Rochester's Danielle Ponder opens up about her musical journey to stardom

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Danielle Ponder took the outdoor stage at the Newport Folk Festival this summer. The Rhode Island weather was mild, a warm July sun illuminating the outdoor crowd. Here, a famous venue for up-and-coming artists, is where she once had longed to be, when it seemed so out of reach.

Joni Mitchell had played this spot, the festival's Fort Stage. So had Bob Dylan. Ponder cherished its iconic status, both with its storied musical history and its setting with the Newport Harbor as a backdrop.

It was noon and she did not know what to expect. Would anyone come? Would they save their energy for the later star-level performers, among them Jason Isbell, Aimee Mann and Jon Batiste?

Ponder took the stage, then took control, her set list including her song of Black empowerment, the title song of her first album, "Some Of Us Are Brave":

I say the darker the berry, the sweeter the fruit,

The kinkier the hair the deeper the roots,

Bow down when the queendom comes,

Take note when we speak our tongues.

With each song, people grew more animated, more connected. "The crowd was electric," she said. "The band was on 10, and they just received us with open arms."

It's been quite the two-year stretch for Danielle Ponder. The singer-songwriter from Rochester made Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder cry. She performed at a private party for actress Kate Hudson. She appeared on national television multiple times, with performances on late night talk shows and a long-running soap opera.

The soap opera "General Hospital" performance even ignited a social media kerfuffle.

"You had these diehard fans saying, 'I've been watching this show for 50 years. Who is this girl and why is she on there?'" Ponder said in a recent interview during a brief hiatus from touring.

"You know what: I don't know why the hell I was on there either."

The 41-year-old Ponder, who touts her hometown at every appearance, has caught the eyes, ears and hearts of audiences and critics nationwide, as sales of her inaugural 2022 album, "Some Of Us Are Brave," continue to grow and as she prepares for the release of her sophomore effort.

Long gifted with a voice that can travel from a hushed whisper to pew-rattling gospel-like gusto, Ponder finds herself occasionally shaking her head at her success.

"I knew I could sing and make a buck and I knew with enough bucks I could pay my mortgage. I did not know I would be on Jimmy Kimmel.

"I was like, okay, I'll go to Europe. Let's say I make $500 a night. I could actually move to Germany and do the whole Black American soul singer in Europe thing. ... But the universe had other plans."

Did it ever.

Danielle Ponder transitions from 'simplicity' to celebrity

Danielle Ponder is in the process of putting together her second album and will be performing in Texas in early December. For a recent interview, she returned to Abilene's Bar and Lounge, a popular and intimate music venue in Rochester, where she once performed in 2014.
Danielle Ponder is in the process of putting together her second album and will be performing in Texas in early December. For a recent interview, she returned to Abilene's Bar and Lounge, a popular and intimate music venue in Rochester, where she once performed in 2014.

It is early on a weekday afternoon and Rochester's Abilene Bar and Lounge, the best honky-tonk and American roots joint for miles around, is quiet. Owner Danny Deutsch has opened the bar for a Democrat and Chronicle interview and photos with Ponder. The wall of liquor behind the bar tempts, but the interview stays dry.

Ponder has sung here before, in 2014, when she served as lead singer for the band The Tomorrow People. Her crowds were sparser; she sometimes performed solo at the downtown Java Joe's cafe, occasionally settling for blueberry scones as payment as she once recalled.

Trying to shoehorn a Danielle Ponder audience into Abilene now would be a full-on call-out for the fire marshal.

Over the past two years Ponder has opened major national acts and tours — this month she leads off the Black Pumas, the popular band that merges soul with 1960s psychedelic flavors — and receives rave reviews seemingly with each performance. A July review in "Forbes" told how the renowned West Hollywood club Troubadour had hosted the likes of Elton John, Carole King and Billie Eilish.

"So, given the tremendous history of the club, it takes a lot to stand on that stage and distinguish yourself among all of the greats that have triumphed there," the article said. "But Danielle Ponder did just that at a sold-out show ... delivering one of the best performances ever to grace that hallowed stage."

Ponder on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live': Rochester singer Danielle Ponder to perform on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live'

Ponder embraces the increasing recognition and occasional celebrity, and knows how far she has come since playing local coffee joints and cramped clubs. Still, she sometimes misses what she calls the "simplicity" of the past, when she and her creative partner and friend Avis Reese would telephone venues, get a quick okay for a performance date, then create and distribute flyers.

Now she operates a business as well as sings. She selects musicians when traveling. She works with managers to map out venues.

But she also recognizes that she is scaling the music career ladder that she has envisioned as a goal. There are frustrations and headaches, but she does not let them overshadow the success.

Her analogy of life from then to now? "I went from single-lane traffic in a Pinto when I was chillin’ on my way to nowhere to very busy traffic in a Benz on my way to somewhere, but it doesn’t mean the traffic's not annoying.

"Of course you're upset because this guy cut in front of you. But, guess what, you're on the way to Hawaii or somewhere driving a Benz. With that single-lane traffic, no one was bothering you. You could cruise and listen to your music — but you were in a Pinto driving in a circle."

(Reminder again: This is an analogy. Ponder does not own a Mercedes Benz. Nor did she ever own a Pinto.)

Danielle Ponder on surviving Covid as her musical career was taking off

"I'm 41 years old and trying to have a Vegas residency by 50," Danielle Ponder of Rochester told a California crowd in September. said, sounding mostly serious but also kidding a little about the details. "Just so I can go from the Bellagio to the stage, you know I what I am saying?" The crowd cheers. "I don't think I can TikTok my way there, but I believe in the old-fashioned way of the power of the people."

Flashback: In early 2020, Ponder was prepping for a European tour, one that could lay the groundwork for an eventual move there should she decide to do so. The dates and venues were lined up.

The universe had other plans. A pandemic arrived. The tour, and the world, shut down.

There is a moment during the early and eerie dystopic days of the pandemic when Ponder and Reese intimately harnessed the spark that both anchors and lifts the music they create.

The two are in Reese’s apartment. Reese, as always, is on the keyboards, and Ponder occasionally on the acoustic guitar. Streamed to the world via Facebook, they embark on a nearly 90-minute concert that mines humor and catharsis from the isolation.

There is a carefree casualness to the streaming performance. Reese's attire of choice is a Mickey Mouse shirt. Ponder mixes Facebook message requests with her own songs, and, as the minutes pass, the audience grows. It starts in the teens, then the dozens, then the hundreds. Friends text friends. Families on couches tune in.

Ponder on 'General Hospital': Rochester singer-songwriter Danielle Ponder to make acting debut on ABC’s ‘General Hospital’

The music enraptures. Ponder occasionally pauses between songs, trying to provide hope, reminding the social media audience of the need for kindness. “In every living thing and every creature on earth the presence of God is within them,” she says. “We need to remember that, especially in these times. … If it gets harder, which hopefully it won’t, we have to lift each other up.”

Ponder and Reese then continued to do just that, even once leaping into an impromptu dance routine modeled on the Tina Turner version of “Proud Mary.”

Within hours the Facebook video had more than 20,000 views and hundreds of shares.

Ponder did not ask for money from the social media concert. People sent donations nonetheless. Still, a livelihood can rarely be manufactured from Facebook performances. Four months later, Ponder returned to her past employer, the Monroe County Public Defender's Office.

This is where, years before, she had been a defense attorney, representing the indigent. It was a career, but not the one closest to her heart. That was music.

At the public defender's office, she took on a new position designed to increase diversity and inclusiveness with the office. She knew the need to bring previously unheard voices to the office, for more acute understanding of the low-income and Black and brown clients whom the office often served. She was the only Black lawyer on staff when she joined in 2013.

Tim Donaher, the public defender in 2020, "was making me an offer I couldn't refuse," Ponder said. She was able to carve out time to finetune the songs for her planned album and to write others. She worked on issues important to her in the public defender's office, but never relinquished her long-term goal.

"I'm happy I went back at the time I did because there was nothing happening," she said. "Music had shut down. I still had an income. I had something to occupy my time."

Ponder knew there was a certain precarity if she chose to leave the office again for the occasionally capricious life of arts and music. She'd left the public defender's job once before to embark on a music career — her journey has been more one of switchbacks than the oft-heard "meteoric rise" — and here she was again.

"I just knew I would always go back to music because it's the thing I really love," she said.

Her boss knew, too. In 2021, Ponder departed with music in her sights as her sole occupation.

"I knew Danielle cared deeply for the work we did at the public defender’s office and the clients we served, but her passion, and her voice, were best expressed through her music," Donaher said.

Danielle Ponder on appearing on 'General Hospital'

Danielle Ponder at the Newport Folk Festival in July in a performance applauded by music critics and fans.
Danielle Ponder at the Newport Folk Festival in July in a performance applauded by music critics and fans.

Ponder's career is moving at full-bore. The music is always at the epicenter, but it has taken Ponder to some unexpected places.

Such as the soap opera "General Hospital."

One day last year Ponder received a social media message from the show's casting director. She wanted to know if Ponder was game to act and sing on an episode. Why not? Ponder figured.

As it turned out, Ponder was cast as the singer for the show's "Nurse's Ball," a fundraising performance annually incorporated into the soap opera that Ponder likens to the Super Bowl. The show's dedicated following loves the yearly fete.

Ponder developed an appreciation for the hours actors work; she spent about seven hours there for a three-minute performance as the ball's featured performer. And when the lights went on after her song, she noticed something else about the cast. "The people were all so abnormally beautiful," she said. "Imagine if everyone in an audience is perfect. I was like, is this AI?"

Days later, Ponder saw the blowback on Facebook from some longtime fans. They were few in number, and their comments were interspersed with remarks like, "I just realized that Leisel’s (sic) abduction will impact Willow’s planned marrow transplant."

The online comments were tame, Ponder said, but did motivate her aunt, in her 70s, to respond to the critics. Ponder found herself amused to be at the center of civil digital fisticuffs. "It was nothing too terrible. They weren’t trying to take me down. They just didn't like change."

One of Ponder's managers has what she calls "rich friends." That's how she supposes she ended up last year performing at a private party for Kate Hudson, but she's not 100 percent sure. Also in the crowd was actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, best known for the comedy "New Girl."

"It was awesome but it was definitely a moment when I was like, 'Welcome to Hollywood,'" Ponder said.

And then there was Eddie Vedder.

On Sept. 29, Ponder left the stage after a performance at California's Ohana Festival. She passed an unassuming man who politely told her how much he enjoyed her set and how moving it was. He was dressed in what Ponder called "Dad" attire, with his aqua sneakers, black shorts and black vinyl jacket. She returned the politeness, thanked him, and kept walking.

"Then someone said, 'You know that was Eddie Vedder, right? ... Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam.'"

Ponder reversed course. Thankfully Vedder was still within sight.

When playing guitar and singing at her Bay Street home in the city as a teen, Ponder had once subscribed to the then-popular and cheap Columbia House 12-CD/album purchase for new members. Among her choices were Lauryn Hill, Alanis Morrissette and Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" album.

"I just fell in love with that voice," she said of Vedder. "His voice would bring me to tears."

She had done the same for Vedder.

At the Ohana festival, which features stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, Vedder found himself crying, stirred by both Ponder's voice and the spiritual-like passion that resides at its core. He told her, "You remind me why we do this and the power that music has."

When Ponder finds doubt creeping into her thoughts or anxiety growing, she turns to what are sometimes called "regrounding moments," when one either centers deeply on the present or pulls from past remembrances that remind them of their worth and value.

Now, when she needs to reground herself, she recalls that she made Eddie Vedder cry.

Danielle Ponder: 'I was angry for most of 2020'

The Parcel 5 crowd waiting for Danielle Ponder to perform at the 2022 Rochester Jazz Festival.
The Parcel 5 crowd waiting for Danielle Ponder to perform at the 2022 Rochester Jazz Festival.

Ponder's life story and background have been the focus of a multitude of stories in the national media this year. As former Democrat and Chronicle columnist and now-retired WXXI arts reporter Jeff Spevak once wrote of her, "She’s the daughter of a church pastor who sings about a woman’s sensuality; a sister whose brother spent 20 years in prison, and now she writes songs about injustice."

It was a belief that the system was too often skewed against the underprivileged that led her first into a career representing the indigent. Her brother's 20-year-sentence came after an armed robbery and was the result of a "three-strikes" law. She knew her brother had once fallen in with a tough crowd and made choices that put him on a criminal path, but she also witnessed the limited opportunity for men and women in neighborhoods like hers.

After his release, her brother succeeded and is, Ponder said, now doing well.

In 2020, local protests flared in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the Rochester homicide of Daniel Prude, who died from asphyxiation and other causes after restraint by police. A grand jury determined the officers did not commit a crime.

Ponder was often at the center of the protests, sometimes singing, sometimes reciting data that she said challenged the belief that more police leads to less crime.

She has not abandoned her social justice activism, and it definitely pops up in her onstage communications with audiences. But, she said, 2020 exhausted her.

"I was angry for most of 2020," she said. "And I fueled some of that anger in very productive ways and some of that anger was eating me up as well."

Ponder's current music is not laden with activist lyrics. Instead, the songs are often stories of broken hearts and painful decisions to walk away from relationships. Her second album, which may be released late next year, builds on similar themes, through the voice of a survivor, Ponder said.

"I'm drawing on being in romantic relationships that were very difficult and in a way that was a little bit more complex than I think a 19-year-old pop star can write about it," she said.

"Now I'm single and don’t got no man issues so now the political album might come," she joked.

Whatever the thematic undergirding of her music, romantic or systemic, she tries to speak to and for Black women.

"I know how difficult it is to be Black and to be a woman in this world, to face sexism and racism at the same time, to feel unloved and alone. ... I'm in complete awe of Black women. I'm inspired every day by different Black women, their courage, their ability to make s--- happen by themselves if they have to."

Rochester remains close to Danielle Ponder's heart

Danielle Ponder is in the process of putting together her second album and will be performing in Texas in early December. For a recent interview, she returned to Abilene's Bar and Lounge, a popular and intimate music venue in Rochester, where she once performed in 2014.
Danielle Ponder is in the process of putting together her second album and will be performing in Texas in early December. For a recent interview, she returned to Abilene's Bar and Lounge, a popular and intimate music venue in Rochester, where she once performed in 2014.

There was a time before the release of "Some Of Us Are Brave" when Ponder feared that she'd lose her hometown crowd. She was unsure if she'd build a new following.

Ponder's earlier performances often were steeped in funk and R&B-fueled rhythms. The album was different, its pace soulful but slower, its messages deeper.

But the crowds, local and otherwise, come. "I go from show to show and everybody's crying," she said. "I've gone from making everybody dance to making everybody cry."

She recently packed a newly opened Rochester club, Essex, for two nights. "I loved the shows at Essex but what was missing were the people where I'm from.

"I want kids and moms and everyone and anyone to be able to show up." She wants young people to know they can make it, Ponder said.

Rochester is always close to Ponder.

She envisions a day when she can annually host a free outdoor concert in Rochester, drawing performers who otherwise might bypass Rochester for Buffalo or other cities.

Yes, the past two years have had their weird Hollywood moments, mingling with stars and expertly coifed soap casts, but those truly have been the exception. Instead the bits that most resonate with Ponder, that emotionally burrow into her, come from elsewhere — from the music, from the song.

By the time she started performing her cover of Radiohead's "Creep," she had built a community at the Newport festival in late July.

Wearing a vertical-striped peppermint top, Ponder stands out from even the back of the sizable crowd. She starts with a quiet but powerful murmur, pulls bouncy hair away from her face with graceful hands — then places them on the middle of her chest. Reese keys the haunting, simple opening notes of the song.

"When you were here before," Ponder sings, "had to look you in the eye."

The song builds. Her warm, muscular vibrato rolls out over the sea of listeners at one of the most vital venues for music in all of America.

Then she dips into a croon, with a wry smile, as a line emerges: "I don't belong here."

"... Sometimes I feel like a creep. I look at the sky and think, Lord, what am I doing here?" Then she changes the next line of the well-known 1990s song and finishes it with: "...where I belong."

By the shattering end of the song, the crowd is whooping and raising hands high to clap.

Rolling Stone declared later that "Danielle Ponder stunned with her Newport Folk Festival debut." Pop Matters deemed it one of the 2023 festival's 10 best performances.

As a teen, her acoustic guitar resting on her knees as she learned chords of a song, the Newport Folk Festival seemed so distant from her Rochester home. Yet, here she was. The festival's management told her afterward, "This is your home now, whenever you want to come back."

She had arrived.

Some of us are, in fact, brave. Very brave.

— Gary Craig is a veteran reporter with the Democrat and Chronicle, covering courts and crime and more. You can reach Craig at gcraig@rocheste.gannett.com. His favorite Ponder song is "Someone Like You." He also enjoyed the photo from Ponder of her with Allison Russell, another of Craig's favorite artists.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Danielle Ponder opens up about her musical journey to stardom