As a wide-eyed misfit growing up in the Lone Star State, Allison Ponthier built a world all her own to escape her strait-laced surroundings. Raised in a Dallas suburb much like the football-obsessed town of Friday Night Lights, the 24-year-old singer/songwriter spent her adolescence under the spell of eccentrics like Henry Selick, Vincent Price, and Elvira, whose warped sensibilities catalyzed her own creativity. During that time, she brought her beautifully strange imagination to everything from making sculptures to writing skits to self-recording songs alone in her bedroom. Finally, at the age of 20, Ponthier fled the Bible belt for Brooklyn despite not knowing anyone in New York—an initially disastrous move that ultimately inspired the writing of her song “Cowboy,” a life-changing breakthrough on both a personal and artistic level.
“Cowboy,” the first single from Ponthier’s debut EP, Faking My Own Death, arrives as a spellbinding piece of self-reflection, a bravely detailed document of her experience in coming out as gay. With its mercurial textures and gauzy guitar tones, the track reveals her affinity for indie-folk and alt-rock, yet hints at her country roots in its heart-on-sleeve storytelling and crystalline vocal work. And in its lucid confession of her deepest anxieties and self-doubt, “Cowboy” echoes Ponthier’s main mission as an artist. “A lot of my songs are about being uncomfortable in your own skin but getting to know yourself better, figuring out who you really are,” she says. “I mostly just try to make music that speaks to me, because I know there’s no way I’m the only person in the world who’s felt like this.”
With musicians in her family (her father plays jazz bass and trumpet, her grandfather was a middle-school band director), Ponthier started singing in church and took up piano as a child. She later headed to college to major in jazz vocal performance, then dropped out halfway through her second year to move to New York. But while she’d dreamed of running away to the city her entire life, Ponthier immediately found herself thrown into another identity crisis, this time facing the insecurity of feeling like a goody-two-shoes Southerner in the epicenter of East Coast hipsterdom. “I was really shy, I wasn’t out yet, I wasn’t nearly as cool as everyone else,” she says. “I’d gone from feeling out-of-place in Texas to feeling just as out-of-place in New York.” Overwhelmed, lonely, and struggling to keep up with rent, she again turned to her creativity for solace, at one-point hand-crafting jewelry and drawing pet portraits to stay afloat.
In a happy turn of events, Ponthier eventually landed a job for the American Museum of Natural History, a gig that allowed her to explore her visual side by creating content for the museum’s outreach. As she slowly found her footing in New York, Ponthier came to the realization that she could no longer deny her gay identity, a discovery that soon led to the writing of “Cowboy.” “I was having a hard time coming out to my family—or to anyone else for that matter—and I decided to write a song about what I was feeling, in a way I never had before,” she says. “I was sitting on my bed and the phrase ‘It took New York to make me a cowboy’ popped into my head, and I started singing it over and over.” By night’s end, Ponthier had written most of “Cowboy” and, in the process, completely upended her approach to songwriting. “For a long time, I was just making music I thought would sound cool—I was terrified to actually dig into my feelings,” she says. “‘Cowboy’ was the first time I took that risk, and it’s also the first time I made a country song. I guess it had to do with writing about home and my childhood and recognizing that country music is ingrained in me.”
Made with producers like Rick Nowels (Lana Del Rey, Stevie Nicks) and Mike Crossey (The 1975, Arctic Monkeys), her forthcoming debut EP for Interscope Records, Faking My Own Death, merges that raw self-expression with a sound both timeless and delicately inventive, a perfect showcase for her full-hearted vocals. Along with “Cowboy,” the EP Faking My Own Death features tracks like “Harshest Critic”: a lovely and luminous meditation on self-worth, born from a moment of personal catharsis. “I wrote ‘Harshest Critic’ around the time when labels were knocking on my door, and I kept wondering what it would feel like when other people were judging me and my work,” says Ponthier. “It ended up being a song about how, when you’re an artist, everything feels like life or death. But in reality, it’s your happiness and who you are as a person that really matter. You might as well enjoy the ride, because no one’s ever going to be as hard on you as you are.”
Ponthier also joined Lord Huron on the heartbreakingly dreamy duet, “I Lied.” She went on to make her late-night debut in the spring performing the song with Lord Huron on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
In all of her songs, Ponthier shows a powerful grasp of tension and tone—an element she partly attributes to her passion for movies. “I love old black-and-white movies and B-horror films, especially anything that’s heavy in practical effects—the D.I.Y. feeling touches my heart,” she says. “I love learning about the techniques filmmakers use to make their storytelling stronger, and I probably watch movies more than I listen to music. That’s why all my songs are stories.” Not only an influence on her songwriting, Ponthier’s cinephilia has played a major part in the hands-on approach she’s taken to her visual output. “All my visuals are based in a very campy, over-the-top, larger-than-life world,” she says, naming horror-hostess Elvira among her idols. “Everything comes from storylines I’ve created, and I’d love to go even further with that and make the videos more narratively intense—more like a short film than a series of glamour shots.”
By bringing such a depth of attention to every aspect of her music, Ponthier has essentially created a more fully and extravagantly realized version of the world she retreated into as a kid back in Texas: a place where difference is endlessly celebrated, even as her songs push into painful terrain. “All these songs are stories from my life, and they’re all related to mental health, whether I’m talking about anxiety or identity or anything else I’ve gone through,” she says. “I hope it’s comforting to people to hear me talk about those things, especially other LGBTQ+ people. I hope that they see themselves in me, and that my fanbase can be a community where people can reach out and make friends and support each other and feel like they’re not alone.”