Listening to Palehound is often like having a tough conversation with your best friend. There’s likely to be some pain, some old feelings dug up and picked apart, but you’ll always feel better after it’s over. And on the Boston-based band’s third LP Black Friday (out now on Polyvinyl), there are as many platonic heart-to-hearts and anxious tell-alls as there are romantic revelries and loving assurances.
Frontwoman and songwriter Ellen Kempner has always possessed an extraordinary understanding of the mechanics of relationships. Palehound’s first two albums, 2015’s Dry Food and 2017’s A Place I’ll Always Go, were both sharp examinations of intimacy and empathy, but regularly occupied Kempner’s own headspace. Black Friday finds her singing in second person more often than not, occasionally referring to a nameless “darling” who could easily be either a partner or a friend. She’s not only grappling with her own feelings, doubts and fears, but also those of others. Many of the lyrics go back to a single question for all involved: “Am I enough?” On “Worthy,” Kempner isn’t even sure she deserves her happy relationship, even though inside it, she’s accepted for exactly who she is. “I think I hate my body ‘till it’s next to yours,” she sings. “With you I’ll wear the clothes I’d buried in my drawers.” On the very next track, “Killer,” she fantasizes about killing her friends’ abusers. It’s dark for certain, but you get the feeling Kempner is the kind of friend who’d help you hide a dead body—that’s to say, a really, really good friend.
started out as a jumble of demos partly written in a wrestling troupe’s practice space, but after a few weeks huddled in a Stinson Beach, Calif. studio—where Kempner says “the moon was out over the ocean, like completely, ridiculously beautiful outside the window”—with bandmates Jesse Weiss and Larz Brogan and producer Gabe Wax, Palehound’s LP emerged as this collection of tender and fierce songs sung to the sound of affecting soft rock with a DIY edge.
A few weeks before the record’s release Kempner called Paste from New York City, where she’s still planning to move in the fall, even after “a huge rat” scuttled by her café seat right in the middle of this chat. We talked about bodies, friendship and the instability of the music business, among other things. This conversation has been edited for length.
Paste: What was your mindset going into LP3?
Ellen Kempner: I had just come off a bunch of touring, and we toured with some really amazing acts, so I was feeling really inspired. And I was thinking a lot about bodies, which sounds really weird. I mean, I was really hyper aware of my own body, and I was just feeling inspired to write. And the thing that was most on my mind was my relationship to my body and the relationships I’ve noticed people having with their bodies and how destructive that can be and how beautiful it can be.
Has your relationship to your body changed over the past few years?
You know, it’s been a ride. I guess I’m kind of like a bigger person. I’m kind of fat, and after a year of touring, I was feeling a little discouraged about it because there are not very many other big people in indie rock, especially not big women. And so even after feeling inspired and being on the road and even after a lot of really cool shows, I was still feeling very hyper aware of myself and wondering if my body and the way I look was holding me back as an artist and as a performer and just having a lot of really negative thoughts and deciding that I really wanted to work through those.
Why did you guys decide to track the majority of these songs live?
For this record, I was renting a practice space that I was sharing with a wrestling troupe, which was really cool. So it was this windowless room that was also filled with wrestling posters and maps in one corner and my drums and amps in one corner. And so it was a funny place to be writing. But I demoed out all those songs just so I could have an idea of what I wanted things to sound like going into the recording process. Because of all the touring we’d done and how close we’d been—me and Jesse [Weiss], my drummer and Larz [Brogan], my bassist—I decided that it would be really cool to track an album live and have us all go out to Stinson Beach in California, which was, like, the ultimate privilege and the ultimate experience. I wanted my friends to come too, and I wanted us to really capture what playing live feels like instead of just overdubbing a bunch of stuff.
Did you ever cross paths with the troupe?
It’s not athletic wrestling. It’s like performative wrestling. So I would be walking into the space with my laptop ready to demo some stuff out and they would be in there dressed as aliens shooting a promo and I’d be like, ‘Oh shit, sorry, I’ll come back later.’ My partner is actually in the wrestling troupe, so that’s kind of how I got the space. But it was still really funny and really inspiring, actually.
”Black Friday” is the album’s title, but it’s also a song on the record. Why did you go with that one for the name?
The song is about an unbalanced friendship and the longing that you feel when you’re not being accepted. And I feel like that’s a big theme of Black Friday. I felt like the whole album had these themes of belonging and of wanting to find yourself within the greater scheme of things and figuring out what you need to do to—not fit in—but be comfortable with yourself within this world. And I feel like Black Friday and how you have to compete in a way to get ahead and the way that we in our society measure success is like, ‘Who are you above? Who are you below? Who are you hotter than? Who are you uglier than?’ You know, shit like that. And ‘Who are you skinnier than? Who are you fatter than?’ And I feel like that’s a lot of the vibe, and that made me think of Black Friday ‘cause you see the hordes of people rushing for the same thing and pushing other people down. It’s like a competition to get the thing that we’re told we need to be happy.
And that feeling is even more prevalent in your 20s.
Yeah, and when I say ‘We,’ I’m talking about people who can relate to that. Obviously I don’t speak for everyone. But I think that is a big thing in your 20s. I’m turning 25 next week and I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, here we are.’ [laughs]
It’s a wild time for sure!
Especially as a musician. It’s just the way the music business is structured is so fucked up, I think. I feel like when I first started I had more faith in it than I do now.
Sometimes it feels like it breaks everyone.
We’re all struggling with it, even people who you’d think have it all, like friends of mine, are really still so anxious. There’s no security. It’s so fickle and any ounce of success that you have, you just don’t know how long it’ll last or if anything will come of anything that you do. And it’s like selling yourself and your identity, the trials and tribulations of that as well and the effect that can have on your mental health.
Speaking of friends, friendship isn’t something people sing about a lot. Some of these songs are ambiguous, but did you want them to have a versatility to them in that respect?
I feel like friendship is underrated. A lot of the songs are love songs because I have this amazing partner who I’m head over heels for. But a lot of the songs are just about friends of mine because that’s a huge part of my life. I realized that I loved music about friendship and had been inspired by songs about friendship.
Some of the experiences in these songs touch on anxiety and insecurity in a really personal way. Is putting it down in words therapy, or maybe catharsis for you?
I would say more of a therapy ‘cause I feel like catharsis has this connotation of making it easier, or relieving something. Whereas with therapy, it’s not really relieving it as it is forcing you to process it, which can be painful. So the act of writing these songs is therapeutic in that I have to really look at myself in a painful way and look at what I want to say in a way that could be triggering and hard. That’s how it’s therapeutic in that it’s not easy. It’s not a relief immediately. It provides relief eventually.
Where did you get the idea for “Stick N Poke”? I feel like it should be an anthem for all the people who get questions about their tattoos every day.
So many people have been really responding well to that song. But to me it’s kind of like a joke. The song itself is just about taking ownership of your body in a really kind of reckless way. I had gotten four tattoos last year, so I was thinking a lot about that and why I have that urge to do that and why we all get tattoos and, like, what are we really trying to do? Why does it feel so good? Because I feel so out of control of my body and how people see my body all the time. And when you put a tattoo on it, that’s something that you’re controlling. That’s an image that everyone can see exactly how you see it, which feels really good to me. That’s why I get tattoos. It’s about people feeling at the whim of people’s judgment and then getting a stupid basketball tattoo on your fucking ankle, which is what I did too. It doesn’t mean anything. It just meant [what I] needed it to, to feel like I owned my body in that way.
You learned a lot about music from your dad. Do you still share your work with him or ask for his opinion?
Honestly, he’s so great. He follows me on Twitter, but he has a Twitter just to follow me on Twitter. He doesn’t tweet anything, but he just follows my Twitter so he could see whatever bullshit I’m spouting at the time. But he was a musician growing up, never a professional musician, just for fun. So I think he gets a real kick out of seeing me do it. He comes to any show we play in New York. I’m really so fucking lucky, honestly. Counting my blessings.
One thing about your music that I’ve always really loved is how it feels like a conversation. Do you take that into account when considering how people will experience it?
I definitely think about how people experience it. It’s really hard not to, especially at this point where I know that what I write will be heard. But I also like just to have that conversational element. I want to use my own voice. I wanna write lyrics how I think, or how I talk. I just wanted to be more naturally myself on this record, and I felt like the way to do that would be to write lyrics that sounded like the thoughts in my head, and not just trying to sound like someone else.