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Danielle Ponder seizes her moment

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Danielle Ponder performs from her new album, "Some of Us Are Brave," at the Record Archive in Rochester, NY. - MAX SCHULTE/WXXI NEWS
  • Max Schulte/WXXI News
  • Danielle Ponder performs from her new album, "Some of Us Are Brave," at the Record Archive in Rochester, NY.

Music fans everywhere are picking up on what Rochesterians have known for years: Danielle Ponder is a star.

The local singer-songwriter and soul artist first peeked into the national spotlight in 2020 when her song “Poor Man’s Pain” garnered praise from NPR Music as part of its annual Tiny Desk Contest. The following year, Ponder played the Newport Jazz Festival for the first time.

In 2022, Ponder made even bigger strides. She appeared on the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” to perform the single “So Long,” and shared the stage with Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Porter, The Roots, and more at The Hollywood Bowl as part of a Juneteenth event. She’s been named to YouTube’s Music Foundry Class of 2022, which includes a grant to help artists enhance their visibility. Past participants include pop stars Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa.
Danielle Ponder holds up her debut solo album, "Some of Us Are Brave," at an appearance at the Record Archive in Rochester, NY. - MAX SCHULTE/WXXI NEWS
  • Max Schulte/WXXI News
  • Danielle Ponder holds up her debut solo album, "Some of Us Are Brave," at an appearance at the Record Archive in Rochester, NY.

Coming up, the former public defender-turned-professional musician releases her full-length album “Some of Us Are Brave” via Future Classic on Sept. 16. In the coming months, she also opens for Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford on his fall solo tour,” and sings on the single “Grace” from his debut solo album “Self-titled.”

Ponder has already achieved more than she imagined possible. It used to be that she considered success as merely being able to pay the bills as a full-time musician.

“I didn’t think this would happen after 40,” Ponder said, who is 40, over Zoom while on tour in Vancouver. “I’m shocked that there’s a potential to be a household name. So I was tempted to redefine success. But early conversations with my managers really helped me to realize that when you move the goalposts, it’s hard for you to become happy: ‘Oh success is now a Grammy, success is now a house in the Hollywood Hills.’

“I feel very successful right now, because I get to do music full-time, and I’m paying my bills at the same time. But ultimately, success to me is just happiness, none of that other shit matters if you're not happy internally.”
Fans of Ponder from her days leading her previous bands Black August and The Tomorrow People, will undoubtedly recognize her powerful, Mahalia Jackson-meets-Macy Gray voice. But the sound of Ponder’s songs on the forthcoming album “Some of Us Are Brave” has evolved from the straightforward optimism and feel-good party vibes of her previous music.



“It's really from my soul, and it's more personal,” she explained. “And the sounds are more influenced by trip-hop, deeper soul music, and lo-fi music, and I just was afraid that I would lose an audience if I went there.”

Ponder said her new album, "Some of Us Are Brave," which comes out Sept. 16 via Future Classic, features her "real tone." - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Ponder said her new album, "Some of Us Are Brave," which comes out Sept. 16 via Future Classic, features her "real tone."
Ponder’s new songs have a gravity to them, and the singer takes a resolute, even defiant posture as she confronts listeners with her own humanity. To hear her explain it, her reality is an act of rebellion.

“The fact that we have to live in a world as both Black and as women, if you do nothing else but wake up and breathe, holding those two identities and walking in this world is bravery,” she said.

The title track of the new album comes from a feminist anthology entitled “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave,” which Ponder first read while in law school. “I felt really seen in that book,” she said.

“Some of Us Are Brave” is a declaration of empowerment. In it, she sings: “I say the darker the berry, the sweeter the fruit/ The kinkier the hair, the deeper the roots/ Bow down when the queendom comes/ Take note when we speak our tongues.”

The accompanying music video features Ponder alongside other Black women from Rochester. “In this video, she gives us back our humanity that also allows us to kind of show up as we are, and see all of the glory in that,” said longtime friend Reenah Golden, who runs The Avenue Blackbox Theatre on Joseph Avenue.

Elsewhere in the song, Ponder calls for the freedom to be herself without being harassed. She rejects the notion that her music is political, if only for the reason that being a Black woman isn’t political.

“Why can I bring up heartbreak?” Ponder said. “Why can I bring up the fact that my boyfriend broke my heart, which is painful, but I can't bring up this other chunk of pain that I experience, which is being Black and being a woman in America? So I'm only supposed to express one type of hurt?

“And especially as a musician, I believe that the music is an antidote to pain. It's a healing balm. So why wouldn't I use that one gift that I have to heal my pain when it comes to the pain of experiencing racism?”

While it’s taken time for Ponder to find the messages that resonate most in her music, it took her longer to find her sound, her voice. Though she never studied music formally, she learned from listening to the voices of Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor, and Susan Tedeschi.

PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
“I started getting picked on because of my voice,” Ponder explained. “People would tell me I sound like an old lady, or they would say I sounded like an old gospel singer. And I spent a lot of time trying to make my voice sound much cuter.

“And it wasn't until recently where I really started singing in, on recordings at least, my real tone. Because I just felt like, oh, I sound like an old lady. This isn't cute. I don't sound like a cute R&B girl. In this album, I'm really singing my real tone. And I'm falling in love with it.”

Ponder hasn’t achieved her stature as an artist on her own. She credits keyboardist Avis Reese, whom she’s known for 10 years, with handling the business side of things in addition to providing musical direction.

“Avis just has really helped it to be a smoother running ship,” Ponder said. “I don't know if I could have done the amount of touring we've done, the amount of hustle and grinding, without having a person like Avis in the business. I always say I'm the founder, she's the CEO. The founder’s a little crazier, has all these crazy ideas. And the CEO is like, ‘Okay, how do we get it? How do we do it?’”

Ponder also acknowledges her managers, KCRW DJ Chris Douridas and top-flight booking agent Tom Windish, who she said have never asked her to change her music or who she was.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Are you overwhelmed with everything?’” Ponder said. “And I don't feel overwhelmed. I do feel like ‘Okay, let's go.’ You know what I mean? This is what I want. Let's do it.”

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's arts editor. He can be reached at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.