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Danielle Ponder — a singer who was once a lawyer — enjoys critical raves

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly stated that Danielle Ponder works with Billie Eilish's manager. Ponder is working with Eilish's booking agent.]

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, singer Danielle Ponder has been a much-appreciated presence in Rochester, N.Y.'s, music scene for more than a decade. But with her new album, Ponder has been enjoying critical raves and new attention from all over the country. The album is called "Some of Us Are Brave," and WXXI's Daniel Kushner has more on the album and his hometown star.

DANIEL KUSHNER, BYLINE: People in Rochester know Danielle Ponder as both a musician and a lawyer. She's worked in the Monroe County Public Defender's Office for nearly 10 years. Her new album, called "Some Of Us Are Brave," is named after a book that changed her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME OF US ARE BRAVE")

DANIELLE PONDER: (Singing) If the sky were to fall, I'd be the first to call. Some of us, some of us are brave.

When I first read that book, I was in law school, and I was first just struck by the title.

KUSHNER: The title is "All The Women Are White, All The Blacks Are Men, But Some Of Us Are Brave." It's an influential feminist anthology published in 1982. It addresses the lack of representation of Black women in feminist and Black studies and touches on topics ranging from racism to prison reform.

PONDER: The book just blew my mind. Like, just - I felt really seen in that book.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME OF US ARE BRAVE")

PONDER: (Singing) What a pity to be locked in a place. You see me now. I'll show you how. I'll show you how.

KUSHNER: I like that it's a challenge to - like, are you one of the brave ones, kind of?

PONDER: Yeah.

KUSHNER: Like, the implication there is it requires an action. Some of us are brave is different than saying, be brave.

PONDER: To me, there's also an implication that there is no choosing to be brave, right? That's what I say in the song. Ain't no choice but to be brave. It's the fact that we exist in this intersection that makes us brave, the fact that we have to live in the world as both Black and as woman. If you do nothing else but wake up and breathe, holding those two identities and walking in this world is bravery.

KUSHNER: Danielle Ponder has long written lyrics that affirm life's value in the face of institutions that have a history of beating people down. Her song "Working," from an earlier album, addresses the ever-present burden of student debt on working people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORKING")

PONDER: (Singing) Eight hours, they say. Well, take the bills away. I did 16 today. Can't get rid of Saturday. These people got me got.

KUSHNER: In a 2019 TEDx Talk, Danielle Ponder said music rejuvenated her, even while working a demanding day job.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDX TALK)

PONDER: I often tell people there is no way I could be a public defender if I did not also have music.

KUSHNER: The work, Ponder said, was sometimes frustrating and made her angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDX TALK)

PONDER: Especially when I would be asked by people, how do you defend those people? Or, you defend the bad people, right? I could have easily given up on humanity, but I have this other part of me. I have music.

KUSHNER: Believe it or not, Danielle Ponder did not like the sound of her own voice. People told her she sounded like an old gospel singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO LONG")

PONDER: (Singing) I feel it when the sun goes down.

And I spent a lot of time trying to make my voice sound much cuter. Like, I don't sound like a cute R&B girl, man. In this album, I'm really singing my real tone, and I'm falling in love with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO LONG")

PONDER: (Singing) So long. So long, all my fears. I'm ready for the day.

KUSHNER: On this new album, "Some Of Us Are Brave," Ponder's songs have become more personal, more defiant, more emotionally complex, and the music industry has noticed. She's making the rounds of national TV talk shows. She's on a national tour, and she's played at nationally known venues such as the Kennedy Center and the Hollywood Bowl.

PONDER: Like, a lot of this that's happening, I didn't think this would happen after 40. I am shocked that there's a potential to be a household name.

KUSHNER: Even though Danielle Ponder is now working with Billie Eilish's manager, she does not believe she's going to be Billie Eilish famous anytime soon.

PONDER: I haven't had a moment where I'm like, I'll never have to go back to the public defender's office, I'll never have to go back to practicing law.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO LONG")

PONDER: (Singing) I know my time has finally come.

KUSHNER: What may be a loss for the legal profession is a win for music. Either way, justice is served. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kushner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO LONG")

PONDER: (Singing) If I lose some, so long - then I've lost them. What more can I say? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 17, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly stated that Danielle Ponder works with Billie Eilish's manager. Ponder is working with Eilish's booking agent.
Daniel Kushner