The short story is in the midst of a revival. This isn’t doing anything for MFA grads, but it’s doing a lot for a certain type of pop singer who specializes in delivering witty yarns on acoustic guitars and pianos that creek with authenticity. From Taylor Swift’s suddenly rediscovered scarf to Olivia Rodrigo storybook breakup, it’s hard to imagine trying to make it on the labels these days and not getting told: start writing some stories, kid.
The first story Allison Ponthier wrote was about moving to Bushwick. On the phone, she admits as much to me and the yarn is recognizable. Vogue has blogged about it twice, it anchors the center of a glossy profile of the singer that appeared across the Atlantic in NME. She’s on the rise, a happy industry plant growing – or perhaps, she would say, manifesting – through the cracks of what is left of the gatekeeping press. People just have to start listening to the songs and then she’ll have it made.
It doesn’t hurt that the songs are both good and durable; they bring to mind something Bruce Springsteen once told Jon Landau about how it felt to take a crack at a few Billy Joel songs, “Those songs—they’re built like the Rock of Gibraltar.” Take “Cowboy” – that’s the Bushwick song – it’s a gentle, little ship in a bottle of a song carved expertly in the mold of the work that’s come in the wake of Taylor Swift’s surprise blockbuster Folklore. Crescendos made of twinkling pianos crash against each other as Ponthier sings plainly about moving from one city and then living in another one. “It took New York to make me a cowboy,” is candy for aspiring culture writers but it’s the motifs buried inside the text that elevate its pop affections into camp. In one moment, she likens herself to alien and then, in another, she paints a wardrobe of tattered clothes, full of gaping holes from which gardens grow. For the video, the labels pulled some guy who directed a video for the French singer Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier, who records as Christine and the Queens. For a song whose story was also about Ponthier’s coming out of the closet, this made synergistic sense. In the his video for her song, Ponthier trades a gorgeous red cowboy outfit for a pantsuit and bangs.
“I would love to live and die here,” Ponthier says offhandedly about Bushwick. The industry is pushing her to go to LA, where her bosses have their offices. When she ditched studying jazz at the University of North Texas in Denton to move to New York, she does not call the move impulsive, but thought of it instead as answering to the call of a premonition. After a year of living in Sunset Park, she had fallen in love. Her new girlfriend was among the newcomers who had set up roost in the gentrifying neighborhood to the north half a decade earlier. Ponthier moved in and began playing local clubs and trying desperately to network herself into writer’s rooms, succeeding in getting a song 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, opening for a minimally dressed R&B duo that Cold Heart’s singer had started called Refs, as well as a different R&B singer from Uganda named Jonah Mutono. After doing this for a few years, Ponthier was discovered by an A&R flack who lived in neighboring Williamsburg. Soon after, she deleted all her music from the internet and remade herself as the country-pop singer Allison Ponthier, who was telling bloggers that New York made her into a cowboy, because it had. To make art, sometimes, is to wait around for a car to pick you up and take to where the people are.
As it happens, Ponthier is afraid of driving. Her latest song is, fittingly, called “Autopilot.” 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 lines that made the cut include watching John Carpenter’s 1983 horror movie Christine and having to wake up too early to take a driving test. Carpenter’s movie also makes it into the video she cuts for the track, where she plays a woman who falls in love with a bright blue 1957 Ford Thunderbird, which is close enough to the red 1958 Plymouth Fury that Carpenter used. (The license plate reads XTINE, another subtle touch.) With a kind of touching innocence, she tells me that her manager had taken her to see the movie a few days before she went to the session to write the record.
Getting your driver’s license is another subject that’s in vogue these days. As it happens, a Nashville folk singer named Allison Mahal put out a gorgeous little song of the same name a month earlier, a sort of Soccer Mommy-style rager. In the half hour that I have Ponthier on the phone, she does a very good job of staying legally clear of naming any influences who could file annoying lawsuits against her bosses, an impressive feat. As it happens, her publicist approvingly tells people that she’s “a goody-two-shoes southerner.” But even she can’t help admitting the world we are all living in at the moment.
“When ‘Driver’s License’ came out, I was like, this feels like it was personally attacking me,” she says. To talk about Olivia Rodrigo is to talk about yourself.
“It’s about a girl who’s so young, who’s getting her driver’s license,” she says. “I’m still not even there.”
The shorthand that a lot of bloggers most consistently use to write about Ponthier is another singer from the suburbs of Dallas – via Atwood Magazine: “Equal parts Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, and Phoebe Bridgers” ; via NME: “would fit snugly on a Kacey Musgraves record”; via Flood Magazine: “the rainbow-colored pop of Kacey Musgraves and Lana Del Rey.” Musgraves, whose last two albums charted the course of her romantic relationship with a less successful musician, had established the value of the kind of songwriting that Ponthier had committed herself to, it holds the dignified promise of a minor pop artist with enough invested fans to make a go of filling Madison Square Garden.
“All of my songs are about myself,” she says suddenly. It’s a striking thought; part Walt Whitman, part Lena Dunham. “To me, my most complicated relationship has always been with myself, so it’s what I keep going back to,” she says. Ponthier promises me that she will start writing songs about other people soon enough. Perhaps about her experiences with people.
Coincidentally, Ponthier says the one of her favorite songs that she’s recorded was not written by her at all. “I was just some girl,” she says when a friend in the industry told her that another band signed to Universal called Lord Huron was looking for a woman to duet across singer Ben Schneider. Part of a lucrative scene of recent “alternative rock”-branded acts imported from the state of Michigan – Jr Jr and Greta Van Fleet come to mind – Lord Huron began pulling numbers after landing a song on the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack. The song the band was shopping around now was a perverse monument to adulthood, Ponthier called it a “radically honest” take on two sides of a failing marriage. Excited by the opportunity, Ponthier took less than an hour to record a demo and send it back.
Ponthier’s voice occupies the cramped final third of the song, a dour anthem for lying adults. But her voice is wistful and almost optimistic. An enormous breath that elevates a line like “my chains are finally broken” into almost spiritual territory. To date, “I Lied” remains her biggest song, streamed some 20 million times on Spotify. The best version of it was performed by Ponthier and Schneider on Jimmy Fallon last year. She sings it with a kind of peculiar intensity and her eyes blink nervously.
Ponthier finds the self a rewarding well to plumb down. She confesses to crying during live performances of another single, “Harshest Critic,” a song about daydreaming about being famous and then feeling anxious about that imagined situation. Like a lot of pop music, it feels carefully refracted from something already known, as its riff nods vaguely at the distinctive opening licks from “Stairway to Heaven.” When asked for her influences, Ponthier likes to name the other people who have songwriting credit on her songs. It’s not easy to play by the rules, but Ponthier has it down. She describes the two people who wrote her latest single with as “two of my closest friends.” (They are Adam Melchor and Ethan Gruska, the latter who got his break producing the first two Phoebe Bridgers albums.)
That’s the central tension in Ponthier’s bit – performing the role of the good natured followers of the rules carries with the tension of its opposite. When she moved to Bushwick in her early ‘20s, she was a regular at “Open Flame,” an open mic night at Mood Ring. In those days, performing there was one of her favorite things to do in the world. She says that this was when she saw punk music for the first time. It came in the form of a show that Priests had played at Elsewhere back in 2019.
“To watch people get up there and kind of lay it all out,” she reminisces. After hearing Ponthier project her anxieties onto Olivia Rodrigo, it’s surprising to hear her do the same with the somewhat-broken up band from the D.C. scene, who work in manifiestos written with graffiti wall lyrics like “Barack Obama killed something in me.” The jazz school dropout says she liked the way the band didn’t seem to “worry about being the technically-greatest musicians.”
“It was really freeing.”
Less freeing is major label life. Ponthier says she is not allowed to reveal what exact form her next “project” would take, which will be where “Autopilot” will eventually park. “I’m not allowed to announce what exactly it’s on,” she says. But when she’s talking about catching Priests on a late, lovesick night in Bushwick, it becomes easy to imagine Ponthier ditching this whole bit if the country-pop angle doesn’t eventually work out. An indie label. Staying in New York. Eagerly awaiting a 7.8 from Pitchfork and eventually opening for Carly Rae Jepsen or Lucinda Williams or someone else with cult appeal on the edges of the industry.
Instead, Ponthier tells me that she spent the last four years manifesting studio time with Lena Dunham’s ex-boyfriend, Jack Antonoff, which is perhaps the correct thing to do. A refugee of the three-hit wonder band Fun., Antonff spent the rest of the decade cutting records with singers of a similar demographic: Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Lorde. The other big concert moment for Ponthier had been catching Lorde’s show at the Barclay Center in 2018, where she and Antonff sat on the stage and played a cover of a St. Vincent song that Antonff had also produced. “It changed my life,” Ponthier gasps.
To get to someone as well-connected as the New Jersey svengali, Ponthier says she fangirled in front of him when they were rehearsing in the same studio in advance of a tour with Lord Huron. No luck. So she turned to her label connections and suspects that “people I knew bothered him so much about it.”
Now she has an opening slot opening for Bleachers, his solo act, during a 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 midtier acts like Royal Blood and Mac Demarco regularly stop. After that, she’ll play Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg. For now, the system works. And it’s a story you can tell.
Top image via Universal Music.
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.