The Healing Power of Queer Friendship: A Conversation with Bachelor

Tonje Thilesen
Bachelor © Tonje Thilesen
The Palehound and Jay Som shredders of Bachelor discuss how their kismet bond brought out the best of their artistry on ‘Doomin’ Sun,’ their first record together.

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Ellen Kempner and Melina Duterte fell in platonic love at first sight. The indie-rock wunderkinds went from fans of each other to fast friends several years ago when their kindred musical spirits came together for a fated jam session. Thus, Bachelor—so named for Duterte’s love of the intensely heterosexual ABC franchise and the ironic juxtaposition to their own laid-back, monogamous gay lives—was born.

Doomin’ Sun – Bachelor

As the world literally and figuratively burned (what with the Australian bushfires and the beginnings of COVID-19’s spread), Kempner and Duterte retreated north of Los Angeles to record for two weeks at a cabin in Topanga Canyon. In between solo writing sessions and plenty of gut-busting laughter, they created some of the most infectious songs of both of their careers.

Released May 28 via Polyvinyl, Doomin’ Sun is a cohesive amalgamation of Kempner’s deeply personal lyricism, Duterte’s production prowess, and their melodic geniuses—but more than anything, it’s the sound of their friendship as they kept each other not only sane but joyful.

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Listen: ‘Doomin’ Sun’ – Bachelor


Atwood Magazine: What was the process of combining your musical sensibilities like?

Kempner: [Melina’s] just this genius at production and arrangement and melody and groove, and she’s the best bass player I know. She has mentioned a couple of times to me that she loves soundtracks to movies. And I can see that influence in her writing because she really does know how to paint a picture behind a story when she makes music. (to Melina) What?

Duterte: You’re just being so sweet right now!

Kempner: Well it’s true!

Duterte: Oh, I love you.

Kempner: I love you too.

What new things did you explore together on Doomin’ Sun that you weren't really exploring in Palehound or Jay Som?

Kempner: Honestly, humor and laughter. I feel like having a solo project, especially one that’s so emotionally loaded for both of us, [we] write about personal things and we spend a lot of time in our own heads. Melina works on all of her records just by herself, and I know that’s intense. I always put a lot of weight into the process, a lot of seriousness and deep intention, but I’ve learned from working with Melina that too much of that is no good.

Duterte: I think that we go into this without a guidebook – no one really tells you how to do this thing. You just figure it out as you go. And it feels so good to have someone by your side to like talk about things and make fun of things [with], and just figure it out together. Ellen is really good at that. She’s so special and really, really caring. She’s just my best friend.

Bachelor © Tonje Thilesen

In what ways was making this album together an affirming process for you?

Kempner: We spent a lot of time… How do I put this? Just like, embracing ourselves and our bodies—not sexual at all. We were in Topanga and the weather was nice and like, you know…

Duterte: We’d be naked.

Kempner: We were naked a lot and there was a hot tub. We got full-body rashes from going in naked, but it was all just very casual, like, ‘Well, why shouldn’t we?’ There’s no threat to just being completely naked, emotionally and physically, around each other. It felt very much like family, you know? And I think that that’s such a queer concept, of having your friends be your family. That was really healing for me because I definitely struggle with my body and feeling comfortable around other people with my body. And also [we] just had a lot of fun. I have so many videos on my phone of Melina noticing that I’m filming her and then flashing the camera.

Duterte: I have so many videos of you like that, too.

Kempner: And just like, laughing about being gay. I have not found a relationship like this, where we’re the same age and we have similar experiences being queer people in music.

Do you guys think that indie rock is getting gayer?

Kempner: [Laughs] That’s the goal.

What are your thoughts and feelings on, for lack of a better term, the queering of indie rock over the past couple of years?

Kempner: There’s not enough yet. I would like to see more queer ideologies take place in the music business, community and ideas like that.

Duterte: It feels very pigeonholed, and you see similar articles that have the same group of people, which is great. But I think that it might just be also a media thing in general. The picking and choosing of who gets the spotlight. When I see my other [queer] friends making music and writing about their experiences, I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s so relatable.’ But then I think, ‘Wait, this is so rare.’ As much as possible, I like to let people know that I’m writing about being gay and stuff.

Kempner: When I was younger, having queer yearning was the most painful thing because it was like yearning for something that you couldn’t have, constantly. Yearning for something that you were told you shouldn’t have, that you wouldn’t have and that you should avoid. [It’s] so loaded for queer people, and it’s so emotional. I can’t wait for the day that it’s not so loaded anymore. On this record, yearning plays a huge role because I feel like that’s like the foundation of discovering your identity.

Duterte: It’s so easy to crush on people all the time when you’re a queer person, too.

Kempner: Lots of crushes. Yeah. The song ‘Sand Angel’ is about wet dreams and the yearning that happens when you wake up from one of those.

Duterte: ‘Anything at All’ is also just straight-up horny. Can I say that? I remember when we were writing it, I was like, ‘Wow Ellen, this is really horny.’

Kempner: Listen, when you write a bassline like that, you can’t expect not-horny lyrics to happen. Melina is like, the queen of writing a panty-dropper.

Duterte: You wrote ‘Cinnamon.’ That’s the sexiest guitar part I’ve ever heard in my life. That’s a gay guitar riff for sure.

Watch: “Stay in the Car” – Bachelor

How many of these songs are about platonic love, and how many are more traditionally romantic?

Kempner: ‘Stay in the Car’ is about yearning for a friendship. Seeing someone that you’re like, ‘Whoa, that person looks so cool. I would love to be their friend,’ which I experience every day. But a lot of it’s about balance.

Do romantic love and friendship share common ground, in your personal experiences?

Duterte: 100%. And I think we can say that for our touring lives, too. ‘Cause you’re trapped in a van and going to venues with your friends every single day for sometimes a month or two. You have to talk to each other all the time and you have to communicate, and relationships are built on honesty and communication. In mine and Ellen’s friendship, we follow that sort of thing, too.

Kempner: It all ties back to family again. And there is something very romantic about touring, road-tripping across these gorgeous landscapes. Having really emotional moments on stage with your bandmates and connecting musically is very romantic in ways, as well. But yeah, I think that the best romantic relationships are great friendships, at their core.

How do you feel you grew as a producer, Melina?

Duterte: Every collaboration is different, and you have to feed off of each other. Producing is not just pushing knobs and twisting them. A lot of it is figuring out your relationship with the person in the moment that is happening, like asking how they feel. I think co-producing an album is like that, too. And I think with Ellen, the reason why we say it was always fun and we were laughing all the time is because our egos were checked at the door.

Bachelor © Tonje Thilesen

In hindsight, what has the pandemic taught you about friendship?

Duterte: Human connection is so important. Not just over Zoom or FaceTime, but physically being next to someone and feeding off their energy and really loving them is so important. I think it’s so traumatizing to have gone through that for a year. And it just makes me miss my job, touring and seeing people, because I believe in this energy that people have on stage with the audience. It’s something that’s really special.

Kempner: I think we all know that we’ve been taking so many things for granted, things that we didn’t ever think we’d have to take for granted. And then this comes, and the disaster is that you can’t have each other. But also, I’m really grateful for this year because it showed me who my real friends are, too. I started laughing to myself when Melina joined this call, because this is the view I’ve had of her for so long. But then I was thinking, ‘Wow, it is amazing that I’m still really excited to see you over Zoom.’

Duterte: I know. I’m excited to see you all the time.

What are you proudest about with this record?

Kempner: I’m definitely proud of the songs. Just how true to ourselves this record is, I guess.

Duterte: I feel the same way. I’m proud that I can hear us in a genuine way. And [with] every single song, I know exactly where we were in that room. Sometimes the best work that you do isn’t made [over] years of agonizing, sometimes it’s made in two weeks. Those are some of my favorite albums, where it’s built on something else that’s not just about music. It’s about a friendship, this connection, and however you’re feeling in that moment.

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