Whimsical folk-rocker Allison Ponthier is justifiably proud of her debut EP Faking My Own Death, and its Leonard Cohen-clever janglers like “Harshest Critic,” “Tornado Country” and “Hell is a Crowded Room.” And she’s particularly excited about its symphonic-edged, jazzy opening track, “Cowboy,” which not only tells the tale of her eye-opening, life-changing move from a quiet Dallas suburb to bustling New York City a few years ago, but also opens the door to stylistic possibilities that could easily grow Dusty in Memphis grand. “My music has always felt deferential to the ’60s and the ’70s,” explains the 25-year-old, who is already composing her follow-up, utilizing much heavier sounds. So she’s not certain where she’s headed, she adds. “But that’s what’s really exciting to me—I’m just making music that comes naturally.”
In fact, looking back, there’s only one inescapable truth of which she’s rock-solid certain: “If I was allergic to peanuts, my whole life would be completely different, I think,” she sighs. “So I am so glad that I’m not allergic to peanuts!” The camp-humored vocalist loves kidding around, but she’s not joking about this particular prime directive. When the wide-eyed naif first arrived in the Big Apple, determined to launch a music career, she was so poor that all she could afford each week were loaves of bread and chunky off-brand peanut butter, a manna that actually sustained her after moving in with an old high school friend in Brooklyn. “So I lived off peanut butter sandwiches,” she says, unashamed. “I thought, ‘I need something that will give me calories and have a fat content, so peanut butter sandwiches are the way to go!’ They were my favorite food at the time.”
As the kid discovered her artistic voice, fun fashion sense, and—having come out—the support of a whole thriving gay community she hadn’t had back home, she remembers taking any gig she could to put her food, such as it humbly was, on the table. A talented visual artist, she drew commissioned portraits of people’s pets. She made her own jewelry. She even tried modeling for a bit, until her agent split town with all the money he owed her. “I even worked for the American Museum of Natural History for a little while, doing their Snapchat stories,” she says. “I’ve always been a creative person. That’s why a lot of the odd jobs I was doing were creative.” Once she finally got financially ahead, she began attending concerts, trying to meet as many musicians as she could. “I so desperately wanted to be a part of something, I really put myself out there, even though I was very socially anxious,” she adds.
Every performer who has starved for their craft loves to romanticize the early hardscrabble days, when there was nothing in the pantry but Top Ramen and/or peanut butter. And Ponthier is no different. Growing up in Texas, though? Not so colorful, she’s sad to report. She was extremely introverted, and expressed herself through a cavalcade of passing phases, like horse nerd, an indie-rock phase, a Zooey Deschanel 1950s-dress period, and one where she would dress up like characters from her favorite movies; she preferred the old Sunset Boulevard-era classics flickering on the TCM network, until she stumbled upon her first horror film on Halloween at 15—the Paris Hilton-starring remake of Vincent Price’s House of Wax. “It was kind of brutal, and I remember watching it and thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’ve never seen a horror movie before! This is the greatest thing on Earth!’” she says. “And now House On Haunted Hill is probably my most-watched movie of all time.” It’s the newer Dark Castle version, she clarifies; she’s preparing to delve into the original William Castle celluloid crypt.
Naturally, her surroundings could only stifle Ponthier for so long. She knew she was different, understood that she had to leave home to find her muse, and was tired of feeling like an alien, an oddball outsider. “And it wasn’t just because I was in the closet,” she says. “It was mostly because I had such a hard time making friends. I think the best thing that could have happened to me when I was younger was having proper representation for queer people—I didn’t even know what being gay was until I was 12 or 13 years old. I was really, really sheltered growing up, so moving to New York was like a culture shock.” Fortunately, a YouTube video she’d posted of her teenage self singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” had gotten a favorable response from some New York-based managers; she’d declined their offer then, but tracked them down in their then-mutual hometown. And as they all shared a love of vintage horror and sci-fi, it proved a perfect team-up.
Ponthier’s new handlers, now based in L.A., encouraged her to let her freak flag fly. So while she sings Texas tales of twisters, like her ballad “Tornado Country,” or her dabbling in convoluted personas while residing there in the Faking My Own Death title track, the EP proved to be a total catharsis, which ultimately led to its definitive “Cowboy” proclamation. As much as she was fitting into her new city’s scene, she still felt like a Southerner, even though she spoke with no discernible drawl. “So I was some kind of hybrid of the two,” she now understands. “And I also had never said I was Texan more in my life than when I had moved to New York—it was like the third thing out of my mouth every time that I spoke.”
That flag has now grown banner-huge. Aesthetically, the redhead now expresses herself through: getting involved in her songs’ video treatments (and yes, she’s started to co-direct); her new hobby of sculpting (she’s a big fan of stop-motion animation directors like Henry Selick); and her crazy, shape-shifting wardrobe, which includes boxy masculine suits, ultra-feminine items like corsets and glitter makeup, and everything in between, including elf ears and vampire teeth. “For a long time, I wore a lot of basics and I tried to cover myself up a lot,” she says. “But now, I just love wearing things that are wild or fun or crazy, because it’s just fun.” That’s how much New York has changed her, she adds, “Because I never would have had the confidence to do that a couple of years ago.”
“So right now, I love doing these short projects that are connected to my music,” Ponthier concludes. “And my dream would be to one day direct my own movie musical, because I love movie musicals, from Rocky Horror to Little Shop of Horrors and even West Side Story. I would love to get involved in something bigger like that. But right now?” She sighs, recalling all those peanut butter sandwiches she patiently—and hungrily—wolfed down to arrive where she is today. “It’s baby steps. Just baby steps … ”