By: Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Manny Harpin.
“I’ve got a pet carrot/ my best friend is a parrot/ and I say things that he don’t mind/ so he say things that he don’t mind,” sings Ellen Kempner, the creative force behind alt-indie rock project Palehound. Kempner is a busy woman; apart from finishing up her second year of college, she’s a vocalist, songwriter, composer, bassist, and guitarist. Basically she’ll try out any kind of musical expression, and she does it well. Though she’s released other EPs under different monikers, Palehound’s Bent Nail EP is the feather in her slightly crooked hat. Since its release in October, Kempner has heard from a steady line-up of musicians offering to back Palehound’s upcoming two track 7”, and eventual full-length album. Kempner’s witty wordplay is particularly gratifying when coupled with mellow guitar melodies softly churning under warm, comfy vocals. Think Regina Spektor or The Blow’s Khaela Maricich, but more accessible than the first and folkier than the second. The Bent Nail EP boasts rich, delightful songs written entirely by Kempner, with instrumental support from Julian Fader (drums/recorder/melodica) and Carlos Hernandez (bass, miscellaneous noise) of the indie-soul group Ava Luna. As charming as her lyrics would suggest, Kempner sat down with BTR to talk about where, exactly, she walks her pet carrot.
Tell me about your background as a musician? You’ve been playing for your whole life right?
Pretty much. I grew up with my dad being a drummer throughout his life; he would play songs and guitar with his kids. He was always super into it and played every night. I kind of idolized my dad a lot growing up, so that got me into banging on this terrible toy guitar that my mom got me. Eventually he decided he didn’t want to hear me doing that anymore (laughs), which is understandable, so they got me a real guitar.
So why Palehound?
It’s an interesting question. I’m kind of into just putting adjectives and adverbs that don’t really go together together. And I think pale is a word that you typically use for humans for a visual, like “oh that’s such a pale girl,” but you don’t really hear “oh that’s a pale dog”. So it kind of struck me because it’s really more of a general adjective because it’s neutral, but it’s never used that way.
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
A lot of stuff. I was listening to a lot of jazz a few years ago, and then that turned into a lot of ’90s and late ’80s indie rock, and a lot of folk artists like Mirah. I do a lot of internet surfing and poking around and finding music that way. It’s like collecting; music from the net is like a collector’s item.
Can you give me some of you major influences for Palehound?
Yeah! I guess my major influences for the project were, well, I mentioned Mirah earlier, and Elliott Smith, absolutely. Those are the two big ones.
Do you have another EP in the works under Palehound?
Yes, our next release in going to be a 7” with two songs on it; we’re aiming to put it out by March. More details about that will be released soon, and then a full-length is definitely also in the works.
What was the inspiration behind the Bent Nail EP?
I wrote the songs about a year ago, which was the first semester of my freshman year of college. That’s a really weird time for everyone – hence why people like gain 50 – or, wait, 15 pounds! In just alcohol! (laughs) Because that’s the only way to feel normal. But I’ve never been that heavy of a drinker, so I didn’t have that option. Instead, what kind of happened is I just wrote songs for fun about the transition. Not explicitly about that, though some of the lyrics reflect that. But definitely the core driving emotion for me writing in the first place was me being like “holy shit I’m in this weird fake adulthood and I don’t really know what to do with myself… so I’m gonna do this.”
And then I just wanted to record them, just because I’m friends with Julian and Carlos at Gravesend Studios. And yeah…it was really sort of self-indulgent actually (laughs).
Bent Nail EP album art.
Do you do the guitar work on the EP?
Yeah, so I play all the guitar and do all the vocals, Julian Fader does all the drums, and he and I split up the bass tracks.
Do you like playing the bass?
I love playing bass, so much. Seriously. Any band looking for a bassist – contact me!
I’ll be sure and include that…
(laughs) Do! But maybe don’t put my phone number in there, though.
Do you have a song on that EP that’s especially emotional or near and dear to you for some reason?
Yeah actually, probably “Harvest”. I almost didn’t record that one actually, because I felt those lyrics are way more blunt and straight to the point than my style. Like, people have asked me with “Pet Carrot” what the fuck do those lyrics mean. And that’s typically how I tend to be as a lyricist – favoring really obscure stuff that people really have to work on like a puzzle. But “Harvest” was really straightforward and me just saying exactly what I needed to say. I just remember it coming out of a very heated emotional moment where I just was like “fuck it, I don’t even have time, or I don’t even care enough right now to mask what I’m actually talking about with this song so I’m just going to put it all out there.”
What’s the writing process like for you? Where do you draw your inspiration?
Well, organically is probably a good word to use just because it’s never something I am anticipating at this point. It’s more the kind of thing where I’ll be walking, or in class, or in a restaurant and be thinking about something and not really paying any attention to the person who’s talking to me, and then a melody line will just kind of pop into my head. I’ll record it really quickly on my phone and then play it on my guitar later to hash it out with some lyrics.
So music first, and then lyrics follow?
I mean, yes, but the concept of the lyrics – it’s kind of like a weird – the concept or what drives the music comes first. The feeling is what actually comes first, then the melody, then the lyrics.
What was the recording process like for the Bent Nail EP?
It was actually something that I was really horrified of before it actually happened, because Julian and Carlos are in an excellent band called Ava Luna. I have always had so so much respect for them as musicians and composers, so in the weeks leading up to the recording I was pretty nervous because I was like “holy shit I’m going to get to work with some of the best musicians I know”. It started off with me being a little shy and timid and not really expressing what I wanted to do, but that was only for the first like two hours and then we just got super comfortable. Over the course of one weekend we recorded all of the songs; it was like two 11-hour days of straight recording.
Does the 7” that you’re releasing have a divergence in sound from the Bent Nail EP?
Yes, there is definitely a divergence, because now I’m playing with a steady line-up of musicians: Ben Scherer [guitar], Max Kupperberg [drums], and Tom Lombardi [bass]. So my composition and writing has definitely taken a turn now that I’m working with other musicians and have other parts to write for. For example, it’s definitely a little louder.
OK, so tell me, where did the inspiration for “Pet Carrot” come from?
(laughs) “Pet Carrot” was honestly, more than anything, written at a very neutral point in my day. I kind of had that little ‘da dum dum dum da dum da dum’…kind of stuck in my head. I don’t know that I had some huge emotional feel for it more than I thought it was fun. I really was not even planning on using that as a real song…it was just kind of like a lyrical exercise – kind of the opposite of “Harvest”. I try to conceal the true message of that song as much as I can…just for fun.
In closing, can you share a favorite performing moment?
Favorite performance moment definitely has to be the time that our drummer, Max Kupperberg, and I ended up somehow opening for Mike Jones a few weeks ago (yes THE Mike Jones, I know really weird). The show was at Sarah Lawrence College and he was actually supposed to play the night before our show, but his flight was delayed so he ended up being tacked on to the end of our bill. I am certain that I will never have another moment as hilarious and satisfying as when our set ended and I said “Thank you, Mike Jones is up next.”
Or check them out live at one of these dates:
December 20 – King Schlong’s Land of Don – Fairfield, CT
December 21 – Brooklyn Night Bazaar – Brooklyn, NY
January 10 – The Dog Morgue – Philadelphia, PA
January 11 – Silent Barn – Brooklyn, NY
January 17 – Trash Bar – Brooklyn, NY
January 24 – New Paltz, NY
January 25 – Boston, MA
February 1 – Death by Audio – Brooklyn, NY
February 14 – SUNY Purchase – Purchase, NY