Ellen Kempner is “just a really nervous person.”
A really nervous person that makes vulnerable, touching, indie rock as the front woman and the creative force behind Allston-based Palehound.
Being the top-billed local act at Boston Calling is “a major honor” for Kempner. Especially since she has lived barely two years in Boston, a city reluctant to welcome outsiders – a city with neighborhoods in which 30 years of residency can make you “new.”
Kempner moved to Boston in part to expand her horizons, while still being close to her family’s home in Connecticut. Moving to a new city has its difficulties, but ultimately, she says, “I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.” Having grown up in suburban Connecticut, she was more familiar with the nearby New York music scene, where going to shows was an “every-man-for-themselves” affair, and concertgoers were weary to socialize. Boston turned out to be quite different.
Nearly two years later, Kempner still feels fondly for the Boston music community. “There is kind of a no-bullshit attitude and people are just really nice…I feel like in Boston I kind of caught the vibe that people wanted to hang out and get to know me,” Kempner says. “I am really passionate about the scene because I think it is a scene where everybody else is very passionate. It’s very inclusive.”
And though she may be new to Boston, Kempner and company – at the moment, Jesse Weiss on drums and Dave Khoshtinat on bass – have worked hard to get to this point. She recorded demos in Garageband while still in high school, playing all of the instruments (“crappily”) herself. Dan Goldin, the co-founder of Exploding in Sound heard these demos, so when Kempner recorded her Bent Nail EP in 2013 with Julian Fader and Carlos Hernandes of Ava Luna (“They were like heroes of mine at the time, and I mean, they still are”) Goldin reached out. “I was like, ‘Oh sweet! Maybe he will book me a show or something!’ I had no idea he would actually want to release it.”
And the name Palehound? Well, it doesn’t mean a hell of a lot – not that there’s anything wrong with that (see: The National, Arctic Monkeys, etc.). “I was putting a lot of anxiety and effort into finding a name,” Kempner explained. “I just kind of decided to settle with something that I felt represented myself, not really with any kind of explicit reason.”
With the Bent Nail EP Palehound joined Speedy Ortiz, Porches, and Kal Marks with the twelfth release on the then-Boston-based, nascent record label Exploding in Sound. Palehound’s first full-length, Dry Food, followed in August of 2015.
With Dry Food Palehound received more attention: an 8.0 from Pitchfork, a Tiny Desk Concert with NPR, and a well-deserved if still oddly mainstream review in Rolling Stone. But with this sort of modest indie music success comes a downside: having your music dissected, explained, and described by music critics and fans.
Not to mention having music writers typecast you as “a really nervous person.”
Still, Kempner characterizes her music best: “I’d say it’s kind of like journal-rock, just all of my biggest fears splurted onto some vinyl, no different from writing a diary, really.”
On the one hand Kempner was thrilled, though surprised: “You always hope that people will like the music that you make, but I really didn’t see it coming.” On the other, she was nervous: “It was kind of nerve-wracking, because it was a pretty vulnerable album and now more people are hearing this than I ever thought would.”
When we saw Palehound open for Torres in January, Kempner and her crew gave a strong – if nervy – performance before escaping to the road to avoid a blizzard. As she sang her quiet, diary-like lyrics (“You made beauty a monster to me/So I’m kissing all the ugly things I see”), the chatter from the back of the sold-out crowd was almost as audible. Her demeanor was seemingly nonchalant and her style blasé, her look intentionally forgettable, an every-woman rock quasi-star. Her stage presence, neither brimming with confidence nor shattering under pressure, showed the duality of being vulnerable: it can be simultaneously terrifying and rewarding.
In the week and a half leading up to Boston Calling, Palehound have hit the road with fellow Bostonians Ursula, just one local band Kempner is excited about. In addition to Ursula (“They’re amazing – I absolutely love them”), Kempner had kind words for other up-and-coming local acts like Bat House, Ricecrackers, and Birthing Hips (“They’re fucked up good”).
But after the mini-tour with Ursula and Boston Calling, Kempner says her main focus is “on just writing the next record.” When that record will materialize – and how it may sound – is still unknown, but it likely will feature more vulnerable journal-rock. And with the praise Kempner has received, her harshest critique may be herself. She describes her own music as “definitely neurotic, semi-self-indulgent” and “very flinching, like not unflinching – the opposite of unflinching.”
But ultimately she concluded, “I hate saying shit like this, it makes me really nervous.”
Palehound plays the Xfinity Red Stage at Boston Calling on Saturday at 12:55 PM.