By: Christopher Aloysius Mariotti
“A bird and a pony made a warbling child…and on the grassy plains of the Colorado front range, she sang her song to the mountains.”
Ms Jennifer Dauphinais, I want to thank you for joining me this evening!
Thank you, sir.
Let’s start by acknowledging that you are Ponybird.
Not too many people know this, but I’m a huge mythology geek. So when I think of what a Ponybird might be, I’m not sure it coming from “the grassy plains of the Colorado front-range” is where I’d first go to find one. I’m thinking more spawn to Pegasus. What is the origin and genesis, and significance, of the name to you?
For me, it is a composite of two parts of my life or personality. I have always been pulled toward animal medicine in the Native American tradition and often dream explicitly in animal symbolism. So I had very strong pulls to horses, and I used to actually ride horses when I lived in Colorado. My relationship with them is very healing for me – they represent both freedom and duty. Then comes the bird: I’m obsessed. No joke. Particularly with birds of prey. They are fierce and can attack on the stealth and also see into the darkness. I am constantly watching the skies and reading up. I found out later after taking the name that I am part Algonquin Woodland Métis Anishinabek, so it was confirmation for me about all of these strong ties to animals.
So, when it comes to your art, where does Jennifer end and Ponybird begin? Is there a distinction between the two?
I take my art into many forms. There are several other aliases or spirits I dance with when it comes to making art and music, but Ponybird is probably the one closest to me of all the forms. The funny part about that is I am learning that myself as Ponybird is emerging, I realize I’m witnessing myself. It’s by far the most revealing art I’ve made, the most confessional, and most personal.
Along those lines, you’ve worn many hats along with being a musician: a photographer, an art and music journalist at the New Haven Advocate, a radio show co-host on WYBC 1340 AM. What’s been the motivation for you to keep tuned in to your musician side?
There never wasn’t a music side. I grew up with two musicians as parents. They met at guitar lessons in high school, and my mom was a traditional folk-picker type of gal that could sing really pretty in church, but my dad was a punk rocker, always a contrarian, so that blend really shines in Ponybird, it’s a bit of an homage to them. As a kid I sat in front of stacks of vinyl and listened to everything my parents had on hand: Queen, Ian Hunter, Kate Bush, Janis Ian. Then I watched my dad go through several phases of making music with various bands, and him dragging me to shows like Killing Joke and Sonic Youth. It quickly led to my own pursuit of shows at the Tune Inn and the early years at The Space, and then of course my own bands. I went to raves. I did anything that centered around music, and always felt I had to be in it, talking about it, making it, expressing it, connecting with it, so all of those roles came into play.
I was originally a drummer. I did high school drum-line, then hardcore, stoner blues, metal. Then African and Latin percussion, and found myself backing Christina Abbott. She pushed me to go on my own and it was a painful transition for me because it did not come easy. My motivation has been wanting to make music that I am finally inspired by. I want to move myself the way others have moved me. I want what I feel and hear on the inside to finally come out in such a way that it matches the landscape of the way I experience the world through all of my senses.
I always want to hug people who grew up with parents as musicians. I just love the familial aspect of sharing a love of music and instruments together.
On your past records, there’s sparseness to the instrumentation, or at least the amount of performers, due to the DIY design of recording at home on a laptop. Live, you are able to bring such a rich and grand sound when you’re joined by the full band, which includes your father on bass and husband (Jason Bates) on drums. Do you have a preference to either way of presenting your material?
I have experimented a lot with different line-ups in this band. On the DIY records, I had some cameos from Matt Thomas, John Panos, and Kelly L’Heureux. This record will be really lush with Eric Lichter on many instruments, Jay on drums, a duet with James Maple, and some guitar and vocals from Becky Kessler. I like having lots of paints in the paint box, and switching up the pallet, but I know what you mean about the fullness really benefiting the songs in our live formation. I know the recordings in the past were really minimal partly as an experiment, and partly as formative process in finding my voice and a sound I’m happy with.
I still work to find the right match between what I hear and what we play. I get picky about giving the songs to other players because I don’t want to get pigeon-holed as a genre or lose the possibility to keep it open. I think I hear music like a gospel choir or epic movie soundtrack most of the time, with like 50 parts, but then when I go to record it, I always keep it real sparse.
Let’s discuss the new record, Modest Quarters. Unlike the first two releases, this is being recorded in a studio – renowned Dirt Floor Studios, to be precise – have you enjoyed the process? Has it been difficult to let go a little and entrust your songs with another person in Eric Lichter, who’s producing and engineering it?
This is the part where I throw a parade for Eric! I have to stress that one of the reasons it took me so long to record is that I’m a really nervous person about working close with people on personal things, and I need time to grow, and also find the right person to work with. I am totally certain that Eric is the right choice for me.
I talked to Becky Kessler about this when she made a similar suggestion about finding the right person to work with who could also guide as a producer as she has with Floyd (writer’s note: Floyd Kellogg and Becky Kessler formed the duo VIOLENT MAE). She knew how fulfilling it could be to feel supported by someone who shared her vision. So, basically, she was like “I hope you find your Floyd.” And I would have to say Eric is my Floyd. I’m really lucky.
I love Dirt Floor Studios. The place is perfect for me. It feels like an extension of my home and song-writing environment. I can take off my shoes, make some food in the kitchen, etc. Eric just whips shit out of his head that sometimes completely matches my imaginings or turns it on its head, and that’s good for me. I need both of those things.
It’s interesting you mention Dirt Floor Studios as an extension of your home and song-writing environment. After your last record, you suffered a bit of writer’s block. Part of working through that, you attended a retreat at Garrison Institute, hosted by Dar Williams. From that came three songs and an album title. What was it about the experience and environment that helped snap you out of the struggle?
Something intense happened to me during the whole Garrison experience that I would say changed my life. It was like not knowing there was an amazing package in the mail for you and thinking you had already played all your cards in life, and suddenly, boom– surprise, you have a new family. I got into the retreat last minute after writing to Dar on a whim, and she actually replied. We spent a week together in a Buddhist setting on the Hudson River. 30 other song writers attended from all over the US, Canada, and Europe. The name of the retreat was Writing A Song That Matters. So everyone there had a common commitment to writing about essential life stories: tragedies, celebrations, changes, dreams. The setting and the intention catapulted us into some pretty intense creative experiences. I don’t think anyone slept that week.
When they left, I stayed on for another retreat and ended up writing the first three songs on Modest Quarters, which was the caption of the first Instragram pic I posted when I got to my room, a small monk’s quarters with a single bed and desk.
The first song that came of it was “In The Threads,” which I wrote the day everyone left. It’s about the left over pieces of melodies left on the air from the space having been so filled with sound, and suddenly so empty on their departure. I was actually devastated. I realized we were going to be apart, and that I could always find them — in the threads, of all of our songs and melodies, and that the world itself was playing its music for us, the trains, the river, the birds, had all been part of our creation and our environment was re-purposed into music. A small empty space with so much to say: writers block gone.
If I didn’t do that retreat, I would have never gotten the courage to take on a studio record and crowd fund campaign. The songwriters from that retreat (the Darlings) have been behind the scenes and very instrumental in pushing me to do that. They get all of my first takes and send back critiques of my work.
Regarding the crowd fund campaign: for this record, you are using indiegogo to help raise funds, where you are already near $2000. A fair amount of bands have used this approach to success. As an artist, what does it say to you about the local scene, the fans especially, contributing to something they haven’t yet heard?
I have mixed feelings about the whole process of crowd funding. I think it’s some kind of weird reverse capitalism concept where the demand is there before the supply, so for someone like me, who does not have a large fan base or a large body of work, I am really reliant on other people’s faith in me. That is what this whole thing have been about: “Hey folks, I think I’ve finally got something, can you help me out,” and praying it’s the right thing to do, and I’m not driving everyone nuts.
In the midst of this process, I realized we needed to make a single so that folks knew what they were contributing to, especially those outside of my close circle. So, Eric and I are cooking up a new mix of “In The Threads,” and I have touched base with various radio outlets to have the song circulate before the end of the indiegogo campaign to hopefully put something tangible in people’s ears. My final strategy is to play some open mics and small shows in the area over the next few weeks, so people can be “we like your stuff,” and I can say, “if you give me $1, I will give you a song and a joke and maybe a hug or a sticker.”
You recently posted on your Facebook page a rough mix of “In The Threads.” If that’s any indication of the record, we are all in for something as magical as a Ponybird itself.
Additionally, a mutual friend of ours heard one of your new recordings, a duet with James Maple. He said it was astonishing, harkening to the days of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. You also mentioned Becky Kessler on the record. What’s it mean to you to have the support of such brilliant local artists contributing to your songs? Along with your earlier point of “finding your Floyd,” how has it been to trust other artists to participate on this project?
It feels like being on the fringe, and having a turn to step in, like a circle, everyone gets a turn to come in and we all support you. I had always been a fan of Becky, and I was truly surprised to find out she loved Ponybird. It was inspiring. She gave genuine feedback and real talk about our sound, the lyrics, the direction of the project, with real care for it, rather than criticism or superiority.
With James, I had heard him and thought we would probably do well on a bill together, but never thought we would record. Then I wrote “Start of It” and kept telling Eric that I have the voice of a raspy cowboy man in my head. And he said let’s ask James. Simple. Again, another person who is in it for the love of it and plays for the song. He studies the song and makes it better. Everyone has been so chill, and everyone’s just a lover of the process.
Trusting those two has been easy, because they make great choices in their own work, and they are meticulous about their parts and ideas so I know they want what’s best for the project.
That’s what I most love about this scene. So many releases from 2013 had guest appearances from other local artists (like Sam Perduta of Elison Jackson singing a duet with Daphne Lee Martin on her record Moxie, or Isaac Young playing a sax solo on 1974’s latest 1974 & The Death of the Herald).
This community is special. I’m very happy to see a place in it for Ponybird! I do have one last question: you mentioned playing shows in the upcoming weeks. I have it on good authority that Dar Williams has three shows in the next month here in Connecticut. How in the world will you be able to balance all of that!
HA!!! I will be totally in the lot selling burritos for all of Dar’s shows along side several of the Darlings, who are coming in to be a part of a massive show collective. And I have two shows coming up in February: One is at Best Video on Feb. 5 with Chris Bousquet, and the other is at Cafe Nine on Feb. 18 with Ben Erickson, Catalina Gonzalez, Sean O’Reilly, and Ben Mikula.
I am going to use the total amperage I am getting off all the support, recording, and anticipation of seeing my friends from the summer, so I’m in a great phase right now, a really creative phase that doesn’t require much sleep!
Right on! I want to thank you so sincerely for spending time with me tonight to share a little of yourself. Wishing much success with the upcoming shows, as well as Modest Quarters!
You can find more information about Ponybird’s new record, Modest Quarters, as well as contact information about the band at the following links: