As Ellen Kempner

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Musician Ellen Kempner of Palehound, sits down with Sinéad to talk about coming out, how anger fueled her early music, and her journey to body neutrality.


As Me with Sinéad — Ellen Kempner transcript


[00:53] Sinéad Burke: Welcome to As Me with Sinéad. There’s a headline that reads “Ellen Kempner Flipped Body Image to Create her Most Authentic Palehand Record,” and that is who we have the joy and the privilege to hear from today. For so many years, really much of modern life, we’ve done things, great things, despite our looks and differences. Or maybe because of them. They shape it. And here we are, Ellen, me and so many of you probably listening and the guests that we’ve had so far on As Me with Sinéad doing things because of our looks and differences. Redefining beauty or questioning whether beauty is relevant at all. On this week’s episode, Ellen and I had a chance to chat about her sexual identity, her body as a self-described fat rocker, and how she’s let it define her in the best way possible as she leans into body and mind through her work this year and in the upcoming one. 


[01:53] Ellen Kempner: My body shapes my experience in this way where it really made me feel like I was caged in a way. And then it became triumphant for me recently where I was like I can actually do things that everyone said I couldn’t do. And I have always been able to, but just didn’t believe it.


[02:11] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind this week is the power of representation. Earlier this week, the incredible disabled model and now actress Jillian Mercado featured in her first episode of The L Word. And what happens when people see themselves in institutions, or narrations have agency for the first time, about bodies that look different. All the while this is happening, a doll named and designed after me — which is a ridiculous thing to be able to say — created by the Irish company Lottie Dolls has begun to arrive in homes all over the world ahead of a certain celebration in a couple of weeks. When the doll is bought online, one euro of each sale is being donated to Little People of Ireland, and in the box is advocacy information about what it’s like to live in a body like mine. So as presents are unwrapped from Christmas Day — and whilst that celebration is not all about gifts — but I’ve been really percolating on what are the questions that come into a child’s head, particularly children with dwarfism, when they see themselves for the first time? So if you haven’t watched Jillian Mercado’s episode of The L Word, now is a good time to do it. Right. Enough from me. Are you ready for this week’s show? Let’s go!


[03:33] Sinéad Burke: On this week’s As Me with Sinéad is a young person who, through their own vulnerability and honesty in such public forums, is teaching the world not just how they love themselves, but giving us the tools by which we can each do that for one another, and indeed for ourselves. Ellen Kempner from Palehand is an extraordinary artist, and in many ways — using her words, music and own courage — to transform all those who come in contact with her. Ellen, thank you so much for joining us on As Me with Sinéad. This is genuinely such a treat. 


[04:06] Ellen Kempner: This is such a treat for me, too. Thank you so much for having me. 


[04:10] Sinéad Burke: The first question I wanted to ask you was how do you describe yourself personally and professionally? 

[04:17] Ellen Kempner: Those are two really different ways that I describe myself, actually. There’s definitely a big divide between me personally and me professionally. Me personally — I don’t know, I’m kind of a homebody when I’m not on tour, you know? Professionally, I’m always like being super social at a club, and running around, and driving around the country, and constantly at the whim of the people around me. And then as soon as I get home and I’m in my actual personal life, I kind of just sit on the couch with my cat a lot and watch a lot of TV with my partner. And, you know, I work at a warehouse sometimes and just kind of really take it easy. So I don’t know, I’m definitely — I kind of feel like I’m a two-sided coin in some ways.


[05:03] Sinéad Burke: What makes a place home for you? 


[05:06] Ellen Kempner: At this point, I feel like it’s my partner. I was just kind of thinking about that the other day. My partner and I have been together for, like, three-and-a-half years. And wherever he is, I kind of feel like I’m home. And I know that sounds really corny, but yeah, he’s kind of home right now, which is a really huge blessing. 


[05:26] Sinéad Burke: I imagine he’s absolutely thrilled at that description. Do you feel that you need both to nourish each side of your personality? How did you nourish both sides of yourself? 


[05:37] Ellen Kempner: It’s hard to nourish both sides of that because each side has so many needs that are so different. Where it’s like the extroverted part of me feels like I have to be really pushing myself to talk to every person who comes to the merch table, or to really put myself out there in an interview. Or the extroverted side of me is basically all just centered around my career and my art, whereas the introverted side of me kind of feels like I need to take so much time to rest, and I need to get a lot of sleep, and I need to drink a lot of water. And I mean, I don’t know, it’s like it’s just two different sets of needs. 


[06:13] Sinéad Burke: Does it ever feel like those moments that when you’re interacting with a fan, or like that you’re trying to network professionally, does it ever feel transactional or is that something that you’re not very conscious of?


[06:23] Ellen Kempner: It’s really hard. I mean, it’s really depends on the situation. It depends on the other person so much because there are so many people that come up and are so genuine. And then that’s a genuine interaction. But then there are also some people that come up that are very business, and very network-y. And then they kind of set the tone for that. And I kind of play along with the vibe that someone is putting at me, because in that situation, I’m usually — I kind of think of myself as like there for that person to interact with at that time as opposed to the other way around. 


[06:52] Sinéad Burke: That’s exhausting. 


[06:53] Ellen Kempner: It is a completely exhausting. Yeah. 


[06:56] Sinéad Burke: What’s been the moment that surprised you most within those interactions? 


[07:00] Ellen Kempner: You know, when I started playing, it was when I was a DIY artist, all of my interactions were really genuine. And it was usually like queer people in a basement somewhere in like Alabama or something coming up to me and being super kind and saying that, you know, my music has helped them in some way. And then I guess the surprise was once I started getting some success, seeing more people come out of the woodwork that would approach me with this kind of — mostly men would do this, honestly. Almost all men, always men would do this where they kind of like come up and I feel like they own me for a couple minutes. They come up and touch me without asking. And that was shocking. I felt like a public entity in that way where I was to be used by just these random strangers. And that was shocking once that transition started happening.


[07:52] Sinéad Burke: Is there a way to protect yourself from it? 


[07:55] Ellen Kempner: Only to be aloof, you know. If I were more aloof and if I decided to not go to the merch table and if I decided to, you know, just kind of hide out backstage. Yeah, I mean, that would probably do it. But then I would miss all the good people, you know, and it’s not worth it. It’s kind of a tradeoff. But now I’m fine. I’m kind of trying to learn ways to protect myself, even when I am like behind the merch table at a show or something. I’ve been kind of trying to learn that more so recently than ever. 


[08:22] Sinéad Burke: Is there anything tangible that you could tell us that would help both me and anybody who’s listening? 


[08:27] Ellen Kempner: Yeah, I guess like at the time, I would feel like I needed to just like pour myself back and mirror the other person. So if that person was really excited, I felt like I also had to match them, you know, and be equally as excited, or equally as ambitious in our conversation or something. And I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is just to stay calm, stay at the level that I want to be at and not try to match anyone else in a conversation like that. That’s helped a lot.


[08:59] Sinéad Burke: Be yourself. 


[09:00] Ellen Kempner: Yeah. Exactly. Be myself. 


[09:01] Sinéad Burke: I wanted to take it back a second. Why music? 


[09:05] Ellen Kempner: Well, I grew up hearing my dad play a lot. My dad was a musician, is a musician. But, you know, in college he was a drummer. And I just have to share that he was in a band called Ear Food once. So name my favorite. Yeah. My favorite band name of all time. 


[09:22] Sinéad Burke: Sounds like a fashion brand that they’re going to show in New York Fashion Week. 

[09:26] Ellen Kempner: It does. I know. It sounds like something like Billie Eilish should wear something. 


[09:30]: Sinéad Burke: She would, yeah.


[09:31] Ellen Kempner: She totally would. She’s so cool. But yeah. So I kind of — and then he kind of started playing guitar and writing songs and he would play gigs and he had a band with like my uncles that were called The In-laws. And I would go see them. And he was just always really passionate about music. And so I kind of just started playing guitar when I was seven because, you know, I love my dad and I wanted to do something and connect with him that way. And then it kind of — as I kept on playing and as I got better and as I started writing songs, I realized that it was a way for me to assert my identity, because I kind of grew up in a place that was very like a very sports-driven social scene in my town. And I had no athletic abilities at all. So it was — music was a way for me to assert that I was a person that did exist in that sphere, I guess.


[10:23] Sinéad Burke: In many ways that’s a political act. Were you conscious of that? 


[10:28] Ellen Kempner: Oh, no, not at all. Definitely not. Not at the time. 


[10:32] Sinéad Burke: But your music has definitely grown in its advocacy and in its explicit nature of being political and personal. What was the turning point? 


[10:41] Ellen Kempner: I think it just this was just an evolution that didn’t really have a turning point. I think that when I first started writing songs when I was 10, I didn’t think of it as political. But I was, you know, writing about the small injustices of my 10-year-old life, which was like being bullied, for example, and feeling like an outcast. And like I loved Avril Lavigne. And, you know, and I was trying to, like, be edgy and proud of it. And I think that that just evolved over time. And just as I got older and as I learned of all of the horrible injustices in this world, that you can’t even wrap your brain around at the age of 10. And I don’t know, kind of just — I guess it came from anger in a way, you know. And that anger just grew.


[11:21] Sinéad Burke: Did it help 10-year-old you writing about your experiences of being bullied? 


[11:27] Ellen Kempner: It did. Yeah, it did. It was kind of a release. And I would kind of like get home from school after being bullied all day and write a song and then like play it to my parents. And my parents would be like, ‘oh, those lyrics! you OK over there?’ And I’d be like, ‘yeah, kind of.’ So that was a good way for me to, like, not only communicate with myself, but communicate with others, I guess. And once I saw my parents — like, I was singing to them things that I would never be able to, like, say to them. And then I kind of like ran with that and started performing and doing that more.


[12:00] Sinéad Burke: And how did you feel like that when you expressed such nervousness or perhaps fears or isolation, particularly to your parents and they were surprised? 

[12:11] Ellen Kempner: I felt a little guilty afterwards when I would see that they were a little worried. And when I was — I was a really shy performer. So I just kind of keep my head down and play through the song. And it kind of felt like a task. It never was like fun to play the song, but they would hear me practicing and they’d be like, ‘Oh, what are you working on?’ And then as I started, I started performing in school talent shows and that was a mixed kind of feeling to perform because half the kids were like really nice. And then half the kids were just like relentlessly making fun of me. So it was a little confusing. 


[12:42] Sinéad Burke: Did you have many role models growing up? You mentioned Avril Lavigne there, and I’m conscious that you were following in your father’s footsteps, picking up like guitar age seven. But who did you aspire to be or look up to? Or was there a lack of role models? 


[12:57] Ellen Kempner: I think honestly, like someone like Avril Lavigne was so huge. I mean, in hindsight, so many of those role models were men and so many of them were like classic rock men who like I could never be. And so that was kind of a weird thing at that age is like a young girl trying to play guitar to be like, ‘oh, I want to be like Jimmy Page.’ And then be like, oh, Jimmy Page, like, used to sleep with girls not much older than me. And that’s when he was like, close to my dad’s age. I don’t know. That’s weird, you know. And just to, like — that kind of made me reevaluate my heroes for a bit because also what I would tell boys that I would play guitar with, that I wanted to be like Jimi Hendrix or something. They’d be like, oh, you can’t. That’s not possible for you. So I think Avril lavigne was someone who kind of came at a really good time for me because I was like, oh, here’s this girl that’s like on stage wearing like baggy camo pants and like a T-shirt with like a stupid slogan on it or something. And she’s like killing it. And people really respect her. 


[13:57] Sinéad Burke: And wearing a tank top with a men’s tie. 


[14:01] Ellen Kempner: I know exactly like she was a tomboy. And I didn’t have any tomboy representation at the time. Besides that, it was really hard because there were no women that I wanted to identify with at the time because people around me were so misogynistic and, you know, would be like, oh, Britney Spears, like, she just goes on stage in a bikini. And I was like, well, I’m not that so I don’t know who I am. So, yeah, Avril Lavigne. God bless her. 


[14:25] Sinéad Burke: How do you feel now that the fact that so many young people, when they’re asked who they aspire to be, their answer is you? 


[14:33] Ellen Kempner: That’s a wild thing. That’s a really crazy thing that I still find it really hard to wrap my head around. Like at the show, we played New York last night, there are these three teenage girls in the front row and like they had Xs on their hands. And I was like, oh my God, like, I was a 16-year-old in the front row of a show with Xs on my hand looking up at someone. And it was just crazy to be on the other side of that. It’s a total — it’s a real mindfuck, honestly, to just kind of have that role reversal, and it’s just been my dream for so long that it still doesn’t feel real when it’s actually happened. It kind of it’s very surreal.

[15:11] Sinéad Burke: What do you think are the qualities that you have that makes those three women stand up the front and queue for your show? 


[15:20] Ellen Kempner: I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know. It’s just, like, I don’t know. You know, I still have so many issues with self-confidence, like so many, like when I’m home and not at a show, I’m super self-deprecating. And I’m like, I forget, you know, and it’s totally crazy. Like, I look down at these like three girls and I’m like, what? How did you find this? Like, how did you get here? And like, why are you here? And like, thank God you’re here, you know? But like, it’s hard for me to really wrap my head around that because I just feel like kind of a loser that sits on my couch and watch TV a lot of the time, you know. 


[15:58] Sinéad Burke: Well, what are you watching on TV? 


[16:00] Ellen Kempner: Oh, everything. Big Little Lies right now.


[16:04] Sinéad Burke: I haven’t yet dived in. I need to. Well, you mentioned Billie Eilish there a second ago and we were talking about the clothes that she wears. And, you know, two things really interests me. I was talking to a friend very recently and they said that they don’t know how she can write about such mature emotions at a young age. Was that something outside of your own inner circle that you ever faced growing up? And I mean, you’re still young now, but this idea that young women don’t have the authority to write about their authentic feelings.


[16:34] Ellen Kempner: I think that the way that I kind of picked up on people not thinking that was how surprised people were when I first started making music. You know, I just wrote these songs that were pretty vulnerable and people would be like, wow, like, how do you know that? And like people older than me would be like, oh, man, you’re you’re only 19. Like, you know, just wait till you’re 25. Like people would say kind of condescending things like that. So when I look at Billie Eilish, I’m like, hell yeah. Like, you go. Like, she’s amazing and she’s like out there. But I think the way that people talk about her, they underestimate her and they really shouldn’t. You know, there are like 45-year-old men that act like they’re 12 years old. 


[17:11] Sinéad Burke: It’s not a metric for success. It’s not something we can decide or define. Your age is literally biological. And was there any moment in particular your younger years where you thought, you know what, maybe I’m not going to be a musician, I’m gonna do something else? 


[17:24] Ellen Kempner: No, I — I mean, yeah, of course, because I was, like, I never thought of anything else, really. But I was, like, I’m not good at anything else. So I really hope this works out, but I’m sure it won’t. That was kind of more of the feeling. I was like, you know what? I’m going to focus on this right now and, you know, that’s the dream. And I would love it if I could make it happen. But also, my whole life, people were like, ‘a musician? I don’t know, you know, the chances and everything are so low.’ They were totally right. It’s like a crazy thing to try to do.


[17:56] Sinéad Burke: But what do you think you did that has made you a success?

[18:00] Ellen Kempner: Honestly, a lot of it was kind of luck in a way, you know, and — like there are so many incredible musicians that we play with on tour, like local bands that are just so unbelievable. And what they’re missing is that luck. You know, just like being in the right place at the right time. Like, I got lucky when I was 17 to 19. I was like going into New York City a lot to see shows — I lived in Connecticut and I was taking the train in. And I just kind of met the right people and I kind of met these people at the small label called Exploding In Sound. And then that led to me sending them my demos and then they wanted to sign me. It just kind of like meeting the right people at the right time, which is not an opportunity that a lot of people have. And it’s a shame. But I think the Internet makes it a lot easier for people who would not usually have opportunities to get their voices out there. It was huge for me, like Bandcamp was really important for me. 


[18:55] Sinéad Burke: It’s this odd dichotomy, isn’t it? For me, social media was this extraordinary platform that gave me access to an audience that, exactly as you said, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to speak to. But then it’s also challenging trying to mind yourself within that because in the, I suppose, lack of agency, or people being willing to be anonymous in their comments and critique, that can be hard to manage.


[19:18] Ellen Kempner: Yeah, it’s terrifying. Social media is absolutely terrifying. Our brains were not meant to be this social in this way. You know, it’s kind of like we’re all in a room together just screaming. And that’s something that as an artist is really kind of scary. You know, I’m scared of social media. Also, it’s really important to be successful on social media. Exactly. You know, it’s just like that’s so important. It can do so much. And just to like have to play into this in this game, it feels like a game that you have to try to win. And as a person that isn’t like a super skinny blond Instagram influencer, it’s pretty fucking hard sometimes. 


[20:05] Sinéad Burke: How do you manage it?


[20:07] Ellen Kempner: I need to get better at managing it. Honestly, I’m not very good at managing it right now. I’m on social media way too much and I have so much anxiety in general, I always have, and that kind of manifests in social media for me in a really big way where I do a lot of like comparing myself to others in this really ugly way where I don’t want to be making myself feel like I’m competing with other musicians, because I’m not. But, you know, I’ll go on Instagram and be like, how many followers does this person have? How many followers do I have? Does that mean that I’m not going to be successful? Does that mean this, does that mean that. And then I need to get better. Honestly, I’m kind of I need to calm down on social media.


[20:50] Sinéad Burke: And is it that you just need to go off it, or how do you find quiet? 


[20:54] Ellen Kempner: Well, the problem is, I can’t go off it kind of because I do need it to promote my art. But I would love to be able to just kind of go off. I know Mitski — I don’t know if you’re familiar with her, she’s unbelievable. But she just, you know, shut down all of her social media. And I was like, yeah, you fucking go girl. Turn that shit off. Yeah, you do that. 

[21:17] Sinéad Burke: It won’t help share your links for ticket sales, but off you go. It’s really tough. And the question is, you know, often the problem is not necessarily the platform or the technology, but the people. So I think if we shaped and transformed society, and we each understood the responsibility that we have to behave kindly or at least not heinously, things would be better. 


[21:41] Ellen Kempner: Things would be better. I don’t think that’s going to happen ever. 


[21:46] Sinéad Burke: You were talking there about comparing yourself to others. What’s the monologue that exists within your mind?


[21:54] Ellen Kempner: The main monologue that exists within my mind at this point is that I’m not hot enough to be a rock star, you know, because the — you know, rock stars, it’s sex drugs, rock and roll. People love that still. People can pay as much lip service to appreciating diversity in music as they want, but at the end of the day, if they see a skinny young blonde girl with a guitar that reminds them of, you know, Kim Gordon or something like that’s what they’re going to want. And that’s kind of a really hard thing to deal with. You know, I’m fat and I’m, you know, I’m not one of these like skinny girls who just kind of looks the part. I don’t look the part, I guess. And that’s the thing that hits me hardest on Instagram, I guess, is like watching all of these young artists who look the part just like soar, and feeling like the reason that I’m not on that level is because of how I look, which is just so frustrating because it’s an audio medium, you know, it’s for your ears. It’s not for your eyes. So I don’t really understand why it matters so much. But that’s the big thing that kind of goes around my brain. Whether it’s true or not, that’s just what happens in my head.


[23:07] Sinéad Burke: It’s such a challenge. I have dwarfism. I’m a little person. And I think I had to experience that, not in the same vein, but similarly, when I was a teenager, I didn’t choose to be disabled or to be a little person. Yet everybody else behaved in a way in which was excluding or isolating or awful based on something I had no control over. And it just didn’t make sense. And I remember my mother sitting with me and she said, ‘you know, people need to make you feel small in order to make them feel big. Then that says everything about them and nothing about you.’ Which was great to hear at the time. But tough to wait for the good people.


[23:49] Ellen Kempner: It’s so hard to hear those things because, you know, it’s true, but it doesn’t stop that just immense pain, you know. And you can believe in yourself as much as you want to, but only so much when everyone around you is just trying to just push you down like that. And that’s just like, you know, it’s just something that’s so evil in people. People’s need to push down to feel like they can step up. You know, the thing that I’m always thinking is like, didn’t we all watch the same Disney movies growing up, where the outcast is the hero? And you should be nice to people who are different? Did we all not watch those movies and learn that? 


[24:32] Sinéad Burke: Do you not get it? I’m gonna be on top one day. You need me. I’m the protagonist here, guys. 


[24:38] Ellen Kempner: Yeah, I’m the fucking hero. 


[24:40] Sinéad Burke: It’s just rude.


[24:41] Ellen Kempner: It is. I just don’t — it’s just something that is just constantly so disappointing in people. 


[24:45] Sinéad Burke: When you need to build yourself back up, what’s the mantra you tell yourself? 


[24:50] Ellen Kempner: I don’t really have a mantra. I probably should. But I just kind of, when I build myself up, I think about people who have said really touching things to me. Like people that I remember coming up to me at the merch table and saying something like a song of mine saved their life or something. And I’m like, that’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m here for. Like all the other stuff is bullshit. You know, the popularity contest, that’s so empty. And I just have to continuously remind myself that this is all totally worth it for those moments when genuine love happens around me and my art. 


[25:25] Sinéad Burke: Do you write those moments down? 


[25:29] Ellen Kempner: I don’t. I recently started trying to journal more. And, you know, I’m just — I’m kind of like a hobbyist. I kind of do a lot of hobbies. And then I kind of pick things up, I get really obsessed, and I put them down. And I’m really trying not to let that happen with journaling. But I haven’t done it a couple weeks.


[25:44] Sinéad Burke: I’m a seasonal hobbyist. I did knitting for about six weeks and then I got bored. 


[25:49] Ellen Kempner: I did that with crochet. 


[25:51] Sinéad Burke: That’s like, how am I going to do that whilst traveling? It’s going to look real chic, open business class and the flight. Just me knitting.


[25:58] Ellen Kempner: That would be so cute. Yeah. I brought crochet on a plane once and it was a total mess. There was yarn everywhere. It was terrible for everyone else.


[26:06] Sinéad Burke: I really want to see like, a hi-res, beautiful fashion photo shoot of you crocheting on a flight with yarn everywhere. 


[26:12] Ellen Kempner: So do I. 


[26:13] Sinéad Burke: Feels like an album cover. 


[26:15] Ellen Kempner: A cover of Vogue.


{26:16] Sinéad Burke: Yes, yes. If not your next album. I’m really into it. 


[26:19] Ellen Kempner: OK. That’s a great idea.


[26:20] Sinéad Burke: Let’s do it. I’d really love to know, you know, what is it like to exist and to live in your body? 


[26:29] Ellen Kempner: Well, physically, it hurts. I have chronic pain. When I was a kid, I had to wear a back brace from fourth to seventh grade, which was just about the best time socially to be in a back brace. And because I had really, really terrible scoliosis, my spine looked like an S and it was very, very bent. And I ended up having a spinal fusion surgery when I was 12, where they put poles around my whole spine. And to give you an idea of how bent I was, I grew like two inches just from the surgery alone. But since then, you know, it’s just been I live with chronic pain as a result of that, as a result of that surgery. And then on top of that, I’m fat and I have a lot of weight that I carry around. And with my back, it puts a lot of strain. So I’m constantly kind of trying to find ways to not let my physical pain infiltrate my mind. But it’s hard. And also, you know, I definitely do like have a body that people think is gross, or people look at me and think I’m lazy, which really is the thing that hurts me the most. And just to see people look at me that way and to know that that’s what they’re thinking is the worst. 


[27:45] Sinéad Burke: People always think they’re so subtle. 


[27:47] Ellen Kempner: Yeah, they’re not at all. Ever. 


[27:49] Sinéad Burke: They’re like, ‘I wasn’t looking at you funny ‘cause you you’re a little person. Like, oh, your eyebrow just arches like that naturally?


[27:55] Ellen Kempner: Yeah. That’s just how you look at everyone? 


[27:57] Sinéad Burke: And what parts, obviously the scoliosis and the surgery — I have a curvature at the base of my spine and it is the reason why I have a big ass and I’m keeping that and not the cheesy Cheetos that I enjoy too much when I’m in the United States. It’s definitely the curvature in my spine. But what other parts of being in your body have physically shaped who you are and how you experience the world? 


[28:20] Well, yeah. I mean, I guess all of that combined has really made me — for a while I felt like I couldn’t be active, and I felt like I couldn’t do things, because I was constantly going to doctors my whole childhood who would tell me, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. You can’t ride a horse, you can’t go on a roller coaster, you can’t run, you know. So I kind of had that in my head for a really — and I still do. It’s really deep in there. That I can’t do things, that I physically can’t do things. So that was something that I recently over the past five years tried to kind of overcome. And I started like skateboarding, which was kind of funny because like when I was a kid, obviously, going back to Avril Lavigne, like, always wanted to skateboard. I always wanted to be good at skateboarding. So when I was like 20, I was like, you know what? I’m just gonna try. And if I fall and I hurt myself, whatever, I’m already in pain. It doesn’t really matter. And that just honestly made me feel so great because I actually was able to do it. So at first, my body shaped my experience in this way where it really made me feel like I was caged in a way. And then it became triumphant for me recently where I was like, I can actually do things that everyone said I couldn’t do. And so now it’s just given me this whole new view of myself and a new view of the world around me and the obstacles I’m growing to feel like I can do things. You know? And I have always been able to, but just didn’t believe it. 


[29:53] Sinéad Burke: To the young people who follow you and many of whom may struggle with their own feelings about their body and existing within that frame. What would you say to them? 


[30:03] Ellen Kempner: Oh, I don’t know. Let me think. I guess just to listen to themselves only. Because if I hadn’t listened to everyone that told me that I couldn’t do things that I actually could do, I would have been a lot happier, and I would have been skateboarding sooner, and I would have been letting myself be vulnerable with people when it came to my body sooner in like positive ways, obviously. You know, I think that that’s the best advice I can give. But that’s such a like impossible advice to take that kind of corny, like ‘be yourself’ thing I always come back to. That is just like so hard to internalize when you can’t do it.


[30:44] Sinéad Burke: It’s real mom advice. We love you. You just need to love you. You’re like, ‘if it was that easy, I’d have done it by now.’ 


[30:52] Ellen Kempner: Exactly. You think it’s that easy? You think I’m choosing this? Yeah. So I guess I don’t know. That’s my advice is just listen to yourself in your own body.


[30:59] Sinéad Burke: What would you say to kid you, who has the back brace and is struggling through school and awful people? 


[31:05] Ellen Kempner: Oh, my God. Everything that I’m thinking that I would say is like so corny. 


[31:10] Sinéad Burke: Give it to me! I want the corny-ness. 


[31:12] Ellen Kempner: Like, you know, it gets better. And then I just think about all those YouTube videos that the celebrities did about how being gay gets better. And I was gay in high school, like it just doesn’t. But I would’ve told myself that those things, even though they hurt and it feels like this insurmountable thing, made me so much stronger. And like really was just like a crash course for life. And I have a lot of experience that made me stronger and made me know what I need and what I don’t need earlier than I would have. I think.


[31:47] Sinéad Burke: Did coming out in high school play a part in that?


[31:51] Ellen Kempner: You know, coming out in high school, it was hard because I didn’t really come out. It was like I told my parents, kind of. Like I came out as bisexual, as everyone does. And, you know, I kind of came out to my parents and I came out to like close friends of mine. But no, it was really hard because what ended up happening was that like friends of mine would be like, oh, Ellen’s gay, like, I want to see if I’m gay. And then, you know, would kind of lead me on and we’d make out or something. And then they’d be like, no, I think I’m straight, like, bye. And I would just have my heart broken by a lot of my friends. So that was kind of like — I think that that did make me stronger, made me appreciate the queer friends and loves that I’ve had since high school so much more.


[32:40] Sinéad Burke: You find them immediately in a way. And that kind of connection is so instant. 


[32:44] Ellen Kempner: Yeah. I mean, now I like I’m surrounded by gay people, like I haven’t seen a straight person in years.


[32:49] Sinéad Burke: How has your music changed and shaped since you’ve been so explicit about being clear and being gay? 


[32:58] Ellen Kempner: It’s changed a lot. When I first started writing songs as Palehound, I was 19. And I was writing songs about girls, but changing the pronouns to he/him pronouns in songs. So it would sound like I was singing about a guy. And because I was really scared that if I was gay openly that people wouldn’t want to listen to me, or that I would like effectively pigeonhole myself. Like I secretly loved Tegan and Sara but I secretly really resented them at the time, too. Because I was like, you guys are gay, but only gay people listen to you. Like, why do you guys do that? You know, I kind of like — I thought that that was bad for some reason when I was younger. And then once I came out as an artist, the opposite happened, which was that more people came to see me, more queer people — like so many more queer people came to see me. But the other people had been seeing me before didn’t stop because I was out. They just kept coming as well. So just my audience grew, which was amazing. And, you know, we played New York last night and I look out in the audience and they are just like so many young queer people. And that’s like, you know, heaven for me.


[34:03] Sinéad Burke: Is that more because, not necessarily that you came out, but you were finding a space where you could be your whole, authentic self in such a public way? 


[34:13] Ellen Kempner: Yeah, for sure. Like once I came out, I was really vulnerable in press, too, you know, about my partner and about, you know, my second album, A Place I’ll Always Go, that’s when I came out. And it was this weird combination of, you know, a person that I had had a relationship with passed away very suddenly, very young. And then I was also simultaneously falling in love with my partner. So my coming out publicly was centered around two completely different things, which was like the death of a queer friend and then like the new love of a queer partner. And so I think that those two things kind of reached a lot of people, you know, because I was talking about 

[34:50] Sinéad Burke: Loss and love. 


[34:51] Ellen Kempner: Loss and love. Yeah, exactly. 


[34:55] Sinéad Burke: That’s extraordinary. And why Palehound? 


[34:58] Ellen Kempner: You know what, my story for the name is pretty funny. I had done some demos and my friend was like, you should put them on Bandcamp. And I was, like, just sat at my computer when I was 18 and was like, damn, I have to have a name now? I was like, my first and last name are so lame. Like, I can’t be Ellen Kempner. That’s lame. And then I just wrote down a ton of words that I liked and then just kind of sat with them and pieced them together. And then that was the one that kind of felt right.


[35:30] Sinéad Burke: I can’t believe you didn’t go with Ear Food.


[35:32] Ellen Kempner: I know, right. I mean, like, it’s such a joke that I had to pick a band name at 18. Like, why did I. That’s so dumb. 


[35:39] Sinéad Burke: Think of the merch options with Ear Food. 


[35:45] Ellen Kempner: Oh, my God. I would be thriving right now. I would be selling ear-shaped cookies. Oh, God.


[35:51] Is it too late for name change?


[35:52] Ellen Kempner: I think it might be. Definitely. For sure. My manager would be so pissed. 


[35:56] Sinéad Burke: Yeah, let’s not do that. I mean, we’ve already just done the new album cover. Let’s not change your band name. I would get in trouble. Ellen, the last question I wanted to ask you is you are so forthright and deliberate in not only your advocacy, but in giving your whole self to the world. It is truly a gift and you are so generous with it. But how can we as individuals create an impact?


[36:21] Ellen Kempner: That question has been coming up for me a lot. You know, how do you make an impact? What does that mean? What kind of impact needs to happen? How do we organize people to make those impacts? We’re in crisis here right now. We have concentration camps in this country right now. I think that the most important way for people to assert themselves right now is to stop the evil that’s happening, and to organize, and to be forward and stand up for people. I think that this is not a time for people to kind of focus on small shit. I think we all really need to stand up for people that don’t have voices right now. I don’t know. That’s just been on my mind a lot recently because there’s just this overwhelming evil surrounding us. Everyone feels helpless. But we need a plan or something. Who knows what that will be? 


[37:09] Sinéad Burke: Take action and not be passive. 


[37:12] Ellen Kempner: Yeah, just like really stand up for what you believe in and not just sit back and watch it happen. 


[37:16] Sinéad Burke: But realize the power that we each have. And then as a collective, I wanted to share one thing in terms of social media. I’m not sure if it’s any way helpful, but I recently had a conversation with a friend who was experiencing social media in a similar way that you are. So we figured out that one of the most destructive parts about it was who she was following. Some out of societal pressure, some because they were her peers. And we just realized that it wasn’t worth it for her emotionally, professionally, anything. So we printed out a list of all of the people that she followed and took a red pen and highlighted all of those that we wanted to unfollow who were awful to her own well-being. And then we asked five trusted people who we love and admire to suggest people who will bring us joy and education and inspiration on our timeline. And it’s made such a difference. 


[38:07] Ellen Kempner: Wow, that’s really cool. I could definitely do that. I follow like way too many, like, tall, skinny, beautiful girls with long hair on Instagram. 


[38:16] Sinéad Burke: We’re gonna be friends. Yeah, I’m none of those. Yeah, none of those things. 


[38:21] Ellen Kempner: But recently I started following more fat influencers and more like fat, quote unquote, body positivity, although I really don’t like that term, blogs. 


[38:30] Sinéad Burke: What do you use instead? 


[38:32] Ellen Kempner: I like body neutrality. I learned that term recently. I like the idea that we can all be so comfortable that we’re neutral about our bodies and that we look at each other and respect each other for who we are and not just judging everyone for their bodies. Body positivity sounds condescending to me honestly, especially when it’s like, you know, in response to a Victoria’s Secret ad or something. It just feels like a response to the evil. And I want to separate from the evil entirely. 


[38:56] Sinéad Burke: I’m into it. 


[38:57] Ellen Kempner: Yeah, it’s a good one.


[38:58] Sinéad Burke: Ellen, this has been such an honor and a treat. Thank you so much for genuinely sharing so much with me today. 


[39:04] Ellen Kempner: Thank you. 


[39:07] Sinéad Burke: I’m really struck by so much of Ellen’s work. There are some beautiful lyrics from Palehound’s newest album, Worthy, that I really want to share with you. “I think I hate my body until it’s next to yours. With you, I wear the clothes I buried in my drawers.” May we all find that person. Actually, maybe it’s within ourselves, maybe on our days off. However, you define that. There is no episode on the 26th of December. You will not necessarily have a break from me because I think it’s a great time to reflect on the incredible stories that I’ve had the great privilege of amplifying so far this year. Yeah, take your time. I’m gonna be back in the New Year on January 9th. This week’s person you should know is a young, black, queer ballet dancer and all of terms which he describes himself. He’s based out of Texas and is one of the leads in the Houston Ballet, but has such vivaciousness to his personality that his charm is contagious and he is disgustingly talented. So if you don’t know Harper Watters, you should absolutely be following him on Instagram. I had the great privilege to spend time with him in New York last week and you will find him @theHarperWatters. It’s the end of the year. I hope you have a restful time ahead of you. But actually, even more so, I hope you find a moment to revel in all that you’ve achieved this year. Whether that is something momentous, like, I dunno, going to the Met gala for the first time. Speaking for myself, of course. But actually, achievement is subjective, right? What are you proud of this year? Just find a moment to think about it. See you in the new year. 


[40:48] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.


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