Danielle Ponder is Loving The Gift

Belief can be a funny thing. It can misguide if one puts faith in the wrong idea. But it can also buoy and, like a rising ride, raise all boats. For the big-voiced singer Danielle Ponder, belief has been crucial to her now-burgeoning career. At first, Ponder, who boasts one of the best voices on Earth, didn’t believe that was the case. She looked to others in her family whom she thought had more talent. For Ponder, singing and songwriting at first was more of a lark, something fun to dabble in, to pass the time. But soon people began to recognize and realize her gifts. She earned praise. Audiences cheered her. And Ponder’s confidence grew. She started to believe. 

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Now, that belief becomes stronger every day as more people share their joy for the artist’s singular performances. There are billboards in New York and Tokyo. There are shows with some 15,000 attendees. There is acclaim from industry insiders. All of this has brought Ponder, who worked as a lawyer (a public defender) for years, to believe in herself. Now, in a way, the public is defending her talent with every ticket purchase, every song stream. And Ponder’s new album, Some of Us Are Brave, is set to drop on Friday (September 16), offering one more reason to keep the faith when it comes to her career. 

“You know, I really didn’t want to be a songwriter or a singer,” Ponder tells American Songwriter. “I literally was just having fun and making up songs.” 

She played with and sang in her family band. It was fun, something to do. But then when she started seriously listening to blues singers like Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thorton, and Susan Tedeschi, she got more invested. She wanted to know how they achieved what they did with their voice, the strength of it. So, she just practiced in her room, singing. Even in college, though, Ponder still thought of singing as just an enjoyable activity. It wasn’t until much later after she left law school that she fell for it head over heels. Her need to be expressive guided her and she made the choice a few years before turning 40 years old that singing was her life’s purpose. 

“It took me a while to have that confidence,” she says. “Even that didn’t come until my early 30s. It was from people in the community who were always saying, ‘Oh my gosh! We love your voice.’ More people started coming out to shows.”

Ponder began to sell out shows in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and, later, overseas in Germany and Poland. The audience buttressed her, and made her think, ‘Woah, maybe this is more than just a side hustle.’ Ponder loved it. Thankfully others did too. She’d come a long way from noodling around as a kid with the piano and alter as a teenager with her acoustic guitar. In between, though, she got her law degree. It wasn’t easy, of course, she worked and studied hard, long hours. She went to law school to study criminal justice reform, spurred on after her brother went to jail for too long of a sentence (as is often the case for Black men). But while in school, Ponder began tinkering around with a laptop and the GarageBand recording program. 

“I was still doing music but also doing this grueling process of law school,” she says. “My work ethic has helped me get where I am.”

For eight years, Ponder practiced law. She’s also worked as a diversity equity inclusion officer. In Rochester, where she grew up, she learned a lot. She says she grew up in the “’hood” and didn’t have much. Though, she jokes, her mother would not like her saying that. (“Tell me what you didn’t have!” she says, impersonating her mom, lovingly.) From these beginnings, Ponder says, she learned “resourcefulness.” You make do with what you have. You learn to stretch money, and how to think outside the box. In fact, she takes this lesson a step further, saying this is the plight and the gift Black people know well. 

“Most of the creativity you see in Black culture,” she says, “comes from the fact that we need to be resourceful to make things happen. We need to think outside the box and create things that folks wouldn’t even think was possible.”

Of course, she’s right. It’s that type of ingenuity that has kept Black Americans alive and responsible for inventing art forms like the blues, rock and roll, jazz, and hip-hop, among other areas of culture. Rochester also showed her support and appreciation. As she began singing more, people came out and bought tickets, and encouraged her to keep going. Those efforts helped Ponder dig in and write her new album, one she’s been trying to complete for years. She couldn’t get a handle on it. She had so many things she wanted to pour into the production, and many of the people she worked with kept telling her to choose a direction. Eventually, she retreated home and began writing songs, recording demos on a small keyboard. 

“I learned a lot,” Ponder says. “I learned how to produce my own songs.”

She began working closely with another keyboard player, a friend, and together they found the foundation for what would become the album. Neither were formal producers but they figured it out step by step, note by note, song by song. Eventually, they had a number of demos and when people called asking for music, she was able to send what she had. She was self-conscious but again garnered great feedback. She got a label. She polished the songs. Now, she’s ready for her proverbial close-up. Standouts on the new record include “Only the Lonely,” “Someone Like You,” “Poor Man’s Pain” and the titular track. 

“It’s a song dedicated to Black women,” Ponder says of the title song. “A song about courage and bravery, which I think this period in my life is requiring that of me. Bravery to leave my job, bravery to enter into the music industry at 40 years old. I’m very different from most new artists that you will talk to. ‘Some of Us Are Brave’ is a song I’m most proud of.”

With each passing day, Ponder seems to gain more and more traction. She’s performed on Seth Meyers’ late-night show, she’s touring with Marcus Mumford and still more is on the horizon. She says she’s “living a dream,” living the moments she once prayed for. She’s on dozens of popular playlists. Now, she’s focusing on staying physically and mentally healthy so she can do more in the future. She acknowledges now that “this is my purpose.” She wants to continue her trajectory and, well, be influential, play in front of as many people, and “be heard.” Everything that’s come before has been crucial to where she is now. It’s all part of her story. 

“What I love most about music is how it connects us,” says Ponder. “We can be in a room with people we won’t know who they voted for, don’t know their gender or sexual orientation, and we can all be singing the same thing with smiles on our faces. Music has an incredible way of softening the heart and opening us up to possibilities and I think we need so much healing and so much connection. I’m honored to be a musician on Earth. It’s such a fucking gift!” 

Photo via Sacks Co.

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