'Family Dollar': Nelson Kempf's album is a quiet meditation on changing seasons and an unpredictable future
The album was built around Kempf's own tumultuous life that included the birth of his child, an unprecedented move, a new job and a shift in his connection with music
Nelson Kempf's latest album, 'Family Dollar', drops on July 24 and is a touching, soft meditation on how life can change rather dramatically. Kempf tackles this fluid nature of existence with his own brand of emotional storytelling, which is matched perfectly by his soothing vocals. Kempf's musical style has been compared to the likes of Prefab Sprout, David Sylvian, Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens, but, as The Sunday Times once noted, "he has forged something truly his own." A large part of what makes Kempf's music unique is that it draws so heavily from his own experiences.
There aren’t many records whose writing is so evenly split between the humid haze of Tennessee and the harsh perpetual winter of the Alaskan tundra but Kempf's 'Family Dollar' is one such record, and the reason it manages to tackle two extremes in such seamless fashion is that that is precisely what Kempf himself was dealing with in his own life: an unprecedented relocation from Nashville to the lush rolling hills of Tennessee, which was paired with Kempf having to leave behind the symphony of crickets, cicadas, sirens and traffic once every three weeks to fly 20 hours north and replace those sounds with the -80 degree wind ripping off the Arctic Ocean, where he worked as a welder.
Why would a musician and a family man split his time between his daily life and the freezing subzero temperatures of the Arctic, one might ask. Having spent his late teens making and performing music, in 2011 Kempf’s first son was born and everything changed for him. He stopped making music, began welding, and moved with his family. Speaking about the experience, Kempf shares, "Over my years of separation from music, I grew increasingly disillusioned with my old creative processes...the folky songwriting of my early twenties didn't seem to accommodate the illness, death, mental breakdowns, social alienation, and poverty that had pervaded my immediate experience."
What emerged from this separation was a new process of simple and honest beauty — one that involved improv games that attempted to create a seismograph translating the movement of natural phenomena into sound. These were then fleshed out into the songs that make up 'Family Dollar'. In the lead-up to the album's release, Kempf dropped the lead single, 'Hourglass', a meditation on parenting, climate change and the slippery quality of time. The track was written by Kempf both in winter and early summer upon return to Alaska, and truly is the perfect representation of the album's sound and the emotions it conveys.
'Hourglass' finds Kempf watching the seasons break in more extreme and troubling ways with each passing year, the wildfires of summer, and the steady erosion of winter all permeating the small details of his family life. These musings paired with Kempf's vocals tell a deeply personal story, one that is reflected throughout the album's seven tracks. 'Sweetness and Strife', another single off the album, is also an absolutely stunning piece that sees Kempf reflect on his experiences as he finds peace and clarity amidst the chaos. This track essentially highlights the delicate balancing act that is life, and beautifully illustrates the delicate balance 'Family Dollar' achieves in stitching together pieces of Kempf's life.
'Family Dollar' is thus a record with a strong sense of that feeling of being uprooted, existing on polar opposites of the world. But it is also a peaceful meditation on the beauty that exists within the turmoil. Balancing darkness and light, warmth and isolation, hardship, and the rewards it brings, this is an album that finds Kempf writing from a deeply personal perspective during a rather tumultuous decade of his life. It takes stock of everything life has to offer, both good and bad, and recognizes that while change is inevitable and often terrifying, it can be accompanied by moments that make it all worth it.
Thematically, 'Family Dollar' may initially sound like a dark record. "The emotional experience of poverty is largely overlooked," Kempf says, "The intense pressure that inflates every moment; the exhausting physicality of stress; the impossibly stacked odds against sound decision making". But right from the soft light and delicate harp strums that open the album, it’s clear that what Kempf found when attempting to translate these feelings was something else. That there is also beauty in darkness.
As he describes it, he found, "a deep, connection to the buzzing grit and gristle of life; the salves of shimmering evening light, cheap alcohol, and children’s laughter; the overwhelming, irrational ecstasy when a moment of calm pierces through." For as dark as 'Family Dollar' might sound, the album is, at its core, a celebration of the little things that make the struggle worth it in the end.