Palehound's Ellen Kempner on Gun Control, Fashion, and Body Neutrality

Palehound's Ellen Kempner on Gun Control, Fashion, and Body Neutrality

by Anna Grace Lee

"You made beauty a monster to me/ So I'm kissing all the ugly things I see." This lyric, from Palehound's "Dry Food," was one of my angsty high school Instagram bios which, like AIM away messages of yore, may have made little sense to others, but seemed to capture my entire sense of self. It was an indictment of my teenage peers' predilection for beautiful, thin people, and a marker of my investment in rebellion against those standards. I carried it with me everywhere, like a totem or a security blanket. It was the first of many lyrics written by Ellen Kempner, the 25-year-old leader of the Boston-born indie rock band that would take up residence in my brain.

Kempner writes the kinds of songs that are devastating and empowering all at once. She rescues small observations and moments from the dark corners of the mind, offering them up in bursts of eviscerating clarity. Throughout her six years in Palehound, Kempner's songwriting has often explored the complexities of self-love, her relationship to her body and her queer identity.

Kempner's songwriting abilities shone brighter than ever on Palehound's third album, Black Friday, released in June this year. While Palehound's 2017 album A Place I'll Always Go reflected on the pain of breakups, loneliness, grief, and the joy and necessity of moving on in the aftermath of loss, Black Friday is about reckoning with love. One of the record's singles, "Worthy," which PAPER premiered in May, is a rare, honest dispatch on body hatred. Kempner shares glimpses into the experience of being deeply in love, while figuring out how to accept such love as "a fat girl who's been told her whole life that she can't find love looking like she does." Kempner sings, "I think I hate my body/ Till it's next to yours/ With you I wear the clothes/ I'd buried in my drawers."

Another single, "Aaron," is dedicated to Kempner's partner during his gender transition. She sings: "And my friend, if you want me to/ I'll call you Aaron/ I can, I can, I can, I can, Aaron I can." It's a testimony of persistent, affirming love — and a document of how liberating it can feel to pledge allegiance to our bodies and ourselves. Around its release, Kempner said, "It's about learning to be comfortable in our skins, whether that means changing our bodies or mindsets."

Recently, Kempner attended Curvy Con, a three-day event that brings people together to showcase plus-size fashion labels and celebrate all bodies. Lately, Kempner has become more interested in using size-inclusive fashion as a means of expressing herself and negotiating her relationship with her body.

As one of few plus-size people in indie music, Kempner has a unique perspective on fatphobia and sizeism. She's unwillingly been drafted into a never-ending "war with [her] body" by choosing a profession that involves touring and performing in front of thousands of fans. But through her songs and performances, Kempner carves out space for herself and listeners, like myself, who have never had a plus-size rock star to look up to. To demand space for yourself as a fat woman in the entertainment industry is radically important, especially because fat people — and even moreso, fat women — are constantly told to shrink, hide, and be quiet.

Kempner seems to have made it her prerogative to apply her sensitive perspective to many of our culture's most painful topics. Most recently, her new track, "Your Boyfriend's Gun," addresses gun violence. Instead of making an obvious critique of guns, or a sentimental plea, she appeals unnervingly and intimately to the "people who love men who love guns." "And you think he's playin'/ And it's all in fun/ As I'm staring down the barrel/ Of your boyfriend's gun."

On the first night of Palehound's five-week tour with Big Thief, Kempner sat down with PAPER to talk gun control, body neutrality, plus-size fashion, and songwriting.

You've said "Your Boyfriend's Gun" is about loving people who love men who love guns. How do you situate writing this song within the current political climate and the national conversation about guns?

This song is very much about guns, but when I say "people who love men who love guns," I'm also just talking about this strange thing that's happening during the Trump presidency where we have loved ones who still support people who support Trump. That's just such a big part of my life now. Having these conversations.

The song was also inspired by an actual fear of guns. I go to a movie theater and I'm scared. I can't go to concerts — not that I do this very often, but the past few concerts I've gone to at arenas, I've gotten really anxious. And I feel like this is something I'm definitely not alone in.

I feel like that too.

We all feel like it, because it's very possible. It's so insane that in this country, we just constantly have to walk around with this fear. And then having to explain that fear and justify that fear to loved ones when they're defending someone else that is on the other side of it. "Your Boyfriend's Gun" is a conversation with someone in particular in my life who was in a long term relationship with someone who was very pro-gun, who voted for Trump. Someone who I'm very close with, a family member. The conversations that we would have, where I would say... I was very strong, like, "You should dump him. These are bad things about a person." It's that conversation of, "Well, you know I didn't vote for Trump, but we can't choose who we're friends with based on politics." Basically the center of the song is like: yes, we can choose. And we should.

It's like the whole Ellen/Bush thing.

That's exactly it. That's a lot of what this song is. It's like the Ellen/Bush thing — but it's a different Ellen doing the wrong thing.

You recently went to CurvyCon, and you did this fantastic photoshoot. How would you say fashion plays into your ongoing relationship with your body?

[Engaging with fashion] is a really new thing for me. When I first started touring and being a musician, I was like, "When you don't care and just wear a t-shirt and jeans on stage, that's punk and that's cool." I did that for a really long time. Then I hit this point where I started getting really inspired by other artists' outfits on stage. We toured with a few artists that had stage outfits every night and I would see them and be like, "That's actually really cool." I would think about other rock stars that I'd looked up to, like Jimi Hendrix wearing these crazy things on stage and I'd be like, "Oh, well I'm just going to totally switch gears and go from not caring at all, to caring."

That actually was really, really good for me. It came at a really good time, because I was getting to this point where I had gained some weight since I'd started playing shows and doing Palehound stuff. I was feeling the effects of that, in terms of how I was being responded to. I started realizing that the bigger I got, the less cool I looked in a baggy t-shirt, because there's a lot of fatphobia around that — like if a skinny girl is wearing an oversized t-shirt, it's cute. She looks like she's wearing her boyfriend's t-shirt or something. But when a fat girl does it's like, "She's hiding her body, she's lazy." I started feeling really self-conscious. I don't know if people actually thought that, that's the crazy thing. But it was really very real in my head at least, that I couldn't dress like that anymore, because it wasn't working.

So that was part of the incentive to start caring about fashion. Then I went through this phase where I was like, "I want to care about fashion but I can't because there's nothing available for me in my size that I like." That was the hardest part, being stuck in between. I was like, "What am I going to wear? Why do I have to get clothes from these big name chains that are the only places that have plus-size clothing?" I outgrew the part of my life where I could walk into a thrift store and find something that looked really cool on me. But then I reached out to a friend of mine who used to be a music journalist but has gone on to become a body-positive, body-neutral influencer, Charlotte Zoller. She was working with [the plus-size brand] Eloquii and recently she's been working with Tamara Malas, who's this local, independent designer. And that's the shit that I was looking for! I was starting to get really jealous of my friends in other bands who were getting these really cool, specific clothes. Because plus-size fashion — like Eloquii is amazing and all these places are amazing — but plus-size fashion is also very 'mom' most of the time.

It's usually just like a caftan, like a sack.

Yeah! It's just not stuff that I could identify with, especially as a queer person. I feel like a lot of "body positive" plus-size stuff is geared towards very straight, femme women. And I'm very much more down the middle. Sorry, this is like the longest answer ever… but it needs to be a long answer. So then I got some stuff from Tamara Malas and that's what I'm wearing on this tour. I'm actually so excited to wear my clothes out on stage tonight.

It was only in the past year that I actually started feeling good about how I looked on stage. Because there are very little other bigger femme-ish people in music, or just bigger people at all. So it's hard for me to justify being here. I have a lot of imposter syndrome because of my body.

And as an extension of being in this profound love with your partner, and then letting go of so many years of internalized shame… you called it a "war with your body."

Yeah. It is. And having a partner that loved me for who I was. He was the first partner that when I would be like, "Oh, I'm fat," he'd be like, "Yeah, you are. But I love you for it and I think it's beautiful." As opposed to every other person I'd ever slept with who would've been like, "No, you're not!" Or every family member, every friend. That was really hard for me at first and I was mad at him for a second for saying that. But that helped a lot. I'm now at a place where I need to learn how to do that on my own and that's still really hard.

I read in another interview that you prefer the term "body neutrality" as an alternative to "body positivity." Why is that, and what does it mean to you?

At the end of the day, I wish that I didn't have to think about this shit at all. When I think about what I really want, I want what my thin friends have when they get on stage, which is that they don't have to really worry about how their body looks on stage in the way that I do. They do have to worry, I'm not going to say that nobody who's thin worries about their body, that would be complete bullshit. But I wish that we all could just not give a shit about how our bodies looked, in every respect. Body positivity feels very condescending to me, now that I really am aware of what it is. It's like "Oh, you're telling me to be positive about it, but you're telling me that because you think I shouldn't be inherently positive about it."

"If a skinny girl is wearing an oversized t-shirt, it's cute...But when a fat girl does it's like, "She's hiding her body, she's lazy."

The "you're so brave" conversation.

Yeah. But that's not a thing at all for me. I would rather just not have to think about it and just be neutral than be like cheery and like, "No, I love my body!" I wish that I could just be like, "This is my body. This is the meat vessel that I am in" [laughs].

How has writing music has changed the way that you go through life? The ability to carve out space through writing songs and music seems like such a superpower.

There are two different ways that it affects me, that are both equally strong in my life. There are times where I'm like, "My success means that I am okay and I am going to do this." And I think that the fact that people do want to see me live means that I am doing the right thing, that this is what I should do. But then there's also just… I have a lot more discomfort and anxiety now. I think sometimes: "If I wasn't in a spotlight, would I be okay with myself by now?"

And I think I would. Which is the sad thing. Being a musician and being a rock musician has made me hyper-aware of my body and everything that I do because, unfortunately, being a musician means that I am the product that I am selling. So I have to make sure that the product — I hate to refer to myself as the product, but at the end of the day.

"I would rather just not have to think about it... I wish that I could just be like, 'This is my body. This is the meat vessel that I am in.'"

That's what you're told.

Yeah, you know? It's like, we've got to pick the right picture so that someone will click on it and want to listen to the album. Shit like that. More than anything, playing music and getting to do it as much as I do has made me more anxious and self-aware. The bigger we get, the more imposter syndrome I get. Even on this tour right now, I'm looking at [Big Thief] on TV and I'm like, "This is the band." And we're the ones who get to be on this tour with this band in this moment. That seems like the ultimate privilege.

And I have a hard time feeling worthy. Not to use my own song title. But even in that way, outside of romantic relationships or anything. It doesn't even have to do with my body. But I think that my relationship with my body has poisoned my relationship with my mind and my creativity as well, in a way. Which is a sad answer.

It sounds like what you're saying is that, songwriting is not as romantic as it might seem. You can't just write a song and you've solved it. Just because it has words to it that people listen to and sing along with, it doesn't mean that you stop struggling with the same sort of things that you write about.

And that makes it worse! The night before I released "Worthy," because we put it out as a single, I had the biggest panic attack of this whole year because I was like, "This is the song that's about this thing that I feel really stupid for complaining about and for writing about in the first place because I feel like it's not that important, it doesn't matter, it's just my own dumb shit." Then the next day, the song comes out, people are super happy about it, people are saying the nicest things on the internet, saying that they can relate to it. And that night, I still feel the same. And then that makes me feel worse. Because I'm like, what is going to be enough to get me out of this?

But it does make me feel better too. So that's what I mean is that there are two sides of this. That's one side but the other side of it is that I'm like, "Holy shit, I put out this song and I thought that nobody would give a shit or people would think it was bad, but now it's like, people are relating to it." I'm a Gemini, so I have two sides with everything.

"I think that my relationship with my body has poisoned my relationship with my mind and my creativity as well, in a way. Which is a sad answer."

My follow-up question was going to be, how do you keep making new music and writing about things that can sometimes be just so emotional, but I guess the answer is: it's complicated?

Just because at the end of the day, I have to. I have to make music for myself. Not because of anyone else, but just because there are days where I have a song that I have to write, and that's just kind of how it is. Which is really amazing and really cool. I love writing and I love making music. That's the thing. I love writing and I love that part of it, but then the part of it that has to do with the promotion and the releasing of it, that's a whole other part. But writing will never change for me, because I will always have something to write about.

Photo courtesy of Bao Ngo