At this point, it can be said that The Dejas are the soundtrack to a Salem life. Would you believe they only landed here in 2009? And then began to play at every bar in town, at the farmer’s market, on the Common, when Santa descended from the roof of the Hawthorne Hotel, for non profits like Parents United and at festivals on Essex Street. Their music is on the pre-movie loop at CinemaSalem. On nice days, they can be spotted teaching music to young people near Palmer Cover in the Point. This last Halloween, they co-wrote and performed an original rock opera. Last February, they could also be seen on a local cable access TV show about their lives as a dynamic duo.
What makes Callie Lipton and Aaron Katz such a community fixture is that they simply love Salem. It sort of took them by surprise with its coolness, its many artists and vibrant music scene. I met them several years ago and immediately asked them to play an Art*Thorb event at Soma in Beverly. Since then, their music has appeared on an Art*Throb cable access TV show and an Art*Throb online fundraiser.
Their “big studio” album — produced by Sean McLaughlin, who was sound engineer for Elliott Smith — was Speeding Softly, where most of the duo’s recognizable sing-along hits come from. It offers a whole tour of their sounds, switching from a reggae sound to dance to folky songs that employ the ukelele and even kazoos. Another album recorded live at Salem’s Gulu Gulu Cafe is getting downloaded from around the world. That means people in Lithuania and points all over the globe know about Gulu, Katz says excitedly.
A natural born leader and producer, Katz is at the helm as drummer, keyboardist and vocals and Lipton is the crooner with a guitar. Since their inception, the fabulous looking duo have sold out the sexy Foundation Room in Boston’s House of Blues, will play later this month to a sold out audience at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport and their music has been featured on MTV, the Lifetime network and CBS.
When the two began to collaborate seven years ago, Katz was “an old veteran dog with all the road scars,” he jokes. “Callie lit up my life and made it positive again,” he says, lifting him from his road warrior tour days after coming off of touring nationally with the award winning jam band Percy Hill.
Katz was starting his own production company in the Portsmouth, N.H. area. Lipton, with her smoky, sweet folk vocals was graduating from the University of New Hampshire in Dover and the two soon found success in Boston. Looking back, Lipton says the two bonded quickly. “One of the things that stuck out to me most when I first worked with Aaron was how insanely deep he feels music and how he puts every ounce of his energy, soul and heart into the songs. He had and still has the ability to paint the most beautiful landscapes of sound through his own songwriting and also in what he adds to my material. Those magical and fulfilling early experiences of writing, recording and performing with Aaron have honestly been some of the most beautiful moments in my life.”
Embraced by Salem
They discovered Salem when Lipton’s parents moved from Newton, Mass to the McIntire District and the duo found work teaching at the Plummer Home, a non profit residence for boys and young men. “We found a whole world here,” says Katz, “Salem had a vibrancy all to itself.”
Salem embraced the duo with requests for them to play everywhere. With uplifting lyrics about nature and mysticism and a sound that can be folky, reggae or funky, the two are beloved everywhere they go. Katz is obsessed with natal charts (He has voluntarily done mine.) and it shows in his lyrics. When he was with Percy Hill, they were seen as sort of plaid shirt stoners, says the graduate of Worcester Academy, a combination born only to those who graduated from high school in the early 90s. Describing the sound of The Dejas, he says, “It’s about beauty, color and positivity.”
Lipton describes their sounds as “a combination of melting, smooth airy sounds, just like a breeze blowing through your hair and the sunshine beaming into your soul and skin. It can be soothing and chill yet there is also an undertone of powerful rhythmic forces that can move you to dance. I’ve always looked at our music as being a contrast of beauty and darkness, the yin and the yang. When people ask what genre our music is I always say it’s a mixture of ambient-alternative-pop rock — with a splash of reggae!”
They even have a sort of benefactor, a fan from Atlanta who often visits Salem and met them at the annual Witchstock concert in The Willows. He fronted seed money for the various projects they have done in the last year. People often laugh about how much time the two spend together. Though they are not dating, Katz describes them as “best friends,” but then decides he can do better and tries “partners in crime” and then “opposite sex life partners.” He lives down the street from Lipton’s family in a tiny apartment. “If they have something heavy to lift, I’m there,” he says. Apparently it does work both ways. Two days after our initial interview, I bumped into Katz waiting for Lipton on a street corner. She pulled up in their gig van, ready to take him to pick up a Craig’s List found couch for his place.
Katz is especially proud these days of the work they are doing at the Plummer Home. This holiday season, they produced their fourth album with the boys at the home, who also performed at Endicott College in front of 1,000 people, says Katz. And they are proud of On Point, an outreach program for at risk youth that is a collaboration in Salem’s Point Neighborhood of the Plummer Home and the police department. In a tiny building undergoing construction, they are teaching guitar and drums to young people who need help with anger management or confidence to get a job. The program offers focus and discipline, says Katz, adding he has learned “how to deal with a wide range of temperaments and personality types.”
You might say the gig of teaching young people, which they also do at the Boys and Girls Club in Salem, has been therapy for the the duo. “I remember the people that helped shape my life and helped me discover who I am,” says Lipton. “They have had a lasting profound impact on my life, and when I am with my kids, I think about that and it blows my mind that I can do the same thing for them through the power of music. It’s an absolute thrill for me to witness a student’s break-through a-ha moment after learning an instrument or writing a song because it has potential to change and enrich their lives. I have found that in many ways I have taken on a music therapist role by helping them use their connection to music to deal with the ups and downs of their everyday lives…I can’t drive the band van downtown without one of our students chasing after us screaming ‘The Dejas’!”
This is their year of purity, of light and love, says Katz, who admits to years of partying like a rock star. When I met up with Katz, Lipton was at a yoga class. Despite their late night gigs all around the North Shore, Boston, New York and the region, Lipton has not had a drop to drink in two years and Katz has spent this winter taking her lead.
“Being sober has opened up so many levels of awareness,” says Lipton, “it’s being face to face with every ounce and every particle of life whether it’s good or bad…its real and I’ll take it! Being sober and pursuing a career in places where people are always partying is just part of the package.”
Constantly making good connections, Katz is working his magic to get a real venue in Salem, someplace people can play when they stop in Boston for a night. His vision sounds much like the one for the Salem Community Arts Center people have worked for at the site of the former St. Mary’s Italian Church. After all, it wouldn’t take much to get Joan Baez to Salem, since she is good friends with Lipton’s parents after the couple taught her son in the 80s in California, says Lipton.
“I remember constantly going to her shows while growing up and getting a real behind the scenes experience into the life of a famous musician. Even at a young age I loved everything about that lifestyle… from the green rooms, to the beautiful concert halls and festivals, the gazing eyes and energy of the audience, watching their smiles-tears-standing ovations from backstage and understanding what it was like to be touched and truly moved by music. I remember taking trips on her tour bus around the block of wherever she was playing and hearing about her adventures on the road. I was incredibly blessed to get to experience these things at such a young age and was in many ways inspired to be a musician because of them!”
Joan Baez came to Salem last October, says Lipton, got “fully decked out in Halloween attire and truly adored the city.” Lipton says she will try to get the folk icon to Salem and would be honored to play with her.
Meanwhile, these days The Dejas spend evenings writing, rehearsing and recording at the offices of Creative Salem above the Salem Chamber of Commerce on Essex Street. They can be found Thursdays at 43 Church, erasing any lingering thoughts that the place draws mostly those over 40. A collaboration they created called The Session takes advantage of the restaurant’s beautiful decor, huge windows, sophisticated food and cocktails, as well as its historic reputation as a lecture hall that featured the important minds of the 19th century. With the exciting idea of showcasing hip hop artists from Lynn and Boston, the evening has morphed into featuring all kinds of musicians from Michael Feingold who toured with Jay Z and Erykah Badu to well regarded keyboardist Ben Zecker and recent performances by Berklee professor, guitarist Scott Tarulli. Through it all, Katz is the driver behind the drums, eyes closed, taking the music new places.
Their October rock opera experience, Scary Mary and The Audio Corsette, produced by Kevin Letourneau of Creative Salem, tells the story of two musicians whose souls were trapped in a cassette tape in the 1980s and discovered today. The production unearthed The Dejas’ doppelgangers. Katz found himself in leather and a wig, while Lipton became an androgynous mohawk rocker chick, playing heavy bass lines. (It is a natural instrument for her, says Katz , since Lipton is a triple Earth sign.) They were suddenly playing what Lipton calls “loud hair-metal-glam rock.” Taking front and center at the microphone was Jacyn Tremblay, an in your face young rock singer.
You could say they have spent a year on these playful projects of self examination. Another of Letourneau’s projects, the Valentine’s TV show for SATV had Lipton and Katz playfully try to understand their relationship. All of this veering off the path has perhaps led them back to where they started.
“Like any relationship, you have to explore new things and together, we do that musically,” says Katz. The two are working on an exciting sounding “Afro-Cuban thing,” but will always return to “home plate,” says Katz, which is the original sound they are now known for in Salem and beyond.
Every Thursday at 43 Church at 9 p.m.
Lizard Lounge in Cambridge Jan. 19 with Quill
Minglewood Tavern in Gloucester Jan. 24
Opening for Chelsea Berry to a sold out show at the Shalin Liu Performance Center Feb. 9
Dinah Cardin is the Editor-in-Chief of North Shore Art*Throb
*Featured Image Photo by John Andrews of Social Pilates