"My queerness is the part of my identity that I had to work for the hardest."
Ellen Kempner of Palehound. Photo by Shervin Lainez.
Ellen Kempner is the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter of Boston-based fuzz rock trio Palehound. In June, Palehound released A Place I'll Always Go, a reflection on loving and losing. Written from a very transformative place, Kempner notes that the album is a reflection on experiencing integral human emotions for the first time. We chatted with Kempner about the album and embracing her queer identity in the writing process, ahead of her show at Cafe Berlin in Columbia next Tuesday.
Tell me a little bit about the phase of life you felt you were in when you wrote your most recent album, A Place I Always Go.
I was going through a very transformative phase and a phase where I’d experienced things I’d never experienced before, like love and loss particularly. You grow up very aware that those are happening and that people are experiencing those things, but until you experience it, you have this totally different perception of what it’s going to be like. A lot of it was just about me having these experiences for the first time, and those experiences surprising me in a lot of ways, honestly.
How has your identity as someone who is queer affected the way that you write music?
It’s transformed a lot, my relationship with my queerness, through my music. At first it felt like an obstacle, and it felt like I was really scared of it and scared of coming out, and not sure how to write songs. Using he/him prononouns when I was talking about a girl, or a non-binary person. It was just kind of a battle to me, to commit to the language of being queer. Now it’s just totally been great. I wish that I had come out sooner. We’ve got more of a queer audience with this album, since I’ve been more honest about it. And that feels so good. I’m a queer person and that’s my community and I basically only hang out with queer people, so I like seeing that represented in the audience, too. It’s helped me find and expand on my community.
"It was just kind of a battle to me, to commit to the language of being queer."
Kempner on the process of becoming comfortable with writing music through the lens of her queer identity.
What does the word queer mean to you?
I first learned the word queer when I had just graduated high school and had spent a lot of time referring to myself as bi or as a lesbian, or whatever. And when I got to college, my whole concept of queerness and my understanding of the depths of queerness kind of came into play. It all coincided with me learning this new word, which was ‘queer.’ I learned it’s not just a binary of gay and lesbian, and I didn’t have just fit into those identities that I didn’t feel totally comfortable with. For me, I love that word. It’s just all encompassing and it doesn’t really limit anyone. It can refer to anyone that identities that way or falls on that spectrum. I also love that it’s a word that we reclaimed that was a slur or an insult. That’s so awesome and powerful. It’s just a very powerful, friendly, welcoming word.
What part of your identity do you feel most proud of?
Honestly, my queerness. Not gonna lie. It’s just the part of my identity that I had to work for the hardest. It’s just at the core of who I am as a person.
What do you hope the audience might experience at a Palehound show?
I just hope that people would see us as relatable. That’s my big thing. When I get off stage, I want people to feel like as comfortable as possible. I just want to seem like someone that’s approachable because it’s a really humbling experience for me to perform. I do really like it when the crowd is responsive and it seems like we’re having a good time.
"It’s this mundane place where I’ve always found myself musing on my life and problem solving.
Kempner on the choice to use an illustration of a grocery store for the cover art of A Place I'll Always Go.
What was the impetus for the design of the album artwork?
That illustration was done by my friend Ben. He’s lived in Boston since before I moved here, and I learned of his art through a few friends and have been totally in love with it every since. We became really good friends, and it kind of seemed like a no brainer. Even when I was writing the album, before it was even recorded, I really wanted Ben to do the art for this. We’re already friends, so working with him was really easy. We did sit down and collaborate on the idea. He did everything, he painted everything. But it was my idea to make it a grocery store, and he went with that. We had a back and forth about the album art. We worked on it for like a month.
Why did you want to use a grocery store scene, specifically?
There’s a song where I talk about the grocery store, so it came from that. But I also feel like the grocery store references the theme of the album, in that it’s this mundane place where I’ve always found myself musing on my life and problem solving. That’s one of those places where I’m usually by myself, thinking.
Catch Palehound playing with Thunder Dreamer and Rae Fitzgerald at Cafe Berlin on Tuesday, October 3rd at a benefit show for The Center Project.