Palehound’s Ellen Kempner is Learning to Love Herself
We’re in a confused age of fad diets, meditation apps and Reiki classes — all looking for a fleeting sense of stability in a world that often feels like it’s falling apart. But for Palehound’s Ellen Kempner, inner contentment isn’t a walk in the park: you may have to sacrifice almost everything.
Her new album, Black Friday, out Friday, June 7, is full of lessons in self-love and self-ownership: “Stick ‘n Poke” is about getting a poorly advised tattoo on purpose. “It’s about feeling out of control of my own body, then taking action and taking control,” she tells TIDAL. “It seems reckless, but it’s strangely empowering.”
On the other side of the coin, “Aaron” was inspired by a deeply profound change: her partner of three and a half years’ transition process. His decision touched Kempner to her core. “He’s just been happier than I’ve ever seen him,” she says. “[He’s] doing what he needed to do with his body and his mind.”
Kempner’s cross to bear has been sizeism, one of the only discriminations that still, unfortunately, feels like fair game for criticism in popular culture. On the single “Worthy,” she addresses this unflinchingly: “I think I hate my body/Until it’s next to yours.” Kempner labored over this line, unsure if the confession went too far. But, as always, her courage won out. “I’ve never had anyone heckle me for being too vulnerable,” she says with a hint of hard-won confidence.
Read on for an interview with Palehound about Lizzo, why “health” exists on a sliding scale and bad tattoos.
What do you feel it means to truly love yourself?
I feel like my definition of that changes constantly as I get closer and closer to it. For a while, it just meant not hating myself and not having that extreme opposite feeling, and then it meant being content, and then it meant physically being OK with how I look and accepting my body.
Now, I’m just kind of striving for some kind of correlation between my body and my mind, and a love between the two of them I haven’t gotten yet. I think it just means having your body, mind and heart on the same page. Not conforming to what other people think. I think it’s hard to name exactly what self-love is because it’s so different for so many people.
How do you fight against conforming?
As a fat person, a lot of my life I was told that to love myself, I had to lose weight and treat my body ‘healthier.’ But every time I tried to do that, it just led to more and more self-hate. It was a losing game.
I think a lot of people internalize that, that self-love has to do with looking like everyone else and conforming and subscribing to diets. That was a big step for me. Learning that self-love is not losing weight, but being happy with how I look and loving myself for how I am.
What tools or resources did you have to overcome this?
Honestly, the Lizzo album, Cuz I Love You. The discourse around that was shocking to me. It gave me a lot of hope. It’s just this woman accepting who she is and not changing and just being beloved by everyone and inspiring people that way.
The song ‘Aaron’ is about your partner’s transition process. I’m sure that was an intense thing to witness.
My partner embraced his self-love in the bravest way I’ve ever seen anybody do. He loved himself enough to do something that’s extremely hard. It’s a huge sacrifice, transitioning. Of course, it’s intense; we’ve been together for three and a half years and there’s a lot of emotions involved for both of us. It’s scary for him.
But it’s so beautiful, really. He’s just been happier than I’ve ever seen him. Him doing that and staying true to himself and doing what he needed to do with his body and his mind was really inspiring to me.
‘Stick ‘n Poke’ is about wanting to get a ‘shitty tattoo,’ a permanent thing. What themes were you digging into there?
It’s about feeling out of control of my own body, then taking action and taking control. It seems reckless, but it’s strangely empowering, getting a shitty tattoo. That’s a decision only I can make about my body and I don’t care if you think it’s stupid. I did it! It’s a way that I took control of my own body.
Sounds like the opposite of ‘Aaron.’ That song’s about a profound transformation, and this is a superficial, poorly thought-out one.
Yeah! So superficial, but so permanent. Those moments where it’s like, ‘Fuck it, it’s just a body.’
Your singing voice is so plain and relatable — a feature, not a bug. What’s your relationship with your own voice like?
My relationship with my voice has been so strange throughout the years. I never took a voice lesson or anything in my life. That’s probably why I sound like that. At the end of the day, I don’t really consider myself a singer.
For example, I saw Julia Jacklin perform last week. That’s a singer. She’s got this gorgeous, unbelievable voice. That’s something I respect so much and love. But also, I can acknowledge that’s not really what I have. So I work with my voice when I write songs, and I write songs that fit my range.
On this last record, I felt the most self-conscious about my voice than I’ve ever been, because we were trying to get these really good, emotional takes. That took a lot out of me. And then, having to listen to your own voice over and over again and pick the best take is something that makes me feel insane.
But I’m really happy with how it came out. I feel like with every record I do, tracking vocals gets harder and harder.
What kind of singer can you not stand?
I don’t like baby voice. I don’t like anything that sounds forced. I feel like baby voice is a cutesy thing people do sometimes. It doesn’t sound very genuine sometimes. That’s about it.
Give me a lyric on Black Friday where you thought, ‘This is too much, I shouldn’t reveal this,’ but then you sang it anyway.
I think the line in ‘Worthy’ when I said, ‘I think I hate my body/Until it’s next to yours.’ That was a tough one for me to stick to. It was me admitting that I hated my body. I thought that was a sign of weakness, or something that went against what I was trying to convey in the song.
It’s embarrassing to have that thought and to project it. It took me a second to make sure that’s what I actually wanted. But at the end of the day, I tried a couple of other lyrics there, but nothing was as effective to me. That’s the obstacle I face in my songs sometimes. Getting in my own way, and letting myself step out of my own way.
Do you wonder how this confessional material will strike the average listener, hearing you for the first time onstage?
Of course. That’s something that scares me a lot of the time. But I’ve found that people really appreciate the vulnerability. It’s a lot, sometimes, because then I feel like I then have to fill an expectation. If I’m that vulnerable, that means I’ve given people the opportunity to be vulnerable back.
Sometimes I’m worried that I disappoint them when they see me or talk to me in real life. But I’ve never had anyone heckle me for being too vulnerable.
(Photo credit: Bao Ngo)
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