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 suddenly rediscovered scarf and Olivia Rodrigo storybook breakup; it’s hard to imagine trying to make it on the labels and not getting told at some songwriting bootcamp: start writing some stories, kid. 

The first story Allison Ponthier wrote was about moving to Bushwick. Her story about it sounds recognizable and that’s because it is. Vogue has blogged about it twice, it anchors the center of a glossy profile that landed across the Atlantic in NME. That song is called “Cowboy” and it’s a gently ebullient piece of post-Golden Hour, post-Folklore pop country; a campy refashioning of her new neighborhood in a valley of crispy recorded twangs. There may be four producers listed on the song’s credits, but only one songwriter and her idea of a story comes out in a rich vocabulary of otherworldly similes. “Familiar, but strange, like an android,” for instance. In the video her label put out, Ponthier trades a gorgeous red cowboy outfit for a pantsuit and bangs.

“Those songs—they’re built like the Rock of Gibraltar,” Bruce Springsteen once told Jon Landau about the songbook of Billy Joel. The songbook that Ponthier is building feels durable too and illuminated in 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 latter being herself. “All of my songs are about myself,” Ponthier tells me on the phone shortly before the release of her next one. “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.

The new song is called “Autopilot” and it’s about her fear of driving. As she laid it out to me, the concept is pure songwriting craft exercise: write a bunch of verses that lay out a bunch of funny reasons for not wanting to drive. The music video riffs on one of them, John Carpenter’s 1983 horror movie Christine. Ponthier says her manager had taken her to see the movie shortly before scheduling her for a songwriting session where she had penned the song. In the clip, Ponthier falls in love with bright blue 1957 Ford Thunderbird, which is close enough to the red 1958 Plymouth Fury that Carpenter used.

But when she was writing the song about refusing to get a driver’s license, Ponthier confessed that she had another cultural phenomenon on her mind.

“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.”

“I would love to live and die here,” Ponthier says later tells me, offhandedly, about Bushwick. She says the industry is pushing her to go to LA, where her bosses have their offices. They had discovered her and planted her firm in the ground of the industry’s pop songwriting machine. Ponthier had ditched studying jazz at the University of North Texas in Denton to move to New York, a move she likens to answering to the call of a premonition. She lived in Sunset Park for a year and then fell in love. Her new girlfriend lived in Bushwick, Ponthier describes her as one of the many artists that had moved to the gentrifying neighborhood in the early 2010s and now Ponthier was one of them. (“Familiar, but strange,” as she would write.)

In those years, she was a regular at “Open Flame,” an open mic night at Mood Ring, a popular club on Myrtle Avenue. She told me that performing there was one of her favorite things to do in the world. (She says she’s still a regular at Carmelo’s.) Nearby, over at Elsewhere, 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, emblematic of the scene’s post-Occupy energy. (Sample lyric: “Barack Obama killed something in me.”)

“To watch people get up there and kind of lay it all out,” she says. “It was really freeing.” 

She began playing local clubs, while trying desperately to network herself into songwriter’s rooms, succeeding only in getting a singe credit in the sole album by an unsuccessful R&B cover band that Universal had signed called Cold Heart  A listing from late 2019 shows her playing the small room at Elsewhere, where she opened for a minimally dressed R&B duo that Cold Heart’s singer later started called Refs, as well as a different R&B singer from Uganda named Jonah Mutono. An A&R flack who lived in neighboring Williamsburg later discovered her and convinced her that the R&B stuff wasn’t working, but there was potential. Soon after, she deleted all her music from the internet and remade herself as country-pop singer Allison Ponthier, who was telling bloggers that New York made her into a cowboy, because it had.

Her first chance to play “country girl in the bid city” 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 rock band’s gravel-voiced singer Ben Schneider. Part of a somewhat new wave of “alternative rock”-branded midwestern bands like Jr Jr and Greta Van Fleet, Schneider’s Lord Huran had begun pulling numbers after they landed a track on the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack. Their songs are tender, but weepy, like a stadium rock take on early Bon Iver. As soon as Ponthier heard about it, she belted out a demo in less than an hour and, shortly after, she was invited to the band’s studio to put it on the track, a song called “I Lied.” In the song, she sings a soliloquy from the perspective of a divorcing wife, which in her voice becomes a wistful, tender chant. It remains her biggest song so far, streamed some 20 million times on Spotify. The best version of the record, however, 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.

Ponthier admits that the self is a rewarding well to plumb down. When she performs “Harshest Critic,” live, she says 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. Like a lot of pop music, it feels carefully recreated from something already known; the opening riff sounds vaguely like the starting licks on “Stairway to Heaven.” Ponthier tells me that her favroiate band of all time is the the Mamas & the Papas and the softness of their touch can be felt around the edges of the arrangements of her songs.

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 play Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg. For now, the system works. 

Top image via Universal Music.

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