Q&A: Palehound’s Ellen Kempner On Loss, Love, And Her New Album A Place I’ll Always Go
Ellen Kempner started Palehound as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, and soon after dropped out of school and moved to and settled down in Boston, all of which led up to the release of her first full-length, 2015’s Dry Food. As her band became more established over the last couple of years, Kempner went through some major life changes that fueled the creation of her second album, A Place I’ll Always Go, which comes out in June. Around the same time, she lost two people close to her — her grandmother and a young friend — and started her first healthy adult relationship, and the juxtaposition of those events resulted in internal discord, and A Place I’ll Always Go tries to process that sadness in order to move on and appreciate the good in life.
Of course, it’s about a lot more than just that, as Kempner as proven herself to be an adept and multifaceted songwriter throughout her career — early tracks like “I Get Clean” and “Cushioned Caging” point towards her emotional dexterity — but everything comes back to those polar opposite feelings of love and loss. The album presents a distinct and satisfying narrative based around these two themes. It begins with Kempner’s nerves at the start of a relationship — intro “Hunter’s Gun” kicks off with the line: “Don’t come near me/ I don’t wanna fall in love” — and continues through the involved thought process that goes into sorting out how to not feel guilty about finding happiness in the wake of tragedy. That makes for some heavy reconciling, but Kempner has found a way to translate those emotions into nervy songs that are both vulnerable and retain the playfulness that inhabited her earlier work.
Lead singles “Flowing Over” and “Room” demonstrate how much the band has developed since their early days. The former is more in line with their past material, as Kempner attempts to manage her anxiety through a series of pointed metaphors, but “Room” sounds like new territory for the group, a catchy ode to the comforts that isolation can provide. But, as with anything Palehound does, there’s an undercurrent of menace that keeps you uneasy.
Listen to “Room” and read our interview with Kempner below.
STEREOGUM: I was reading through some interviews you did around your debut album, and a lot of them were about how you wanted your music to stand on its own, and not necessarily be involved in conversations about politics, identity, or representation. I’m wondering if that’s still how you feel, or whether your opinion has changed since then?
ELLEN KEMPNER: It’s changed, for sure. That preference was more of a reaction to me being scared to fully come out, I guess. I was out, but I feel like it was really scary for me… I was not part of a real queer community yet, and I had never been before, so I didn’t really understand or have a concept of how my music would fit into that. I was scared of people pigeon-holing me for that reason, and I want my music to appeal to basically anyone. I look back at that now and I sort of cringe because now I’ve found such a great community, and I know what it’s like to embrace my queerness as part of who I am outside of the bedroom more. I was still embarrassed to be gay, I guess, even though I was out about it.
STEREOGUM: That makes sense. I feel like a lot artists don’t want to have the weight of that narrative attached to them, especially if your music doesn’t overtly address those themes.
KEMPNER: Totally. I also hadn’t been in a successful relationship yet. I knew that I was gay, but I didn’t want to… It was still kind of a sensitive topic for me at the time, and I’ve come to peace with it.
STEREOGUM: Do you think the new album engages with that side of yourself more?
KEMPNER: Absolutely. I had been writing songs that were about girls, but I was using male pronouns in my songs at the time. This time around, I was more open with who I was talking about. Everytime I write a song, I’m like, What if my mom hears this and is weirded out? I mean, she’s really accepting and great, but there’s still that fear. I think this album in general is just gay-er. And not on purpose… It wasn’t like I was like, I’m gonna do a complete 180 and be this gay “whatever” now. I just wanted to be honest with myself because it is better for me. It feels better and I want to represent something to people.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like Boston has allowed you to settle down and become more situated and comfortable with yourself?
KEMPNER: Yeah, definitely. I’ve found a really good group of friends. I have a partner now — we’ve been together for a year-and-a-half — and the two of us have built this friendship on top of our relationship that has made it easier for me to be more openly myself when I’m social. I feel like, for a while, when I was around other queer people socially, I spent so much of my time being so self-conscious and not sure of myself. Now that I’m seeing someone and comfortably out as part of a relationship, I was able to make more friends genuinely as opposed to, like, trying to test the waters like I was so conditioned to do before.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like the Boston music scene has diminished a bit compared to a couple years ago?
KEMPNER: No, I don’t, actually… It’s funny because I feel like people really like saying that the Boston scene has diminished, but they’re really not paying attention. I think they’ve just gotten lazy and not left their house. I guess there aren’t as many people “breaking out,” but there’s a really strong DIY scene still. So strong that every night I have to think of an excuse to not leave my house.
STEREOGUM: What made you decide to make the jump from Exploding In Sound to Polyvinyl for this album?
KEMPNER: I love Exploding In Sound, I’m so grateful for them. Being a part of that community was very helpful for me in a lot of ways. [Label founder] Dan Goldin is just a powerhouse of a person, a really wonderful guy. That label is made up of incredible talent and great people. But I think that I was looking for more of a chance to expand my horizons. Polyvinyl has more people working for them, they’re a bigger operation. With a bigger operation comes meeting more people and being able to do more things. I wanted to explore, I wanted to take a step and pursue this as a career and see if I could actually do it. Also, Polyvinyl is amazing and shares a lot of the same ethos that Exploding In Sound does, so it was an appropriate step up for me because I still felt like I was on an independent label and had the same amount of control over my art as I did with Dan, but I just wanted to do something else. I wanted to make a change.
STEREOGUM: In terms of making a career out of this, are you heading towards that point?
KEMPNER: I still have a day job… I work at a book warehouse, which is great. Honestly, it’s good for me to do stuff with my days because when I’m not on tour, what else am I gonna do? It’s great to have a day job. I don’t really know, honestly, with music. I’m at kind of a crux right now where it could go either way. I would obviously love to do music full-time. That’s definitely the goal. I want to be able to sustain my life through music. It’s a dream come true to even tour to a different city and have people that I don’t know who know my music. That’s still so crazy for me.
STEREOGUM: I know there was a lot of stuff going on in your life while you were writing this album. Could you talk a little bit about what inspired you to write this set of songs?
KEMPNER: Over the past two years, I experienced two really major things for the first time. I experienced the death of a couple close people — I never really lost anyone that I was super close to before — and I experienced love for the first time, too. So my head was kind of spinning all year. I lost a really, really good friend of mine suddenly and tragically, and I lost my grandmother not so suddenly and not as tragically. Seeing those two kinds of passings with two people that I was close with so close together, juxtaposed like that… It really sent me for a ride. The only way that I could really think to make sense of it and cope with it was to write songs about it. And then I also met my partner, and experienced a really healthy, good relationship for the first time. Which was also, in its own way, inspiring. Before that, I really felt like I could only write songs when I was sad. But now, I was like, Man, I’m excited to be in love — it was funny to be happy and find that inspiring. But it was coupled with this sense of being very sad and very happy at the same time.
STEREOGUM: Even with your older songs, a lot of them were born out of anxiety and sadness, but they never sounded particularly sad.
KEMPNER: Totally. And I feel like the way that I write songs is that, for some reason, I find happy-sounding music goes well with sad lyrics for me because I really only write sad lyrics. I’ve never really learned to write appropriate-sounding music for the lyrics.
STEREOGUM: I feel like this album has more of a concrete narrative than anything you’ve done in the past. Was that intentional, or did it just kind of happen because these two things were playing out concurrently?
KEMPNER: It was intentional. That’s been my biggest qualm with all of my releases until now — that they seemed like more of a compilation than a real cohesive record. And I think that’s because the songs that I wrote for Dry Food and the EP were more spread out, and I didn’t really have a plan. I was like, Oh, I’ll write these songs and at some point I’ll record them when I feel ready. But for this album, I went into it thinking I want this to be one thing, because those are my favorite types of records — the kind where you just listen to the whole thing and it flows and tells a story. I’ve always admired the types of artists who could do that, so I tried to do it, too.
STEREOGUM: “If You Met Her” is a really powerful song, and I feel like it encapsulates the themes of the album as a whole. I wanted to see where that came from and how it came about.
KEMPNER: That song is actually the one that I’m proudest of on the record, which is funny because I’ve never actually had an opinion on my music in that way. But that’s the one that’s most fun for me to play live. And I think that’s because it’s the song that I put the most of myself into. It’s the song that I’m the most straight-forward fucking honest in. It’s about my friend that passed away. Just about what it’s like to lose a young friend and keep on living your life. Walking by the Dunkin’ Donuts we had a kind of shitty talk in once, looking in through the window… It’s that way where she’s everywhere. And then having this love and this relationship and wishing that I could introduce them. Wishing that I could be like, Oh my god, I’m seeing this great person and I used to talk to you all the time about how I wish I was doing that, and now I am and you’re not here to see it. It’s about being young and getting older and knowing that your friend didn’t have the opportunity to do that.
STEREOGUM: There’s a line on the next song on the album, “Silver Toaster,” that I really like. It’s at the very end: “Because the medic saw me all knotted up/ And gave me a love that untangled me.” Obviously that’s a metaphor, but do you feel that life has a way — either fate or God or whatever — of bringing something into your life at the exact moment that you need it?
KEMPNER: Yeah, I kind of feel that way. I haven’t really thought about it that much only because there have been so many times where I’ve been miserable and have been like, Why isn’t this happening?, but I feel like recently things have been happening. With this record, I was really knotted up for a while, and then I caught a few breaks — a kind of two steps forward, one step back thing. I don’t really believe in God or anything, but I have recently started believing that everything happens for a reason, blah blah blah. Something that my mom always said is that, “Something good always comes out of something bad,” and that’s kind of what that song is about.
STEREOGUM: A lot of your songs are about managing anxiety, and I feel like because you’re dealing with both love and loss on this album, anxiety tends to manifest itself in different ways for both of those situations. There are a few songs — “Flowing Over” in particular — that are about that. How does anxiety play into dealing with all of these new life experiences?
KEMPNER: It’s really taxing and it just perpetuates itself in everything that I do. My anxiety is very physical for me. It manifests itself as a very intense pain in my chest. I already deal with chronic pain because I have metal poles around my spine, and it just added to this daily pain that I’ve been having. It made it really hard to deal with things healthily and try not to turn to shitty vices, which I haven’t. But it would be easy to just hole up in my room all day and do nothing — that would be the easiest thing for me to do — and it made writing this record harder. I was really anxious about what people would think about the record and the songs. And that really sucked. It really sucked to be writing knowing that I had an audience of people who had another album that they liked or had some kind of opinion of, and then trying to think about easing them into something else. That was shitty for when I was writing because I would write a song and I’d be like, I think I’m proud of it, but I’m not really sure, and it would turn into a whole thing. It’s just a daily thing that makes me question everything I do. Every step I take, I question. It’s exhausting.
STEREOGUM: I’m kind of relieved to hear that because I feel like whenever I talk to artists, they always say that they never think about how fans will end up perceiving their songs. I’m so envious of that! To not care in that way, because I feel like whenever I’m creating something, I’m always thinking about how it’s going to come across.
KEMPNER: Yeah, it sucks. I wish I could be one of those people who just didn’t give a shit because that’s so cool to not give a shit. But I do, I give a shit about that, and I always have. I’ve always been very self-conscious and self-aware. Too self-aware. Even when I was in elementary school when I was playing the talent show or something, I would just agonize over it for weeks. These songs say a lot about me, and I’m being really vulnerable. It’s crazy for me to do that… I should be doing literally anything else but music. That would really be the right move for me. But, for some reason, I’m doing this. And it really does take a lot of work for me to commit to doing this. It’s hard.