Allison Ponthier has called New York City home for more than four years, but she still considers herself “the biggest tourist.”
Speaking to NewNowNext on the phone, rising country-pop singer-songwriter shamelessly lists Times Square among her favorite places in the whole city. On any given night, you're equally likely to find her dancing to rave music at Mood Ring or dining alone at a hole-in-the-wall Italian place in midtown Manhattan. She’ll gladly meet you in Times Square for a free Krispy Kreme donut with proof of vaccination, although she won’t set foot in that cursed Olive Garden. "Sorry!" tells me, laughing. It’s okay, I reassure her. Even self-described cowboys need to draw the line somewhere.
If you’re confused, consider her upbringing in Allen, Texas, a conservative small town on the outskirts of Dallas where being queer was so taboo, 13-year-old Ponthier thought she’d invented it. “I was terrified of being gay,” she admits. For Ponthier, the billboard-covered, tourist-filled area offers the quintessential New York experience. “You can be totally silent all day, but surrounded by hundreds of people,” she explains. “And that’s weirdly comforting to me.” It’s no wonder, then, that life as a queer New York transplant is one of the through-lines of Faking My Own Death, Ponthier’s first major-label EP, out today (August 6).
“It took New York to make me a cowboy / Now everybody knows, even if I change my clothes,” Ponthier croons on "Cowboy," the EP's introspective lead single. She should know. Growing up, Ponthier was surrounded by music and sang in church and show choir, although she was far too shy to perform solo (she's a Pisces Sun, which she jokes "explains everything about me"). She also openly disliked country music. “Country music was my pop music," she explains. "It was everywhere." Ponthier wanted to be edgy, rebellious, and in suburban Texas, rejecting country music was the ultimate form of rebellion.
Ponthier remained a recreational singer until her freshman year at the University of North Texas, where she’d enrolled to study jazz. She wrote her first song at 19 and was instantly hooked. At the time, she had no friends or formal music industry connections in New York, but she couldn't ignore the pull of the Big Apple, a city shrouded in queer mythos. “I was like, that’s it,” she remembers. “I need to move to a bigger city where I feel more accepted and can do my own thing.” She did just that, dropping out of college at 20 and relocating to Bushwick, Brooklyn, where she has lived ever since.
Distancing herself from the community she’d grown up in forced Ponthier, now 25, to think long and hard about who she was and what she wanted to accomplish. She began going to shows regularly — no small feat for someone who’d been so shy growing up, she couldn’t even sing solo for her family without “feeling like I was going to throw up” — and networking with local songwriters and producers.
She also came out as gay, but because it scared her so much, she wrote "a million songs" about it. "One of the songs I made was 'Cowboy'," she remembers. "It was this weird thing where for so long, I had rejected country music, and then the song that came most naturally to me was this country-pop song that reflected not only who I was in that moment, but where I had come from." I'm reminded of a quote from Tommy Dorfman's recent interview for Time magazine: "It’s funny to think about coming out, because I haven’t gone anywhere." Ponthier did go somewhere, but that literal journey actually ushered in a spiritual homecoming.
It helps that country music, a genre often associated with conservative ideals, is openly embracing LGBTQ+ artists in record numbers. Growing up, Ponthier viewed the genre — and its listeners — as her sociopolitical opposites. It wasn't until she became an adult that she realized how much country music's political leanings had shifted in the early 2000s and 2010s, and how ideologically nuanced its roots are.
"Post-2001, I think, country music began to have a much stronger political identity," she explains. "But for a long time, there were a lot of country artists who were really, really progressive — Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson. And a lot of early country music was pioneered by Black artists particularly. ... I think that country's having a resurgence right now, and it's so fun to reclaim a genre that can be so campy and fun, and tell great stories."
Ponthier has stuck to her guns all along, from her eclectic aesthetic inspirations (Beetlejuice, Barbarella, "Elvira in general") to her unlikely TikTok fame as an amateur claymation sculptor. Those threads of authenticity and self-reflection weave throughout Faking My Own Death. "Hell Is a Crowded Room," a standout, slow-building country ballad, directly references Ponthier's struggles with social anxiety ("All these strangers / Make me feel strange"). "After writing this album, I like myself a lot more; I know myself a lot more," she says. "And if there's one thing I could ask people to take away from it, it's that everyone feels just as awkward as you do."
Of course, the title "Hell Is a Crowded Room" could also be interpreted more literally amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an unavoidable reality that has completely colored Ponthier's experience as a recording artist. Since signing with Interscope — a powerhouse record label that also backs Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, and Lady Gaga — Ponthier has released a steady stream of new songs. But she has yet to perform her music at an actual, honest-to-god concert.
That will change when Ponthier hits the road this fall with Lord Huron, a Los Angeles-based alt-rock band. She got to know the group when she sang supporting vocals on their single "I Lied," which came out earlier this year. They then asked her to join them on tour as a supporting act. "I've never played for this many people before in my life," she confesses. "I think on average, the biggest room I've ever played was 100 people, maybe 200 people."
Ponthier knows it's a "huge leap" for her. Luckily, she has a team of musicians she considers "genuine friends" in her corner.
"In the past, I noticed that every few years, I would just want to start over again," she says. "I would find it really easy cut people off or to start a new school or a new job, or live in a new area. And it was because I just wasn't happy." Ponthier may view herself as a perpetual tourist in New York, but the city is her home now. She doesn't want to start over. It's a very new feeling, she says, and it feels "really, really great."
Faking My Own Death is out now.