By Faith Karimi, CNN
(CNN) — In December 2021, a week before she turned 40, Danielle Ponder made a big decision. She walked away from her job as a public defender to pursue a full-time career as a singer.
For Ponder, the previous few years had been a chaotic and indecisive time.
She’d been performing for small audiences on the weekends, hustling back to her hometown of Rochester, New York, in time to appear in court Monday mornings. She’d even quit her job once before, in 2018, but returned to the legal profession when her music career didn’t take off.
This time, however, felt less scary. Her years of writing songs, singing in small clubs and building a following had finally paid off – Ponder had scored a record deal.
Her debut album, “Some of Us Are Brave,” came out last fall to rave reviews for its mix of R&B, soul and trip-hop, all powered by Ponder’s transcendent voice. Since then she has toured almost nonstop, playing theaters, clubs and music festivals everywhere from Albany and Louisville to Amsterdam and London.
Last weekend she appeared at Lollapalooza in Chicago, where a reviewer praised her “booming, saintly voice that could break through glass windows” and her “incredible backstory that reminds you to never give up on your dreams.”
Next month Ponder will release a deluxe version of her album, featuring three live tracks and a new single, “Roll the Credits.” And she’ll keep touring at least through late October.
Not bad for someone whose most affecting songs aren’t radio-friendly dance-pop but soulful, personal ballads that reflect her struggles with anxiety and romantic relationships.
“I used to always think you had to write these powerful anthemic songs, like you can do it girl, you the best,” she says. “Then I realized I can write these songs about the parts of myself that I’m not happy with. I’m learning that you can empower people through vulnerability and authenticity.”
She became a lawyer after her brother was sent to prison
The sixth of seven siblings, Ponder was surrounded by music at a young age.
Along with their father, a pastor, she and her family spent hours playing what she calls a “raggedy yellow piano” on their porch in Rochester. Her dad did not allow his children to listen to secular music, so her childhood soundtrack featured gospel songs by artists such as John P. Kee and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Later she discovered blues singers Koko Taylor and Big Mama Thornton, and the jazz stylings of Nina Simone, who was a huge influence.
When Danielle was 16 her family formed a band, with her as its lead singer. But her passion and her career choice have long been in conflict. As a young woman she left home, and her family’s band, to attend law school at Northeastern University in Boston.
She says she was inspired to become a public defender after an older brother, Dwayne Ponder, was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for robbing a bar even though nobody was injured – a severe sentence dictated by the state’s mandatory minimum guidelines.
As a public defender for Monroe County, she handled as many as 50 cases a day, from a teen accused of riding a bike without a bell to more serious and violent crimes. It wasn’t her dream job, but it made her dad proud.
“My father, he loves my music, but he’s most proud that I’m a lawyer,” she says. “If you ask him what I do today, he’ll probably still tell you I’m a lawyer.”
But while Ponder loved defending those who could not afford to fight the legal system, she says, it didn’t match the feeling she got when she was on stage.
When she wasn’t in court or meeting with clients, she was writing songs, playing her guitar and performing around the Northeast and beyond.
One of her most profound and memorable gigs was at a state prison in Attica, New York, where her brother was incarcerated. As she performed with her band, prisoners clapped along and guards tapped their feet – an experience she says reinforced the power of music to transcend labels as people separated by walls moved freely, together, to one beat.
“I fell in love with performing to the point where I knew I couldn’t do both, and I had to choose one,” she says. “Music has been the most consistent thing in my life. So I just knew at some point it was time to fully commit to my art.”
Ponder believes her ability to write music made her a more persuasive attorney. “There’s no way I could be a public defender if I did not have music,” she says.
And her experiences with the criminal justice system, and her firsthand knowledge of its inequities, inform some of her music.
One song, “Poor Man’s Pain,” was inspired by the real-life stories for two people: her brother; and the case of Willie Simmons, a Black Army veteran who has spent more than 40 years in prison in Alabama for stealing $9 in 1982.
“Did the crime, pay more than time. Time and time, and time again. Land of laws for the darker man. Freedom comes too slow,” it goes. “I’m calling out to the heart of this land. Who’s going to listen to a poor man’s pain?”
Ponder’s brother was released from prison seven years ago and sometimes joins her on tour. But while Ponder is no longer arguing before judges and juries, her battle for justice isn’t over – it’s just moved from the courtroom to the concert stage.
“I absolutely love that I can be on the stage and talk to people about our system, people who may not go hear a Michelle Alexander lecture,” she says, referring to the civil rights lawyer who speaks out against the racial biases of America’s legal system.
“But they will stumble across a concert, come hear me sing. And that gives me an opportunity to share with people the injustices within our system, which are too many.”
‘I write the songs I need to survive,’ she says
On stage, Ponder is not flashy. She doesn’t change costumes or dance about. Mostly she stands before the microphone to sing, closing her eyes, tilting her head back and raising her hands for emphasis.
Her most dynamic instrument is her voice, which can range effortlessly from delicate tenderness to thundering force.
Josh Jackson, editor-in-chief of Paste, the music and entertainment outlet, says he first saw Ponder perform at SXSW in Austin last year and knew she was a star in the making.
“Most immediate is her commanding voice that seems to contain the power of the gods,” he says. “Laid over those late-night, jazzy, trip-hop grooves, the result is a fresh and attention-grabbing take on R&B.”
Ponder’s songs resonate with women – especially Black women – because they have an empowering and uplifting message, says cultural critic Nsenga Burton, describing her as “a youthful presence that is clearly an old soul.”
Burton, a former faculty member in film and media at Emory University, believes that while Ponder is not yet widely known, she’s just as talented as superstars like Adele and Jennifer Hudson. Burton compares Ponder’s musical trajectory to that of Tarriona Ball, leader of Tank and the Bangas, a New Orleans group whose intimate performances with relationships with audiences slowly grew into a phenomenon.
“This current market will give her the time to find her audience and for her audience to find her,” says Burton, founder of The Burton Wire, a blog covering Black communities.
Ponder says she initially had a “ton of insecurities” about entering the music industry at an age when many pop stars have peaked. But she’s realized that audiences seem to relate to her openness and vulnerabilities.
“Sometimes we think we have to shift and be different in order to get the most fans, the most likes, the most whatever,” she says. “Be authentic to yourself, follow your internal compass, and (those) who resonate with that story will find you.”
Instead of social justice anthems, she mostly writes personal songs based on experiences she’s going through at the time.
“I write the songs I need to survive the situations I am in,” she says.
“Life is messy, and it’s complicated. And we are complicated individuals. And I just wish we all could say those things, because I think we would feel more of a sense of community when we know the guy next to us is dealing with anxiety. The woman over here has depression. The person across the hall from you is feeling alone.”
Ponder may take a break from touring next year to record a new album. Meanwhile, she’s relishing this chapter of her life’s journey. She hopes it reminds people going through tough times that they’re not alone – and that it’s never too late to do what you love.