New York singer-songwriter Danielle Ponder has been involved in music for much of her life, but after her brother received a 20-year prison sentence due to a “three strikes” policy, she became an advocate for justice and pursued a legal career. She landed in the public defender’s office in her hometown of Rochester, first as a defense attorney and later as a diversity and inclusion officer, but she continued to write songs on the side—and she eventually chose to make music full-time. If she fought for her clients and her community with even half the conviction of her powerful solo debut, the September release Some of Us Are Brave, anyone would be lucky to have her in their corner.
Ponder’s commitment to justice and humanity remain intrinsic to her work, and her enormous, beautiful voice commands us to take heed of her words. She takes on the perspective of a Black man wronged by a racist criminal justice system on her 2020 track “Poor Man’s Pain,” partly inspired by the story of Willie Simmons, who was convicted of stealing $9 and sentenced to life without parole in 1982 under a racist “habitual offender” law. On Some of Us Are Brave, she weaves together that activist passion and her storytelling about more intimate themes and experiences; her chic, smoky musical arrangements are similarly multifaceted, incorporating soul, gospel, downtempo, alternative rock, and more. If there’s a sweet spot between Aretha Franklin and Beth Gibbons, Ponder has staked her flag on it with a voice that’s unmistakably her own. If you’ve been sleeping on Ponder, consider yourself on notice—she’s not likely to keep performing in venues as intimate as SPACE.
Danielle Ponder Wyatt Waddell opens. Fri 11/18, 8 PM, SPACE, 1245 Chicago, Evanston, $18, all ages