If you pop by The Pressnalls’ lovely Midtown home for an afternoon visit, you’ll meet a happy, healthy family. You’ll witness this in wide grins, plenty of laughter, and a warm, laid-back nature. They may also offer you broccoli and tea, but their most distinct healthy hallmark is the balanced, thoughtful approach to parenting, life, and art displayed by Derek and Jamie Pressnall.
“I want our kids to really know themselves,” Derek says. “To be strong, self-confident, believe in themselves. Hopefully with that comes a lifetime of happiness.”
On such a visit, one feels welcome immediately; sipping tea as an eerie, organ-heavy Halloween song rolls forth from 3-year-old Max Wilde’s current favorite thing—a chain of singing, light-up Jack-o’-lanterns. He and his sister Willa Sun, 5, dance to the pseudo-spooky sounds before finishing their broccoli and retiring to the backyard for a chocolate cupcake.
Unbeknownst to Derek and Jamie, upon meeting on a Bright Eyes tour years ago (at the time, he lived in Chicago, she in Omaha), the future Pressnall quartet was set into motion—albeit slowly. They were good friends before they began dating, and have now been together 11 years, and married eight.
“We started hanging out, and started a band with some friends, but didn’t begin dating for about a year after,” Jamie says.
Oh yeah, these parents are also rock stars, by the way. That band they started is the critically acclaimed Tilly and the Wall. Tilly is often noted as the band with a tap dancer (that would be Jamie) rather than a drummer, but the group is more than the sum of its quirks. Tilly brags strong musical chops—also featuring Derek on guitar and both Pressnalls on vocals—that produce unique and joyful indie pop.
“The way we ended up being musicians is so weird,” says Derek. “All the sudden I’m just tap-dancing in a band, touring the world,” Jamie says.
While Tilly doesn’t tour with the frequency they once did (due to a geographically spread-out roster and newfound family lives), the band is in the early stages of a new record, a follow-up to 2012’s Heavy Mood. “We can pick and choose stuff now, and just tour for fun,” says Jamie, noting the flexible freedom they enjoy as members of Tilly.
Max and Willa re-enter the kitchen singing an ad-libbed song about chocolate and requesting milk, which Jamie grabs, while Derek discusses another of his projects, Icky Blossoms. The band recorded its second record in spring at ARC Studios with Mike Mogis (to be released in 2015), and spent the latter-half of 2014 playing gigs, including Maha Music Festival. “We’re getting back into the live thing, and figuring out how the new songs work live,” Derek says. Jamie and Derek make a point to carve out time for creative pursuits, but acknowledge it takes focus and effort.
“Being an artist and a parent at the same time is tricky. Just like anything else in life, I guess,” Derek says. “It’s balancing your art, making a living, and raising children.”
“Every day you just have to find a balance,” Jamie says. “I’m still working on finding that—I think most moms are. You can find the time, but if you don’t have the energy it doesn’t really matter.”
Part of pursuing their music and continuing to scratch that creative itch is actually for the kids’ benefit. “It’s really important to us that we show the kids through our actions, not just tell them, how important it is to follow your passion,” Derek says. “Whatever you truly love, do whatever it takes to do those things, because they’re that important.”
“We want them to feel comfortable in their own skin and embrace the world,” Jamie says. “To voice their opinions, have fun, be positive, make good choices, and follow their dreams. Hopefully we as role models are showing them how to do that.”
Willa loves art, singing, writing songs, and going to her violin lessons through the Omaha Conservatory of Music’s Violin Sprouts program. Max likes seeing how things work. (He loves to take things apart and then reassemble them). He also loves dance and dressing up and taking on different personas.
Derek loves “watching the kids become who they are.” And while the parents have a lot to teach, so do the kids.
“They remind you of what’s really important and help you live in the moment a little more,” Jamie says.
“Children are like a mirror,” Derek says. “You see yourself reflected back, so it’s actually a great way to look at yourself and consider the things you are doing.”