Palehound’s Ellen Kempner is no stranger to love and loss. On her recently-released sophomore LP, A Place I’ll Always Go, the Boston-based indie rocker explores the depth of these experiences, and the storms that accompany them, via poetically simplistic yet acutely intimate narratives. The tracks transport listeners to everyday places – Dunkin Donuts, the produce aisle in a grocery store, even Kempner’s bedroom – and attach to them heartfelt meaning and melancholia, tinged with hopefulness regarding friendship, romantic relationships, and queer identity. The album is stunning and, in parts, sob-inducing, while remaining as grounded and conversational as the 23-year old musician herself.
Hooligan was elated to have the chance to chat with Kempner about the band’s latest release and tour, as well as queerness, personal growth, and mental health for our 19th issue.
So, you just got back from tour a few days ago, right? How do you feel it went overall? Were there any highlights or wild stories worth sharing?
Chicago was the highlight, honestly. We got to stay there for a few days and familiarize ourselves with the city more than we have in the past. We got to eat at Chicago Diner, which is always amazing. I love that place. I guess the highlight was playing at West Fest – that entire set was a blast. The whole time, there were these two old men sitting in beach chairs in the very front. They were just lounging, kinda rocking out, but still sitting in their chairs. At the end of our set, though – “Molly” was the last song we played – one of the old men got up and started dancing manically, just like crazy, erratic movements. It was like the Six Flags guy … I don’t think I could dance that hard if I tried [laughs]. Also, because it was an outdoor show, there were A LOT of dogs there. I looked up at one point and there was this woman with this fat, fluffy corgi and he was just “borking” away and it was SO cute. So, that was a major plus. That entire set/trip to Chicago was a highlight, for sure.
What’s one thing you really miss while you’re on tour?
I have really, really bad anxiety when I’m tour. I get really anxious before every show – especially when we headline a show – and constantly I worry that I’m not good enough or that I’m going to fuck up … That paranoia is the worst part of tour for me. Having my mental shit act up in a room full of people who are expecting me to perform for them, and do so flawlessly, it’s just such an immense pressure. It weighs on me. Also, being without my vices, my partner, my cat.
I miss my partner so much when I’m on tour. Not having someone who knows me like she does, or having someone to really lean on, it’s hard. I’m so used to my cat and my partner and just living this quiet little gay life back home together – I definitely miss that the most.
How did you get involved in music? Who or what inspired you to pick up an instrument?
It was absolutely because of my dad. My dad and I are super close – we always have been. He was always playing music around the house, so I grew up playing guitar with him and totally idolizing him and his musicianship. He was never professional, but he played drums in college and such, and he was good at guitar. So, I took a few lessons from him, starting when I was only seven. It’s always crazy to me when I say aloud that I’ve been playing guitar for sixteen years. I’m an old fucking lady. That’s like an entire lifetime for some teenagers who ask me this question, and that’s fucking rough. I always hate that [laughs].
How much do you think your experiences as a queer person influenced A Place I’ll Always Go? And in what ways?
The content is basically, actually, very-much about queer friendships and relationships that I’ve had. A couple of the sappier songs are about my partner. They’re love songs in which I’m using she/her pronouns, instead of trying to mask it as a guy by using he/him pronouns, because, admittedly, I kinda used to do that due to shame surrounding my queerness.
I guess a big influence was finally finding someone and being in a loving relationship with them – that was a new thing for me. So, I went into the writing for this record with this new experience. Before, I was like, I know I’m gay, but I don’t want to come out super publicly. Ya know, because there’s the ever-present fear of being alienated and whatnot. It was a great decision, though, and I’m really happy to be more out and proud now. As a result, there are a lot more queer people at my shows, which is super cool. And all of my friends are queer, pretty much, so I’m really grateful for my support network and queer community.
Oftentimes, especially recently, I hear Palehound being labeled as a “queer band.” Do you feel your identity is intrinsic in your art, or does it ever feel separate? If not, do you ever wish that it was or could be?
I think it is very intrinsic. I write songs that are overtly queer, but also, I feel like a lot of the way I perceive myself and the world around me, and the way I sit in it, stems from my queerness. Since I was a kid, I’ve been writing songs about anxiety. Anxiety and depression are things I’ve always struggled with, and they’re rooted in feeling very out of place, which stems from being queer and having to dig longer and harder to find your identity. So, even when my songs aren’t blatantly queer, the roots are still there. I think that’s what I’m trying to say. But I don’t wish it was separate. Like I said, before this album, I was more cautious about being labeled as a gay artist, but at this point, I have no regrets about embracing it.
How do you feel you’ve grown – both as a musician and person – since releasing Dry Food in 2015?
Yesterday, I was thinking about how long ago that feels...It’s only been two years, but I feel like I was a totally different person in a lot of ways. I feel like I have grown more as a musician, but not technically, really. If anything, I feel that maybe I’ve gotten worse at guitar because I don’t practice as much as I used to. I used to practice every single day, and I definitely don’t do that anymore [laughs]. I also feel like my tastes have changed a lot. I went into this album with a very different idea of what I wanted to make, and how I wanted to sound, while trying to stay true to things I’ve made before.
In terms of personal growth, I feel that I’m finally ready to talk about myself, my identity, and my struggles fluently. Because, you know, as a musician, you’re put in a position where you’re expected to perform and be really vulnerable while you do it. I used to be more nervous and self-conscious – and I still am, but less so. I’m more OK with my true self now, which allows me to be confident getting on stage and talking about my shit. But it has its downsides, too. Being vulnerable is one of the scariest feelings, but overall, it’s been really beneficial for me.
Can you talk a little bit about the [record label] switch from Exploding in Sound to Polyvinyl?
I absolutely loved being on Exploding in Sound – they were so, so wonderful to me. There’s no bad blood there; I love them and everyone who works there. That said, I think Polyvinyl is also an amazing label, and I just wanted to spread my wings a little bit and work with new people, and as many people as I can. It’s a bigger label than I’ve ever been used to, but it runs like a smaller independent label. It’s actually really cool because Matt [Lunsford], Polyvinyl’s co-founder, came to the Palehound show in Indianapolis recently, and he was so personable. He told me how they started in the ‘90s, printing zines, forming bands, etc. They come from authentic DIY roots and exhibit that, even still, and that’s important for me. Those are ideals that are near and dear to me. So, I thought Polyvinyl was a perfect fit.
This album, compared to your past releases, seems to have a more distinct narrative. What inspired the story you’re telling? What would you say were the prominent emotions involved?
The reason this album has more of a narrative is because I was writing the songs alongside what was happening in my life. It was more contained, whereas before I was writing songs that were written over three years and dealt with different, more random things. This record was a response to certain events that were happening over a shorter period of time. For example, some of the songwriting on this album was in response to a dear friend of mine passing away, and attempting to process such overpowering grief. And then, transitioning from grief to finding love with somebody. It was this really weird time in my life where I went from a deep darkness to a really bright light. It was all over a short stint of time, and the record reflects that period.
Does the story have an intended audience? Or would you say it was written more for yourself?
It was definitely self-indulgent to some extent, but at the time I had a lot of close friends who were also dealing with loss, and some of those experiences were more intense than what I had gone through. So, it was kind of for them, as well. I was fortunate to not have much contact with it this much pain and loss before all of this. But since I was confronted with it, I was like, I’m sure everyone out there is dealing with, or has dealt with, similar things. So I wanted to write something that people could connect with – kind of like a support system, of sorts.
So would you says songwriting serves as a kind of remedy for you?
Yeah, for sure. I think that, because of my anxiety, it can be difficult for me to process things in a healthy way – it always has been. So, to write a song is to sit down, be my own therapist, listen to myself, and provide a platform for processing and healing. It’s definitely a remedy.
Do you believe that queer musicians (who are “out”) have a responsibility to raise awareness and speak on behalf of the LGTBQ+ community?
I don’t know, I kinda feel like, my answer here is no...I don’t think that just because a band has queer members means they have to speak out and represent themselves as a “queer band.” I think that’s kind of tokenizing, in a way. Like, just because someone is queer doesn’t mean they need to organize their thoughts or anxieties into something political. I feel like that’s a lot of pressure.
Also, I don’t feel like that kind of stuff is never demanded of like, straight people -- even though that might be a bad example, because they don’t have issues like queer people do. I don’t know, that’s just such a personal thing for me. I feel like sometimes I’m not outspoken enough. But, I’ve just decided I’m going to say what I’m articulate enough to say. Obviously, I’m very concerned about the state of queer politics and trans politics and stuff, but I feel like I’m not usually confident enough in myself, or even educated enough, in a lot of ways, to speak on it. But there are definitely a lot of people who are, so if those people decided they want to say things, they should. I just don’t think anyone should be pressured into talking about things they aren’t comfortable with, especially if that topic could be triggering for them.
In addition to queerness, an overarching theme in your music is mental health. A lot of songs on A Place I’ll Always Go address your struggles with anxiety. How important do you think it is to have conversations about mental health in music?
Hmm, this kinda goes down the same road for me [as the last question]. It is definitely important, because mental health is something that is so prominent – it’s an everyday thing and so many people struggle with it. It took me a long time, but I just recently became more outspoken about mental health issues. I had never really seen them as issues before, because we’re raised to see them as minor problems. We’re told they’re not a big deal, that we just need to “suck it up and deal with it,” or that we’re being overdramatic. I wasn’t really raised with role models who provided positive representations of mental health and self-care, and I feel like people could benefit from that. I wish I had someone like that to look to when I was younger so I could recognize the legitimacy of it all. So yeah, I think it is really important to be outspoken about that kind of thing. But again, you have to be careful because there are certain subjects that can be really triggering for individuals.
The response to your new record, and most of your work, for that matter, seems to be overwhelmingly positive. On the off-chance that you receive negative criticism, how do you deal with that?
[laughs] That’s a really funny question, because lately I’m realizing that I’m really lucky to not have seen anything negative, really. I mean, I haven’t seen anything overtly negative, but I also think I care too much about what other people think. I have this horrible habit of reading a good review, but then picking it apart and looking for anything that hints at criticism. I’ve always been like this – even when teachers would grade tests or whatever I was always that really annoying kid in class. It’s awesome to see overwhelmingly positive reviews, but yeah, anything bad, no matter how small, destroys me. I’m definitely my harshest critic. I do a lot more battling with myself than anyone, and that comes from anxiety, I think. Like, today for example, I just laid in bed for a few hours feeling bad about literally everything, even this record that’s doing well. It’s weird. Very weird.
Finally – do you have any advice for young queer people who want to get involved in music, but aren’t quite sure how to do that?
I don’t think I’m the best at giving advice, but I’ll try. My advice would be to find other queer musicians, because I didn’t do that for a while. For a while, I was in a show-bro zone – not like shitty bros, they were nice guys – but they were pretty cis-het. It took me a long time to find a queer community that I felt totally comfortable in. I didn’t really find one until I moved to Boston, but I’m so thankful for it now. It’s critical for me. It’s so important for anyone who is starting out. Find other queer artists in the community, make friends with them, start bands with them, and don’t isolate yourself. That’s my best advice.