“I guess I was getting used to being too comfortable with just being comfortable and being upset.”
Boston’s Palehound are enjoying accolades for their latest release, Dry Food, a quirky, passionate, singular album that springs from the heart, raw emotions, and struggles of the band’s young founder, songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist, Ellen Kempner. The band’s sound has the hallmarks of the best of ’90s alternative pop: sing-along choruses, muscular musicality, and lo-fi aesthetics.
I caught up with Kempner on the eve of embarking on a lengthy U.S. tour. Their tour will take them from coast to coast, and to all points in between.
You’re only 21, but your music and songwriting are so mature and deep. Do you feel older than you actually are?
Age is relative and just a number. When I was younger, people would always call me an old soul and I kind of liked it, but I also thought maybe that was the reason I didn’t have a lot of friends. I do love being a kid, too. I sometimes feel like a 12-year-old boy at heart, and I still like playing Game Boy. [laughs]
I read that your father was a musician. Did he encourage you to play music?
I grew up thinking that there was nothing better than being a musician. My dad did give me my first lessons, but then I kind of took time away from music in middle school. Then, I got engaged again and started listening to a lot of music, and listening to my favorite guitarists to learn more. I also played music in college.
Your guitar playing is really singular and unique. You play in a very unorthodox manner, and your phrasing is unusual.
Thanks. I think my guitar style is a work in progress. It’s just me trying to figure out what my sound is, but thinking I’ll never figure it out.
Who are you favorite guitarists and musical influences?
I was into Pavement in early high school and Annie Clark. When I was younger, Joni Mitchell. I was in awe of her writing and how she wrote songs on the guitar.
What was your first concert?
Avril Lavigne on her first tour. It was the best night of my life. [laughs] Seeing her actually made me believe that I can play and write songs, too. Believe it or not, she made me believe I could do it.
I read that you attended Sarah Lawrence. Did you study music in college?
They don’t have majors there, which is good. I didn’t really want to “study” music, but I was working on music, playing shows, and writing during the time I was there. I had a hard time at college and decided to leave.
How were you discovered?
Dan Golden at our label [Exploding in Sound] discovered us. I recorded a demo of a song that I had written to high school and sent like 10 demos to my friends. At the time, I thought the best-case scenario was I’d get some shows out of it. He heard the demo and came out to see us. It came out of nowhere. I was shocked to be getting any interest.
I really like your song “Healthier Folk.” It seems like that song is you at war with your body or feelings. How did that song come about?
The real message of that song was how I felt like an awkward teen of 18 or 19. It was about me trying to figure out how to be a woman and how to be queer. I guess I was trying to find my place. I think it’s my ode to not feeling so hot about myself at the time.
I love the song and title for the track “Cushioned Caging.” Is that a metaphor for being too comfortable or sheltered?
I was going through a breakup at the time. I guess I was getting used to being too comfortable with just being comfortable and being upset. I got tired of being content and just getting by, and putting too much energy into trying to fix a bad situation. I was spending too much time in a bad situation. I was a loner when I wrote that song, and I am still alone, even when I’m surrounded.
Are you becoming more of a cohesive band?
Yes, the guys are becoming my family and real band mates. I love them, and the fact that we’re all pulling the same weight: driving shifts, sleeping on floors, touring, and playing great.
Are you part of the Boston music scene?
I’m part of the punk scene, but not the music. I consider myself a punk, but I don’t like being part of any scene. It also makes it easier when it comes to booking shows. I want to be flexible and not get easily pigeonholed.
What do you think of the state of our country?
It’s broken. It’s so overwhelming to try and keep up with everything that’s happening. It sometimes feels like nothing is really changing, and that’s disconcerting and hopeless. I guess it does affect my overall mood, which does affect my songwriting.
Do you enjoy touring?
I do, and we’re going to be doing a lot of it—in the cold, heart of winter. [laughs] We’re actually leaving today. I’ve always loved adventures. When I was in high school in Connecticut, I’d just take drives and see places. I love looking outside the windows and seeing America.
Have you played St. Louis before?
Yes, in fact, at the Firebird. The City Museum was the highlight of the last tour. We got there an hour before they closed and we had a blast. Later, we discovered that we had only seen one small part of the Museum. [laughs] We need to go back again. | Doug Tull
Palehound plays with Torres on Saturday, January 16, at the Firebird in St. Louis. Doors 7 p.m., show 8 p.m., all ages; tickets are $12 adv/$14 dos, with $2 minor surcharge.