Palehound tackles grief, love and sexual identity in new album; plays Pittsburgh July 11 | Pittsburgh City Paper

Palehound tackles grief, love and sexual identity in new album; plays Pittsburgh July 11

“I used to really be worried about being pigeonholed as an artist.”

Palehound’s Ellen Kempner
Palehound’s Ellen Kempner

Grief is one of the most powerful emotions we’re forced to encounter during our lifetimes. Since music is often an outlet for such potent sentiments, there’s been no shortage of grief-laden albums since, well, the invention of albums. 

Palehound’s A Place I’ll Always Go offers a sobering yet ultimately hopeful take on anguish. In conjunction with its theme of intertwining love and loss, the album sonically oscillates between warm, inviting guitar licks and dreary, almost funereal-like basslines. This dynamic is best represented in the song “If You Met Her,” an oddly melodic, bass-driven track that singer/songwriter Ellen Kempner says was “an emotional experience, as the whole record was” to create.

 “That song is about the feeling after losing someone where this nostalgia is everywhere in your life,” the Boston-based 23-year-old tells City Paper. “You walk down the street to get a coffee at the Dunkin’ and can’t even do that without thinking about them.”

 Kempner effectively captures that looming feeling in mournful lines like, “Now it’s April sixth / first one that you’ll miss / you were young but you’ve got the answers / to the questions that your parents pointed to their god.”

 “I kind of wrote [that] on the year anniversary of my friend’s passing. Sort of like a letter to her in a way, and how I miss her and how things are going well for me and stuff,” Kempner says.

 The “going well” part arrives during the conclusion of the song, as Kempner softly intonates, “I’m with someone new / and I know that you would love her if you met her,” as if she truly is communicating directly to her subject. A song like this — so deeply personal that it earns legitimate empathy from its listener — relies on the frankness of the songwriter, and Kempner’s narratives on this record are particularly authentic — even more so than on past works.

 “I just kind of became more comfortable with myself, and decided that a lot of the musicians that I really love and connect with are really honest with themselves, so I was inspired, honestly,” she says.

 This openness not only comes through in lines about her friend’s death, but also during the romantic portion of the record, during which she references her queer relationship. Gone are androgynous lines like, “mouth ajar, watching cuties hit the half-pipe,” in the standout track “Healthier Folk,” from Palehound’s 2015 debut full-length, Dry Food. Now, a straight-up love song like “At Night I’m Alright With You” is affirmed by the very title of “If You Met Her” to be about Kempner and her female partner.

 “I used to really be worried about being pigeonholed as an artist,” she says, referring to being either tokenized or placed into a bubble for identifying as a queer musician, as many still are. However, as bold as it is, Kempner doesn’t phrase her newfound openness as some sort of grandiose proclamation. She makes it seem like it was just the logical thing to do in order to maintain her earnest relationship with her budding fan base — as well as with her loved ones. 

“Part of the reason I came out in my music in a bigger way was because I had queer friends and wanted to connect with them,” she says. “I want it to be relatable to everyone. The songs are about being queer, but are also just about love. And I feel like that’s something that’s pretty universal.”

 As interesting as the record is lyrically, it’s also a noticeable maturation compositionally from Dry Food. Given that it’s a couple tracks longer, there was room for a choppy, mechanical intro like “Hunter’s Gun,” a lo-fi acoustic cut like “Silver Toaster” (which features a delightful banjo solo), and the moody, rhythmic “Backseat.” All of these are interspersed between Palehound’s signature brand of groovy, ridged yet soothing indie rock that’s more conducive to “oohs” than “ahhs.”

However, it’s the album’s title and album art, a colorful drawing of a grocery store, that tie it all together beautifully.

 “Grocery shopping is very meditative for me,” Kempner says. “It was a place I went when my friend passed away. It’s kind of a mundane thing that allows you to think a lot better. Then my relationship with the grocery store changed when I started seeing my partner, which was a representation of how our relationship was manifesting itself.”

 As for the title, Kempner says she got the phrase from her best friend, who was working on a lot of the record’s insert art.

 “They texted me during this period of time when I was anxious about naming the record and said, ‘Your record is a place I’ll always go to feel close with my best friend,’” Kempner says.