By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Palehound.
Ellen Kempner of Palehound is in a bit of a pickle right now. Her stats are all reputable: she’s a mere 19 years old, she’s a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, and she’s the primary songwriter and vocalist of a band on the rise right now. That’s all well and good. However, she is faced with choosing between the band and school.
The well-known liberal arts college touting its “no tests” though strict participation policy is giving Kempner a little heat for missing class in order to play out. This almost sounds like the plot of an ‘80s Brat Pack movie, with her music friends telling her to “Stick it to the man and rock” while her school friends are telling her to “keep your head in the books!”
As campy as this situation all sounds, it’s real for her. We at BTR remain a little biased as we err on the side of the rock, but we were fortunate enough to speak with her and see how the situation is playing out.
At just 19, Kempner has seen some of the initial stages of success with her band having just released the Bent Nail EP on Exploding In Sound Records in October. The label is growing alongside the band in a symbiotic way, releasing records for bands like Porches. and former Discovery Artists Ovlov. Palehound has even been asked to tour down to Austin for SXSW, which all must be crazy for Kempner but being at the age she is, she’ll have to miss a sizable amount of class in order to do so. There was a time, however, when Palehound had a little bit less to worry about, all the way back in September of 2013.
Kempner cites the process of recording the EP as the real beginnings of the band, and the first week of last September as when the line-up fully came together. She met the other members Tom Lombardi (bass) and Ben Scherer (guitar) at a co-ed performing arts summer cam that they all worked at.
Her job was “putting kids into rock bands” while the other two respectively worked at the woodshop and recording studio. She remarked on “The amount of times I heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ covered by 13-year-olds is really something”, the song being the “go-to.” Kempner spoke about “the cool older girl” who exposed her to what she plays now, who just so happens to be the perfect candidate.
“Sadie Dupuis from Speedy Ortiz and I have been friends for a while and she’s a good six years older than I am. She actually met me at that summer camp that we were working at when I was fifteen and I remember this one night she was babysitting our bunk; I was still a camper, and she just put on some My Bloody Valentine and Liz Phair. That was an ‘ah-ha!’ moment. Stuff like that: Pavement, Built To Spill, Pixies; that’s the top for me right now,” says Kempner on her initial muse.
Kempner has taken on the role of the “older friend” herself, though with her younger sister who just turned sixteen, really the best age to have someone open up a new world of anger and alienation. Her sister’s selection process is rigid, as her critique of the Pixies was, “Why would anybody want to listen to this if they could listen to someone who can actually sing?” effectively ruling out most of punk and indie.
In the way that Kempner is passing down her musical wisdom on to the younger side of the family, she says the older side is, if not exactly living vicariously through her, attentively tuned in to the goings on of the band in the way that only a family member could.
“I guess my dad is a little bit living through me because he’s been a gigging musician for a while but he never really pursued it as a career. He’s always fascinated by the fact that I’m doing radio interviews and stuff like that. He’s like, ‘What time are you gonna be there? What are they gonna ask you?” says Kempner about her dad’s giddiness.
The Bent Nail EP is a hyperpersonal lo-fi diary entry, lifting the words right off her page and onto wax. The ways Kempner describes her innermost thoughts are so completely unique to her and although she’s young, what she writes really can’t be described as typical teenage angst. On closer readings of her lyrics sheets, you’ll hear a lot of masochism in her lyrics that carries over to her tone as vocalist and frontwoman.
She says, “Songwriting is a bit masochistic for me as an act because a lot of times when I write songs, I always start with music and lyrics come in a very fluid [way]. I don’t even really think that much about writing lyrics, they just kind of… happen. I end up actually learning a lot about myself by writing lyrics. Like, I’ll be writing something and it’ll be, ‘Oh, that is exactly what’s been going on’ or ‘That’s exactly how I felt about this but I’ve never really thought about it like that until now’ so it’s kind of painful in that way. Just addressing my masochism came out while I was writing that EP mainly because it was like, ‘Oh… well, I really am. Look at these lyrics. This is what this means.’”
One might assume this kind of realization would crush Kempner but she describes the overall feedback from mass interpretation as over all positive. She says that she felt a “contentment” afterwards because she actualized herself finally. Writing these thoughts down has also helped her become more “brutally honest”. Knowing that if people are responding to her music, that means they feel the same things she does, which in turn motivates her to dive even deeper on the next record. A few people have come up to her at shows to say so, especially about this lyric from “I Get Wet”: I’m stunted for the fun of it/ But I should fucking grow.
What she’s describing in this line and pretty much all of the songs on the Bent Nail EP is the ambivalence of being 18 years old and finally being “self-sufficient” but at the same time realizing that you’re still a kid. For those going through that time and even those struggling with the pressures of adulthood, it rings true. Ellen Kempner may be in a pickle but she’s somehow learning to write her way out of it.