Palehound has come full circle and is now “obsessed” with Strats
Palehound on finding the confidence to be vulnerable on upcoming record Eye On The Bat, and why the Strat is the “perfect” guitar shape
Image: Tonje Thielsen
Palehound’s El Kempner describes themselves as an excited greyhound behind the gate, raring to go. After their previous releases, Black Friday, and collab album Doomin’ Sun was “screwed by Covid”, as they subtly put it, it’s no surprise that the anticipation is high for the singer and guitarist, who’s newest album Eye On The Bat is hoped to “live the full life that it deserves”.
Despite receiving high acclaim for previous work there is a noticeable shift in the air for Kempner, who recently caught the attention of indie rock musicians Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus for newest single The Clutch.
Where has this energy shift come from? “The pandemic”, they admit, while sat in their Brooklyn apartment.
“I thought to myself, I don’t know if I’ll ever have a music career again. So I think that was terrifying but also liberating in a sense for writing,” they continue. “It really took away this pressure that I put on myself to write for an audience.”
Vulnerability is only met with compassion
Kempner is not shy in admitting that previous work has been somewhat shrouded in metaphors, as it’s easier to talk about the hard things through a lens that dulls the impact.
“For this record I started writing it in Feb 2020, and at that time shit was shutting down. I had a manager at the time who would say to me “I don’t know if you’ll ever play a show again, I don’t know if the music industry will ever exist. We don’t know how long this will even go on for.”
“I think there’s always been this pressure of like maybe it’s just not what people want, or maybe I’m not writing the right songs. This pressure disappeared for this newest record because I was just writing for me for the first time since I was a teenager which was really kind of hard, vulnerable and painful, but also really freeing.”
Palehound’s music has always been raw, emotional, and incredibly personal, but there’s definitely been a change in Kempner’s method. From lyrics like “I didn’t want you to see me naked in that photo where I’m lying down” in track The Clutch, or “I’ve become the person I’d want to punch in the face”, in recently released song My Evil. There’s no hiding behind symbolism anymore. For Kempner, it’s clear that they want their music to show their truth.
“In the past I’ve been scared to be vulnerable but the only thing that has come from vulnerability has been connection. While I am inherently scared to be vulnerable, my experience in the past is that it will only be met with compassion, and gratification from people. I’ve had people in the past saying “thank you for being vulnerable about that, I really get it,” and it makes me feel less alone!”
Basic isn’t boring
The conversation quickly moves on to the topic of guitars, as they point to the plethora of guitars sat behind them – and most importantly, their Fender Stratocaster.
“For so long I was like, “I need to find the weirdest vintage guitar to play”. I started off playing the Strat when I was young and just thought that it was just the most basic guitar and I’ve got to do something cooler.
“I have to admit I’m back on the Strat now. I love it so much and it’s just the guitar that fits me the best. I have a variety of guitars that have been given to me by companies and they’re incredible, but the Strat is just the one I’m completely obsessed with.”
Quite taken aback by Palehound’s admission, it’s interesting that they had settled on the first guitar that they played. Why did they do it? “It’s just the perfect shape for a guitar. Also, the Fender Strat is very body neutral,” they confess.
“So, I have a big chest and yes I’m non-binary but I have a quote on quote ‘curvy body’. Therefore, not a lot of guitars are not designed for bodies like mine, a lot are designed for flat chested men. I have the same issue with many semi-hollowed bodies where I’ll bend the neck and it’ll fall out of tune because it’s pressing against my chest.
“Just in general, those companies that really put out these semi-hollowed bodies, not only are they not designed well, but they’re designed for men.”
This is not the first time that issues like Kempners have been raised. Annie Clark, AKA St Vincent designed an Ernie Ball Music Man signature with fit in mind. Only weighing seven pounds, or just over 3 kg, the guitar has been built to fit “a breast, or two” according to Clark, thanks to the specially cut body.
Finding a guitar that fits Kempner in every sense of the word has clearly had an impact for the musician.
“I feel weightless when I’m playing guitar, I don’t know if that sounds really corny but I do feel like the weight of my psyche that is always present in life, just becomes an afterthought when I’m playing.”
Finding Safe Spaces
Listening to Kempner’s playing style, it is wondrously light and fast paced, yet still routed in complexity. They say they gained a lot of this inspiration from American indie band Pavement, who allowed them to find a style that they loved.
“Early on I was very into Pavement, so guitar wise Stephen Malkmus was extremely influential to me where I actually related to the guitarist for the first time. Obviously I liked Hendrix and Page and all that stuff I learnt as a kid. I’m still such a huge classic rock fan, I loved that shit and still love that shit, but it’s once I heard Pavement, it made me realise that it was a style of guitar playing that I can relate to and can channel my own shit through rather than Eddie Van Halen.”
Certainly a bold statement to make, especially when talking about “the greats”, however after hearing them talk about some of the incredible music produced by friends and those around them throughout the conversation, it’s incredibly clear that much of their inspiration comes from their friends.
“They’ve definitely even inspired my relationship with the guitar. When I see Meg play it’s like a bird that is flying through the sky that is swerving and rocking and I wanna do that! Adrianne is just this master fingerpicker and when I toured with her I was like “what are you doing, show me that”. That then translated to me doing certain fingerpicking patterns she had taught me.”
However, for Kempner the issue runs a lot deeper than just finding musicians that you can relate to. Instead, they have always been very vocal on the need for young female and NB guitarists to have space to learn and cultivate their instrument, after they have been inspired.
“I think there’s a lot of great representation for female guitarists, but for young girls to have spaces, such as Girls Rock in Boston and they can jam out and figure out the guitar without boys being boys is so important.”
“Just seeing Boygenius be one of the biggest rock bands in the world, and even Phoebe going on tour with Taylor Swift, representation is helpful but there needs to be a safe space for the girl who sees Phoebe playing at the Eras tour and thinks, ‘Okay I want to do that – I want to play that, in order to peruse that.’”
There’s an element of significance in what Kempner is saying. Inspiration is important, but ensuring female and non-binary musicians have the space to run with the inspiration is necessary.
Girls Who Rock in Boston is just one example of a community project that empowers women, girls and non-binary individuals to focus on self-expression through musical education and performance. Others exist throughout the world, such as Girls Can Play Guitar, and Girls Rock London, both in the UK, but Kempner has maintained that there is still a long way to go.
Palehound’s Eye On The Bat is out 14 July