You’d never guess it, but lately, the biggest influence on Palehound’s idiosyncratic indie rock is jazz.
“I’m really influenced, guitar-wise, by Wes Montgomery,” says Ellen Kempner, the Boston-based band’s lead singer and guitarist. “He’s a jazz player. I spent a lot of time in college studying his stuff and it kind of influenced a lot of the album [“Dry Food”], in terms of where I went with certain songs, tonally, and some of the—for lack of a better term—riffs.”
On the surface, Palehound’s rowdy, sharp-cornered rock bears little resemblance to Montgomery’s smoothly cerebral six-stringed musings. But, as cathartically satisfying as Kempner’s songs are, in a prototypical rock ‘n’ roll way, they also display a slyly experimental bent. Kempner is fond of tempo changes and hazy distortion and abrupt shifts in tone. Montgomery’s influence can perhaps be best felt in the fourth track on “Dry Food,” “Cinnamon,” a jaunty number built around a decidedly un-indie-rock guitar riff. Kempner capers gleefully up and down the neck, as playful in this moment as she is depressed in others.
Palehound is set to release “Dry Food” on August 14 on the Boston-born, Brooklyn-based indie label Exploding in Sound Records. They open for Basement at the Royale in Boston on Aug. 16 and play the Sinclair in Cambridge with several of their Exploding in Sound cohorts on Aug. 22. Prior to “Dry Food,” Palehound had put out just two, albeit well-received, EPs: 2014’s “Kitchen 7”” and 2013’s “Bent Nail EP.” The rollout for “Dry Food” has been impressive for such a green band, with song premieres on Stereogum and Spin, and an album preview on NPR Music’s “First Listen.” The lineup is still somewhat in flux; at the moment, it consists of Kemper on guitar and vocals, Jesse Weiss of the Boston band Grass Is Green on drums, and various bass players.
“I started playing guitar when I was 7,” says Kempner, who grew up in Connecticut. “And I started writing angsty songs when I was 10.” Her father gave her her first lessons: Beatles songs, Avril Lavigne hits, “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World. She formed the rock duo Cheerleader in high school with a friend on drums. Palehound was formed after Kempner enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She quit school after two years and moved to Boston, where she worked as a cook in a vegan restaurant in Allston.
“When I decided to leave school, I wanted a change, and I wanted to expand my horizons. And all my friends were complaining about how expensive New York was and how the condos were ruining everything,” says Kempner. “I was just, like, ‘Maybe I’ll go to Boston.’ It’s close to home so I can see my family and it’s close to New York so I can always go back there. It’s also just a super livable city. It’s like a town, and I like that about it. It’s not super overwhelming. And there’s a really cool [music] scene here, just a small community, which is cool, too.”
Fans of Northeast indie rock will probably detect some similarities between Palehound’s clever eccentricity and the ingenious discord of Massachusetts-based indie rock darling Speedy Ortiz. Frontwoman Sadie Dupuis and Kempner share a proclivity for dissonance, and there are moments on “Dry Food” in which Kempner’s singing mirrors Dupuis’s deadpan delivery and hard consonants. None of this is surprising, given that until recently the two women were roommates. They met years ago, when Dupuis was Kempner’s counselor at a performing arts camp in Connecticut. Kempner asked Dupuis to help her arrange a version of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.”
“She’s always been like an older sister to me,” says Kempner. “And I always wanted to impress her the way a younger sister wants to impress her older sister. So more than anything, being friends with her just pushed me to keep on writing and keep on recording demos. Because I’d be like, oh, I can send it to her, and get her opinions. And also just seeing her playing in bands. Like when I was 15 I’d go into Brooklyn and see her old band Quilty play. And be like, ‘God, that’s so cool, she’s playing these cool DIY spaces and I want to do that, too.’”
For Kempner, writing the songs on “Dry Food” served as a way to digest, so to speak, the anxiety of nascent, post-college adulthood. “I think the album has a lot to do with leaving that safety that you’ve known your entire life,” she says. As a sophomore, Kempner had her first real relationship, and her first heartbreak. She found community and support in Sarah Lawrence’s LGBTQ community, and started identifying as queer—but that came with its own set of questions, too.
On “Dry Food,” Kempner splices poetic turns of phrase with conversational understatement. “You made beauty a monster to me,” she sings on the album’s forlorn title track, only to add, dismissively, “But I’m over it, over it.”
“That song is not really about one person,” says Kempner. “I was going through a phase where I was seeing people [who] just ended up not treating me well. And just kind of making me lose faith, I don’t know, in people being nice. That’s a line that came from me just being fed up with just having these really beautiful experiences with people, and then having those memories hurt me a lot.”
In many ways, the themes on “Dry Food” are well-trod territory: the uncertainty of young adulthood, the disappointments of first relationships, the revelation of an evolving sexuality. But in Kempner’s hands, that vulnerability is somehow both restless and sure.