Open Air Currents: Danielle Ponder, Margo Price, Sunny War
A look at new releases by a public defender turned singer, a would-be Nashville star drifting into rock and roll and a singer/songwriter known for folk-punk who overcame the odds.
Danielle Ponder – Some Of Us Are Brave
Public defender turned singer Danielle Ponder released Some Of Us Are Brave in the fall of 2022, but I feel like it will make my 2023 best of list. The title came from an anthology of stories by black women authors, All The Women Are White, All The Blacks Are Men, Some Of Us Are Brave. Ponder credits it with helping to guide her in work and life and in helping her make the decision to devote more time to music. As with her work as a public defender, her music carries on her tradition of advocacy, now for social justice as a musician. She says that early in developing her voice she tried to emulate some of the rock, blues and gospel singers she was hearing like Koko Taylor, Big Mama Thornton and Susan Tedeschi. Those influences shine through in the power and passion of her voice. Musically she balances gorgeous ballads with occasional trip-hop beats (she was a fan of the Portisehead classic Dummy) and soul, fronting a tight 3-piece band. On Some Of Us Are Brave, I hear the vocal prowess of Yola and Adele with the kind of arrangements you might hear on a Michael Kiwanuka album and the emotional, poignant songwriting of all three of them. Though it’s a debut, you’ll think you’re hearing a seasoned veteran. Some Of Us Are Brave is a rare gem. The more you hear it, the more you’ll like it.
Margo Price – Strays
Coming off the release of her memoir Maybe We’ll Make It in late 2022, Margo Price started 2023 on a strong note. She was on Morning Edition and World Café on January 13, the day Strays dropped. Like several other musicians recently, Price found inspiration for her new album when she and husband Jeremy Ivey (you heard his release Invisible Pictures last year on Open Air) went on an extended psilocybin trip. Though she used the experience to expand her sound and find some personal insights for songwriting, this isn’t an attempt to recreate Pink Floyd or Phish. Instead it finds her edging further away from her country roots and experimenting within rock and roll. It’s a good vehicle for her to express herself. She’s always been a little too edgy for Nashville and with this release seems to be parting ways altogether. During their psilocybin experiment, she and Jeremy played records including Hypnotic Eye by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. That sound weaves its way through Strays, especially on the song Been To The Mountain, which starts with a psychedelic flourish and works its way into an edgy rock song a with a bit of a nod to Shadow People from Hypnotic Eye. Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell appears on Light Me Up, and as if to emphasize the point, Strays was produced by Jonathan Wilson. In Wilson’s studio, from a previous session, was a piano and organ owned by Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers. With Strays (as well as the new memoir), the uninitiated will find a solid rock and roll album that plays middle ground between the future and the past as well as insights into the mind of a musician we will be hearing a lot from in the coming years.
Sunny War – Anarchist Gospel
Sunny War says that she is often in conflict with the two sides of her personality. One is self-destructive, the other tries to provide balance. The Los Angeles based singer/songwriter has battled addiction and been on the brink of suicide as she watched friends die, all while trying to survive and make music. Her new release Anarchist Gospel describes that inner conflict. The first single, No Reason, begins “Good intentions that you keep, don't change the fact that you're a beast. Better than most to say the least, imperfect manmade masterpiece. You're an angel, you're a demon, ain't got no rhyme, ain't got no reason.” Described as folk punk, Sunny War was intrigued by bands like AC/DC and Motley Crüe when she first learned to play guitar and later by bands like X, but found her niche playing acoustic punk largely because acoustic instruments were what she had to play. Sometimes described as a virtuoso, her guitar style is a lot like that of a claw hammer banjo player - expertly plucking bass notes with her thumb while her forefinger sweeps up to strum notes and chords. It’s a style that goes back to the early blues of Robert Johnson and works well with the acoustic punk meets roots sound of her original music. Anarchist Gospel stretches musical definitions in a good way. Punk has always been another form of folk music (just not always as polite) and a lot of former punk rockers are now playing folk. Sunny War has always split that difference and now has a style all her own.