Musical Notes: Singer Danielle Ponder – Soul Searching

Ponder’s performance at Anthology in Rochester, May 2018. Photo by Aaron Winters
by Nancy E. McCarthy

On Valentine’s Day 2021, Rochester soul singer Danielle Ponder received an unexpected phone call. The caller was Chris Douridas, a Los Angeles-based radio show host and Grammy-nominated music supervisor and consultant for film and television projects.

“While searching for new music for an upcoming radio show, I came across a song by the (Australian) band Karate Boogaloo, but was transfixed by Danielle’s guest vocal on the song,” Douridas explains. Then he listened to some of her own releases and decided to contact Ponder to see what she was currently working on.

That spontaneous conversation quickly led to a professional partnership and then a recording contract with Future Classic – her first with an established record label. When the Some of Us Are Brave CD is released in March 2022, Ponder will already be on the road, performing at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas opening for a Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit concert, followed by several dates on the southwestern leg of the St. Paul and The Broken Bones’ tour.

“We couldn’t be more excited about Danielle,” says Douridas who now co-manages her career with Tom Windish, a senior executive at Wasserman Music. “We expect 2022 to be a great year for her.”

Ponder is excited, too. Her overnight success story is actually many years in the making and she’s more than ready.

Setting the Stage

Ponder’s earliest introduction to music was church gospel music. She was the sixth child of seven born in Rochester to Pentecostal pastor Elijah Ponder and his wife Loretta, a social worker. Although Ponder sang in the choir, her musical tastes were more wide-ranging: alternative rock, hip hop and the blues. She would eventually claim soul music as her preferred vocal style – an intense combination of gospel, blues with a little funk on the side.

In 1997, when Ponder was sixteen, her father gave her a guitar and taught her how to play it. She began writing her own songs and joined Black August, a family soul band comprised of cousins and her younger brother. That same year one of her older brothers was convicted of a robbery and sentenced to 20 years. Ponder was shocked and devastated. Although this mandatory minimum sentence was the law, to her, the length and harshness of the punishment did not fit the crime. It was her brother’s injustice within the justice system that fueled her desire to pursue a career as a lawyer. 

She would achieve that goal while continuing to write, sing, perform and record CDs with Black August and later with Filthy Funk. Even though music was a side gig while pursuing her degrees, Ponder’s powerful pipes thrilled audiences wherever she sang. Notable concerts ranged from Black August appearances at Attica Correctional Facility (with her brother, an inmate, in attendance) to Filthy Funk performing outdoors to a massive crowd during the 2010 Rochester International Jazz Festival.

Ponder graduated from the Northeastern School of Law in 2011. She returned to Rochester to work for the Monroe County Public Defender’s office. At that time, she was the only Black lawyer on staff. The majority of clients Ponder represented were indigent people of color accused of minor offenses. Some suspects were held in jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail. Helping them to navigate the court system was heartbreaking and eye-opening.

Public defender by day and musician by night, weekends or any time off, Ponder struck out on her own as Danielle Ponder and The Tomorrow People. She was named Top 10 Bands to watch by CITY Newspaper and won the 2015 and 2016 “Best Band” Roc awards. Ponder also toured in Europe, building up a solid fan base in Hamburg, Germany and released an EP.

Ponder’s first appearance at Anthology, a popular Rochester concert venue, was in October 2016. “The first time I met Danielle at our offices at Anthology she sang for me acapella on the spot, and I knew she was special,” says promoter Phil Fitzsimmons. “Her composure, the timbre and range of her voice, and her authenticity all intertwine to create a super star persona that is effortless and real.”

Her advocacy for marginalized people spilled outside of the courtroom and onto the stage. In 2017, Ponder created and performed in For the Love of Justice, a live multi-media show addressing thought-provoking subjects such as criminal and racial justice, liberation, and love through songs, stories and images. Love is a reoccurring theme in Ponder’s songs: self-love, romantic love and love for others which, to her, is justice. 

“She is someone who can sing about important issues while still having fun and expressing joy,” says Fitzsimmons.

Soul Searching

Ponder was riding a wave and all signs were pointing her toward a successful singing career. In 2018, she made the gutsy decision to make music her full-time job and left her position in the Public Defender’s office. Some of us are brave, indeed.

In January 2020, Ponder mixed a little business with pleasure when she flew to Melbourne, Australia to visit a good friend. While there, Ponder wrote and recorded a couple of songs with Karate Boogaloo, an Australian rhythm and blues band. She wrote lyrics to their music and sang on the tracks. “Working with them was significant to me because it helped clarify my own goals as a singer and songwriter,” says Ponder. The song “Look Around” was also politically relevant, with record sales benefiting the Equal Justice Initiative in the USA and Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance in Australia. And it was the track that would catch Douridas’ ear a year later.

But meanwhile, a global pandemic was about to press the pause button on Ponder’s burgeoning music career. Bristol journalist Mark Obbie, who had interviewed Ponder for a Rochester teen violence story, caught her show at Hollerhorn Distilling in Naples. “This was in March 2020, just as Covid was coming into focus and lockdowns were looming,” says Obbie. “Her set was intimate and searing, the emotions heightened by the reality we all felt about imminently losing contact with live music for who knows how long – and worrying about how artists like her would survive.”

Ponder would survive but she grieved the loss of the stage and the live connections with her audiences. How could she not?

In May 2020, she took on a newly created part-time role with the Public Defender’s office as its diversity and inclusion officer. Ponder figured when venues and travel opened up she would just juggle music and law again. Main job objectives included recruiting more attorneys of color, implementing staff diversity training and community engagements (such as the Public Defender’s March for the Black Lives Matter movement that she organized in June). Soon the position became full-time.

The following year, in June 2021, Ponder kicked off the return of live concerts at Point of the Bluff Vineyards on Keuka Lake. It seemed fitting to Obbie that Ponder, his last concert experience pre-lockdown, was now his first one post-lockdown. Although the atmosphere was lively, her vocals were anguished during a haunting cover version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” “Lots of artists cover this one,” says Obbie. “But I’ve never heard a deeper, more evocative version, where she almost whispers, ‘What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.’ In her hands, the song transforms from one about alienation to one about empathy – the spirit inside her music and her community work.”

Ponder’s last day as diversity and inclusion officer was on New Year’s Eve 2021. She left behind an indelible legacy at the Monroe County Public Defender’s office as she strode confidently toward the world’s stage to make her mark there, too.

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