While Ellen Kempner and I wait for our drink orders to surface on the countertop of a Fairfield, CT coffee shop, we both eye various candies and fruits stocked ornately below the cash register. A drawer of Reese’s Pieces is painted bright aqua. Next to it, covered in splatter paint, is an old jewelry carton that holds Cadbury Eggs. I cave and buy a Butterfinger. She does not, indicating right from the get-go that she has far more self-control than the average human. Then again, her music indicates she’s had her fair share of mistakes, too.
Kempner is the wunderkind behind Palehound, the indie rock act making serious waves in Boston since the release of their debut full-length, Dry Food, this summer. Palehound merge the guitar prowess of St. Vincent with the open-heart clarity of Liz Phair and feel-good vibes of Mac DeMarco. Most of the record’s material was written when she was 19. It officially dropped when she was 21. With that time span spread out for recording, mixing, and producing, Kempner was able to transcribe a true transition to adulthood and the gravity that comes with it.
After we take a seat, I offer her some of my candy, to which she politely declines. Without missing a beat, she explains that her younger sister—a senior in high school—threw a massive slumber party at their father’s house the night before where she, of course, ordered too many pizzas, too much ice cream, and too many candy toppings. “If I had known you were hungry, we could have met there and made sundaes,” she says. “Actually, do you want to go?” It turns out her father’s house is a short drive away. Naturally, we grab coffee lids and head there instead.
There’s an impressive array to choose from for the sundaes. Kempner goes with rocky road ice cream, M&Ms, and chocolate syrup. I choose pistachio ice cream, pretzels, caramel, and sprinkles. Then, at last, we move on to the real snack: Dry Food.
The eight songs on her record come from a period of time where she was struggling with herself and her identity while enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College. It was there that she was broken up with for the first time ever. “A lot of it has to do with loneliness, the kind of loneliness where—because, really, I had been alone forever before that relationship—you know what it’s like to not be alone” she says. “I discovered that for the first time and hated it. It’s a weird transition to adulthood where you’re having personal experiences you can’t adjust to.”
In a little over a year, Kempner up and left college. “I think Sarah Lawrence was supposed to be this haven for me after being queer in high school where only three other kids were queer,” she explains. “I wanted it to be a home I could feel comfortable in, and it seemed like it would be that way, but it really wasn’t. It was small, cliquey, and not like a community. I learned a lot about terms and how to better identify myself, but at the end of the day I was too lonely to feel welcome. Once I started doing stuff with Palehound, I found a community in music. It made me wonder why I was paying for this massive education when I really wanted to be invested in this thing that made me feel welcome.”
From there, she returned home for a short while, packed her belongings, and moved to the closest big city that would still be an adventure: Boston. Until just recently, Kempner lived with Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis. A match that, the more you think about it, makes total sense. The quick guitarwork on “Cinnamon” recalls the equally impressive skills of Dupuis.
Don’t credit fate for their run-in as roomies. The two met long before then at visual arts camp Buck’s Rock in New Milford, CT. At 13-years-old, Kempner found herself forming a true friendship with Dupuis beyond the camper-counselor dynamic, resulting in hangouts occasionally outside of camp (“There was one Knicks game we went to where we were on the Jumbotron twice!”). While kids were busy trying out film classes and crafting, Kempner glued herself to the music room, a department partly run by Dupuis.
Soon she began going to Dupuis’ shows in New York City. “I started learning about these venues and these cool basements and bands I grew to love like Grass Is Green, Ovlov, and this whole DIY scene I didn’t even know existed,” Kempner says. “The main time I got to hang out with her was when she babysat our bunk once a week at night when the main counselors had the time off. I would harass her the whole time, too, and she would show me music. That’s when we became really close. I would put off other fun things to hang out with her and listen to My Bloody Valentine, Liz Phair, and Mirah.”
By the time the two began recording music for their new projects, Kempner for the then-unnamed Palehound and Dupuis for Speedy Ortiz, they were each other’s biggest cheerleaders. Little constructive criticism surfaced simply because they were already a fan of their music. “I would record a demo and the main point would be to make her proud,” Kempner laughs. “She was like an older sister to me.”
The real songwriting Kempner took notes from was her own father. He grew up drumming, played guitar, and eventually played in a band around town at fundraisers. His prized possession, a 1970s drum kit fit for John Bonham, still sits in their house, polished and in good shape. Though he taught her guitar at 7 years old (her first guitar lesson plan sits in the family room, framed), Kempner took it upon herself to teach herself everything else. “Drums are my favorite instrument,” she admits. “A really good drummer is more impressive to me than someone who does, like, anything else. I had to work hard at guitar to get good at that, but drums I was always okay with. Any time there was a kit around, I would be the noisy child going at it.”
The first song she ever wrote, “Real World”, is as hilariously adorable as its straightforward chorus: “Get back to the real world/ Get out of your cloud/ Get back to the real world/ Get into the crowd.” Granted, she was 9 years old, playing with drummer five years her senior for a local music class, but it’s still an enjoyable listen. The song was recorded live, marking her first ever live performance and written song.
“The thing is, I was shy. I can’t believe I got up and did that,” she says, laughing a bit nervously. “It was good, intense, healthy pressure from the class and our coach guy. My parents were so excited. After I was done, my friends were there. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I have a thing now.’ I finally felt like I was good at something.”
By that, Kempner means she didn’t fit in growing up—far more than your average awkward kid. “I wasn’t popular and I had a few friends I liked, but the only people I really felt connected with were my family members,” she says. “I wasn’t girly, but all my friends were. I stood out. It made me anxious all the time and angry at my social life. Then I started writing songs in fourth grade out of sheer anger and playing them for my parents. That was my way of communicating with them.” The family love is quite real. Halfway through our conversation, her younger sister comes home and joins us on the porch, plopping down in a chair and swinging her legs on top of the table. Without wasting a second, the two get to talking about sundaes, high school, and friend drama. It’s as if Kempner never left home.
We’re sitting on the back porch in a comfortable fall breeze. Things look picture perfect—the trademark quality of Connecticut. This part of the state, a half-hour train ride from New York City, is a tricky place to grow up. There’s a good school system, safe police, and a built-in music education. It’s also a claustrophobic ring of suburbs. Each year, that Stepford Wives grip seems to tighten.
“It’s the kind of town where everyone plays sports, people buy organic food, and will vote for Obama because it’s trendy and celebs are doing it,” she says. “At the same time, if their kid is gay, it’s a problem. They will cross the street if there’s a black person there. I grew up under this false impression that everyone was chill, but meanwhile I was ostracized and bullied because I was different. On top of that, I had really bad scoliosis. So on top of being awkward and a gay in the making, throw a back brace on there. Eventually I got surgery and was out of school for so long while healing that a girl told me once I was back that she thought I had died. I learned from an early age that you can’t trust that people are nice.”
Once high school rolled around, Kempner started wearing baggie jeans, hoodies, and listening to Ani DiFranco. “I finally got a hold of music, but I was still bullied, even for that,” she recalls. “I wrote a song for the school chorus, and this kid brought the lyrics on the bus and ripped them in my face. Even that I was okay with. In hindsight, I think that’s the strongest I’ve ever been because I stuck with it. I didn’t begrudgingly go play sports. I decided not to care if people teased me for it.”
Now that she’s 21 years old, Kempner still isn’t free of judgement. It’s impossible to be when you’re female. “I want to play to women because I’m a gay girl that can be there for people. I want to help,” she says. “Guys always say they want you to be equal, but they come up to me and say, ‘Wow, when you got up onstage I didn’t expect you to play like that.’ It’s infuriating. Then I met Ali Donohue and she’s been a major powerhouse in the city. Her band Fleabite is so good. Then I met Ursula and started playing shows with them. There’s this excellent change in Boston that’s finally happening. Girls and underrepresented minorities in the scene are rising up and we’re all joining forces.”
There’s a certain revenge that comes with mainstream validation. Palehound has been covered by many premiere music outlets. Now she’s not only getting an opportunity for her music to be heard, but for her words to be heard, too. “A lot of the songs I hear about how I was weak at that point, but now I’m so proud,” she says. “It’s a product that has given me so many opportunities. I hope people hear it as an optimistic record, as someone who pulled through it all, not someone who is still moping around in life’s struggles.”
Dry Food has allowed her to be honest about who she is and the relief that comes with that. “Getting to say, ‘Yes, this is a song about a girl I dated. No, it’s not about molly the drug,’ that rules,” she says. “I’d rather be who I am organically than token myself. Guys aren’t interviewed about why they’re straight or when they realized they’re straight, so I didn’t want to project myself in that way. If some musicians want to present themselves openly with their sexuality and identify their music in that way, that’s awesome; go for it. I wanted to be a bit different by acknowledging that’s who I am, but that my music is about the music, growing up, and relationships. It’s about being an outsider where being queer doesn’t solely define that.”
That’s what makes Palehound stand out in a sea of generic indie rock acts. Her music dances through gritty rock, gentle folk lines, and undeniably original melodies while skirting around forward metaphors or heavy-handed lines. There’s a sense of identity at its core, specifically that of someone who has grown up and can see the silver lining at long last.
We sit on the porch for a while longer and she looks at my empty bowl, the thin puddle of neon green ice cream pooling at its bottom. “I should have gone with pistachio,” she says. “I always underestimate how great it is. It’s like the secret flavor of all those generic, iconic ice creams; it’s just different enough to catch you off guard, but it’s never overbearing, you know?” I nod and smile, for the comparison makes itself obvious in the most genuine way.