Ellen Kempner is laughing at the abyss. One of the first things you might notice talking to the 21-year old mastermind behind Palehound is her capacious and infectious laugh. It often arrives as addendum to something seemingly tragic. Discussing her transition from a bedroom musician at Sarah Lawrence to fronting a band playing shows, giving interviews, seeing her picture in public, she concludes, “So that led to me getting really anxious and depressed,” and then she laughs from some deep, elemental place. It was Virginia Woolf who suggested, “we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person.” Kempner writes music that way, and laughs that way too, with every bit of her being.
Her excellent debut LP, Dry Food, due out in August on Exploding In Sound, is a record about dropping out of school, breaking up with people for the first time, moving to Boston, loneliness – all post-adolescent pain and existential anxiety of the type that both feels and is very real. It is, in short, a very serious record. But you might miss her laugh.
Kempner grew up in the New York metro area, her formative years spent divided between the liminal suburbs of Norwalk and Westport, Connecticut. Norwalk is a suburb and a city at once, solidly in the orbit of New York but also surrounded by its own green belt of considerably bougier micro-burbs like Darien, and the truly loathsome overdog New Canaan. Her upbringing allowed her proximity to the New York music scene. Speaking of her current drummer, Jesse Weiss from Boston band Grass Is Green, Kempner says, “I started going to see Grass Is Green in New York when I was like 16, and he just blew me away as a drummer. I didn’t miss a single New York show of theirs.” But Norwalk and Westport contain the same socially regressive air as many other, even relatively liberal, suburbs. “I’m queer, and I had gone to a high school where that wasn’t entirely tolerated,” she bluntly recounts. There is no laugh.
Unpacking the space Ellen Kempner occupies today, even as an exceptionally talented young songwriter, is an exegesis on coming of age, a search for a sense of self, first as a teenager and now as an increasingly public musician.
Enrolling in Sarah Lawrence for college, Kempner hoped to find a home more welcoming than her high school. The college was and wasn’t that place. “It was very cliquey,” she says. “It was smaller than my high school. It kind of felt like high school even though there were more queer people there. I made good friends though, and came out of my shell, learned a lot about queer culture, the right terms to use, but I didn’t really find that space that I was hoping for.” At the time, there was a pervasively “toxic environment” around sexual assault on campus, Kempner says. “It got me pretty down and depressed for a while,” she adds, with predictable understatement.
Kempner describes the type of Ivory Tower malaise familiar to many college students: smoking too much weed and watching Bob’s Burgers between classes. If Sarah Lawrence presented a portion of the problem, Kempner is quick to implicate herself in what became her departure from school: “I kind of felt like I was wasting a great opportunity because I was super distracted. If I was going to do school, I wanted to be focused on it, and I wasn’t at the time.” Kempner’s struggles at college sound common – the sort of quarter-life crisis brought on with the sense that the world is a fucking mess, and you’re powerless to stop it – but her response is more unique. She dropped out.
Kempner wrote her first release, the Bent Nail EP, and recorded with Julian Fader and Carlos Hernandez of Ava Luna. Kempner describes Ava Luna as her “favorite band of all-time, all bands included.” The Bent Nail EP was deeply steeped in 1990s archetypes of college rock, with Exile in Guyville as one of its most obvious sonic parents. The stylistic odes weren’t accidental. “When I was in high school and college, I was kind of riding the 90s wave: Liz Phair, Pavement, the Pixies, the Breeders,” she says.
But what began as an opportunity to record some of her bedroom compositions with her heroes from Ava Luna, became something else, forcing the self-described shy Kempner into public with her music. “I kind of just did it for fun, to show to my friends,” she says. “And then Dan Goldin heard it, and I got involved with Exploding In Sound, and started doing things I never could have anticipated doing.” She laughs loudly here.
Turning the introverted artist into the public entity proved to be jarring. “I’ve always been a shy person, so the quick transition of playing music too, getting picked up by Exploding In Sound, and then automatically having shows, and interviews and seeing my picture everywhere. I was like, ‘What the fuck? This is horrible. This is the worst.’” She laughs one of those full body laughs before continuing, clarifying she didn’t hate the shows themselves. “Not the shows, but like weird Brooklyn Vegan comments, shit like that. I was forced to talk and forced to be seen. I’ve enjoyed not talking or being seen, and being a bit of a wallflower. It was hard for me to make that transition. It pushed me really fast to figure myself out quick. I have to figure out who I am, and what I stand for, and what I want to say about these songs.” It was a powerful inversion, the external forces of the independent music landscape, the potentially warping gaze of the viewer, generating internal reflection and development in Kempner. If Dry Food represents a deeply personal introspection, the terror within, the anxiety it confronts arrives, at least in part, from without.
Dry Food represents a more mature and intentional expression, a record on which Kempner played every instrument save drums. “I felt like I had this control that was really nice.” Reflecting on the transition from Bent Nail to Dry Food, she says, “I’ve learned a lot more since then. I’ve been on tour, and I’ve heard a lot more music. I had more time to hone my taste. After touring and figuring out what I liked and didn’t like, what songs worked and what songs were frankly embarrassing, I thought this could be a cool opportunity to just make an album that I want to be able to listen to without cringing. I put a lot more thought into, I guess is my final answer.” She namechecks Angel Olsen, Courtney Barnett, Cate Le Bon and Alex G as current inspiration.
Kempner possesses a deep personal and cultural empathy. She soaks in the material of her surroundings, the toxicity of Sarah Lawrence, or alternatively, the welcoming community of musicians she found in Boston, and these external forces combine, elide and blur inside her. It’s a generative but dangerous osmosis. Experience is a cypher for Kempner – she grapples with what it means, what it’s done to her identity, what she’s becoming as a result of what she lets in and tries to keep out. Dry Food owes its existence to the creative mastery and mystery of these lived and listened experiences. Some of this line of reasoning is tautological – we are, of course, nothing other than our experiences. But Kempner does it reflexively, carefully considering how the phenomenological universe impacts her identity, her music.
I ask her if she feels a special responsibility as a woman in a genre so steeped in patriarchal and heteronormative systems of oppression. I’m trying to be careful in the framing of the question, and Kempner offers me a pass: “I’ve been asked that question not carefully. My focus right now is just to play music. I realize that playing music gives me a political platform and to speak out and make myself heard. I don’t feel the impulse, personally, to be really outspoken. I think it’s amazing that a lot of my peers do, like Mitski, Sadie [of Speedy Ortiz] and Meredith Graves. It’s amazing what they do. I’ve always been kind of shy. I’ve always had strong opinions … how do I explain this? I just want do what I want do.”
The circular logic of “I just do what I want to do” reflects a sort of contradiction in Kempner. She just wants to play music, and yet, she does represent an important presence in the community. Young women, especially young queer women, often seek her out after shows. She calls this, “the best part.” She is a political action in and of herself, working intentionally to upset the stupid misogyny appearing in rock circles. “That’s one of the reasons I practice guitar so much. I’ve had to always compete against dudes, in high school, in fucking middle school, battle of the bands shit. I’ve had to work so much harder … It’s such a target for sexist dudes in music, like ‘Oh she can’t really play her instrument.’”
She wants her music and the space she occupies to speak for themselves. Her voice grows the firmest it’s been in our conversation, ironically, talking about what she isn’t saying: “If I had a lot to say, I would say it. I’m not holding anything back. What I’m doing right now is learning. I want to be accessible. I’m open about being queer and supporting women in music. And I want to be accessible to queer girls who want a queer role model, but I don’t think it should be a line that separates me, and for people to be like ‘Oh, well, maybe she sounds like Tegan and Sara.’”
Kempner thinks carefully about it all. Sometimes it’s as much what she doesn’t want to do, as much as what she does. “Courtney Barnett, she’s killing it so hard right now. And she’s a queer woman, but she’s not defining herself that way. It’s the kind of thing you have to find out if you Google her. I’m on the same wave-length. I don’t think I should be defining myself. Right now, I’m just learning more how to articulate things, and I don’t want to speak until I know what I want to say.”
She’s aware of the discourse around Dry Food, especially the one contained in her publicist’s emails about the weight and power of her mental health struggles and how they impacted the writing of the album. Almost everything written about Dry Food will begin and end with a discussion of the emotional damage the record articulates. It would be easy to forget about her laugh. She worries about the mischaracterization, “There’s a lot of shit that I don’t want to say, unfortunately, because there’s this stigma around mental health. I fear seeming weak. Especially as a girl, ‘Oh, that crazy bitch,’ that idea of the crazy girl.” She returns to this idea later in our conversation, “More than anything I don’t want people to think it’s pitiful. I don’t want to come off as a victim. I definitely want people to hear it, and I hate using this word, but I want it to be like a survival narrative … Maybe I’m just being paranoid. I don’t want people to listen to it and think ‘Oh, another sad girl.’ I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes of crazy girls or sad girls.”
Listening to the self-assured and aggressive guitar work on lead single, “Molly,” one of the most fun rock songs to arrive in 2015, it’s hard to see how Kempner could read as weak. But cultural stigma and judgments will do this to a person, especially one as thoughtful and open as Ellen Kempner.Even in the emotional wreckage of a song like, “Seekonk,” a cut detailing her first break up, her first dose of what she describes to me as, “Feeling that type of loneliness when you know what it’s like to not be alone,” Kempner never sounds weak.
On the title track, “Dry Food,” Kempner sings, “You made beauty a monster to me,” three times, before resolving the lyric with, “So I’m kissing all the ugly things I see.” Funny and tragic at once, Kempner occupies the humor and blight of being young, of struggling with identity and place. The process isn’t finished, even if the recording of Dry Food is now firmly in the rearview. “When I was recording it, it felt like an empowering moment. It was like finishing a journal or something. If I had kept a journal, and I finished and wrote the last page, and then I look back read some of it and it’s like ‘Oh shit, remember how I felt about that? And I’m totally over that break up now, and I didn’t think I would be.’ And that’s a cool feeling.”
She provides her final analysis of where she stands in this precious and changing moment before Palehound becomes an even bigger band because of the affecting, legible quality of her personal trauma in song: “I’ve never been this proud of something. Not just because I really focused on the songs, but also because this is me saying a lot about a year that was really, really hard. And I finished that year and have this thing to show for it, that I got through it in a productive way.” She doesn’t laugh, but this sentiment, pride, something similar but different than a survivor story, comes from her whole being too. It unfolds. Ellen Kempner is making her world, a combination of the spaces in which she has lived and the ones she is still creating.