Interview: Allison Ponthier on Claymation, the Comfort of ‘Twilight,’ & Becoming a ‘Cowboy’ in NYC
Above image by Wesley Kate
Considering how much new music gets released from week-to-week and month-to-month these days, it’s significant that after just one listen to burgeoning young singer-songwriter Allison Ponthier’s debut single ‘Cowboy,‘ the intro is already playing on repeat in our winter-slash-Covid-weary brain:
“It took New York to make me a cowboy
Now everybody knows
Even if I change my clothes”
We’ve been there too – and we are hooked.
Ponthier, who grew up in a conservative Dallas suburb, serves up a poignant coming-out tale with a fantastical new video (and B-movie nod) that stars a cowboy in space and an alien on earth – both outsiders and neither really at home anywhere. Equal parts country and high-camp, the layered sonic and visual elements provide a framework for her stunningly emotive vocals, which poignantly convey the emotional struggle of coming to terms with her sexuality – especially difficult given her Bible Belt Texan roots.
Our curiosity certainly piqued, we caught up with Ponthier to talk ‘Cowboy’ (from her upcoming Interscope debut EP), camp, claymation and – ultimately – coming out.
We loved the super-campy vibe of the ‘Cowboy’ video. What was the inspiration for it?
I am a huge fan of movies – I love them, and watch them more than I listen to music. So I wanted to make these over-the-top, highly-produced, campy videos, and working with Jordan [Bahat, responsible for Christine and the Queens’ ‘Girlfriend’] was the most exciting, collaborative process. Before I even met him I watched 30-40 movies that I love, movies like Death Becomes Her, The Love Witch, and Mars Attacks. I took screenshots of all my favorite parts and organized them by practical effects, sets, and colors. When I shared them with Jordan, he totally got where I was coming from.
As camp as the video is, though, ‘Cowboy’ is pretty literal as a coming out construct. Did you actually use the song to come out to your family – or had you done that prior?
It was written about four years ago, right before I was going to come out to my family. It’s how I felt in that moment – terrified – and I didn’t think it would ever be released. It’s one of my favorite songs because I wrote it for myself as kind of a friend that I didn’t have to help me through that difficult time. I guess that’s why it’s so sad – or at least it’s a very sad song to me. After it was written and I came out, I added the outro, which is a bit more hopeful. I wanted to lend some hope to other young queer people.
“Born from the beige
These feelings made me feel strange
A neon sign
Not the only one of my kind
This is how I felt in the Bible Belt
Wanna be that girl for someone else”
You’ve said that prior to writing ‘Cowboy’ and embracing your country roots, you had been making music that you thought sounded cool, rather than making music that expressed your feelings. Can you elaborate on that?
As a new songwriter and a new musician, I was scared to dig deep and really talk about the things that were hurting me. It was hard for me to be vulnerable, so I spoke in metaphors that other people couldn’t understand.
Although ‘Cowboy’ is a metaphor, I think that people clearly know what’s happening. Instead of hiding how I felt, I used metaphors to augment my feelings and make them easier to understand, especially for people who haven’t gone through what I have gone through.
I actually didn’t write anything country-adjacent until I wrote ‘Cowboy.’ Before that I was making lots of music on my computer from loops. I still love that kind of music, but it was a sort of mask for what I really wanted to do, which was more singer-songwriter focused. I wanted to push away from my identity as someone who grew up in Texas – but it’s part of who I am. My mom loved country music, especially the country-pop hybrid like The Chicks; and my influences were Shania Twain, Faith Hill…I had no idea pop music actually existed until I was seven or eight years old. I just thought that anything on the radio that wasn’t church music was country music.
When did you start singing?
Music had always been a part of my family’s life. My dad is a musician and his dad was a school band director. My grandma was a choir director in Louisiana. Both my parents played in the church band and I grew up singing in church. As I got older, I discovered alternative artists and couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to play a concert where people bought tickets to see me perform songs I had written. That was a totally different way to interact with music than what I was used to.
How were you ultimately discovered?
I had one video out, a cover of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ by Al Green; and one of my [now] managers happened to see it and contacted me. I told him I wasn’t ready to move forward at that point…but a few years later, he reached out again. This is before I had a lot of songs out, before I knew who I was in every sense of the word. But my managers saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself; and we agreed that I would write as many songs as I could to learn how to tell better stories, and to get more comfortable being vulnerable in my music. They saw the potential in me and my stories and really encouraged my creativity.
You dropped out of college at twenty to move to New York City – what were you hoping to find here? Were you focused on making a career of music?
There were a lot of motivations, but I would be lying if I said I knew what I was doing. I had this weird feeling that I had to keep moving forward – kind of like a shark – and took a leap of faith. I moved partially because I had a very complicated relationship with my sexuality and I was really uncomfortable figuring it out in the place where I had grown up. I needed to leave and go somewhere where I felt like there were more people like me, and where I wasn’t surrounded by everyone I had ever known.
New York had always been that shiny place I had grown up watching in movies. I had visited a few times and I loved how diverse and accessible it was. But when I moved to NYC, I really struggled for a couple of years. I didn’t have enough of a support system, or savings. I thought maybe I could be a songwriter and an artist, but I didn’t have enough confidence in myself. I was scared and had really low self-esteem. I didn’t think there was any way I could do any of this…which is why it’s so wild that I am doing it now.
What helped you to feel less of an outsider in a city full of outsiders?
The short answer is the LGBTQ community. When I first moved to NYC, I wasn’t really out except to a few people, and didn’t have the support of an entire community behind me. It took me a really long time to be comfortable being out, and a huge part of that was meeting my girlfriend. She and her friends were very supportive of me and it was great to be around people who weren’t as scared of who they were as I was.
At the same time, I still felt out of place. Many of the people around me had grown up in supportive communities and I hadn’t experienced that. It was hard because I didn’t really identify with them, they were more fearless than I was. I had to shed a lot of my internalized fear in order to be happy. A lot of people talk about outside pressure and homophobia, but internalized homophobia is very real. To me, that is one of the hardest things to get over because you’re telling yourself what you can and cannot do, and you’re fighting against those things you‘ve been repressing for so long.
You’ve worked at the American Museum of Natural History, you’ve been a jewelry-maker and a pet portraitist. Your IG feed is full of creative endeavors. Do you think your artistic sensibilities emerged as a result of growing up in an environment where you felt repressed or are you an inherently creative person.
I think it’s a little bit of nature and a little bit of nurture; but the truth is, growing up I always felt like an outsider, and not just because of my LGBTQ identity. I have always been just a little bit different than the people I am around, or at least I have felt that way. I didn’t have a ton of friends growing up and I dealt with that by creating things. I got really into sculpture, making videos, making songs, experimenting with makeup – anything creative to occupy and express myself. I still tap into those creative outlets to help me cope when I am bored or stressed.
Tell us about your love of claymation and Twilight.
You asked the right question! I have always been that person who becomes hyper-fixated on things; and when I was thirteen or fourteen, I was obsessed with the Twilight series and the soundtracks, which include many of my favorite artists, like Paramour and St. Vincent. I love it – it’s another universe. It’s not a perfect movie but it makes me nostalgic and, especially during the pandemic, I’ve been leaning on things that are comforting to me.
Claymation is very similar. I saw the animated movie Mary and Max around the same time, when I was fourteen. I find something so comforting and sweet about sculpting and claymation. Working on these little figures is so satisfying and calming. For ‘Cowboy,’ I created a miniature set of the video with an animated claymation version of me as the cowboy/alien character getting abducted. It was difficult but so fun and rewarding. (Check it out on her Instagram.)
When can we expect your EP to finally come out?
It’s very much in progress, I have a lot of songs already done and tons of video ideas. Soon!