Chat with... Ellen Kempner of Palehound
WESTPORT — Ellen Kempner was traveling through the desert.
“We’re on our way to San Diego. Last night was Yuma,” said Kempner, fighting the poor cellphone reception of the desolate expanse in late February as she and her band, Palehound, drove by van to the next stop in a succession of nationwide shows.
By now, the 23-year-old Westport native and Staples High School graduate has grown accustomed to life on tour.
Palehound — which was founded in 2013 and includes Kempner on guitar and vocals, Jesse Weiss on drums and Larz Brogan on bass — toured heavily behind its first album, 2015’s “Dry Food,” which earned glowing reviews from music critics at NPR and Pitchfork for its original methods of taking on familiarly painful territory.
Kempner describes her first as a break-up record, written as the dust settled after the end of her first serious adult relationship. But Kempner is a wry and thoughtful lyricist — though she said she struggled in English classes while at Staples — whose songs regularly communicate intense emotion without disclosing too many details about their inspiration.
“Plopped on a hinge, screwed in tight/ Rusted and bony, for you at night/ But I’m over it, over it/ Oh I’m over it,” Kempner matter-of-factly sings the opening lines to the album’s title track. Later in the song, she dreamily repeats, “You made beauty a monster to me.” The singer is mad, but at whom?
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“I used to be really metaphorical and distract people, in a way. I didn’t feel comfortable being totally open,” said Kempner.
She attributes her early desire to remain aloof at least in part to her childhood in Connecticut, where she’ll return Saturday, March 17, to play the MAC650 Gallery in
Middletown on the eastern leg of her tour.
Growing up in Westport, the young Kempner learned from her father, who plays, sings and writes songs as a hobby. Under his early tutelage, she began writing songs as early as age 10 as a form of therapy. She remembered coming home from Kings Highway Elementary School after days when she’d been bullied and letting out her anger through song.
She cites Third Eye Blind and Avril Lavigne as influences at that time, but her musical tastes soon matured to the likes of Ani DiFranco, Regina Spektor and other “indie singer-songwriter”-type acts.
In high school, Kempner formed her first band, called Cheerleader, with her drummer friend Max Kupperberg, which strayed from singer-songwriter territory and drew on noisier punk-rock acts like the Pixies.
“We played at Toquet Hall Teen Center for zero dollars and, like, four of our friends who would’ve rather been somewhere else,” Kempner said.
Both influences turn up in Kempner’s most recent work. She seems as comfortable singing with only an acoustic guitar — as she does on tracks like “Dixie” — as she does with louder accompaniment, as on tracks “Molly” and “Cushioned Caging.”
While she was in high school, Kempner’s musical endeavors did little to mitigate the sense of alienation she felt about her sexuality.
“I felt like Westport was not a good place for someone to be queer. I felt a lot of pressure not to come out. I grew up hearing a lot of gay jokes, and I knew some kids in the closet because they all felt the same way — scared to come out,” Kempner said.
This fear continued until graduation and throughout her brief stint at Sarah Lawrence College. It wasn’t until a recent move to Boston and the creation of her most recent album, 2017’s “A Place I’ll Always Go,” that Kempner became more overtly autobiographical.
“I was able to feel really comfortable in my identity,” Kempner said of her new surroundings.
On Kempner’s second full-length album, which Rolling Stone ranked sixth on its list of Top 40 Albums of 2017, she’s both celebrating a new relationship and mourning the loss of two people close to her.
On “Feeling Fruit,” the album’s emotional apex, she describes roaming the aisles of a supermarket when she’s overcome by the memory
“I’m stuck with the weight you gave up,” she whispers repeatedly, hauntingly as the sparse picking of an electric guitar slows to a stop.
Whereas she used to use pale pronouns in her love songs, Kempner is unshackled from the chains that once bound her. She’s clear about the nature of her relationships on her latest album. In the chorus of “Room,” Kempner croons, “She keeps me up/ she keeps me up/ at night,” on one of the album’s most upbeat tracks.
“I’m going to write what I’m going to write,’” said Kempner, heading west through the barren land.
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