Tiny Desk Contestant Danielle Ponder On Telling Stories That Matter Through Music | WGLT

Tiny Desk Contestant Danielle Ponder On Telling Stories That Matter Through Music

Sep 5, 2020

Singer Danielle Ponder knows that empathy is a powerful tool in songwriting. "I think in music, you're telling a story," she tells NPR's Weekend Edition, "and a good songwriter is telling a story in a way where the audience empathizes or can see themselves in that person's shoes."

It's really not that different, the Rochester, N.Y.-based musician says, from being a defense attorney. She should know; outside of her music career, Ponder also spent five years as a public defender.

Ponder entered her song "Poor Man's Pain" into this year's Tiny Desk Contest. Though she didn't win — that honor went to Brooklyn singer and songwriter Linda Diaz — her moving song and powerful voice impressed our panel of judges. (Her entry was even featured in an episode of our Tiny Desk Contest Top Shelf series.)

Ponder says both her music and her career as a public defender have been, in part, inspired by her brother's experience with the criminal justice system. "My brother spent 20 years of his life in prison for a robbery," she says, "and that is something that has motivated me to do the work that I do, to write the songs that I write."

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Ponder says she was thinking about her brother's experience when she wrote "Poor Man's Pain," as well as another story. "The one case that really broke my heart, to be frank," she says, "was the case of Willie Simmons, who stole $9 in 1982 and [is serving] a life sentence. He has exhausted all of his appeals and has pled and begged to be set free and has been denied that opportunity. His case really inspired me to write this song."

Though Ponder submitted the Tiny Desk Contest video in March, the song's relevance hasn't waned for her — especially with the recently renewed conversation about the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man from Ponder's home city who died after being injured during an arrest last March.

"I wrote ["Poor Man's Pain"] before all of this happened," she says. "But I guess with the track record of this country, I should have known that it would find its relevance again. It was Willie Simmons' story in March, and then it was George Floyd's story in May, and now it's Daniel Prude's story in September. So these songs, I think, are timeless, because we have not found a way to end the pain and suffering of Black people in this country."

Listen to the full aired story in the audio player above.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We're catching up with some of the standout entries to the Tiny Desk Contest. That's NPR Music's annual invitation to unsigned artists to submit a video for a chance at their own Tiny Desk Concert. You can go to tinydeckcontest.npr.org to see and hear this year's winner, along with many of the artists who made the shortlist, like Danielle Ponder, who sent in her song "Poor Man's Pain."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR MAN'S PAIN")

DANIELLE PONDER: (Singing) I'm pressing on. One day, I'll see the sun. I'm calling out to the heart of the city. Who's going to listen to a poor man's pain?

SIMON: Danielle Ponder joins us now from her home in Rochester, N.Y. Thanks so much for being with us.

PONDER: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Time is a theme in this song. Lines like, did the crime pay more than time, and lonely nights and longer days, or freedom comes too slow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR MAN'S PAIN")

PONDER: (Singing) Lonely nights and longer days. Cut them down, but they never fade. Hard to find who I used to be...

SIMON: Help us understand where your heart was when you wrote this song.

PONDER: So my brother spent 20 years of his life in prison for a robbery. And that is something that has motivated me to do the work that I do, to write the songs that I write. But the one case that really broke my heart, to be frank, was the case of Willie Simmons, who stole $9 in 1982 and has exhausted all of his appeals and has pled and begged to be set free and has been denied that opportunity.

And I'm holding back tears, and I know I wasn't expecting to, but a man just died in our city, and we're all dealing with this news. He was killed by our police department, the Rochester Police Department. So I'm just - when we talk about time, I'm also thinking about how long we've been fighting for justice, how long we've been fighting to be seen as full human beings. And it's just not an emotion I can set aside for this interview because right now, it feels very real...

SIMON: Yeah.

PONDER: ...And raw to me.

SIMON: We should say the man's name is Daniel Prude. And he died after a confrontation with police in March - his family speaking out about that just now. And our station in Rochester has been reporting on that story.

You were once a public defender, I gather.

PONDER: Yes. I worked for five years as a public defender. And once again, that, you know, was inspired by my brother's story and just the experience of people in my neighborhood.

SIMON: How did you get from the courtroom to music?

PONDER: You know, I honestly don't think it's that different. I think in music, you're telling a story. And a good storyteller or a good songwriter is telling a story in a way where the audience empathizes or can see themselves in that person's shoes. And I think a good defense attorney does the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR MAN'S PAIN")

PONDER: (Singing) Freedom, won't you call out my name? Freedom, won't you call out my name?

SIMON: I mean, but to be fair to yourself, I had never heard, for example, that Clarence Darrow or Johnnie Cochran could sing particularly well.

PONDER: (Laughter).

SIMON: I understand your brother is out of prison.

PONDER: Yes, he is. And he's doing awesome. He's a welder. He's a union man. He is doing really well.

SIMON: How do you balance your life now between music, the law, public policy? Help us understand how you're living. I mean, things are different for everybody these days, obviously.

PONDER: You know, with coronavirus, it's been almost impossible to perform. I've had a few virtual performances here and there. But I really have kind of thrown myself into the activist side, working with our local Black Lives Matter movement. I'm also working at our public defender's office now doing some diversity work and recruitment. And, you know, I've been really focused on the racial justice work.

SIMON: But there's a big role for music in popular movements, isn't there?

PONDER: Absolutely. You know, I always tell people a person may not listen to NPR. Shame on them if they don't (laughter). They may not...

SIMON: Now, no. We don't say that.

PONDER: (Laughter).

SIMON: We say we hope you reflect and change your ways, but go ahead.

PONDER: Right (laughter). They may not pick up a book, but everyone loves music. And people will go to a concerts. I just did a show in the middle of nowhere. It was a hybrid kind of virtual show in front of a bunch of - my whole - my audience was all white. And I talked to them about the criminal justice system and experience of Black folks in that system. And I don't know if they would have listened or even came if they did not know there was going to be music - right? - if I was just a lecturer.

SIMON: Right.

PONDER: So there's an ability for musicians to speak to people who other folks may not be able to speak to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR MAN'S PAIN")

PONDER: (Singing) Did the crime, paid more than time - time and time and time again. Land of laws for the darker man, freedom comes too slow.

SIMON: Your music has more resonance than ever, doesn't it?

PONDER: It does. And I wrote the song before all of this happened. And I did not know. But I guess with the track record of this country, I should have known that it would find its relevance again. It wouldn't be long. It was Willie Simmons' story in March. And then it was George Floyd's story in May. And now it's the Daniel Prude's story in September. So these songs, I think, are timeless because we have not found a way to end the pain and suffering of Black people in this country.

SIMON: Danielle Ponder, one of our Tiny Desk Contest standouts, thank you so much for being with us.

PONDER: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOR MAN'S PAIN")

PONDER: (Singing) Freedom, won't you call out my name? Freedom... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.