Onward and Upward in Bushwick: Allison Ponthier’s Short Stories

The short story is in the midst of a revival. You can hear in the lyrics of a certain kind of singer-songwriter specializing in clever acoustic guitar yarns that melt into pianos and creek urgently with authenticity. Subjects that once felt like the domain of novelty pop songs have become central to a new canon and are being studied ferociously by the world of professional songwriters. At its top sit totems like Taylor Swift’s rediscovered scarf or Olivia Rodrigo storybook breakup and at the newer end, perhaps, are the ones being penned by Allison Ponthier in Bushwick.

The first one Ponthier wrote was about moving there, an icy-smooth pop song called “Cowboy” that lives on in two Vogue blogs and a profile that came out shorty after in NME. It was a gently ebullient piece of post-Golden Hour, post-Folklore pop country version of Brooklyn, “familiar, but strange, like an android,” as she puts it. It may have necessitated some four different producers, per its credits, but only one songwriter and her rich vocabulary of otherworldly similes are truly her own and surely reflect something.

“I would love to live and die here,” Ponthier tells me. The “industry,” she says, however is pushing her to go to the west coast, so she remains unsure how long she’ll stick around. Sometime ago, Ponthier had ditched studying jazz at the University of North Texas in Denton in order to move to New York, a move she still likens to a quasi-spiritual premonition. She lived in Sunset Park for a year before she fell in love. Her new girlfriend lived in Bushwick, one of the many artists who had flocked moved to the gentrifying neighborhood in the early 2010s. Now Ponthier was one of them.

The songbook Ponthier is building feels durable and is illuminated by neon-colored camp imagery; an EP of these came out last year, and it’s called “Faking My Own Death.” Songs on it have titles like “Hell Is A Crowded Room” and “Harshest Critic.“ The subject matter of the latter is hits close to home. “All of my songs are about myself,” says Ponthier. “To me, my most complicated relationship has always been with myself, so it’s what I keep going back to.”

In the music video for her new song, Ponthier plays a women who falls in love with her car.

Her newest song is called “Autopilot” and it’s about her fear of driving. As she tells me, she had been inspired by another song animating the pop charts some time last year.

“When ‘Driver’s License’ came out, I was like, this feels like it was personally attacking me,” she says. “It’s about a girl who’s so young, who’s getting her driver’s license…I’m still not even there.”

Like Rodrigo, Ponthier feels safest speaking in a language of remembered camp. The music video plays on John Carpenter’s 1983 horror movie Christine, a movie her her manager had taken her to see the shortly before scheduling her for a songwriting session from which the record emerged. In the clip, she falls in love with bright blue 1957 Ford Thunderbird, which is close enough to the movie’s red 1958 Plymouth Fury.

When she started out, Ponthier had been a regular at “Open Flame,” an open mic night at Mood Ring, a popular club on Myrtle Avenue. Performing there was one of her favorite things to do in the world. (She’s still a regular at Carmelo’s.) It was at the nearby club Elsewhere where she told me that she witnessed punk music for the first time, in the form of a set from the Washington D.C. band Priests, one of those bands emblematic of the scene’s post-Occupy energy. It was an inspirational moment for the aspiring pop songwriter. “To watch people get up there and kind of lay it all out,” she says. “It was really freeing.” 

She began playing herself local clubs, while trying desperately to network herself into songwriter’s rooms, succeeding finally in getting a credit in an album by an unsuccessful R&B cover band Universal had signed called Cold Heart  A listing from late 2019 shows her playing the little room at Elsewhere, opening for a minimally dressed R&B duo called Refs, started by one of the singers in Cold Heart, paired this time with a different R&B singer from Uganda named Jonah Mutono. She was later discovered by an A&R flack from who convinced her that the R&B stuff wasn’t working, but saw potential. Soon after, she deleted all her music from the internet and remade herself as Allison Ponthier, who was singing country-pop songs about cowboys.

Her first chance to play this “country girl in the big city” character came from one her friends at Universal, who told her that the Michigan band Lord Huron was searching town for a unknown singer for a duet with the band’s gravel-voiced Ben Schneider. Part of a wave of “alternative rock”-branded midwestern bands like Jr Jr and Greta Van Fleet, Schneider’s Lord Huron had begun pulling numbers after landing a track on the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack. As soon as Ponthier heard about it, she cranked out a demo in under an hour and, shortly after, was invited to the band’s studio to put it on the track, a track called “I Lied,” a wistful, tender chant that she performs regularly with the band. It remains her biggest song so far, streamed some 20 million times on Spotify. The best version of the record was performed by Ponthier and Schneider on Jimmy Fallon last year. On stage, she sings it with a kind of peculiar intensity and her eyes blink nervously. The video is, unfortunately, no longer available on YouTube.

Ponthier duets with Lord Huron singer Ben Schneider on Jimmy Fallon.

When she performs “Harshest Critic,” live, she still cries on stage. She says the song is intensely autobiographical; it’s about daydreaming about being famous and then feeling anxious about what that would be like; the opening riff sounds vaguely like the starting licks on “Stairway to Heaven.” There’s a little bit of the Mamas & the Papas going on there too, a band Ponthier tells me is her favorite band of all time.

Ponthier tells me that she spent the last four years manifesting studio time with Lena Dunham’s ex-boyfriend, the hit producer Jack Antonoff. A refugee of the three-hit wonder band Fun., Antonff spent the rest of the decade cutting records with singers of a shared demographic: Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Lorde. The other big concert moment Ponthier told me about was catching Lorde at the Barclay Center in 2018, where she and Antonff sat on the stage and played a cover of a St. Vincent song Antonff had also produced. “It changed my life,” Ponthier says.

To get to someone as well-connected as Antonff, Ponthier says she had fangirled in front of him when they were rehearsing in the same studio in advance of Ponthier’s tour with Lord Huron. No luck. So she turned to her label connections and suspects that later “people I knew bothered him so much about it.” 

Now she has an opening slot opening for Antonoff’s newer band, Bleachers, for their tour of the American South. It’ll no doubt be a sentimental turn for Ponthier, to revisit her childhood home from the stage of the South Side Ballroom in Dallas, where other bands of the era like Royal Blood and Mac Demarco regularly stop. After that, she’ll return home for a run at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg.

Top image via Universal Music.

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