Sometimes you meet someone, even in passing, and know that you are destined to be the best of friends. For Ellen Kempner, this happened the first time they listened to Jay Som - the solo project of the LA-based Melina Duterte. Based in Boston until their move to New York in recent years, Kempner is best known for their own solo project, Palehound. Both artists deal in their own brand of tender bedroom pop; Palehound is rawer and rougher round the edges, while Jay Som is glossy and dreamy. Palehound sounds like the east coast, Jay Som like the west. Despite their differences, something in Kempner knew Duterte was a kindred spirit, a prophecy that came to fruition when the pair finally met on tour and immediately hit it off.
“I feel like we felt closer than someone on the outside would see, because as touring musicians we are used to making really fast, intimate, vulnerable friendships in an hour that you have backstage at someone else’s show or something,” Kempner says. “That was the foundation of our friendship for a year or two.
With two brilliant artists forming such a fated friendship, the obvious next step was to create music together. At the start of 2020, they set up a studio at a rented house in Topanga, California, and spent two weeks forging the creative marriage they would name Bachelor. They emerged with their debut album, 'Doomin’ Sun'. Musically, it’s intriguingly off-kilter and packed full of personality. The ten tracks are honest and moving, exploring love, insecurity and obsession without apologies.
Clash hopped on a Zoom call with Kempner and Duterte to discuss the record and their refreshing friendship.
- - -
- - -
Where are you guys right now?
Melina: I’m in LA.
Ellen: I’m in Poughkeepsie, New York, for only a couple more months, and then I move to LA at the end of July.
Are you hoping for a chance to create more music together once you’re out in LA together?
Ellen: Nah. (Laughs) No, I’m kidding, yes.
Melina: We’re ending our friendship. No, we definitely are. I have a little studio up here in my attic, and I’m gonna force Ellen to come here and hang out with me all the time. We’re gonna watch a lot of TV together. But we’ll also make music.
What do you guys think it is that makes you such good friends?
Ellen: We’re the same age, and we’re both queer. We have the same sense of humour. We really bring out the wildest in each other when we’re together. We do a lot of laughing, that’s kind of what connects us really hard.
Melina: We’re always making fun of each other.
And what do you think makes you guys a good match for each other musically?
Melina: We are fans of each other, and we’ve been prior to knowing each other and being in a band. Being in a solo project, no one really teaches you, so you have to learn your own way. So I think that we’ve ended up gathering really unique perspectives on that, and when we hang out together it’s like, we get to bond that way. But I love Ellen as a songwriter and a guitarist. Ellen just has this thing that a lot of people don’t, and… I’m always grateful. Hey, I love you.
Ellen: I love you too! It’s so funny ‘cause we’ve done a few interviews at this point where this question comes up, and then we end up just kind of getting embarrassed, saying really nice things about each other. It’s funny to have a friendship where we’re like, routinely being asked about what we love about each other. I really do love that.
But yeah, I just think that she’s an incredible producer, and her mind is just an unceasing onslaught of groove and riffs. You were born that way, too. Like, you got that in you.
What was the process of going out to record the album?
Melina: We decided we really wanted to work together, and we were like, ‘Let’s do it. We gotta get a house’. We really wanted to go to a place that wasn’t a studio that’s like, four walls, no window, all this gear around you. Usually that’s really uncomfortable, and I personally like recording in places that are not the regular type of studio. It was at a family home on the hills in Topanga, and there was a huge back patio, and there were a ton of trees, so it just didn’t look like you were in Los Angeles. And it was just really beautiful, and the air was clean, and we got to drive around and just hang out at this house.
Ellen: It was really awesome to do it that way, because there was no pressure. I feel like in a recording studio I always feel anxious, like, this engineer has probably heard amazing stuff and my shit sucks.
Do you think that laidback vibe comes across in the songs?
Melina: Yeah, definitely. I listen to that record and I hear plenty of imperfection, and I love that about it.
- - -
- - -
How did you envision the album when you first started writing it?
Melina: I think there wasn’t a very clear vision. I think with Ellen’s kinda style, they’ve gone into studios before extremely prepared, and I’m not like that, because if I have an idea, I have to do it now. And I think that’s one of my favourite parts of recording myself and other people, and collaborating, is you sorta get that rawness right away. I think that’s a really fun muscle to flex. It’s slightly stressful - actually, it’s really stressful. Especially when we have to make music every day for two weeks because there’s a lot of pressure around that. But also, if you really believe in yourself, then it happens. And I’m honestly very surprised that we made music that month. (Laughs) Simply because of how much fun we were having.
Ellen: Yeah, like Melina said, I like to be really prepared going into the studio. I feel like if you had told me before this experience that we would be acting on the fly and doing it the way that she said, I probably would have been like, ‘Oh shit, that sounds very stressful, and I don’t know if I wanna do things that way’. But I never had that feeling, ‘cause I just really trusted Melina a lot going into it.
You’re both used to writing in solo projects. How different was this process? Is there more compromise than you’ve been used to?
Melina: I think in some ways there are compromises, but I don’t say that in a negative way. It’s just mostly like, you take parts of each other, and you bring them together and you see what works and doesn’t work. I think with writing music and playing music with people, you have to throw paint at the wall, see what sticks. Because if you don’t, then you’re just two nervous, insecure people and you’ll never get anything done. I think a lot of that has to do with letting go of your ego, and being down to take criticism.
I think we can both agree that part of being in a band or collaborating with people, it’s weirdly like therapy, in a way. You have to bend to each other. And sometimes it doesn’t work with some people. I feel like a lot of the times it’s about how you’re connecting to each other. It’s like, 40% connection and friendship, and how you communicate, and then the rest is music. It’s never just music.
Would you say that it’s very trust-based between you guys?
Ellen: Yeah. There’s a lot of trust with us. Even just emotionally, there’s a ton of trust. Like, Melina knows things about my life that not many other people know - she’s one of my best friends. So the trust that goes into a friendship like that, where you’re like, ‘You know my deepest darkest secret, or you know this random thing about what happened to me in seventh grade’. And we did a lot of talking. Not about the music at all, just about everything. And I think that that really made the music better. Just to understand each other really deeply and trust each other already with so much personal shit, it made being vulnerable musically way easier.
Let’s talk about the title track ‘Doomin Sun’. What inspired that song?
Ellen: That week that we were recording is when the devastating fires in Australia were happening. We were just seeing these photos of entire coasts burned, and these monstrous clouds of smoke, and this red sky. We’ve always been aware of global warming, and then this kind of was one of those moments where it’s like, ‘Oh, this is it happening right now’, and it’s not just this abstract concept that we can kind of push to the back of our heads anymore. But I think in that anxiety and that kind of panic, I found a lot of comfort in knowing that - I’ve had the same partner for a long time and we’re super close, and I was just thinking about him. I was like, wow, it’s such a gift to find comfort in another person, to know that we’re all experiencing this together. And it’s a love song about my partner, but it’s also about Melina. It’s also about being held emotionally by a friend, and having trust. Just appreciating things in the moment really, is what a lot of that song’s about.
You say that the theme of queerness is an integral part of the record. How were you drawing on that theme?
Ellen: Well, it’s just one of the things that connects us so deeply as friends, is our queerness. And just the ways that we can be our true really gay kind of selves around each other. Romantic interests aside, I feel like queerness is just so deeply ingrained in both of our personalities, and how we function, and relationships with gender identity and how we portray that. I feel like there is something really liberating about getting together with another queer friend and writing a bunch of queer songs. And just not questioning that at all, and just going for it.
How do you envision the future of Bachelor?
Melina: I think we’re definitely gonna keep creating together. I mean, if Ellen’s moving to LA, that’s just like, boom. We have to work together. And part of it is like, I’m excited to see Ellen do their own damn thing over here in LA, because Ellen’s such a fucking good musician and I’m just excited to grow as a musician with her. I definitely want to make another album already. After that Sharon Van Etten/Angel Olsen thing came out today, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s so epic!’
Ellen: Our next record is gonna be like Queen.
Melina: Yeah, we have to make the next ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, so I’m not gonna rest until we do that.
- - -
- - -
'Doomin' Sun' is out now.
Words: Mia Hughes
- - -