Singer-songwriter Jennifer Dauphinais, who records as Ponybird, writes songs — slow, minor-key waltzes, atmospheric dirges, soulful full-band workouts — that are subversively punk-rock in spirit and mostly acoustic in texture. She sings in a resonant, deep voice, not unlike Natalie Merchant, and writes lyrics that suggest contemplative (and probably dark) nights of soul-searching.
"I try to live with grace but I've just got to be honest," she sings on "Tender Trap," "You and me have done wrong." Elsewhere, as on "Let Something Fall Apart," her themes are more universal, while managing to avoid preachiness or the cool distance that sometimes accompanies abstraction:
This heart is a room where the sounds come without warning
And they stay until they shape me, until I see them eye to eye
You never know yourself so well as when you're forsaken
You'll be standing on the tracks somewhere and they'll be waving you goodbye
When we spoke, Dauphinais — a multi-instrumentalist and a veteran of the New Haven punk scene — name-checked Ani Difranco as an influence. She talked extensively about singer-songwriter Dar Williams, who was her teacher during a weeklong retreat last summer.
"With Dar, I disciplined myself to do a daily songwriting practice and not be so compartmentalized," Dauphinais said, "and also not to worry what I was writing about."
"Modest Quarters," Ponybird's latest collection of songs, will be the focus of a CD release party, which takes place on Thursday, Aug. 21, at the Outer Space in Hamden. The album was recorded at Eric Lichter's Dirt Floor Studios in Chester. Joining Dauphinais at the show are some of the musicians who appear on the album: Violent Mae's Becky Kessler, singer-songwriter (and co-producer) James Maple and members of M.T. Bearington.
It's been awhile. Five years ago, Dauphinais released "Full Cold Moon," a lo-fi collection she recorded using the microphone on her laptop. (It was later mastered by Scott Amore at Innerspace Sound Labs.) "The idea was that it would be DIY and that I would invite different players," she said.
The muse soon disappeared. Dauphinais, a full-time teacher (she'll attend Teacher's College at Columbia University in the fall), experienced writer's block. "It takes a lot of time to do the [teaching] job," she said. "There were plenty of times when I sat down and said, 'What is there to write about?'"
Last summer, Williams hosted "Writing a Song That Matters," a retreat at the Garrison Institute in Putnam County, New York. Dauphinais signed up. "There were 30 students," she said. "Dar was humble and giving, especially to emergent songwriters. Everything lined up and I was there." Williams helped her to learn the practical side of the craft: writing something — anything — every day, how to take an idea "for a walk," to not give up on it, to entertain anything that comes into her head.
When the session ended, Dauphinais hung around for an additional week, writing six new songs that ended up on "Modest Quarters." The album's name, in fact, comes from a photograph Dauphinais took when she first arrived at Garrison. "I stayed in an old monk's quarters. From the practice, I learned about stepping back and becoming an observer." Song ideas, she said, are like balls of yarn behind a wall. "You can't see them, except for a piece of the string. You have to pull it, and you don't know how long it is."
These days, Dauphinais writes songs three or four times a week — scratching out new ideas and revisiting old ones — and she's nearly ready to start recording again.
Williams, she said, made her aware of her own processes.
"Now that I have a sense [of it], I'm able to access it more often," Dauphinais said. "I want to know what's out there waiting. I'll be sleeping and I'll hear a melody, and I'll wake up and jot it down. When I'm sleeping or cognizant, when it happens, I can hear all the instruments and voices. It's crystal clear." There's no anxiety if the idea goes away before she can capture it. "Perhaps it will return, or perhaps something more interesting will appear… I think of it as play. My mind is playing. Dar called it 'priming the pump.' Keep it working."
PONYBIRD performs at the Outer Space in Hamden on Thursday, Aug. 21, with Violent Mae, James Maple and M.T. Bearington. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. Information: theouterspace.net.