i can, i will
on palehound and representation in songwriting
It’s been a little over four months since Palehound released their third album, Black Friday. First launched in 2013, the project began as a solo outlet for vocalist and guitarist Ellen Kempner and now includes Jesse Weiss on drums and Larz Brogan on bass. When I first listened to Palehound a few years ago, I was taken aback. Kempner’s lyrics felt so close, so diary-like, that listening to them was almost unnerving—like an invasion of privacy. Black Friday continues Kempner’s knack for open and honest songwriting, allowing her listeners to follow her on any and every journey she chooses to embark upon. Against lush soundscapes and gentle guitars, Black Friday weaves together personal anecdotes about body image, sexual assault, and queer relationships while also discussing loneliness, bad tattoos, and public transportation. The result is an album that is personal and moving without feeling like it was written to check off certain boxes to appear relevant and appeal to a commercial audience.
In “Aaron,” the second song on the album, Kempner sings about her transgender partner and his transition process. It is, first and foremost, a love song, written both to and about her partner, represented by the fictional Aaron. But in interviews, Kempner emphasizes that the song isn’t only about supporting him; it’s also about viewing transitioning as an act of self-love and self-respect from which anyone can take inspiration. “Aaron” begins with the following verse:
Your mother wanted to name you Aaron but her body built you as a different man
And, my friend, if you want me to I’ll call you Aaron
I can, I can, I can, I can, I can, Aaron I can
The closing refrain weaves its way throughout the entire song, sometimes changing from “I can” to “I will” but always sung with the same urgency. For a song about transitioning, it touches only lightly on the actions of Kempner’s partner, focusing, rather, on Kempner’s own agency. The refrain seems unprompted, indicating that she will offer support even though it may not have been asked of her. In the final verse, she demonstrates a kindness that doesn’t expect reciprocity when she sings, “And if shutting my mouth will help you turn around, Aaron / I can.” The reiteration of “I can” and “I will” become the primary actions in the song—a promise to unconditionally support.
It’s rare to find positive songs about trans people and even rarer to find ones about loving them. As someone also dating a trans person, it’s beautiful to hear the joy that Kempner describes. She sings about seeing her partner tuck in his shirt and about both of them feeling weightless while swimming. It’s a depiction of the small movements they make toward self-acceptance, and what it feels like to watch someone else partake in these acts. It’s also a reminder that there is generative power in sharing vulnerabilities with each other. This song is about what Kempner can do—listen, support, use preferred names—rather than what she cannot.
In one of the singles off of the album, “Worthy,” Kempner turns her gaze inward:
I think I better quit
I text you late at night
I’m in the hotel bathroom
Staring at my thighs
I remember my body showed
Its evils in others’ rooms
“Worthy” is a meditation on what it means to feel like your body deserves love even when the world is telling you otherwise. Though the indie music scene is becoming more accepting, with musicians and fans working to create safe and inclusive spaces for each other in what has traditionally been a (white) boys’ club, Kempner still must operate in an arena dominated by thin bodies and heteronormativity. There is an expectation for women in indie rock to be slender, to fit the mold created by those who have previously been allowed to enter the industry. Kempner says that on a recent tour she was “the only plus-size person on every bill.” Representation is important, but “Worthy” takes it a step further. It’s one thing to be a visual icon for fans. It’s another to show them how you’ve struggled with the same things they do—a sort of emotional and experiential representation.
I, too, have been in a hotel bathroom at night, gazing into the too-well-lit mirror, wondering how on earth my body belongs to me. Wondering how love operates if you aren’t what you think others want you to be. It can be hard to find yourself in music—you may find yourself stretching for meaning, pulling sexualities out of pronouns and emotions out of line breaks. Often, I catch myself morphing verses in my head to create a story the artist probably never intended to tell. But in Palehound, listeners have a songwriter who believes in the power of sharing herself. Kempner says that she has “a bad habit of writing really vulnerable music”—a bad habit for her, perhaps, but quite a gift for all of her listeners.
I like to imagine “Aaron” and “Worthy” as two songs in conversation. They open up to each other, acknowledging that you don’t have to “love yourself before you love someone else,” as people say—you can cultivate both loves simultaneously, alongside another person. It’s not only Kempner opening up to the audience and to the “you” in her songs, it’s how she reacts to her partner opening up to her. Through these songs, Kempner creates layers of discussion—two people continuously opening up to each other about feeling out of place in their bodies.
Next week, I’m traveling to see Palehound on tour. I imagine I will find what I normally do at shows—overpriced drinks, intimidating people, and a very long line for the bathroom. But I’ll also find a singer whose songs mirror my own experiences, who believes in sharing, who has carved a space for herself and all of the other people listening to her music who also feel at odds with their bodies, love trans people, and want to love themselves too. And as I listen, I’ll join her on a ride that traverses the ups and downs of everyday life, always carrying herself and everyone around her back to the top.