My Favorite Album: Ellen Kempner of Palehound on Elliott Smith’s "Either/Or" | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, February 25th, 2024  

My Favorite Album: Ellen Kempner of Palehound on Elliott Smith’s “Either/Or”

“What struck me then and continues to strike me now is the sheer honesty of the entire record, down to how it’s recorded.”

Jun 24, 2020 Photography by Bao Ngo My Favorite Album
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I grew up on a steady diet of classic rock. My dad, who was a teenager in the ’70s, would tell me all about the times he was first in line to see The Rolling Stones, the night he saw John Lennon join Elton John on stage at Madison Square Garden, and many other dazzling stories. This musical connection that my dad and I had was what fueled my desire to be a songwriter. To me, songwriting was the ultimate art. As I started writing music, I found myself trying to sound like classic rock, borrowing chord progressions from The Who and Jimi Hendrix. It was empowering, but when I would perform my rip-off songs, it didn’t feel like me, or more accurately: it didn’t feel like I was ripping off the right bands.

I started to grow out of my classic rock obsession and explore my own taste as I became a pre-teen and then a teen. I went through a huge Avril Lavigne phase where I attempted to be a punk rocker, which didn’t fit. I attempted to learn piano during my Regina Spektor phase, didn’t quite land. Then got back into guitar during my Ani Difranco phase, but the Ani-esque songs I was writing felt trite. This series of experiments came to a screeching halt when I was 16 hanging out with my cool older friend on a particularly humid summer day. She put on Either/Or by Elliott Smith and a whole chill ran through my body despite the thick heat. I immediately knew I had found my true hero.

To this day, Either/Or is my favorite album. When I hear the click at the beginning of “Speed Trials” I am taken right back to when I was 16 and had a burst of inspiration and love unlike any other I’d experienced before. What struck me then and continues to strike me now is the sheer honesty of the entire record, down to how it’s recorded. The lo-fi nature of the recordings makes me feel like I’m in the room with him, like he’s a real person singing to me and not some unreachable, glamorously dead rock star. That combined with the intimate whisper of his voice as he sang unfathomably relatable lyrics along to beautiful guitar progressions proved to be the all star combo for me. Either/Or was almost the only record I listened to for about a year and in that time I wrote all the songs on my first Palehound EP Bent Nail, and my LP Dry Food.

To this day if I’m feeling stuck with songwriting, I listen to what I consider a perfect song, “Ballad of Big Nothing.” If I’m feeling like I need to blow off some steam, I’ll belt along to “Pictures of Me.” If I’m feeling overwhelmed with love, I’ll listen to “Say Yes.” What I’m trying to say is that every song on Either/Or is a gift. This album is like a first aid kit to me, it has a different remedy for any big or little thing I could need one for. Even though Elliott Smith has been dead for most of my life, I feel like he is my mentor. Every song I write is a blank canvas and he is the master painter gently guiding my shaking hand.

(Palehound is mainly a solo project for singer/songwriter/guitarist Ellen Kempner, who was born in 1994 and grew up in Westport, Connecticut, although the band also features drummer Jesse Weiss and bassist Larz Brogan. Palehound’s most recent album, their third, Black Friday, came out in 2019 on Polyvinyl.)

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 66 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online. For the issue we interviewed musicians and actors about their all-time favorite album.]

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