Since 2013, 22-year-old Ellen Kempner has been releasing music under her introspective music project, Palehound. When I listen to Palehound’s music, I feel calm—not because the music makes me suddenly believe that everything is right in the world, but because the band’s intuitive rhythms and meditative lyrics put me at ease. Today, we’re excited to premiere the video for “If You Met Her,” a song from Palehound’s upcoming album, A Place I’ll Always Go, which comes out on June 16. The video was made in collaboration with Boston-area high school students who created the set, wrote the video treatment, and did all of the video’s direction and production:
I spoke with Ellen about working with other musicians, day jobs, and being courageous in sharing one’s music with the world.
RACHEL DAVIES: You originally moved to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence, but left later. What were you studying there? Has it affected your musical journey?
ELLEN KEMPNER: I never really defined a concrete study that I was doing there. I was studying music primarily, but also sociology, queer studies—just kind of a good blend. There wasn’t really anything in particular.
Did you go there for a year?
I went for two years! It was not good for me. It was not the right place for me to be at that time. [Laughs]
Did you leave because you decided you wanted to pursue music more, or was it a blend of things?
I was struggling with my mental health. I was in a college environment. I didn’t really like it, and it wasn’t good for me. I wanted to pursue music, and I just didn’t really want to be in school anymore. I wanted to move to Boston, get a job, and try to pursue music.
Had you spent a lot of time in Boston before moving there?
Not a lot, actually, but the times I had been there I really liked it. It’s close to my family, which is kind of why I wanted to move there, and I felt like broadening my horizons a bit, but not too much. [Laughs] I still wanted to be close to home.
Where do you work in Boston?
I work in a warehouse—it’s a Harvard bookstore warehouse. There are a bunch of books everywhere. I’m sitting here right now. Very academic. There are a bunch of Harvard sweatshirts around me. That’s my main job–mailing out Harvard insignia to people.
I love that! You left college to pursue your love of college merch. [Laughs]
Yeah, that’s basically it! Music is just a side thing, this is my passion. [Laughs]
I was thinking about how there are other members in Palehound, but it still feels decidedly like your project. What is it like to collaborate on such personal songs?
I’ve been working with my drummer Jesse for I guess close to three years now. He’s one of my best friends. We’ve lived together. He’s just great. I’ve developed a really great collaborative relationship with him, and that’s really good because I don’t really know much about drums. I can play drums, and I write some of the drum parts, but it’s great to have someone who’s a really good player, who gets it, and has really good taste. We’ve collaborated a lot on this record. We just added a bass player, Lars. She’s been one of my best friends for a year now, and it feels very natural with the three of us together.
Your album Dry Food had a fun, beach-y feel musically, even if the lyrical subject matter wasn’t as joyous, but A Place I’ll Always Go seems so contemplative, musically as well as lyrically. How did the process of making the albums differ for you?
It was super, super different. I still don’t really feel like [Dry Food] is a cohesive snapshot of something for me, especially in hindsight now that I’ve worked on A Place I’ll Always Go. I sat down to write a record, it’s been two years of writing these songs, and they flow together. I wanted to produce it in this way that would ensure they flowed together in a nice way. Whereas with Dry Food, I had songs I wrote over the past three or so years, and the subject matter varied pretty dramatically. Some of them I wrote when I was just out of high school, and some I wrote like a month ago, you know. It was way more scattered, and some of them I wrote when I was a younger, happier person. No, that’s not true–it was just a different thing.
I read that you’ve been playing guitar since you were a kid. Has what you’re interested in playing changed over that period of time?
I’ve always used guitar as a tool for songwriting—that’s what my main pursuit has always been. I never wanted to just play a guitar, or be a guitarist in a band. Mainly because I was self-conscious, and as a young girl it seemed really daunting for me to just be a lead guitarist, which is really unfortunate. That could have been a cool path for me to take, too. It’s just led to me having this initial relationship with a guitar where I’d be like, “This will be a thing I use to privately write these songs in my bedroom, just so I can get these feelings out somehow.” I didn’t want to journal or whatever. For me it was just a form of therapy when I was that age, and a way to find an identity in some way, and that still holds true. It’s helped me a lot with forming an idea of who I am, and I’ve gone through a lot of self-discovery through playing guitar. I’ve met people through guitar that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It continues to change my life.
You’ve talked about how you address your queerness on this album, whereas on past releases you didn’t. What was that process of opening up like? Or was it so intimate that you weren’t even thinking about the audience?
No, I’m always thinking about people listening to it, which is one of my big burdens. The idea of going to a different city and having people know my songs was completely unreal to me. It didn’t seem like something that was ever going to happen. After Dry Food, and touring, and having people know these songs, I’ve become really conscious of the audience I have, and the expectations I have. You know, not a huge audience, but there is someone I’ve affected through it, and I don’t want to let them down. It feels like a responsibility I have to make something that they’ll continue to enjoy. It’s not so personal at this point anymore that I’m writing a diary—it’s like I’m writing a diary I know is going to be published. So I’ve had to figure it out a little bit more, and it led to me working harder on the songs than I had before, which is good! It’s a good thing to do.
I love your cover art and your music videos. They’re visually cohesive in a way that I really appreciate. I was wondering how you go about choosing artists and people to work with?
I’ve been totally blessed with that stuff, actually. That’s one of the things I’ve always found coolest about music—cover art, and music videos, and the collaboration between musicians and other artists. The way that music is an art form that can incorporate every other art form is awesome. It’s so malleable. Even when I was a kid, I would watch a bunch of Bowling for Soup music videos. I’ve always loved music videos. Given the opportunity to make a music video is huge, that’s a dream come true on its own. I do a ton of research. For some of the music videos I have my own concept, and for some I don’t. Sometimes a friend of a friend will be an amazing music video director, like Laura who did the “Molly” music video. People are really generous, too, and down to put so much time into it. I don’t have a million dollars to put into a music video, but these people deserve a million dollars for what they do. They’re so passionate about it, that they work with me, you know I’m not a big musician. Ben Spire, he’s a friend of mine, and he did the art for A Place I’ll Always Go, and I did the cover art for Dry Food.
Yeah, I was like, “I know how to collage,” and felt like I wanted to have more control. This time around my friend Ben and my friend Sammy collaborated on art for the album. They’re two of my favorite artists, and two of my best friends, so I thought I should work with pals!
Do you have any advice for young musicians who are trying to start showing their work to others?
I was always so nervous when I first started playing in front of people, and at school talent shows. You know that “10 Bands I’ve Seen” meme on Facebook? I posted 10 songs I’ve covered in public, and it brought me back to that fear of leaving my bedroom with my guitar for the first time, and playing songs in public. I got laughed at a fair amount by kids in my grade, and I think that comes with being a young girl. When a young boy does it everyone’s like, “Oh, he’s so sensitive! He’s playing a Green Day cover, it’s so cool.” But when a girl does it, I kind of felt like people were like, “Oh, there’s that guitar girl crying on stage again, singing her Rent cover.” I got laughed at a lot by kids in my grade, and it hurt, but I just kind of kept going and kept doing it. Anyone who laughs at you is just jealous and insecure. Try to believe the nice things people tell you. If people give you a compliment, they’re not just saying it. They most likely mean it. Try to feel as good about yourself as possible. Try to be proud of yourself because that’s hard and impressive. ♦