Photo by Bao Ngo
Palehound's Ellen Kempner Is Learning To Love Herself
Ellen Kempner, a.k.a. Palehound, wants to talk about bodies. To clarify: not "body positivity," which the Boston-based folk-pop singer/songwriter calls "condescending" and "ineffective."
Instead, Kempner, who has recently released a heartfelt third studio album, Black Friday, is more interested in the idea of body acceptance, starting with her own.
The 25-year-old hasn’t always had an easy time talking about her body, which she acknowledges is different than that of your prototypical, waif-thin indie-rock performer. Grappling with her appearance has been a tricky journey for Kempner, who has also struggled with anxiety, depression and the decision to come out as a queer woman, which she did in 2017.
While her previous album, 2017's Dry Food, showcased an honest conversation around sexual identity, Kempner stares down her vulnerability on Black Friday, which ties in themes of self-loathing, the aforementioned acceptence (of herself and others), love and relationships, and radical personal change. A sweetly strummed single called "Aaron," for example, is a gentle ode to her long-term partner, who came recently came out as trans. Speaking to Fader about the track, Kempner said, "I was watching [my partner] have this allegiance to his body and really commit to himself, even though it was really hard and painful. That inspired me also to be like, what can I do to exhibit the same amount of self-love?"
Kempner sat down with the Recording Academy to offer more insight into Black Friday, her not-always-straightforward path to building self-esteem, and how Lizzo gave her an unexpected boost of confidence.
Congrats on Black Friday. Would you tell me a bit about how you arrived at the name, as well as the reasoning behind obscuring your image with a yarn mask on the cover?
I thought that that concept [of "Black Friday"] worked best for being the name of the album because what, to me, it represents is like, the holiday—It's not really a holiday, I guess. It's just kind of like this really kind of dark portrait of us all competing with each other for things, like material things that we're told we need to be happy and successful. And that theme of competition with other people and everyone wanting the same thing and most people not being able to get that thing.
Just that longing that we all have for the same things: to be "happy" and "successful" in life.
That's kind of unrelated to the yarn. The yarn mask is its own thing. I had it commissioned by my friend, she goes by "GAUDMOTHER."
One of my biggest obstacles as a musician in this industry, in this world, is just the kind of pressure, especially as a girl or like a femme person, the pressure to be sexy and the pressure to be an image like that's also crucial, it's as crucial as the music in some ways.
And I have battled a lot of discomfort, and a lot of self-hate as a result of being in this business. So I was thinking, how can I represent that? And then I was thinking, like, well, I would love to be confident enough to put my face on an album cover. Which I see a lot of people do, but I'm not confident enough to do that. So I commissioned a mask of my face.
Yeah, you got me thinking about why people gravitate toward indie-rock circles to begin with, starting in, say—to use my own experience—high school. Indie-rock once felt like a place for misfits to seek refuge. But hey, even that circle has its own standards of traditional beauty! Kind of ironic.
So, so heavily, yeah.
I wonder, what was the first time that you felt that paradox?
Immediately. It was immediate. I was 19 when I started playing shows as Palehound. And you know, when I started I was younger, I was thinner. I was by superficial standards, "hotter." And I definitely felt that pressure immediately, even in the D.I.Y. scene.
My first tour I got really sick, like mentally. I gained a lot of weight, basically. This was in my first year of playing, it was my first tour. That's when I noticed it. I noticed, in general, less engagement with people, and less engagement from, in a way that I was used to before. I don't know, it's really hard to explain. It's really just a feeling. And that's when I was like, “Oh f**k.” And I felt it. I felt resentment towards my body, and I felt the disinterest coming from people because of that. Like, there was a tangible shift, once I gained weight, basically. Where there was a certain kind of support and attention that I wasn't getting anymore.
Wow, yeah. And what was that like for you to realize?
It hit hard. I started panicking. That's when my anxiety [took off]. I mean, I've had really bad anxiety my whole life, but that's when I started having panic attacks and I started being super-conscious about what I ate, and my body. I tried dieting and all these things that just were not working.
Because the depression and anxiety that had been instilled in me, it was hard for me to keep a routine, to lose weight. And it started kind of spiraling for me, a little bit. I was feeling like my body was getting in the way of my dream. There were people that I was playing shows with who were these kind of beautiful, thinner girls that I was watching getting opportunities that I would've wanted to get. I wasn't necessarily competitive in that way. But I think I started seeing things like that and it started really getting in my head, you know?
Of course. Why does now feel like the right time to engage in a conversation about this?
Yeah, in the last album cycle I talked a lot about my queerness for the first time. But I really was not ready to talk about my body that way yet. I, like, had this idea that, oh maybe people won't notice my body if I don't say anything about it. Which is ridiculous. My fear is that if I said anything about it then people would notice.
I don't know, it's just a weird thing. So in a way, over the past few years it's been really bad. My anxiety. And on the last album my anxiety about my body was pretty bad, and I was pretty, you know still kind of intently trying to lose weight in this way that was not healthy. Not in a method that wasn't healthy, but the intention behind it wasn't healthy.
And then basically why I started talking about it, decide to want to write songs about it and talk about it on this record is that I kind of just decided that I don't want to change my body anymore and I don't want to have this battle the rest of my life. You know, with myself, and I kind of basically have tried to embrace self-love a lot more.
You mentioned earlier that you've previously addressed queerness in your music, which you again weave into Black Friday, specifically on "Aaron." Given the song’s subject matter, I wonder if you and your partner have bonded over the idea of feeling uncomfortable in your bodies?
I'm glad that you're asking about my partner because the theme of the album at the end of the day is all of us and our bodies. It doesn't have to be specifically for fat people. It could be for anyone who feels any discomfort about their body that has been placed upon them by this structure, this hellscape that we're all living in.
I hold monumental privilege in my body. I don't have to worry about being killed for how my body looks. Many, many people in this country do [have to worry about that], and in this world do.
But anyway, my partner, yeah, he's trans, and he came out to me about a year before he came out to everyone else. So there was a year that was when I was recording this album, that the two of us were having these really heavy conversations about him and what it meant for him to come out, and what he needed to do to feel happy in his body and if it was worth all of the risks. Like social risks, I mean. Not medical, or anything.
I love him so much, and I adore him and his body so much, and he adores me and my body so much, but we hated ourselves. And so we would just have these really sh*tty conversations where we're like, “Why are you with a person like me?”
That actually inspired the song "Bullsh*t." It’s about having the same conversation where you're just trying to put yourself down while raising the other one up. And over all that time it really made both of us think about ourselves and our bodies. And, why do we hate each other so much?
And so it led to a lot of conversations about changing our bodies and how him changing his body is the absolute right thing to do, if that's what he wants to do. He can take testosterone, he can get top surgery. But for me changing my body and losing weight would be the unhealthy thing. So just talking about our situations that way, and adapting and becoming comfortable in your skin and what that means, really, in two very different contexts.
That’s wonderful that you have such a strong support system in each other. Feelings of self-doubt and insecurity can so easily manifest in being treated like garbage by emotionally abusive partners.
Totally. And that's why so many sh*tty bros joke about going after insecure girls, you know?
Definitely. You know, I also really latched on to the lyric "I think I’m due for another sh*tty tattoo." What significance does body art hold for you?
Oh, yeah. It's really funny ‘cause people have been asking me about that song. But that's kind of to me like the joke song from the album. I try not to write poppy, yucky stuff like that. Last year I got like a bunch of stick-and-pokes for the first time, and some tattoos, and I kind of was finding myself do it in this way that it just made me love my body more. It was so great to have control over my body that way. To be like yeah, I'm making this stupid decision to get this stupid thing tattooed on my ankle, but that's really empowering. And that feels really good, you know? And it kind of was like yeah, I had to kind of like make sure I wasn't getting too many tattoos at a certain point ‘cause I could see how it could get addicting for that reason.
Yeah, that song is about the euphoria I felt when I found a way that I could take ownership of my body.
It’s been heartening to see pop culture engage more actively in a conversation about representation, whether it’s to do with diverse body types, sexuality, gender identity or racial background. For example, when we see shows like Hulu’s Shrill, or hear Lizzo's music, does this create a sense of optimism in you? That society is ready to acknowledge and showcase our differences in a more nuanced way?
Well, even though our approach is really different and our music's really different, Lizzo has been monumentally inspiring. I’ve been following her for years. She's been giving me so much. You know her new album is like this joyous celebration of her body, and this really firm allegiance with it that she has is just really, really badass and cool. I've watched people’s reactions to her to see how that goes for her. If she gets a lot of hate, if she gets love. So that was really cool to see someone achieve more than I would've thought someone could in that position. I guess I underestimated myself through underestimating her, to some extent.