Interviews

Danielle Ponder confronts truths, shares life lessons on latest project, “Some of Us Are Brave”

todayDecember 13, 2022 2

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An artist like Danielle Ponder has layers. She is not only a brilliant artist, she’s a TED talk speaker and a respected attorney. So, when I sat down to talk to her about her life, love and music I had no idea that I would soon feel like a member of her inner circle. She let me in on her personal highs and lows. She even sang me the very first song she ever wrote, take a listen.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Element Everest-Blanks: I am sitting here with the singer, songwriter, musician, and attorney Danielle Ponder. How are you this morning?

Danielle Ponder: I am great. Thank you for having me.

EEB: I am so honored to be here. I will admit, I listened to your album on the way to work today. This weekend and last week, and all the weeks leading up. Yes, so you are one of seven children. You are the sixth of the seventh child. What did that household sound like growing up?

DP: Oh man, it sounded like a lot of fun. We used to pretend to be the Jackson Five sometimes, and dancing and singing with each other, arguing with each other, but lots of love, and we’re all very close to each other.

EEB: Yeah. So let me… I’ve done my Danielle Ponder homework, okay? So I want to know a little bit about this first guitar. Talk to me about this guitar, that wasn’t a guitar, but was a guitar.

DP: Yes. My dad gave me this guitar, it had four strings on it. It basically looked like a box of wood with some vinyl strings. But I really loved it, and my dad would teach me how to tune it, and he taught me a few chords to play, and then I started researching, basically learning how to play guitar. And it just became a vehicle for… It was a great release for me, and I fell in love at that moment.

EEB: Did everybody play music in the house?

DP: Everyone could play something. We always had a piano growing up. My father’s very musical, he plays guitar, he sings, he plays piano, so we… My sister is a phenomenal singer, music was just always around in our house.

EEB: So this is the piano on the porch, right?

DP: Yes.

EEB: That got you going early on, learning how to express yourself, do you remember the first piece of original music, or original lyrics, that you ever wrote?

DP: Yes, I do. When I was 16 I wrote a song called A Heart Without Love. And it’s so weird, I remember that song so easily. (Singing) That song was my first song, and yeah, I remember it.

EEB: Think about this, though. Think about what you just said at 16. “A heart without love is like a flower that just won’t bloom.” How, at 16, were you able to come up with something that still rings true as a full adult woman?

DP: Girl, I was in love with some random boy, I can’t even remember his name. But yeah, I was motivated by wanting to have a boyfriend, and I did not get a boyfriend until I was like 19.

Courtesy: Grace Rivera

EEB: But even the lyrics, though, they still ring true as an adult. And do you think about how you might just have this gift that was just bestowed upon you at such an early age to use your voice, to use your writing ability, to express the human desire to be loved. That it might not even be personal and tailored to you, it just might be the human desire to need and want love.

DP: Yeah, I totally feel that, and I think all of my music is about love in some way. Even if it’s about what they call political, it still is about love. As Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” As black people, when we march and we protest, we are saying the world hasn’t loved us in the way it should. And we are asking to be loved, in some cases demanding to be loved, I think everything we do goes back to that needing to feel compassion, to feel heard and understood. Many words we can use to say loved. Everyone… As they say in The Color Purple, “Everything wants to be loved.” Even the trees want to be loved.

EEB: That’s correct. When you think about that, if you are such a small child and you understand that need for validation, connection, longing and love at such an early age, what does that say about people who grow up and listen to your music and feel so connected to you? I think what it says is that love is a universal language. And some people learn that language, and how to translate it at 16 on a porch with a yellow piano. You know what I mean? So I think, I must say that I, being on the receiving end of your music, am honored every time I hear you sing a song where I feel like, how does she know this? How does she know?

DP: Thank you so much.

EEB: And honestly, that entire album, I took some notes in doing this interview, because I said, I want to ask you, how is it that you’re telling my story and you don’t even know me, with The Only Way Out, Someone Like You, So Long and Only the Lonely? How is that possible?

DP: Wow.

EEB: I think that is the universal story of, honestly, of Black women, to be very specific. We are constantly longing for love in a way that is purposefully for us.

DP: Yeah. It’s so sad. I just look at the way certain black women are treated in the media, whether it be… Lately I’ve been reading about Megan Thee Stallion and everything that happened with Tory Lanez, and just thinking about the people who came out and said she was lying, or she was doing this for attention. And then I started thinking, has anyone supported black women the way that they’ve supported Bill Cosby? Or Kanye West? Or R Kelly? It became a story forever of people saying, “Stop attacking these men.” And I haven’t seen that same thing happen for black women, but we have each other’s back. That’s one thing I love about black women is we support each other hard. And I’m so thankful for the black women in my life who have, through all the ups and downs, have been by my side.

EEB: Even if I look at the video for “Some of Us Are Brave”, it feels exactly like what you just said. And it starts off with a beautiful Black child, and you can see the progression of womanhood throughout this video. You see the different beautiful faces of Black women, and at the end, when you’re in the band shell, when everyone’s together, everyone’s represented, everyone’s beauty looks different and feels different, but it’s this universal beauty that we all carry, that I think you captured so beautifully in this video. So I want to thank you as a viewer. As a viewer, it was beautiful to watch.

DP: I, literally, the day before, put on Twitter, “I’m looking for Black women to join me on a music video tomorrow at the park, one o’clock, come with whatever you’re wearing.”

EEB: Oh, wow.

DP: That was it. We got to a point where I was talking to the videographer and he was like, “We don’t have enough people, da da da.” I’m like, “You know what? Let’s just do something different. Let’s do it in a park. Let’s invite everyone out.” People came just as comfortable as they are, and it turned out to be amazing. And that’s another time Black women showing up for each other.

EEB: Showing up and showing out.

DP: Yeah.

EEB: You talked a little bit about your father, and your father was a minister. Now I know a lot of PKs, them preacher kids, and y’all could get a little wild. (laughs)

DP: Yeah, yeah.

EEB: Let’s start with the house… First off, how did you get to making the music that you make now? Because I know that you were not allowed to listen to worldly music, correct?

DP: Yeah, yeah. Could not listen to secular music. But at some point, and it was around 16, my dad became more lax, I think, because he was just tired, at this point, of policing us. So he just gave up. And then I got into Columbia Clearing House or something. It was one of those things where you could get like 10 CDs for 99 cents. Do you remember that?

EEB: Mm-hmm.

DP: And I just bought everything I could get. I probably owe them people a million dollars. I was just… Because I ain’t never paid.

EEB: Never return, right.

DP: I got all of these CDs, and really started learning music outside of the church. And that was really… You approach music with a different excitement when so much of it has been hidden from you. You approach everything with that. That’s why preacher kids are such a mess.

EEB: Go hard.

DP: The moment you get free, you want to taste all the flavors in the ice cream store. So that’s what I was doing with the music. Listening to alternative hip hop, pop, you name it. I wanted to hear and understand all of these things that had been hidden from me.

EEB: Now, I read somewhere that your influences were, of course, Shirley Caesar, John P Kee, the Blind Boys of Alabama, but then you have artists like Portishead and Aretha Franklin. But with that being said, the voices that you heard and thought, “I want to do this,” was Big Mama Thornton and Koko Taylor. Tell me, what was it in their voices that grabbed you? And if someone has never heard a DP song, how would they hear these two artists in your music?

DP: So I think there’s something gut wrenching about moments in Koko Taylor and Big Mama Thornton’s voice that is just immediately goosebump-inducing, and feels so authentic. It didn’t feel like they were trying to be cute, they weren’t trying to do what someone told them to do, it felt like it was coming from a very authentic place. And I just found that so interesting.

Because I feel like music so deeply, and that sound was an expression of how I felt. How I felt when I heard really good music, and the blues was my entree into singing. And so it morphed into other things. I think my tone is a mix of that, but also has a delicateness to it. But I think in my songwriting, in the way I deliver my music, there is just something that is coming from a deep within. And I don’t even know how to describe it, but when I’m on stage and I’m singing and I’m belting, I’m feeling it, feeling the pain or the joy or whatever emotion is in the song, and I’m feeling it authentically.

EEB: And I think you make a great point, because Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor, they really do take you there. Unlike some artists, period, where when you listen to their music, they sound cute, you like the song, but they don’t pull anything out of you. Those artists pull. They pull. They place you right where they want you to be, and you stay there for the duration of that song. And you also do that. You do that really well.

DP: Thank you.

EEB: So for me, as a person who grew up on Motown, that’s what I remember. That’s what I remember listening to music when I was coming up. It took you there, it took you from where you were, and it transported you into the song, into this moment that this artist was giving you. And Danielle Ponder, you definitely do that. So when you get compliments like that, when people compare you to the greats, how does that feel?

DP: It really is amazing. I’ve been on the road for a long time, for a few months, and I keep hearing these comparisons. Someone told me one night, he said, “I saw a young singer open up for Bob Dylan, and I was left speechless.” And he said, “I felt the same way with you tonight. And that young singer was Whitney Houston.” And I was just like…

So there’s so many moments that are affirming for me, and I think that’s how I feel, I feel affirmed. And I’m so thankful for the people who take the time to come up to me, to talk to me, to talk with me, to share their experiences, because as artists, you can sometimes have a lot of doubt about your voice. I’ve had doubts about my voice before, and I’m thankful that people have lifted me up. I’d be crazy to say your compliments don’t matter, or I have this confidence all on my own. No, this is a communal effort that has given me confidence to get on stage and do what I do. So I’m really thankful.

Courtesy: Hannah Betts-Mobaiz

EEB: And speaking of that, I know that the job of a great manager is to instill that confidence in artists. Because sometimes as artists you can’t see the forest for the trees. And Chris did this for you, when you thought your production was shoddy and below standards. Chris came in and he told you that your music was great and he wanted to connect you with the same agent that worked with Billie Eilish, and Lorde, and you finally signed your deal. What did it feel like to finally get to that moment where you were about to sign your deal, and you knew all of the trials and tribulations that you had gone through to get to this point, that you were finally doing it, that you made the right decision?

DP: Oh wow, you really did your research. It was life changing. It was like, the moment I met Chris, every week something crazy was happening. I meet Chris one week, the next week I meet Tom Windish, Billie Eilish’s agent. Then I meet some of my favorite artists, and then I’m on a Zoom with Q-tip. And then I’m having meetings with record labels. It just started happening. Boom, boom, boom, boom. And here I am a year later having done things I did not imagine I would be doing. I keep telling people this, these dreams are bigger than what I dreamt. I did not see these things coming. So once again, it was very affirming, it gave me confidence to follow my internal compass, and I can’t thank Chris and Tom enough. They literally changed my life.

EEB: Now, I like to interview artists as whole people, as you can see. Your music is important, but what’s most important is the person behind the music. And you and I have something in common. We’ve had family members who have had to go through the criminal justice system. And with you being an attorney, I watched your Ted Talk, and there were a lot of beautiful moments, but there was one moment where I felt you in a very different way when you were talking about your brother, and how people put these labels on them that they don’t want to take off. How’s your brother? How’s he doing?

DP: He’s doing amazing. He was just on the road with us, so he was helping us out, kind of roadie, driver, merch person, and we just had a great time with him. And he’s just really awesome. He’s got his welding… He did welding while he was incarcerated, so he came out, he joined the union, he has a house, he’s doing really great. I’m really proud of him.

EEB: I just want to say it is so important for artists with a platform like yours to continue to tell these stories, because our brothers are people. They’re not lost causes, they’re not throwaways, they have made mistakes, but none of us can say that we’ve gone throughout life without making mistakes. They are people who deserve respect.

And I loved your Ted Talk, because there was a genuine love at the core that I think people walked away with when you were talking about security guards, and the inmates at the same time listening to your music had this universal united moment, that people outside of those walls don’t get to see. So continue to tell that story, because I think it helps to affirm people who are reentering society, as people who should not be thrown away. If you had to give a brief synopsis of what our listeners would hear on this album, what would it be?

DP: I think this music is truth telling, it’s emotional, it literally is what I went through. Nothing on here is someone else’s story. Nothing on here is made up. It is authentically what I’ve gone through in the past couple years. I hope that it offers people some healing in some way. And I used to think in order to heal people, you always had to be positive. You always had to talk about, “Love yourself, love yourself…” But I’m learning that there’s healing that comes from confronting the demons. When we have these things that chase us, sometimes you got to stop, turn around, look that thing in the face, and as you do that, you begin to see your demons getting smaller.

And so I hope that I’m writing songs that help people see, ooh yeah, I got that same thing too. I got that issue as well and I want to confront it, but also help people feel less alone. I talk on this track about broken relationships and feeling lonely, and things that so many people go through, but I think we spend a lot of time in this day and age pretending to be okay. And that makes us all feel a mess, because it seems like everyone else is doing great. Everyone else is married with kids in a picket fence, and we sit here with anxiety and sad. And the truth is, more of us have anxiety than we have picket fences.

EEB: And people inside those picket fences have anxiety too.

DP: Yeah, exactly. But it’s all part of life, and I’m learning to just appreciate every aspect of life. Every aspect of life is a gift, because I’m telling you, I’d rather have anxiety living, than not have anxiety, and dead. So I think life was never meant to be always perfect. There’s a yin and a yang, and there’s just a balance to it. And I love it. I love every aspect of it.

EEB: Thank you so much. This has been wonderful. I hope you really did enjoy this time.

DP: I did.

EEB: Because I took a couple days, and I just down my Danielle Ponder rabbit hole.

DP: Yes, you did. I’m impressed girl. And it means a lot to me. It means a lot that you took the time and asked such thoughtful questions. I appreciate you. And it’s always amazing and beautiful to be interviewed by a Black woman. So thankful for that as well.

Written by: Element Everest-Blanks

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