Analogue Music | Palehound


By Matt Conner

There are good reasons why Ellen Kempner's songwriting turned heads when she was only a teenager.

Kempner, the artistic force behind Palehound (along with Jesse Weiss and Larz Brogan), recently released Black Friday, a vulnerable and arresting third album that stands on the shoulders of the ones that came before it. The reviews are glowing, as usual, as Kempner's vulnerability spills forth. These aren't 12 tracks so much as they are 12 triumphs, important (and cathartic) statements on love and loss, wounds and ways forward.

What you might not realize is how hard Kempner has fought to get here. The early attention wasn't as helpful as you might believe. As a teenager trying to find her way, doing so in the spotlight made the process even more difficult. Hard lessons were learned. Tough questions were asked and answered. As she explains, "That exposure at that age kind of fucked me up a little bit, because it added this whole other element to figuring out who I was, which is what I needed."

Even though she's still only 23, Kempner is a bit more world-wise and level-headed. She's sifted through what's important and what's not and is making music on the other side of it all. The learning curve still offers plenty of growth ahead, but the songs already show the experience and perspective of having endured these challenges.

Listen to Black Friday to hear the evidence for yourself and read on for our interview with Palehound's Ellen Kempner.

Analogue: You're releasing your third record, which means you've had some good experience going through this carousel a couple times. Do you feel more assured of yourself this time around? And if so, does that allow you to do anything differently?

Ellen Kempner: With this record, I learned from the first two records what it entails to release something and promote it and tour on it. I know what to expect, which led to me being more confident in producing, writing and recording this one. I've learned so much as a touring musician and I've met so many crazy inspiring people that I've been able to build this toolkit since I first started, which is drawing inspiration from the experiences and the people I know. It's really learning what I want to be as an artist and not what I think I want to be.

That exposure at that age kind of fucked me up a little bit, because it added this whole other element to figuring out who I was, which is what I needed.

Analogue: Who did you think you wanted to be early on? Were there some missed notions there?

Ellen: For sure. I started releasing music as Palehound when I was 19 and there was no way I knew who I was when I was 19. I was then put in a spotlight. It wasn't a very bright one, but it was like, 'Oh shit! People care about my music and I don't really know who I am. This music is very personal but I still don't know what I'm saying.' What did people want me to be? What did I want to be?

That exposure at that age kind of fucked me up a little bit, because it added this whole other element to figuring out who I was, which is what I needed. In my head, I wondered if I needed to be someone who appeases the people who listen to my music. Basically, I did a lot that was not true to myself. I didn't come out for a while as queer because of that. So now on this record, I was like, 'Oh, fuck that. That was so much effort and so much energy that I'm just wasting. I should just be myself.' Pretending to be someone else is never healthy in this career.

Analogue: Was there a turning point for you?

Ellen: Yeah, it was definitely around the second album, which is the last album I put out, which was when I came out as queer. That was the first big hurdle that I kind of overcame where I was like, 'Okay, I'm definitely going to draw on the fact that I'm queer and internalize that even for myself and learn to love that.' I was scared about it, but as soon as I came out, only good things came of it. I started meeting more queer artists and having more queer people at the shows. That was the point where I realized I was true to myself and it only brought great things.

Analogue: Someone on this same journey is not doing so in the same way, where you're chronicling this story in song format. How has that been for you to maybe look back and see the emotions of it all, the growth in confidence, the big steps and the processing of it all?

Ellen: Well, I don't really listen to my old stuff at all anymore. I don't listen to something after I record it because I'm so caught up in my head. I try not to reflect too much because it makes me really anxious. So I don't spend a lot of time reflecting and I try to just stay present. So I'm not looking for the receipts. I'm trying to remember what I want to remember, if that makes sense.

Analogue: Yes, it does. I guess I assumed you were playing older songs live and would still find yourself faced with the steps of your journey there.

Ellen: Oh yeah, sorry I misunderstood. Playing the songs live, if anything, the older songs just have new meaning to me now. It can be a song about someone who fucked me over and it's not still about that person, it's about a newer person. [Laughs] I find ways to contemparize the songs for me so I can still draw from them and so I'm not just repeating myself.

Black Friday
Black Friday

Analogue: Is a song ever too vulnerable to share in the ways you mentioned earlier? There are a few points on the new album that would have me nervous for their vulnerability, like "Bullshit".

Ellen: I always end up releasing those cathartic songs because I end up realizing that's what I like in music. I like finding catharsis in music as a listener, but it takes some time to get there for sure. I wrote Shit, for example, and then we recorded it and as you're recording and listening over and over and over, I started to get really self-conscious whether or not I was saying too much or not saying enough or getting too vulnerable and that being annoying or selfish. I don't know. It just leads to a lot of negative thoughts spinning in my head when I'm making an album. In the end, I always end up recording those songs because those are the songs people will respond to the most. If someone can relate, it's worth the initial hurdle of my discomfort.

Analogue: Does this create any uncertain or uncomfortable moments when delivering them live?

Ellen: Well, we haven't played the new songs live yet—at least most of them. I like to save new material for when the album comes out because it just makes it all the more exciting for us as a band. It keeps us just as excited as everyone else about it if it's new to us live. But the songs we've played already from the album are "Killer" and "Aaron," and there was one instance when we were playing The Troubador in L.A. My partner's family is from there and the song "Aaron" is about him and his transition and his whole family came to one of our shows there. We did two shows with Cherry Glazerr.

I was like, 'Oh wow, here they are and I'm about to sing this song.' I mean, they all knew. He was out to them, so it wasn't like I was breaking any confidence or anything. But this was my partner's family who live him very much and I'm about to sing this vulnerable song. I was like, 'I hope that's okay with him and that it represents him.' That was emotional for me and I got really emotional playing it and looking at his parents. That was a moment.

Analogue: Wow, I would think so! What pieces of music have been cathartic for you as a listener? You mentioned that earlier.

Ellen: Julia Jacklin's new album. She's an Australian Polyvinyl artist and her album Crushing is, well, it's crushing. [Laughs] That album provided so much for me. She talks a lot about her body on the record and about love. She just has these unbelievable lyrics and this gorgeous voice. That was an album that really did that for me, recently.

Analogue: That's a theme for you on this new album.

Ellen: With this album, I definitely decided to focus more on my body and bodies in general and to sing about that. I see every one of my friends struggling with their bodies to some extent. We all kind of do to some extent, so I wanted to address that. I don't know. I weirdly cycled through different themes that are present and on my mind a lot.

Analogue: How much of that is a rudder before the songs come and how much of that is you just looking at the songs you've written and you realize, 'Oh, these are all about bodies'?

Ellen: No, these were not planned. [Laughs] I don't have enough control. I'm very scattered. I'm a very scatter-brained person, so my songwriting process does not have that organization to it at all. That would be kind of cool if I had that kind of impulse, but I don't. My songs usually start off as 100 voice memos or notes in my phone that I piece together. Then I realize, 'Oh, wow, the album is about these things.'

VISIT: Palehound