Two years ago, Allison Ponthier started writing a song called ‘Hell Is A Crowded Room’. She fuses Phoebe Bridgers-styled instrumentals with shimmering hooks, ones that would fit snugly on a Kacey Musgraves record, and initially started its life as an honest account of social anxiety. “So why do I go/even though I know/hell is a crowded room” she croons on the soaring chorus.
Now, though, in a world of social distancing and disconnection, the song has taken on a new meaning. “I can’t tell if that was lucky foresight, or if it’s just a really funny coincidence,” she says over Zoom, from her apartment in Bushwick, New York. “The pandemic has really impacted all of us. We have to think more about how we affect other people, and not just people we love but strangers, and ‘Hell Is A Crowded Room’, weirdly, relates to that.”
The gorgeous tune is taken from Ponthier’s debut EP ‘Faking My Own Death’, released later this week (August 6). The stellar collection both embraces Ponthier’s country roots – she grew up in Texas, with a mum who loved Faith Hill and The Chicks – and the indie music she gravitated towards as a “moody teenager”, with slick instrumentals accompanying Ponthier’s powerful pen.
Tackling self-doubt (‘Harshest Critic’), fractured relationships (‘Faking My Own Death’), and on the project’s stunning centrepiece ‘Cowboy’, her own experiences of moving to New York and coming out, ‘Faking My Own Death’ is a compelling introduction to the 25-year-old singer-songwriter. Ahead of its release, we caught up with Ponthier to discuss her new project, moving from the Bible Belt to The Big Apple and the movies that inspired her new EP.
You moved from Texas to Brooklyn, New York when you were 20. What was that like?
“I grew up in a town called Allen, it’s not a small town but it is a conservative town in the Bible Belt. I had grown up wanting to live in a big city, and especially in New York, because I watched all the movies and was a kid that was obsessed with showbiz and entertainment. When I finally moved here I made the decision very quickly – from the time that I decided to move and to when I actually moved was around two and a half weeks, which sounds very Manic Pixie Dream Girl of me, but I really wanted to be somewhere where I could be myself.
“I was in the closet for years by the time I had moved to New York, and I wasn’t intending to move and just live freely, but that there was a part of me that was really hopeful that I could.”
Did the move impact the music you were making?
“Definitely. When I was in Texas, I was making R&B-inspired pop music. It was me making songs over vocal loops, which was very fun and I loved making music like that, but I was really afraid to make music that was genuinely vulnerable, that was me telling my story or expressing feelings that I wasn’t familiar with.
“I hadn’t even begun to entertain the complicated feelings of coming out, or the complicated feelings of me never truly feeling like I belonged when I was growing up, and so a lot of the music I made was ‘cool music’. I made what I thought people would like to listen to at a concert and I tried to be someone I wasn’t.
“And then when it came to moving to New York, I was so alone that I didn’t have to perform for people personally, and I was really, really heartbroken over the fact that I was scared to come out. The first song I wrote about it was ‘Cowboy’, and ‘Cowboy’ was a country pop song, that kind of came out of nowhere. I grew up with country music but I really rejected it because I wanted to be a rebel, and I wanted to be different. And because of that, it was really surprising that the song that came from my heart was the song that kind of reminded me of where I grew up.”
Do you still get nervous putting songs out?
“I’m nervous when I do everything, I mean, I’m a healthy level of nervous right now; but ‘Cowboy’ was especially nerve-wracking. It came out a few years after I came out, but I had never told the story of me coming out through music before. And ‘Cowboy’ is quite an alternative song so I was like: ‘Maybe not everyone will love it. Maybe not everyone can dance to it, but even if everyone can’t dance to it, I hope that a few people can cry to it and feel validated by it’.
“Some artists are artists that everyone can party to or celebrate with, and while I would love to be that, I really want to be the kind of artist that could be someone’s favourite because they relate in a unique way to my story.
“I’ve had quite a few people reach out to me and say that ‘Cowboy’ spoke to them, especially people who are also from the South like I am. I think there’s a lot of people that felt like they were the only person on Earth as a queer person. And I always say that I feel like I invented being gay and that’s why it was so lonely. I didn’t know about other gay people until I was 12 or 13-years-old. And whenever I say that other queer people laugh and be like, ‘Yeah I’ve totally felt that before’. And, in a weird way, releasing ‘Cowboy’ has kind of made me realise how silly it was that I ever thought I was alone in the first place.”
You create amazing, cinematic music videos for all your songs. Were there any films that influenced writing your new EP?
“I love [1968 sci-fi film] Barbarella. I think the first time I saw Barbarella I had never had a movie that made me feel like that, where I was like, ‘Wow this is totally divorced from so many of the movies that I’ve already seen’. Usually I can guess what’s gonna happen next, and I fully could not guess what was going to happen and the universe was so different from what we live in – it was so much fun.
“[Tim Burton’s 1996 film] Mars Attacks! is a pretty big reference for ‘Cowboy’. For ‘Faking My Own Death’, I was really inspired by movie stuntmen. I love stunts in the movies and I love practical effects, so I made a big PowerPoint of my favourite practical effects.”
On ‘Hell Is A Crowded Room’ you sing: “With every breath it gets harder to breathe/But I push on, pray it gets easier”. Is that referring to panic attacks?
“I have very physical reactions to my anxiety. I’ve worked extremely hard over the past few years, especially with my therapist; but yeah, I get panic attacks, and I get shortness of breath.
“I don’t think many people know this but for years I would have to have my parents pick me up from school because I would get so nauseous and sick that I just couldn’t stand being at school. I was sick every day for maybe three years when I was in grade school, and it was something that was so hard for me that it affected every aspect of my life. I thought I had this insane mystery condition.
“We found out toward the end, and they were like, ‘Oh, you just have anxiety, you’ve been having anxiety attacks every day’ – and that was something that totally changed my life. I didn’t realise how much anxiety could impact your physical health. It felt right to write a song about that because it truly impacts my life to this day, just now I have better tools.”
In what ways does this impact you performing?
“Performing scares me – I think it should scare everyone. I don’t think people are wired to want to be totally vulnerable on stage. So this happens every time I perform: I get so nervous right before. I’m like, ‘I’m gonna throw up in front of everyone, and then it’s gonna be the worst’, and then I get on stage and the adrenaline of being there makes me feel great. I get through it, and I’m so proud of myself after.
“I’m really nervous to tour in September, but I know that I can do it and I know that it’ll all be worth it because I haven’t been able to connect with anybody [in person during the pandemic]. Every nervous feeling I know will be a million percent worth it because performing is so much fun. There’s nothing like connecting with people that connect with your music.”
Allison Ponthier’s ‘Faking My Own Death’ EP is out August 6