Interview by Kat Pierro, Photos by Kevin Neal.
Ellen Kempner plays the role of lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Boston based Palehound. Kempner is back on the circuit promoting Palehond’s second album A Place I’ll Always Go, which is dropping this June. Playing a myriad of shows this summer across the continent, Palehound are an already buzzed about band with exciting growth. Their sophomore full length LP delves into deeper self awareness and introspection that is beyond the indie sad girl trope. For a “born introvert” Ellen is damn good at expressing herself to others, whether it be in song or in person. As soon as I met her any pre interview jitters disappear, she has this natural ability to create safe spaces. Sipping iced coffee on a cheerful spring afternoon, we sat in Elizabeth Street Gardens chatting about, music’s psychological utility, movie musicals, and how she processes notoriety.
So you’re playing Baby’s All Right next month?
Yes! The last time we were in Brooklyn we played at Baby’s All Right.
So how does it feel to play in New York in comparison to those other places? Cause you’ve played everywhere before.
Yeah it’s so different. It’s like New York is so– there’s nothing really like New York. I was just talking about this with my friend the other night, cause we were at this like very Brooklyn event. And I was like this only exists here I feel like I’m in an episode of Girls. I’m from Connecticut and I’ve been in and out of New York, and I love New York and I don’t want to hate on it, but [laughs] there is like an aura of elitism here that is a little intimidating to play ya know what I mean? There are people in other cities who like bop along, and they dance and they look happy. But people in New York just look jaded [laughs] It’s so true! People just look like they don’t want to be at the show and then they’ll come and buy merch and be like “Oh that was great! blah blah blah” and it’s just like but I saw you and you looked so bored! [laughs] And I’m like that too, I think it’s just kind of an east coast thing just this bitterness. It’s critical, and intimidating but because I grew up around here I’m used to it. But then you go to other places and people are so friendly. Maybe it’s because they don’t pay $1000 a month to live with five roommates? I don’t know [laughs].
So going a long with that if you could play any show, anywhere, existing, or not existing anymore where would it be?
I would love to go to Japan to play a show. I’ve been seeing some people I know go to Japan to play shows. And that’s just to me– like obviously I don’t know any venues in Japan so I can’t be specific — but like since I was 12 I’ve wanted to go to Japan and it seemed so far away and unachievable, like it just seemed like a dream. But seeing these other bands touring there, it’s like, maybe someday! That’s the dream, that’d be the dream to go to a totally different place and see what happens. It’d be really scary to play a show though.
What do you feel like your goals are as a musician? What level of notoriety are you comfortable with?
I’m always going to be uncomfortable with any level of it I think. Cause I’m at a point right now that I definitely want to achieve more but I’m uncomfortable with what I have already. Like there’s already a level of like vulnerability that I’ve had to really push myself to achieve. I don’t know I would like to make music sustainable enough to feel like I can just create and write songs and tour and that’s it. Like I don’t think I would wanna be a band that ends up playing like arenas, but I also really don’t think that’s in the cards so…
But how do you feel like your music has evolved? Cause you’ve been in the game for like a while now but I feel like a lot of people are still discovering your music. So how does it feel to see your music grow in comparison to people still considering you a new discovery?
I like that. I like that, that’s been perfect for me honestly. Just kind of easing into learning. Like I have been in the game for a while but I don’t have that much music that’s out. It’s one record and one EP, it’s not like I’ve been churning out song, I’m not constantly releasing stuff. It’s like when I do release something it comes up on the radar again. But it’s good for me it’s been a good pace. Cause ya know, touring is hard, I’ve had to learn how to tour. And learn how to treat myself in that environment and with that lifestyle and I think that if any kind of overnight success had happened, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. So I’m actually kinda happy to have this gradual rise where I have time to live my life and work a day job.
Yeah to grow into it.
I was just talking to Francis from Hop Along about this and she was like “I hope you make it now if thats what you want!” but also like I’m 29 and I cherish all the jobs I worked while I was trying to get here musically and I met all these people I wouldn’t have met and good things happen. That was just so nice to hear, cause I feel the same way.
So on the topic of touring do you have any rituals or traditions?
No! And I should! That’s like one of those things that I wish I could say that I did because it would probably mean I was like touring in a healthier way if I had like some kind of mantra or something. But I don’t really– or ever had– a ritual in my life besides like watching TV. That’s like the only ritual I have [laughs] I am trying to learn new ways to cope on tour. We just bought like a pair of dumbbells, and so every time I stop at a rest stop just to get the blood pumping.
That’s good! That’s a healthy ritual!Not like “We all do three shots of Jameson before we go on stage”
No no no! We do sometimes do Fireball shots if it’s like a show we feel good about. Just because that’s the only alcohol I can stomach, I don’t really like alcohol I’m like a baby. Like a 14 year old girl drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade [laughs].
Are you one of those people that listens to music based on your mood or on your location? Like do you have a tour playlist and an at home playlist?
Nah, it’s definitely mood based. And also weather based ya know like as soon as the sun started coming out I was listening to Jay Som a lot […] and that’s totally tied in with mood. It’s never location it’s not like I listen to certain music on tour and certain music at home it’s just whatever I’m kinda into at the time.
I wrote a little piece about your song “Room” and I said in the piece my first impression of it was that it sounded like it could have been on the Garden State soundtrack.
That’s funny! That’s a good soundtrack I take that as a compliment.
Do you have any movie soundtracks that have really stuck with you as a musician? That you like look at and you’re like damn I wish I could have written a song for that movie.
That’s a good question… Hmm… Honestly like when Juno came out that soundtrack was really important to me. I was like in middle school or high school and I had never heard music like that before. And it just totally opened a door for me. Kimya Dawson I started listening to a lot. I think that was really– I think everyone could say that about that soundtrack. It was pretty formative. And the movie too was so, kind of, eye opening for me too. As far as soundtracks go that’s it, I don’t know if Rent counts because it’s a musical?
Rent definitely counts!
I loved Rent! I watched Rent the other day and it’s just not as good as it used to be. “Out Tonight” is my most played song in my iTunes library, well I don’t really use it anymore so that’s from like sixth grade but its been played like three hundred times or something. That scene, “Out Tonight” was like my sexual awakening, that was when I was like “Oh I think I’m gay” [laughs]
Do you feel like there are any other women that inspire you to like really own your emotions? Like not just in music in the whole creative field.
So many of them! I really can’t think of just one cause ya know people are complex a different person has different emotions or whatever so I take cues from different artists. I guess I’ll just limit it to current artists, like Angel Olsen has just — vocally, her lyrics are really poignant and definitely hit hard but she just expresses them in this way that has been really inspiring to me. I’m not nearly as good of a singer as she is but the way that she can just like say anything and make it sound like she feels it so deep in her core that’s been inspiring to me for sure. And on the other side of that spectrum is like Frankie Cosmos who writes very mundane lyrics like this my life, this is me on tour, this is me with my friends. But it’s so sweet and I like that. It’s just two examples of how every artist has a whole different way of portraying their emotions and what inspired them and that’s really what I pick from. How I mooch off of all them.
It’s funny you say that cause I find your songs very introspective.
Definitely, that’s why I started doing it, that’s why I continue to do it. It started as a way for me to communicate with people better because I was really socially anxious. And just felt wrong socially and felt like I couldn’t really connect with anyone. I was a huge pushover, and if a friend was mean to me I wouldn’t say anything to her but I would go home and write a song about it and play it for my parents and they’d be like “Are you okay?” and I’d be like “No!” [laughs] That’s just like how that started for me, and I still kind of have the same relationship with music honestly. It’s just me crying by myself, recording it, playing it for someone else and they’re like “Are you okay?” “No.” And that’s just the cycle.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? How do you think that translates in your music?
It’s funny because I’ve been giving this a lot of thought recently. Which is that I am definitely an introvert for sure, like was born an introvert, existed as an introvert my whole life. But recently since I’ve been doing music and since I’ve been in this position where I have to talk about myself a lot and meet strangers every night I have to convince people I am an extrovert. I am really good at talking to new people and I never was before. And it’s a lot of practice by nature just having strangers coming up to me and wanting to talk to me all the time which wasn’t something I was used to. But it’s great, I’ve grown an appreciation for talking to people and being social. But at the end of the day I hate going to parties. I don’t like leaving my house, like when I’m not on tour I don’t leave my house. I just sit in my house and watch TV and play video games and where I’m most comfortable. And it takes a lot of energy for me to do something else.