Sometimes the things you’re running away from are precisely the things you need. Allison Ponthier escaped her home state of Texas to plant roots in the City That Never Sleeps; it wasn’t long until she realized her cultural heritage wasn’t something she could – or wanted to – do without.
Allison grew up listening to country before shunning the genre for moodier alternative music to soundtrack the imaginary worlds she retreated to as a teen. She returned to the music of her early years as she grew more comfortable with herself and what she wanted to say through art. She now has two new tracks out with Interscope (and a Lord Huron collaboration under her belt) in which she connects with her audience through a combination of adroit storytelling and campy visuals complete with drag, aliens and cowboys.
We caught up with Allison about breaking out of her shell, alternate universes and crossing items off her bucket list so early in her career.
You moved from Texas to New York City, a city known for its vibrant performance scene. Can you recall a particularly memorable show?
I used to go to comedy shows all the time. I love stand up comedy, as well as music. When I first moved to New York, I would just go to pretty much any venue that would have me. I remember doing my very first show in New York. It was this huge thing I had built up in my head so much. So I go on stage to perform and apparently the guy who was running the show was in love with the fog machine – he kept blasting it. I couldn’t see anything. And I have asthma. I lost my voice halfway through!
Another really memorable show was Lorde at Barclays Center. It was my first stadium show – I’d never been to a big show – and she did ‘Writer In The Dark’… I don’t know what it was about that show but I think about it every single day. I cried my eyes out when it happened. I told myself: “I need to do this somehow”.
Your first song released this year, ‘Cowboy’, sounds like a big sigh of relief. A key line from it is “It took New York to make me a cowboy”. Is it fair to say that, paradoxically, coming to New York has made it easier to reconnect with your roots?
I think you totally hit the nail on the head. A lot of people listen to the song and they know it’s a coming-out song. But it’s not just about feeling scared to come out, it’s about acknowledging you’re not in one box. I’m not totally from Texas, I’m not totally from New York, I’m somewhere in the middle. When I was in Texas, I always used to say “I’m gonna move to New York. I’m gonna start an indie band. I want to be so cool. And then I’m never gonna look back”. And the reality was, I moved to New York and every other word out of my mouth was “I’m from Texas”, talking about Texas, talking about where I grew up, talking about my experiences… It was more of a culture shock than I had anticipated. Part of that was because I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin, and, in the same way that I was running away from being gay, I was also kind of running away from the fact that I grew up in Texas.
You mentioned not being put into a single box. What do you think are common misconceptions of the country music scene?
I think a common misconception is that country music was always a super conservative art form. There were a lot of super progressive people that loved country music, and I’m just gonna call it like it is: black Americans led the country music movement for a really, really long time. Country hasn’t always been conservative white guys singing about their trucks. It has been diverse in the past. And I think it’s becoming more inclusive now: it’s really, really exciting.
One of my favourite artists is Brandi Carlile. She’s a classic, like, classic country singer. And she’s a gay woman. She talks about who she is as a person, she talks about her family. I really love that about her. I grew up in the early 2000s–I was born in ‘96–in the middle of Texas. So I held the common misconception that country music is only for this one group of people–and I was wrong. So I’m constantly learning as well.
Are there any other queer artists that you look up to?
I love St. Vincent. I love Arlo Parks. I love Orville Peck. I like Syd from The Internet. There are lots and lots of queer artists that I love and they make all different kinds of music. I was a kid who listened to country who then graduated to alternative and indie music, then to getting really into musical theatre. Then I went to school for jazz for a year. So I love lots and lots of different kinds of music.
Is that something that you think we’re going to hear more of in your upcoming EP?
At its core, I make pop music that’s inspired by 70s folk and country music. But you are everything you listen to. And I feel really, really inspired by different genres of music. I think I’m very lucky that my music exists in the middle of a few genres–and that’s not on purpose. That’s just the kind of music I make.
Your second single, ‘Harshest Critic’, sounds steeped in imposter syndrome. Are you still on a journey to become kinder to yourself?
I jokingly always say I don’t write a ton of love songs because the relationship I have with myself is my most complicated one. And it’s true. I’m a survivor of lots of different things in my past so I’m constantly trying to get to know myself. So this EP is honestly like me getting to know myself, me talking to myself, processing things. When I wrote ‘Cowboy’ I never thought it would come out. I thought it was just a song I wrote for myself. I felt very lonely growing up because I was always kind of an outsider in my friend group. I found it really hard to make friends and I was really into my hobbies. It’s been really empowering to have a project where I get to get real weird with it. I get to make the songs I want to make, I get to dress up as different characters and wear costumes in my music videos … My project has empowered me so much and really helped my self-esteem. It’s helped me explore who I actually am as a person.
Watching your videos, we get the sense that the visuals are nearly as important as the sound. How do you see the relation between the two?
The visual world is absolutely as important as the music. I love movies. They are how I escape, how I would pass time in difficult times. When I wanted to make ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Harshest Critic’ I made this huge PowerPoint: I compiled 40 movies I watched in different categories – sets that I would like to do, outfits I would like to have, characters that we could be inspired by… And I didn’t want to look at other artists’ videos; I wanted to look at movies, because movies are what makes me really excited. The reason that the visuals are so whimsical and fun is that we’re exploring really sad and heavy topics sometimes. It’s great to do that in a safe space. That’s what movies do. It’s supposed to be an alternative universe where you feel safe to talk about those things.
It really does feel like you’re building your own safe space.
Absolutely. I think safe spaces can be talked about in a mocking tone. But the reality is that I didn’t come out until I moved to New York because I didn’t feel safe to come out until I started over. And I think a lot of people are waiting for that moment that they feel safe enough to be themselves. My videos are my alternative universe and anyone’s invited.
Is there any other form of art that you see yourself doing further down the line?
I definitely want to make a B movie musical. I love writing songs and creating intense visual worlds so a musical is naturally the first thing that I can think of. I also love comedy – I’m obsessed with comedy. So I would love to eventually do Saturday Night Live. My top bucket list item is to do a “double” where you host and also perform. That’s a huge goal of mine. On top of that, something I would really love to do is find a way to teach people about the music industry, especially young women or young queer people because I do find a lot of information about the music industry isn’t that accessible. Stuff about labels or publishing deals or how to get a lawyer… I would love to start a program where I can tell people for free so it’s not behind a paywall in the future.
Now about your recent collaboration with Lord Huron, ‘I Lied’: how did that come about?
They had been looking for someone to do a duet to this song for a long time. I didn’t have any music out; not a single thing out. We knew the same publisher. That person came to me and told me “it’s a long shot but just try it”. So they sent me the song, I listened to it and thought I gotta record this now. I got to be the first person to send it back. So I went to my room, recorded a demo on Logic and sent it to them within two hours. And I just waited. I hoped and waited. Eventually, they told me they would love for me to come to Whispering Pines [Studios] and record the official version of the song. So I came to LA, and I met them. I was just totally blown away by how much we had in common. I was also blown away by how much they do themselves. I don’t think people realize: they paint their own album covers, they shoot all their own videos in the studio, they write all their own music; they’re truly DIY kings. And I love the song. I love a good divorce song. I’m a child of divorce and the idea that people can be divorced and so happy was the most attractive and cathartic thing for me. I just love the song. I know I’m on it so it sounds like I’m being a narcissist, but I just feel like it’s a really important song that paints moving on as something to be celebrated.
The version you played with the guys on The Tonight Show is wonderful. How was that experience? Was that something you crossed off your bucket list?
Every time someone used to ask me what my big goals were, I always replied Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live. And it’s funny because when I found out that we were going to be on it through a casual text from one of my managers: it went something like “they want to know if you’re available for Fallon on Friday”. I was on an airplane and I just didn’t know what to do with myself because they so casually asked me about one of my big dreams. I’m so lucky that I could ride on Lord Huron’s coattails a bit and do such a life-changing bucket list experience. And I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I’m so glad I did it with them. It’s so much more fun when you go through things that can be a little scary and exciting with your friends.
shrek 2 and twilight have the best soundtracks of all time. There. I said it.
— allison ponthier (@AllisonPonthier) May 6, 2021
Before we say goodbye, you recently mentioned on your socials that Twilight’s soundtrack was one of the best movie soundtracks of all time. Do you stand by that?
It’s just the most influential soundtrack of my entire life. I have a “too-much” gene. I never know when to stop when I get into something. And so for some reason, when I was 14, it was Twilight. I listened to that soundtrack every day for many years. It introduced me to amazing bands like Paramore, which was my favourite band. It introduced me to Linkin Park, Robert Pattinson’s solo project, St. Vincent… It showed me a lot of music that I really loved. It was my dream to own the vinyl and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Anytime I would look for it on eBay, it would cost hundreds of dollars. I told myself that when I signed my record deal, I would find that soundtrack on vinyl and buy it. And I finally found one… but it got sold. I was so upset, I cried my eyes out and then it came the next week: my manager had bought it for me! It’s literally been so influential on me as an artist. And I know it sounds silly, but it’s so good.