While there have been plenty of musicians who’ve pivoted from music to a legal career—including Big Black guitarist Santiago Durango and Blake Babies guitarist John Strom—Rochester singer Danielle Ponder went the other way, leaving her job as an attorney in the city’s public defender’s office to focus on music in 2018. Her legal career was launched when one of her brothers received a 20-year prison sentence under Bill Clinton’s disastrous “three strikes” legislation and she became determined to make a difference. But eventually the pull of music proved too strong, though she’s retained her passion for racial justice and feminism in her second career.
Anyone who has heard her 2022 debut album Some of Us Are Brave is likely grateful for the shift. Music wasn’t exactly new to her; when she was 16 her family formed an informal band that she played with on breaks from school, and with whom she continued to perform after she had graduated. She has said, “I would do a small tour in Europe, come back, and on Monday I’d be in court like nothing happened.” Her father is a pastor, so growing up she only listened to gospel music, but as she grew older she began checking out current rock and soul music in addition to classic blues, all of which fed into her own music.
Ponder embraces a polystylistic ethos in her music that spans generations. While the closing track “Darker Than Blue” is a searing ballad blending piano and organ that reveals her deep gospel roots, other songs are more hard-driving, like the title track on which she laments the vicious circle of racism, singing, “And to those who fear leads them to hate / What a pity to be locked in a place” over an elastic post-hip-hop groove. She has an outsized voice, but Ponder has remarkable control of her phrasing, packing every line with measured, stinging emotion. She’s turning heads, performing her slinky single “So Long” on Late Night with Seth Myers and sharing the bill with the Roots, Chaka Khan, and Earth, Wind & Fire at a Juneteenth celebration at the Hollywood Bowl this summer.