On Palehound's first album, singer and guitarist Ellen Kempner wrote about other people from a distance. Written while she was still "in a bubble" at college, the record's breakthrough single " Healthier Folk" saw her "watching cuties hit the half-pipe." On " Cinnamon," she was "peeking at the centerfolds." That record, Dry Food, was a product of spending a lot of time alone.
"I wrote it when I was really isolating myself," Kempner admits. "I was just very depressed and very socially anxious and in a weird social environment where I didn't feel particularly comfortable."
Kempner’s talking to me on the phone from a warehouse in Somerville, MA, where she works packing remainders for the nearby Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. Since writing Dry Food, she’s dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College, moved to Boston, and formed the kinds of friendships she found herself missing at school. Palehound’s second album, A Place I’ll Always Go, is correspondingly populated with new characters — not people Kempner sees from afar, but people she holds closely.
One of those characters haunts the new album as the subject of the tender eulogy “If You Met Her.” Lily, one of the first people Kempner befriended after moving to Boston, appears as a “friendly ghost,” both in the lyrics of the song and in the places around the city where she and Kempner used to spend time together. "That's just one of those things that when it happens to you, you feel like you're in someone else's life,” Kempner says of Lily's passing. Though she could feel the tragedy creeping up — two of her high school classmates died unexpectedly not long before her friend did, and she reads their deaths now as a kind of foreshadowing — it still devastated her in a way she’d never felt before.
“[She] was doing stuff that was not necessarily safe. I was worried about her but I was like, ‘No, she's going to be fine, people do reckless shit,’” Kempner says. "And then it wasn't fine. That was really, really hard because it was something that I felt like I had been preparing for so I was kind of like, why didn't I do anything to stop it? There was that really huge feeling of guilt and self-hatred that followed for me where I was like, damn, I'm so caught up in my own shit that I couldn't see a friend of mine was struggling. I heard all these stories about what you're supposed to do and I just didn't do it. That was a really heavy thing for me that lasted for a really long time, like a year. And I've done enough work with myself to believe now that there's nothing I probably could have done and it's not my fault. That's the biggest development I've made in the time since her passing.”
The song frames Kempner’s grief gently, through snapshots of fond memories and broad ruminations on mortality. “You were young but you’ve got the answers / To the questions that your parents pointed to their god,” she sings. There's a quintessentially Boston anecdote about the time Kempner’s friend laughed at her for getting a bad doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts, and then there’s the lyrically ambiguous hook, where Kempner tries to center herself in the midst of her loss: “When the dust clears / Where’s my body?” By the song’s finish, Kempner’s imagining her friend almost as a presence looking on from beyond, proud of her for how she’s continued to live her life. “I’m with someone new / And I know that you / Would love her / If you met her.”
Healing from that loss, Kempner says, "took a lot of change in my life. It took me finding a partner that I really loved, someone that I could process this with. Really nice, good things started happening. I was going on really cool tours, and I was meeting really cool people. I'm still seeing this really great person. Once I started getting happy, it added this whole other layer of grief because I was like, ‘You and I were both really struggling when we were friends and we used to talk about things getting better, and I'm in this future now, and I wish I could still talk to you about it. You could have had a happy future too.’”
It took time, but eventually that anger and bitterness subsided and turned into something sweeter. "I developed more empathy for her, I guess. I was like, ‘Wow, the world really is just going on and you're not seeing it,'” Kempner says. "She was always really stoked when I would do stuff with music. In a way, me continuing to do this cool shit with music, I feel like I'm making her proud. So that's a good feeling.”
A Place I’ll Always Go runs thick not just with grief and healing, but with the excitement, anxiety, and fear that accompanies the pursuit of relationships, both platonic and romantic. Kempner’s late friend is one of the more vivid characters here, but she’s just one presence among many. “Carnations” colors the exhilaration of a major crush with the album’s hookiest melodies and guitar riffs, while “Room” delineates the tension of carrying a queer relationship through your private and public life, indoors and outdoors: “Call us sinners but we eat all our dinners in my room,” Kempner sings, a line that both relishes the safety of domestic space while hinting at the danger lurking outside of it.
While rock and pop music has historically offered little room for queer women songwriters, Kempner notes that Palehound is riding a new wave of artists claiming a cultural space more easily held by gay men. "I didn't even know about gay women until long after I knew about gay men,” she tells me. “About Elton John and stuff like that. There was kind of this thing with queer women where it was very grouped. When I learned about it, all I learned was Lilith Fair and women burning their bras. People joke about it. I remember being younger and being totally like, 'I don't want to be a gay woman because of how my friends laugh at Melissa Etheridge.’ It's sad. People are more threatened by queer women in media. I was scared to listen to Tegan and Sara for a while openly even though I liked their music because I didn't want people assuming I was gay.”
More recently, though, queer women artists have adopted some of the glamour and power that music culture has historically associated with men. New music videos from fellow indie rock acts Girlpool and Torres openly depict lesbian sexuality. Though active before the current wave, both Sia and Tegan and Sara have seen a recent surge in popularity. And this year, Halsey and Lauren Jauregui dueted on a highly visible pop song explicitly about their relationships with women — something that would likely have struck pop listeners as excessive or creepy a decade ago (I’m old enough to remember my peers vocalizing their disgust at that Britney/Madonna kiss at the 2003 VMAs). “It's just a matter of accessibility, I think, for straight people,” Kempner says. "That's what it all comes down to in any kind of media: Can straight people accept it? It takes someone like St. Vincent who's dating young models and wearing designer clothes and is just this beautiful person to break that barrier. But I feel like that's been a long time coming, honestly, as far as mainstream acceptance of queer women.”
Kempner’s found something of an oasis in Boston’s local music community. "I make an active effort to surround myself with other queer women and queer people in general,” she says. "I'm in a bit of a bubble in Boston. The Boston music scene has a lot of queer women in it, which is awesome and one of the things I love so much about it here.” In Palehound’s current lineup, Kempner is joined by bassist Larz Brogan, another queer musician from Boston who also fronts the band dæphne. "I've mostly played with men before this,” Kempner says. "I love them. They're all really, really great people. But when I'm the only queer woman in a space, it's a little weird. I kind of wanted to take one with me just so that would never happen again.”
Queer art is often marked by anxiety; death and alienation tend to loom around its edges. While there’s plenty of both in Palehound’s music, A Place I’ll Always Go also offers its share of comfort. It ends with “At Night I’m Alright With You,” a waltz orbiting around a synthesized organ that plays like a balm to the nerves heard on the rest of the album. In contrast to the buzz of “Carnations,” the closing track is a welcome comedown and a soothing sendoff. It’s a love song as refuge, an oasis of relief. If there’s one person in whom you can find safety, sometimes it makes the rest of the chaos survivable. By the time she leaves us, Kempner lets us know that she’s going to be OK.