While Brooklyn rocker Mitski soundchecks at PhilaMOCA, Ellen Kempner of Palehound snaps a picture on her iPhone as she cuddles on a couch with Ben Hopkins, the frontperson for the glam-punk duo PWR BTTM.
“It’s the first night of tour, and we’re already in love,” Kempner says, laughing as she posts the picture on Twitter. Soon, the small Philadelphia art gallery will fill up with a sold-out crowd, which is nerve-wracking for the introverted twenty-two-year-old, but for now, Kempner is only concerned with getting to know the musicians who will accompany her on one of the most anticipated indie tours of the season.
As an openly queer woman, Kempner feels fortunate to play on a tour where her music isn’t seen as a novelty. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my god, a bill that has two female-fronted bands! And a non-binary band!’” she says. “I [have] really tried, especially this year, to surround myself with this genuine community.” Kempner’s music evokes the same yearning for acceptance. On “Healthier Folk,” the second song off of Palehound’s stellar, debut full-length Dry Food (Exploding In Sound), she sings, “I only feel half right around healthier folk.”
Growing up in suburban Westport, Connecticut Kempner felt constricted by her surroundings, creating the tension and loneliness has come to define her music. “It was very whitebred and faux democratic,” Kempner said. “It was like, ‘Oh, I support gay marriage, but I don’t want my kid to be gay.’” She remembers practicing extra hard for male-dominated Battle of the Bands competitions so the other contestants and judges would take her seriously. But even when classmates and parents of friends made her feel insecure about her gender or sexuality, she could rely on her family for support. “My parents were always cool with me being a queer girl who just wanted to rock out,” Kempner says. In “Seekonk,” the melancholy final song on Dry Food, Kempner sings, “But now I’m not alone ‘cause I got my mom, my dad, my sister, and the dogs.”
When Kempner discovered the music scene in New York City—about an hour away from Westport—she found a community where she felt accepted. “I always felt this stir inside of me, where I thought that there was something out there that I was missing,” she said. “I saw it in movies, and I heard of Riot Grrrl, but I didn’t know if it really existed.” After graduating high school, Kempner enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, and immersed herself in a thriving music scene. The private liberal arts college wasn’t a good fit for Kempner, so after her struggles with anxiety and depression escalated she left school to waitress in Boston and work on her music.
When Exploding in Sound picked up Palehound’s Bent Nail EP, pursuing music full-time became more of a reality. The independent Brooklyn label is a perfect fit for Palehound. Kempner even recorded Bent Nail with labelmates Julian Fader and Carlos Hernandez of Ava Luna, a punk and R&B band that Kempner names her biggest influence.
Before doors open at PhilaMOCA, PWR BTTM’s Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce change into floor-length dresses and put on glittering makeup while Kempner remains comfortable in a white t-shirt proclaiming, “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.” Though she’s apprehensive about performing in front of a sold-out crowd, Kempner feels confident and prepared for her performance. “We’re more of a plug-in-and-go kind of band,” Palehound’s bassist Dave Khostinat says after they choose to skip their soundcheck. When PWR BTTM takes the stage with wild and energetic banter, Bruce gives a shout out from behind the drums to Palehound, hyping the crowd for Kempner before she takes the stage. Standing by the merch table with Mitski, Kempner boos at her new friends PWR BTTM and laughs.
Onstage, Kempner clutches her green Harmony guitar, timid and shrouded in her thick, curly black hair, but when she starts to play, she captivates the crowd with her masterful lo-fi, melodious punk, especially on songs like “Molly” and “Cinammon,” that feature dominant bass lines that get her fans to feel the music. As she tunes her guitar between songs, she talks about how the entire tour was planned via Facebook chat, yet now it’s finally happening for real. Even when Kempner admits that she feels a bit nervous, the crowd still cheers her on.
“I was a really shy kid growing up, and I turned to music because I really felt it. It’s a curse and a blessing,” Kempner said.
“I never like going to parties and hanging out with lots of people, but I’m in clubs every night with lots of people! They could be judging the way I look, or judging the way I play guitar, or they could be judging me for singing about girls. I’m so thankful for it, which is the weird thing. But for a while, that was my worst nightmare.”
It’s not obvious that Kempner isn’t a natural-born performer, though. She doesn’t miss a beat as she sings harmonies over her intricate guitar riffs. “It’s worth it just to have a great group of fans at shows,” Kempner says about tour. “That’s what really makes it worth it at the end of the day, after all the anxiety.” Any self-doubt she describes seems to fade more and more as Kempner performs the dynamic Dry Food LP in near entirety, closing her eyes and rocking back and forth as she connects with her glum, yet hopeful songs.
When the show ends, Kempner hangs out with her band behind their merch table, which features the tongue-in-cheek product “Nailhound by Palehound,” a series of nail polishes named after Palehound’s records (Dry Food is a vibrant hot pink). The nail polish get a lot of laughs while the band talks animatedly with fans, elated after a successful first night of tour.
“I’m proud of how far I’ve been able to come in my depression and anxiety,” Kempner says, looking forward to the rest of her shows with Mitski and PWR BTTM. “Part of me working through being a seriously anxious person is just talking about it and being honest about it. I don’t want to keep it in and be ashamed of that. I want people to be able to relate to that. I want people to know that you can do what you want to do, and it’s possible to make it through that shit.”
As Palehound drives away from PhilaMOCA, the van fills with laughter as Kempner and drummer Jesse Weiss tease bassist Dave Khostinat about how he has to drive to Washington, D.C. the next day (“It’s D-Day!” he jests). It may not be easy to travel the country with little privacy in a gear-packed van, but when an emotional day ends in jokes, it seems like Kempner is going to be just fine, continuing to rock out in each city she visits.