical, almost. I was really struggling in my dating life at the time–I was getting ghosted a lot, so much so that it’s shocking, so I had the idea to call the album “The Ice Cream Girl Presents: Ghost Stories,” and have it be stories of getting ghosted, in this children’s-book-for-adults way. If you’re a kid reading, it’s all about the Ice Cream Girl’s journey to find happiness from these exterior things in her life, when she really just needs to search for it in herself. If you’re an adult reading it, it’s like “oh, all of these characters she’s meeting along the way to finding happiness are ghosting her, and abandoning her, and teaching her a lesson to search within herself.”
Are there any challenges you’ve experienced specific to being an independent artist that you didn’t expect?
Where to begin! You have to fight really hard for yourself, and you have to be your biggest supporter–I was not ready for that in a lot of ways. I grew up in dance and was always really excelling at it and never really had to learn that lesson because I had a lot of people doing things for me. I wasn’t prepared to move to a place like L.A. and really suck at something that I was brand new at, really kind of start from scratch, and I was definitely not prepared to have to constantly be the only one for several years who believed in me. It’s a daily struggle, and it’s a daily effort, because you get told no constantly and you get rejected constantly. I’m 11 years into this now, and rejection still stings, but it gets easier the more sure of yourself you become and the more confident you become in what you’re putting out there. I think that comes from creating honest work that’s true to yourself, and comes from a very open and vulnerable place because that’s what resonates with people. It’s not going to resonate with people if it’s not honest, because we all have honest feelings, and the idea is to help free people up. You have to really be vulnerable to opening yourself up, and I don’t think you can become that artist without fighting for yourself, because a lot of people will tell you what you should do, what you should say, what you should wear, what you should look like, and how your music should sound. You’re the only one who knows what you should be doing. And that can be a really big struggle at times.
I would also say budget–it’s hard out there in these streets.The whole process from recording, to getting it mixed, to getting it mastered, then the artwork and then the video and all the things that go into a song can be really expensive, and I have had to learn over the years. This used to hinder me, but now it’s ironically become the thing that people really like about me–my DIY ethos, because I finally was able to get a lot of music done for this Ghost Stories project that I was so stoked about. I had so many more ideas for it. I had the book and a video for every song, and there’s a chapter, and there’s this and there’s that, there’s so many other things I wanted to do, and I had spent all my money on making the album. I didn’t have any money left, so I had to get super creative. I had decided to film all the videos on my iPhone, and just get really crafty and scrappy to make sure that everything I did was the absolute most creative way to do it. It really has, in a crazy way, allowed me to be more creative. The fact that I don’t have the budget of a major record label has given me this insane amount of freedom – it’s like when someone puts you in a box and says you have to create within these four walls. I feel like you can be so much more creative than if you had limitless resources, so that’s another thing I didn’t expect– how creative you have to get with the resources, whatever your financial situation might be.
One of the things my manager here always laughs at is when I text her saying, “oh my gosh, this is about to be so much worse.” From now on, when I say that, she’s always like, “I know when you say that, it’s gonna be dope.” It’s true that if you’re willing to put in the work, you’re going to reap the benefits of that, and that’s my entire career. It’s been knuckle dragging, beating my head against the wall, and really just trying to work harder than the person beside me, in the hopes that that’s going to be the thing that gets me an edge.
What does being powerful mean to you, and what is something that brings you power when you need it?
I think being powerful means empowering others. I don’t think you can be powerful without that, and I really think that’s how I see it in my head. I don’t see power as money, or fame, or being number one, or being the best. At that point, if you’re not adding value to people’s lives, helping others to succeed, or giving them some type of freedom within themselves to shed their fears and be able to succeed as well, I think that’s the opposite of power.
My friends and my family, first of all–I have some of the best friends and the best family in the world, and they’ve never not supported me, professionally or personally. Also, the ability to create and help others. I think when I’m really down, or really going through something, my first initial reaction to that is to want to create something out of it. Whether that be to write a song, write a poem, come up with a new video, or to dance, that’s really the first thing that happens to help you get out of your own head. I actually grew up with an autoimmune disease and spent a lot of my time from when I was five to a teenager in the hospital; I learned so much about giving back and being grateful for what you have. Being around so many people who are less fortunate than you makes you very grateful for what you have that you want to give that gratitude to others, and I think I got kind of a head start with that. It’s always a nice reminder, when you get in your own head, to get out of it and try to change someone’s life.
How has the pandemic affected your process/business/art?
I sometimes feel guilty saying this, but it’s almost expedited my creative process. Financially, it’s not been great, and it’s been heartbreaking for a lot of my peers and for my fellow artists here in Nashville and all around the world, but I’m no stranger to typically not having a huge budget. This has allowed me the time to create and the time to execute, and finally get this material that I’ve been sitting on for so long out there. I do have a 9-to-5, and that’s obviously slowed down, and I wasn’t on tour, which now I’m grateful for. At the beginning of this year, my goal was just to get all of this material out, to get some kind of an online presence. This pandemic really has given me the time to accomplish those goals.
I think so many good things are going to happen, especially for creatives, because I’ve heard so many stories from my friends and otherwise that, for the first time in their lives, they can be still and just ask themselves–is this the life I want to live? Do I like any part of this? Now’s the time to do something about it, and so many people are trying things for the first time, because they want to. Starting these businesses and getting creative, writing a book, learning an instrument–I’ve heard so many stories that are so inspiring and that’s definitely the silver lining for me.