Interview with Ellen Kempner – Palehound

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Boston’s Palehound will bring their unique twist on alternative rock to Casa del Popolo on November 24th, opening for Mitski. We had a chat with singer/guitarist Ellen Kempner about Dad Rock, Girl Power and the band’s Dry Food album…

Montreal Rocks (MR): You will be coming to Montreal shortly; will this be your first time here?

Ellen Kempner (EK): No, we were here a couple of months ago in June at Bar Le Ritz with Speedy Ortiz & Alex G.. We didn’t really get to spend much time in Montreal, so hopefully we will be able to see more of the city this time around.

MR: Same here, I don’t get to spend enough time in Boston.

EK: You aren’t missing very much! Montreal is cooler then Boston, I’m pretty sure.

MR: You started playing an instrument when you were around 10 years old. Do you remember what inspired you to start so young? Was there a band that got your attention?

EK: Actually, my dad plays but not professionally. He was a drummer when he was back in college and later on he started playing guitar and writing dad rock-y songs. I grew up hearing him. I love my dad a lot, so I just wanted to do what he was doing and I started playing guitar because of that. He actually gave me my first lesson.

MR: That’s a great role model to follow. I was sitting last night with my wife, sipping a glass of wine, joined by my daughter and we were trying to nail down whom does Ellen sound like? We kept saying we know that sound, that voice. The riffs sound like Courtney Barnett…

EK: Oh, sweet, thank-you.

MR: …I am reminded of Liz Phair, good old 90’s indie, but my daughter doesn’t know her. My wife finally found it; it was Romy of the XX, the sultry cool voice. A combination of all three I would say.

EK: Thank-you. That’s a huge complement.

MR: Your first album had more of a coffee house feel, but the latest album “Dry Food” was much more collaborative, even if you played every instrument except for the drums. The name “Dry Food” denotes preserving something by removing water. Is there something behind that? Were you trying to preserve something?

EK: No, it came from the song Dry Food, so there wasn’t much intention behind that, just part of the atmosphere of that song. When I think of Dry Food, I think of feeding a pet dry food, something very bland. That was the theme of the song, living kind of a slubby, slow dry life. I named the album after the song as it best reflected what I was trying to communicate with the record.

MR: When you think of life as being dry, maybe it’s missing something: the water of life. What was missing in your life at that time?

EK: I was going through a very depressed time. I was in college and wanted to drop out, as it wasn’t a good situation. I felt like I was being stifled and that there was so much more that I could be doing with my time. I was locked into this atmosphere where there was a lot of sexual assault on the campus and I felt I needed to close myself off and not go out and partake of the world. I spent a lot of time in bed sulking, down by the whole culture I was surrounded by. It was during this time that I was writing the record.

MR: Hopefully that process allowed you to have some introspection and get out of the funk.

EK: It totally did, and I ended up dropping out so it worked out well.

MR: Probably the best decision you could have made. If you ever became a role model for women, what one lesson would you want them to remember?

EK: I would say push yourself more then what you are usually comfortable with. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. I feel like I spent a lot of time locking myself in this ideal of “me” or as a girl in general. I was shy, going along with others and doing things very comfortably. I would do things that were easy and not draw attention to myself. At a certain point, I realized that that wasn’t going to work; I needed to be assertive and more confident in myself. Especially as a girl on a bill with other men, you have to work and push yourself a lot harder to catch people’s attention. You have to abandon that fear of disappointing others or coming off as particularly agreeable all the time.

MR: Was that comfort zone the performance aspect of going up on stage or was it more showing your material to the world and being accepted for what you write and not writing for other people?

EK: The latter, you noticed that the first album was more like coffee house music because I was playing it safe. I feel like I was playing it safe and didn’t want to do anything too drastic. For this last record, I pushed myself to have a lot going into it and tackle some sounds that I wasn’t particularly confident in at first. It was a lot about trusting myself to make the right decisions and not just coloring inside the lines.

MR: We can definitely sense a progression with “Dry Food” and I sense that in college you took a life decision, which got you out of your comfort zone. You were expected to finish college…

EK: That was a big step in terms of strapping in and creating the record. It would have been easier to stay in school, follow expectations to graduate, but it just didn’t feel right to me. Leaving was one of the best things I ever did.

MR: Obviously schooling is good for some, but for others it is a hindrance.

EK: Yes. I would have been a senior this year and I went back the other day to visit friends and some are happy, yet some others aren’t. Some wish they had taken time off before their senior year to pursue other things they are interested in.

MR: A lot of people end up not knowing what they want to do till later on in life and those are the years where you have energy. For you, you had emotions and energy and a craving to create and I suspect you created Dry Foods at the proper time in your life. It was the right time to come out.

EK: Yes, that’s how I feel too. It was a long time coming, some of the songs are over a year old but I felt it was time to focus on the material and put it out there.

MR: Do you feel that when you are putting these songs out there, you are getting over something or do you want to continue with that feeling that you had and have a need to process it a little while longer? Either: I put it out there for the world to hear and now I can move on or are you still processing it a little?

EK: Hard to say, it depends on the song. There are things that I will never stop processing and work on it and you will hear it in every record I make. For others, I put a song out there to communicate something and tell people what is going on as well as some things I will definitely be able to get over as a result of putting myself out there more.

MR: I like your quirky style of word play, so sometimes the truth may be hidden in the word play.

EK: Yes, it is and sometimes I’m just babbling.

MR: Sometimes it’s good to have a little mystery, not give the answer of why you wrote the song: “He broke my heart” That’s a little too obvious sometimes.

EK: Yes. It’s actually harder for me to write honestly like that.

MR: If I was to ask you what is the one band or artist you would love to open up for?

EK: Courtney Barnett is pretty awesome; I’m kind of into her right now. It would be cool to get to hear her live every night. I’ve never seen her live, but I have seen videos of her playing live. It’s pretty inspiring and it would be fun.

MR: What if the roles were reversed and she was opening up for you, how would you feel?

EK: That would be weird, it wouldn’t feel right.

MR: Yes, it would be weird. There are a lot of people whom I’m sure influenced you over the course of your life and you never know what the future holds. Do you have any more songs in you, anything else that wants to come out?

EK: Yes, I’m starting to demo some stuff for the next record. I’m not sure when that will start to be recorded, but definitely I’m thinking a lot about it now, definitely sooner then later.

MR: Will you be playing some new songs on this tour…test the waters?

EK: Yes actually, we have one that we will probably play on this tour, see how people react.

MR: I appreciate your time and your open and honest talk.

Post Mortem: I really applaud Ellen’s transparency and inner strength to talk about her past depression and how she had to get out of her comfort zone to have her voice heard. You can see a woman who broke out of her shell and grabbed hold of life. This is apparent in the sound she created with Dry Food, which has been on my iPhone playlist for a couple of days now. It’s obvious that by exploring her true self and sharing it with the world has been a great move in her career. To have Rolling Stone Magazine give you a 4 out of 5 star as well as other media outlets giving the same accolades pretty much assure us that this next show at Casa Del Popolo on November 24th, 2015 will be one not to be missed. I believe the next time this artist will grace us with her visit will be in a much bigger venue, so take the opportunity now to say that you saw Palehound in an intimate setting. I am looking forward to seeing the progression of Ellen trusting her musical instincts.

Review – Randal Wark

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