Ellen Kempner navigates love, grief on band's sophomore full-length
As Palehound's sophomore album kicks off, frontwoman Ellen Kempner sings about keeping a would-be partner at arm's length. “Don't come near me/I don't wanna fall in love,” she coos in a near-whisper. But as the album closes with “At Night I'm Alright With You,” the musician sounds wholly at peace, repeating the song's title amid a lush backdrop that radiates a lullaby calm as she huddles beneath the sheets with her lover.
Though these album bookends are purposeful — “That was definitely intentional; I wanted [A Place I'll Always Go] to tell a story and follow my actual experiences,” Kempner said in an early August interview during a lunch stop from the road — it's not exactly a direct journey, the musician following a twisting, knotted path as she navigates relationship uncertainty, career pressures and the deaths of her grandmother and a close friend, twin losses that informed the record's more muted tone.
“What was going on in my life at the time was more solemn and serious, and I felt like my life turned from me being a college student and just fucking around to dealing with some real shit,” said Kempner, who joins her band in opening for Waxahatchee at Park Street Saloon on Tuesday, Aug. 15. “It was a reflection of the headspace I was in. That's how grief works. You forget about it and then you remember it. It's jarring every time and it's surreal.”
Going into recording sessions to begin work on the follow-up to Palehound's well-received full-length debut, Dry Food, from 2015, Kempner struggled with the weight of expectation, initially writing songs that were either riff-heavy or sounded similar to things that had worked for the band in the past.
“I kind of had to fight how it impacted how I wrote songs, because I've always written songs a little self-indulgently, in a way, and I've never had to think about the fact there's going to be an actual audience,” she said. “But then I was like, ‘You know what? I don't really care. I'm just going to write what I want to write.'”
In turn, the songs grew slower and more introspective, with Kempner confronting outsized, weighty issues (death, love) by focusing on life's minutiae. Witness “If You Met Her,” where, atop rough, strummed guitar and the heavy thwack of drums, the musician recalls a trip to Dunkin' Donuts with her late friend where the two laughed and argued over pastry selections.
“I've always been super nostalgic about everything, and when this happened I put so much more weight on places and objects that I associated with the people I lost,” Kempner said. “It was dizzying.”
Regardless, the musician gradually learned to navigate grief, and the album's closer purposefully points toward a brighter future.
“That's where I am now. I'm on an optimistic note,” Kempner said. “I found someone I've been seeing … so I felt it was fitting to end that way on the record.”