Palehound on Vulnerability, Dropping Out of College, and Learning by Teaching

Palehound on Vulnerability, Dropping Out of College, and Learning by Teaching
Photos by Tonje Thilesen

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I'm a fan of El Kempner's songwriting as Palehound, which carries a specific intensity that really draws you in if you get close enough to it. Their new record Eye on the Bat is great, I had a great chat with them even after we both puzzled over whether it's OK to run your AC during the wildfire smoke times (prognosis: still unclear).

What was going on in your life when you were putting this record together?
I started writing this record in March 2020, when I'd just gotten back from this chaotic, horrible tour. We were all the way across the country when it was cancelled because of COVID. I'd been doing this for ten years, hauling ass and DIY touring, and this was the first tour where shows were selling out—so it was a huge heartbreak to have to cancel all these shows we'd worked really hard for. I was pretty discouraged and really unsure if I'd ever have a music career ever again, as a lot of people were. "Are the venues going to last?" It was terrifying, but as a songwriter it was also weirdly liberating, because I wrote only for me for the first time in a while.

Yeah, I've heard a lot of musicians say that they really questioned whether they were going to be making music anymore during the pandemic.
It really felt like it was going to be it—that everything that we were working for was going to disappear. I know a ton of people who felt like that, and we were all texting about it.

Was there anything during that time that you were considering as a "Plan B" for your career?
I started teaching music, which I'm still doing. I discovered that I have a real love for it. I'd always volunteered here and there at camps, but this was the first time I started offering private lessons through Zoom, and I also taught a workshop through School of Song. I felt very lucky to be able to pivot that way. A lot of people were inside and wanting to learn stuff, so it was a good time to start teaching music, because people were really hungry for it.

At first, it was the easiest and most accessible option that went with what I'd been doing, and then it turned into something that I really love. I don't want to stop teaching any time soon. I tried to learn more audio engineering too, so at one point during the pandemic I got a job at a recording studio upstate. I figured that the act of recording music wouldn't go away any time soon, so it's a really good skill to have. I love doing music, so I didn't want to give up on that entirely, but I had to find a couple of different avenues to do so.

What are the age groups you work with while teaching?
It's honestly mainly adults. I would teach kids for sure, but the way I've gotten students has been by posting on my page, so it's a lot of young adults who are queer and people who have been recommended by people who know my band and saw my post. I had one teenager once, but I don't think she had the attention span for a Zoom lesson, because it's hard to learn that stuff over Zoom. Most of my students are in their twenties, thirties, and forties.

Photo by Tonje Thilesen

I'm curious to hear about what it's like to place yourself in the mindset of teaching. Creating and teaching are such different things.
The thing I ask my students always is, "What do you want to know?" I'm teaching adults, so it's not like I'm teaching a kid and we have to follow with routines. I have some students who are also songwriting students, so I'll ask, "When you think of an artist you'd want to be like, who comes to mind?" And then we learn some of their songs. If someone is a huge Adrienne Lenker fan, we'll learn some fingerpicking stuff and some storytelling lyric stuff. I try to cater the experience to each person and their tastes. I had one student who only wanted to learn '90s guitar solos, which is awesome. [Laughs] I very much just want the student to guide me through the lessons, because I don't want to teach anyone anything they don't care about.

Have you learned anything about yourself while teaching others?
I've gotten a lot better at guitar. Someone says they want to learn the "Cherub Rock" solo, I gotta learn the "Cherub Rock" solo so I can play it too. [Laughs] I have some guitar students who I've given songwriting prompts, and they've never even played guitar before in some cases, and after a few lessons they'll be like, "Hey, I wrote this song with this thing we learned last week on guitar."

Something I've learned from that is that people have talent and expression within them—unique perspectives and amazing art that's just in them, waiting for an outlet. When you teach someone a few guitar chords, they take that and turn it into a beautiful song—and I didn't teach them how to do that. It just came from them. It made me think about what natural talent and instinct looks like, which did make me look at what my own natural inclination is. What do I have in my soul, as an artist, that I'm inclined towards?

What were some of your own early attempts at songwriting?
I started really young. My dad plays guitar, so I grew up hearing him play all the time, and he taught me a few guitar chords when I was 7 or 8. I started writing songs not too long after that, as a way to process life at the age of 9 or 10. I didn't have a ton of friends or identity guidance at the time, so it was my form of journaling. I was also obsessed with Avril Lavigne, and I was like, "I want to write songs, because she does that too." [Laughs]

I'm curious to hear about the risks and rewards of being vulnerable in your songwriting. What causes you to lean into it, and what causes you to pull back?
I started doing Palehound when I was 19, which is pretty young. I got an audience around then, so that changed how I wrote because I was always writing, not for other people, but with the knowledge that others would be listening—which made me retract more. "Is this too brutal? Is it too personal? Is it too self-indulgent?" A fear of self-indulgence will always keep me from being vulnerable—because it is a kind of self-indulgent thing to do. [Laughs] That has stopped me in the past. "This song is not relatable, it's too much about me."

But with this record, I was able to get so much more vulnerable, because I had no idea if I had a music career anymore. As I was writing these songs, I wasn't taking moments to be like, "Is this a weird line? Is it embarrassing? Is it cringe?" I was really only writing for me, for the first time in a while, because I had no idea whether the songs would be heard by anyone else. And that was awesome, and it's something I've tried to recreate in my songwriting since then—writing with the idea that nobody else has to hear it.

I remember feeling certain that things were going to go a certain way during the pandemic, and then things started going in a different way, which itself was a little disorienting.
I got into a routine during COVID—I think a lot of us did—and when things started opening up again, I was pretty scared, even though I was dying to play shows. I started saying "Yes" to everything as soon as tours became available again, which was a mistake. It was not the right time to tour when we were trying to tour. 2022 was a disaster for us. We had to cancel 20 shows, and it was all support dates, so we had no control over anything—and I'm grateful for support dates, but that's the downside of that.

But once things started opening up and I was like, "I could turn these songs into a record," I had a moment where I was scared and I was like, "Should I go back and look at all these and think about them again?" But they were authentic at the time I wrote them, and they felt authentic looking at them again, so I didn't care as much. I was just so grateful that I could put out music again and consider touring that I wasn't going to think about the bullshit as much anymore.

How do you think you've grown and changed as a songwriter?
I'm so much older now. I recorded Dry Food when I was 20, and I turn 29 this weekend. That's a lot of personal growth. I didn't know who the fuck I was when I was 20, and I'm still really proud of that album, but I remember that person and it's not who I am now. Also, when I wrote Dry Food, I wasn't out as gay, which definitely changed how I wrote songs back then. As I've discovered myself more, that's impacted the songs, because I can be open with who and how I love, and my own struggles with my body and gender expression, in ways I couldn't understand when I was 20.

You went to Sarah Lawrence for a bit, right?
I did, for two years.

What was your college experience like?
Frankly? I'll preface this by saying that I had a lot of amazing professors, and I learned a lot of cool stuff. There was parts of the college experience that were great, education-wise. But I kind of hated that school. For me, and honestly, for most people I knew there, it was a very dark place. There's definitely a vibe there. Did you see the whole cult thing?

Oh yeah.
That was so validating. [Laughs] I mean, it was horrible, but it overlapped with my time there, and I had no idea it was going on. They were at the tail end of when I was graduating. But it totally makes sense that it happened there, I wasn't surprised. That's exactly the kind of place where that happens. The faculty is so disengaged from student safety.

I dropped out because I started touring, but another reason why I dropped out was because during my second year there, I was the prime witness in a sexual assault case that happened to my friend. Watching the way the school handled her story and the whole situation was appalling, and it took a lot of everyone's energy and time. I was like, "What the fuck are we doing?" This school is so expensive. What is this? I met some amazing people there that I'm still friends with, but we all agree that the place is fucked.

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Jamie Larson