The centerpiece of Palehound's excellent new album A Place I'll Always Go feels almost hidden.
It's an outro, really — the final 33 seconds of a song called "If You Met Her" that runs nearly four minutes in total. Those first three-and-a-half minutes are an emotional roller coaster of love and death, laughter and conflict, spirituality and disease, first meetings and missed opportunities, all delivered via Palehound's bass-heavy blend of guitar fuzz, whispered wisdom and irrepressible melodies.
As the song winds down, singer and songwriter Ellen Kempner, her voice slightly cracked, sings:
"I'm with someone new / And I know that you would love her if you met her / You would love her if you met her."
Those lyrics refer to two experiences that influenced much of Kempner's work on the new album: The death of a friend after a battle with cancer, and a new relationship. Both surface regularly throughout A Place I'll Always Go, but only in "If You Met Her" do they figuratively cross paths.
"(That song) does kind of connect all the themes of the record into one song," Kempner says in a telephone interview from a tour van somewhere in the Northeast. "That wasn't intentional when I wrote it."
No doubt that's true, but Kempner did approach writing songs for A Place I'll Always Go with a very clear purpose: to be more open than she had before, including on Palehound's 2015 debut, Dry Food.
"I wanted to (write more openly) because I had to," she says. "I could've suppressed that but it wouldn't have been healthy. And I was like, you know what, I'm just going to be more vulnerable and make a conscious decision to just be honest about the experience and write it that way."
The result is a cohesive set of songs that tell a story of love and loss and the life experiences that tend to orbit around love and/or loss. For example: the shivering rush of new romance ("Room"), the urge to completely disappear ("Carnations"), or a sudden mournful feeling in the most mundane of places ("Feeling Fruit").
"That was the big goal, to make it more of an even, flowy, fluid thing than Dry Food," Kempner says. "Because Dry Food was just, like, songs that I'd written over the course of three years that were about different things. (This one), I just wrote it over the course of a year and it all kind of naturally flowed."
Sonically, A Place I'll Always Go is more even-keeled than its predecessor, something Kempner attributes to better songs, more experience, a stronger vision for the album and, most of all, working with producer Gabe Wax for a second time. "He knew me so well already," she says, "that he was totally able to give it the kind of introspective quality that I wanted."
After conquering increased vulnerability and the recording process, Kempner is now dealing with a new challenge: playing these ultra-personal songs in front of people. Not because they're personal or because she's uncomfortable on stage; to the contrary, she's an engaging and commanding performer.
"At the time, I was like, 'This is what feels natural. This is therapeutic for me,'" she says. "And now that ... time has passed since all that shit went down, it's kind of like I'm still reminding myself of it."
But Kempner fully understands the path she's on, and she walks it with strength and grace.
"That's not the easiest thing, to be playing those songs every night and reliving that stuff every night," Kempner says. "But it's kind of part of it." ♦
Palehound with Hoop and BaLonely • Wed, Oct. 11 at 8 pm, doors open 7:30 • $8 • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174