Ellen Kempner is the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for the Boston-based indie rock trio Palehound. Building on the promise of their critically-acclaimed 2015 album Dry Food, and 2017’s A Place I’ll Always Go, Black Friday examines the intricacies of friendship and partnership, handling the subject with a level of attention rarely found in pop songs. Black Friday will be released June 7 on Polyvinyl Record co.
Ritt Momney is the recording project of Jack Rutter, who blew up on TikTok with his cover of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On”; Claud is a bedroom pop artist and the first signee to Phoebe Bridgers’s Saddest Factory Records; and Ellen Kempner is the leader of the indie rock band Palehound. Last week, Jack and Claud released their collaboration “Set The Table,” which Ellen produced — to celebrate, the three hopped on a Zoom call to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Claud: Jack, are you an Aries?
Jack Rutter: I’m a Libra.
Claud: Oh, I thought you were an Aries. This whole time I was like, Oh, my god, it’s Aries season, Jack must be thriving!
Jack: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know really anything about astrology. Are you guys into astrology?
Ellen Kempner: I fake it.
Claud: I fake it, yeah. That’s a good way to put it.
Jack: What are your guys’ signs?
Ellen: I’m a Gemini.
Claud: Whoa! I’m a Taurus.
Ellen: Wow. See, I’m really good at being like, “Wow, OK!” I don’t actually know what that means.
Claud: There’s only, like, four or five signs where I’m like, “I know exactly what this means. I know what we’re getting into here.”
Ellen: Yeah, I feel like Gemini is one of those ones that everyone knows just because we get such a bad rap for being, like, two-faced bitches. But it’s kind of true.
Claud: [Laughs.] Yeah, I was gonna say, is that true?
Ellen: I feel it sometimes in myself! Not like, two-faced intentionally, but I feel some stark changes and differences within myself, some opposites existing within me.
Claud: I feel like everyone always has that internal struggle of like, Am I portraying who I really am to the outside world or am I a completely different person on the inside? You know?
Ellen: Yeah, that’s real. What’d y’all do this weekend?
Jack: Essentially I’ve just been hanging out with my girlfriend. We actually watched all the Marvel movies over the past couple of weeks, and we finished it this last weekend. It’s crazy, it’s kind of like watching a TV series, except it’s like so much more epic, because it’s in cinema form.
Ellen: I really have been having so much trouble getting myself to watch a movie recently, even though I end up watching, like, hours of TV anyway. [Laughs.] I just started watching Lost this weekend. I was actually in Woodstock all weekend with Lars — my best friend and the bassist in Palehound — and we just took mushrooms and played music and were really creative and stuff and having a really amazing time. And then at the end of the day, we would watch Lost. The first episode is this brutal aftermath of a plane crash, and I kind of lost it. But then I ended up getting into it and I’m kind of sold. So I think I want to keep watching it.
Jack: I think that was the first show that I binge watched once streaming services were a thing.
Ellen:Yeah, I’m definitely gonna a binge it. I can feel it.
Claud: Do you guys like going to remote places to make music? Does that work for you?
Ellen: Yeah, totally. I’ve been having a really crazy writer’s block recently, and going away this weekend kind of cleared it up. What about you?
Claud: I haven’t really tried it yet. I’ve always [thought] it would be cool to go somewhere upstate, or somewhere random like Indiana and just isolate with a friend or by myself and see what comes out of it. It seems like it’d be a nice process.
Ellen: It really is. Jack, have you ever done that?
Jack: Not really. That’s also something I’ve been interested in, and thinking about. But I feel like there’s the constant battle in my head of like, I need to be living a life and be submerged in normal social activity in order to be inspired. And then there’s also the part of me that thinks, I just need time with my thoughts, like alone and isolated. But yeah, I can definitely see the value of getting out of where you’re always working. Sometimes when I’m in my own studio every single day, it’s like, Oh, this is like really old. So I want to try more of that. But you had a really good experience?
Ellen: Yeah I’ve done that kind of stuff a couple times. Melina [Duterte of Jay Som, and Ellen’s Bachelor collaborator] and I did a bunch of writing remotely, and recording. Being in a place that is kind of a change of scenery besides just the room itself, I think, can be really inspiring. Like what you said, when you get into the same studio in the same room every day, it’s kind of hard to generate new thoughts and new inspiration to be turned on by that, if you’re just looking at the same screen and using the instruments the same way you’ve used them. Whereas if you go away, you are left without those devices, and the habits that you built in that other space.
Jack: Yeah, I agree.
Claud: I just moved and I haven’t even tried writing or anything yet here. I’m like, I wonder what my flow will be like in this new space? I haven’t even set up my equipment yet, I’m nervous about it.
Jack: Are you in New York?
Jack: You lived in New York—
Claud: Yeah, I moved to a new apartment.
Jack: Have you always lived in New York and just kind of spent time in LA?
Claud: I’ve lived in New York for, like, two years. I’m from Chicago, but my mom moved out of Chicago a couple hours outside of LA, so I go out to LA a lot to visit.
Jack: And Ellen, you’re just outside of New York, right?
Ellen: Yeah, I’m in Poughkeepsie, just working in a studio up here right now, but I’m actually moving to LA in August.
Jack: That’s so sick!
Ellen: Yeah, I’m really scared. I actually had a stress dream about it the other night where I walked in to what looked like a college lecture hall, and it was like in LA and I was like, “Oh, is this the thing that I’m supposed to be going to right now?” But it was actually a film screening for only blonde people, and this blonde girl started chasing me and tried to, like, punch me and shit. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I think that was about LA, possibly. But anyway, I’m excited about that.
Jack: That’s a pretty accurate description of LA though.
Claud: LA beauty standards are the worst.
Ellen: That is something I’m definitely nervous about. But hopefully, you know, it’s not that bad.
Jack: I think you’ll be OK. I think it’ll be good. I spent almost a year in LA, and I was kind of in the Highland Park area. My perception of it is, there’s so many different kinds of groups there. — like if you if you want to live in LA, you can pretty much live anywhere and go into any kind of culture that you want to. I have heard a lot of really good things about New York, though. I’ve had people tell me New York is the place to be.
Ellen: I’d like to talk about the song a little bit — I helped produce it, but you guys are the ones who wrote it, so I want to hear a little bit about how that started.
Jack: I kind of started it forever ago and I just had it sitting around. And then — I’ll never forget this moment actually — so Claud and I set up a session through our managers or something, and I have no idea what we were going to work on. I figured we might just start something new together. And then I was looking through some of my little demos, and I was like, Wow, this is the song that Claud needs to be on, because I thought it just fit you so well. It was really just a first verse and a little bit of a chorus, and then we worked on it a little bit. You weren’t in that first session, were you, Ellen?
Ellen: No, you guys had some time alone.
Claud: Yeah. We were working on the song for a week or so, just sending stuff back and forth, and I remember being like, “Oh, there’s this Grimes song that I’m really into right now.” I played it for you and you were like, “Oh, wait, I think I have something.” And we went off of that. Then we were talking about how much we love, you and Palehound and were, like, geeking out. And Jack was like, “Well, I was thinking of asking them to be on a couple songs, or help me with my album,” and I was like, “Do it, do it!”
Ellen: Hell yeah!
Claud: So that’s how we got you.
Ellen: I’m so happy to be involved. I really love this song a lot. It’s always stuck in my head, and I really had so much fun. After you first sent it to me, I was excited about it, which is really cool. Not that I don’t get excited about everything, but this is kind of a banger I think. It is this really cool blend of both of y’all’s styles, and your voices work so well together in this way that just — I don’t know, it really is a very emotional song to listen to. And Claud, there’s some lyrics in your verse I love.
Jack: Seriously, your verse is so fucking good.
Claud: Oh, thank you.
Ellen: Jack, were you listening to anything when you first wrote it that that riff was inspired by?
Jack: My girlfriend pointed this out, and I think I brought it up in one of our sessions — what’s that Metro Station [song], that super popular one?
Ellen: “Shake It”?
Jack: Yeah. I didn’t even really realize that was such a big inspiration. But like that, [Vocalizes the melody] — that first part sounds sounds like [the “Shake It” chorus.]
Ellen: It’s so weird, I was just listening to that song the other day for no reason. Is that Miley Cyrus’s brother?
Jack: That’s what I actually heard recently! I just found that out a couple months ago.
Ellen: Yeah, Trace Cyrus.
Claud: Why doesn’t anyone talk about this guy?
Ellen: I am a little older than y’all, so I was in middle school when Metro Station was hittin’ it, and I remember everyone was talking about how ugly Trace Cyrus is. [Laughs.]
Ellen: I don’t necessarily agree with that, but everyone liked to make fun of him because he’s Miley’s brother.
Claud: Jack, I have some questions for you about your album. Where did you make the majority of it? And was your process like, OK, I’m making an album right now? Or was it more like, I’m just like making a bunch of songs? What was your approach?
Jack: So I’m still kind of working on it. I wish it was done, but it’s still a work in progress. The majority of it has just been in my studio. Normally, I have an upright piano and I write most of my stuff on that, and then I’ll bring it into my studio. That’s kind of the process that most of it has taken.
I have kind of thought of it more like, OK, I’m making an album right now, whereas like my first album, it was like two and a half years of just throwing songs together for fun and not really having that big picture kind of thing. I think it’s made it a little bit more stressful to be thinking like that. I’m constantly thinking, Do these things fit together? Whereas my first album, they ended up fitting together well enough, I think, and that was kind of just because I wasn’t thinking about it. Each artist kind of has their own voice and their own preferences and their own influences, and that obviously results in some kind of cohesion. And now I’ve been I’ve been thinking about it too much, I think, instead of just letting it come to me. So I’ve kind of recently been trying to think like, OK, I’m working on this song. It’s just a song. It’s not a part of an album. It’s just the song.
Claud: That’s the way to do it, I think.
Ellen: This must be an extra challenge, with how your fanbase and the amount of people that listen to you kind of exploded. Do you feel like you’re very conscious of that, and the fact that you have an audience and people that are going to hear it now?
Jack: Yeah. I’ve kind of worked through a lot of that feeling, but when the “Put Your Records On” stuff first started happening, it was like, I feel so anxious about my own music right now. It’s kind of just been a matter of working through those thoughts by myself and focusing a lot more on, OK, it’s super cool that this many people are listening to me and that’s all it has to be. It doesn’t have to be stressful. If they don’t like it, it’s really not going to be the end of the world. I mean, to “Put Your Records On” fans, they might be like, “This sounds nothing like “Put Your Records On”!
Claud: But also, that was a cover, it’s not your song. So I feel like if they’re expecting that, then they’re looking in the wrong place, you know?
Jack: Yeah, I feel that. That’s a nice thought. And Ellen, we’ve had some conversations that have really helped me — we’ve talked about it is so cool that we can literally just work on music, and that’s our job. Like if you’re focusing on that, it’s really going to be so much easier to make good music. I could be in so much worse of a situation, I just got so lucky. It’s crazy to me that I’ve been thinking in any way negatively about it.
Ellen: That makes a lot of sense, too. I feel like capitalism’s effect on music in that way can be like you’re being told, “This is the thing that you should want and you should be grateful for this because money and streams and numbers,” and all this stuff. It can really hijack your sense of yourself as an artist. I think it’s totally fair to, for lack of a better word, complain about that, because it is this huge shift in your relationship to your art, which is pretty precious. To satisfy this, like, beast of Spotify is just a whole extra added challenge that could be so distracting from your true self, and that is really hard. So it’s a very valid thing to complain about. I think it’s fair to be jealous of people who don’t have that, because it’s like, Well, you still write for yourself and for fun, whereas this is like my work, my business. It’s just a sad reality.
Claud: That’s such a good thing to be reminded of too. It’s easy to forget that most artists don’t make art for other people, everybody just makes art for themselves. It is a very self-serving act, and it’s for you. But when it becomes something that feels like it’s for other people, it totally shifts your relationship with it.
Ellen: It’s like, you are the product you’re selling. Which is also really fucked up. It’s like, I have to take a picture of my face that is the most sellable picture of my face. I struggle with that so much. Just knowing that you’re your own product is really daunting and is such a breeding ground for insecurity and comparing yourself to others. That is a really good way to block any natural creativity. But I don’t think it’s impossible to work through that and make genuine great art despite it. I think it is very possible to do that. It’s just a challenge.
Claud: I feel like the thing that I struggle with the most, internally, is being frustrated with the stuff that does sell, or that is appealing to mainstream audiences. Because it’s always the same type of person and the same type of look. It’s just so predictable and frustrating sometimes, that I almost am like, I’m going to prove to myself that I could do this too! I almost see my music as a completely separate thing than the like, I’m going to sell tickets and I’m going to like do press — like, the music is completely separate entity. Does that make sense?
Ellen: Yeah, totally. And I think for you especially — you’re definitely being a groundbreaking artist for non-binary representation, can feel probably like a burden I’m sure.
Claud: I feel like the thing that’s so interesting to me is that, I’m obviously not the first non-binary artist who puts music out. I think the fact that I am maybe one of the more visible ones right now is very telling, because I’m white and your almost textbook definition of what non-binary and androgyny [looks like]. That’s frustrating to me, because there’s so much art that people are missing out on because of bias, and something that’s not really a household conversation.
Jack: I remember us having a conversation about how we kind of live in this, like, social media circle where trans, non-binary, LGBTQ people are pretty visible. And then sometimes we’ll run into a family member or something, and they don’t even know that they/them pronouns are a thing. It’s really interesting how so much of the world just hasn’t really been introduced to those kinds of people yet. I think it’s really important what you’re doing — like, I hear what you’re saying, but I think it’s really important to introduce those people to people like you. It’s really cool what you’re doing.
Claud: [Laughs.] I’m not doing anything special, I’m just putting music out.
Ellen: And that’s the thing that is so frustrating — you’re just like anyone else making music, but then there’s always this drive in a press cycle to try to capitalize off of your identity in this really wild way. For a while I didn’t come out as queer because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed, and then I did come out as queer and I kind of was a little pigeonholed by interviewers and stuff like. It’s like, you need an angle — you need a part of your identity that’s like, “What makes you special?” I feel like it’s also challenging to be told that the thing that ostracizes you from society in so many ways is also your best chance of distinguishing yourself in engaging society in more of your art.
Claud: Yeah, it’s a really messed up cycle.
Ellen: [Laughs.] It’s so horrible. But I do feel like — not to age myself, but I’m a millennial and y’all are Gen Z, and I do see a difference in terms of the past, like, five years even. It’s a good difference and it’s great. I’m very optimistic for the future of LGBTQ representation in art. I think that we’re really at a point where it’s not this super tokenized thing anymore. So now we have to work to make nothing tokenized because nothing should be tokenized.
Claud: Yeah, I do feel like Gen Z is totally a different animal. I feel like we’re really lucky to be putting music out at this time.
Jack: I agree. Even just music-taste-wise, I think people are really accepting of such a wide range. It’s like, if you’re making good music, then people are going to like it.
Claud: Yeah, and like the stuff that like pops off even on TikTok — there’s such a wide range of songs popular on it, and it’s cool. It’s really interesting to see.
Ellen: I kind of love TikTok for that reason. I think for the first time in a really long time that the music industry hasn’t been able to convince people of what they like. I do like that. Teens are just kind of like, “I found this thing that I like,” and they’re going to blow it up and a major record label can’t really infiltrate that. I think that is actually really exciting.
Jack: Yeah. When I was signing my label deal, because it really was largely because of the “Put Your Records On” stuff that happened through TikTok, my lawyer was saying I got relatively a really good deal, and that these deals are coming way more often now because because the label is coming and trying to catch up with TikTok. Like TikTok totally can blow a song up before a label even has a chance to grab that artist and take a big percentage. So yeah, I think it’s awesome that so much more power as with the artists. Hopefully they don’t commodify it too much.
Ellen: Well, they’ll try. [Laughs.]
(Photo Credit: left, Adam Alonzo)