Ellen Kempner just turned 23. When she greets me at the door of Harvard Book Store Warehouse in Somerville, there’s a fuchsia ribbon pinned to her tank that says “Birthday Girl!” as if she won a race. Her career as Palehound has been somewhat like one. She got her first record deal in 2013 when Exploding In Sound released her debut EP Bent Nail when she was 19. Her debut full-length, Dry Food, came out just before she turned 21. She began touring the country with a band shortly after. From the outside, her success seems casual and cool, as if it chose the first talented musician in sight. From the inside, she’s all nerves, or at least was when we last spoke two years back.
Back then, Kempner was afraid of her queer narrative becoming the driving angle of her career. Now, her promo photos see her sporting a blue sweater with a bright rainbow knitted into it. As she pulls two office chairs to the back corner of the warehouse, where she works five days a week between tours, she seems wholly unconcerned if coworkers overhear her discussing her identity. “Honestly, I am comfortable with it now, and for the first time, I found a very solid queer community,” she says. “Before, I had queer friends, but now I’m surrounded by people who are everywhere I go, especially at shows—and my own shows, given there’s someone who’s queer in my band, too—and they inspire me. Plus now I have a girlfriend. Before, I was writing gay songs, but I didn’t have a real experience to talk about, not something this concrete. So I’m writing songs about her, you know, and I don’t want to do so using ‘he’ pronouns.”
Kempner’s confidence is key to understanding Palehound’s growth. The band’s sound is digestible and enjoyable on its own, but when you begin to track her development and comfort within her own skin, the music’s earnestness grows on you. Palehound rides a type of worried indie rock that’s intimate and lo-fi, even if the production is fine tuned. On A Place I’ll Always Go, out this Friday via Polyvinyl, Palehound stretches into an even more intimate area, and Kempner sings as if she’s focusing on what she wants to do, not what others expect of her.
When she hears this, she’s visibly surprised. “That’s great to hear I come off like I embrace myself more, because this morning I literally cried worrying that people may hate me, especially as someone who isn’t the waify, skinny person. That’s been really daunting,” she says. “I’m not comfortable with myself in a lot of ways, but for me it’s a step-by-step process. That’s the next thing. Before it was my queerness, and I tackled that. Next it was these insecurities, and I talked about it on the album a bit. So I hope to keep making those leaps moving forward.”
Those steps are small, but noticeable. At the end of 2015, Kempner shared a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independent,” which seemed to speak for itself. Shortly after, she began using a scooter as a mode of transportation, thanks to encouragement from her partner. “Nothing pushes you further than riding a Razor scooter at the age of 22 through the streets of Boston,” she says, laughing. “I told myself to have fun and that I’m going so fast I won’t hear any insults people throw.”
You can hear those steps sonically on A Place I’ll Always Go. Kempner roots much of her identity in guitar, and the album laces new layers throughout it. Signing to a bigger label like Polyvinyl brought a bigger budget. Three days in the studio became seven days in the studio. Instead of the trickling intricacies of “Cinnamon,” there’s sunny creeping in “Carnations.” The album’s filled out in a cohesive, shadowed, bold way on par with Blonde Redhead or Liz Phair, which leaves the record as a whole sounding sure of itself. That allows the slow ticking ballad “At Night I’m Alright With You” to sound at home alongside quick rock-outs, or even a song idea like “Silver Toaster” to find its home as a minute-and-a-half number mid-album.
But she’s too bashful to admit much of that. Last time around, Kempner was inspired by ’90s indie rock bands like Pavement and Built to Spill, emphasizing her guitar while steering away from production. So this time, she points to the fact that she became inspired by more recent artists like Mitski and Beach House as the reason for the record’s cohesiveness and confidence. “In the months leading up to recording my album, I read every interview with Angel Olsen, and she said how her band went into the studio and wrote all the parts and filled out the record there. It hit me, like, ‘Oh shit, yeah, that makes sense.’ And Alex G records everything himself with insane parts filling it out to the point of capacity, and I loved that,” says Kempner. “I wanted to make a cohesive record, so all of that fit in.”
Kempner didn’t have much of a choice when it came to carrying forward. In a short period of time, her close friend died tragically and her grandmother passed away slowly. It was a one-two punch that left her heart gaping. When forced to look life’s threatening intensity square in the eyes like that, growing into yourself doesn’t seem so difficult, or at least becomes a way to celebrate their lives.
“It’s easy for me to look back at that and say I was fine, but I really wasn’t,” she says. “Playing music and writing songs helped a lot with grieving. A couple important albums came out around that time, like Carrie & Lowell. I listened to it over and over, trying to internalize that loss is part of being human and I have to adjust to it. If my heroes like Sufjan Stevens is going through it, then I can, and hearing the way he remembered certain moments inspired me to think about my experiences that way, too.”
That resulted in “If You Met Her,” a beautiful ode to her friend that prescribes itself flashes of memories, like a glazed blueberry donut at Dunkin or when they first met at a concert, which she wrote on the one-year anniversary of her friend’s death. “It was a way to get through a really hard day and performing it, surprisingly, feels really good,” says Kempner. “I’m not just crying into a microphone and [the audience is] patting my back; they’re crying back to me. It’s really important to not go through that stuff alone. Turn to music. Turn to heroes of yours. My friends taught me that I can be more gay. Touring with Mitski taught me that I can take control of my career without being a diva. The lead singer of Sheer Mag taught me that I don’t need to be a waify thing to get onstage. Don’t let yourself go through that stuff alone, because there are people and figures and art that can act as a hand on your back guiding you.”
The song’s video drives that concept home even more. By working with Raw Art Works, an organization that puts the power in teenagers’ hands, Kempner ended up with a video that articulates the deep emotions of the song through slow-motion. After a quick Skype session with about a dozen of the organization’s members—all of them asking questions about the song’s inspiration, how much she wanted to be in the footage, if they could do her makeup (which they learned from YouTube tutorials)—and two adult heads, the first draft of their script ended up in her hands. “It was perfect right away,” Kempner says of the music video. “I’m not fond of being in my videos, so it was work to accept that I would be, but they made me feel comfortable. Having a camera on you is the worst. Watching back and thinking, ‘Oh god, I look horrible,’ and then watching it again and thinking, ‘Wait, maybe I was too hard on myself.’ That’s when working with teenagers became incredible, because they weren’t jaded. No adult can match the excitement of a teenager when they’re working on something they haven’t before. That energy was crucial.”
Kempner returns the favor on A Place I’ll Always Go by highlighting local artists Ben Styer, who painted the intricate album art, and Sami Martasian, who created a powerful zine accompanying preorders, allowing their work to support others by extension. In the latter, each song gets a dedicated page, where a line or two has been pulled and interpreted by Martasian through minimalist, poignant, heart-aching artwork. “The way they relate words to their drawings is so powerful. No one else could do that,” Kempner says of Martasian. “Their art shows a whole other dimension of the context. Sami is such a smart person and they have this very unique way of seeing the world, translating that, and representing that—it’s like a behind-the-scenes point of view—in their art.”
Confidence like Kempner’s can be seen in all areas of our DIY scene, from diverse booking to fellow queer acts gaining popularity to allies coming out in full force. “The Boston music scene has taken a turn for the queer scene, for the better, with bands like Gravel and Puppy Problems. Part of me isn’t sure if it’s all in my head, but when I first moved here [in 2014] people were obsessed with saying the scene was dead. That’s ridiculous, but at the same time, most bands I saw were Berklee bands, which are bands full of dudes shredding,” she says. “The Berklee bands I see now are Bat House or Dazey and the Scouts who have queer women in them. Jason from Illegally Blind has always been exceptional at that; since I moved here, he’s been booking diverse shows that feature great artists. I haven’t ended up at a show lacking diversity in… well, a while. Hardcore is obviously dominated by that, but there’s even bands like Ricecrackers. People in bands are stepping back, looking at their lineups, and taking action to be more inclusive.”
Palehound is growing stronger, and though she may not see it, it’s making Boston’s DIY rock scene a lot stronger, too. While she rattles off bands that have been impressing her as of late—Sidney Gish, Brittle Brian, Halfsour, Baby—at house shows, Kempner starts describing exactly what she’s offering fans here without realizing it applies to her: music that supports “outsiders” who were never outsiders at all. They just didn’t have a place to turn to in order to see they have a community. With a new album tucked under her belt and a few more years of wisdom sewn inside it, Kempner’s becoming a staple not just of Boston music, but of the queer scene at large, and her slow but steady grapple with self-empowerment is a slope thousands of listeners can climb alongside her.
PALEHOUND, STOVE, HALFSOUR. FRI 6.16. SONIA, 10 BROOKLINE ST., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/ALL AGES/$13. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM