Exclusive Q and A: Pony Boy Talks Poetry, Pop, and Production

Pony Boy, the brainchild of Marchelle Bradanini, is a self-described “junkyard country” group that sounds like a dusty old Ford rumbling down a deserted road. Having already put in time as a member of the eclectic Bedtime for Toys, Bradanini channeled her rediscovered love of classic country, blues, and Americana into her latest project. We caught up with her to chat about her poetic past, her distaste for manicured pop, and what really separates her from R. Kelly.

OS: You’ve been involved in some eclectic musical projects in the past such as Bedtime for Toys or you DJing project Pony vs. Tiger. What got you interested in the aesthetic of your current band?

MB: I started out just as a girl with a guitar influenced by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Then, I ended up starting a band with some friends and that was about playing music that a group of people came up with collectively at a different point in my life. When that band broke up, I was trying to figure out what I was doing next. Oftentimes you get asked to DJ after playing a show, and I had a pretty decent vinyl collection. While I was working out exactly what the solo project would be, I started getting asked to DJ all over the place. The nice thing was that those gigs were for people who wanted rock ‘n’ roll or classic country, and it was a great opportunity to go back and rediscover all of these old, great artists that I love: John Prine, The Allman Brothers, and even Ram Jam [laughs]. There’s the electronic DJ scene, but then there are also people who want to hear actual songs that were initially released on vinyl. Getting into that scene was really great because I got to work on playlists all day.

At that same time, I realized that these were all such great records: Ray Charles, old country music, and even early Ike and Tina Turner, which aren’t so rigid in genre. They’re all influenced by the broad umbrella of “Americana” sounds, whether that’s blues, soul, country, or rock. It makes you wonder, “Why do I have to be just one genre?” As a songwriter, it was important for me to find songs that worked just on an acoustic guitar, and that I was lucky enough to pair up with John Would who helped me produce the record and was kind of my sonic brother in arms. I could say, “Let’s get some distorted accordion, or melodica, or theramin!” He would even help get these crazy found sounds that we both loved.  We also both love Tom Waits and early blues, and weird things like the sound of a two-by-four hitting a fire hydrant. It was a process of trying to get these sounds that weren’t just digital samples or very obvious modern instruments. We used a guitarrón, which is a Mexican mariachi guitar that sounds like an upright bass. We tried to find these great old sounds and trying not to be hindered by any parameters.

OS: You’ve also assembled a pretty diverse group of people to play your music; your bandmates have worked with artists from Lauryn Hill, to Crystal Antlers, and Fools Gold. How did you all get together on this project?

MB: It’s funny how you can do a solo project and put a million things on the record and then realize, “Oh, shit. I need a band to play this.” That’s the great thing about living in a big city like Los Angeles. You can just put the word out about your album and find people. Initially, when I was referred to Garrett, it was for vocals, but he also plays other instruments. Especially now more than ever, you see musicians who are just into music more than necessarily a specific sound. It’s fun to play in groups that aren’t all the same, just to reflect your different abilities as a musician. Brandon [Owens] is the little brother of Ikey Owens, who plays in The Mars Volta and with Jack White. They’re all great musicians who are capable of playing pretty much anything you throw at them. That’s been a lot of fun. I’m still figuring out certain things. Obviously I can’t have a 40“piece band onstage. It’s all about figuring out what the best context is for our instrumentation live. It’s fun to go through that transition of saying, “This is how it sounds on the record. How do we capture the spirit live and not be tied down to the exact instrumentation?” The record is sparse, but there are still a lot of crazy, large, analog instruments on there, which are sometimes difficult to haul out for just one song.

OS: It’s hard to pigeonhole what you’re doing into one genre or style, though people have called it doom-wop, or junkyard country. How did you think you were going to describe your music when you started writing it?

MB: Yeah, and sometimes you wonder if that’s a bad thing. I’ve felt strange at times because I don’t see 12 exact versions of what we’re doing that instantly make sense for us to tour with or play shows with. You do have to take that moment to figure out what the through line is that exists between genres. I had never even heard those terms until somebody told me, “What you’re doing is kind of like doom-wop!” Other people can listen to your music and give you that perspective back, which I think, when you make music, is hard to be self-aware of. I think that with all of these sub-genres emerging, which seems just like the natural progression of music right now, it’s kind of like going back to the ’50s when you had many niche type of genres, which were subsections of larger umbrellas. I totally embrace the doom-wop label.  If it’s a new genre, then I’m happy to be part of it.

OS: Speaking of going back to the ’50s, John Would, who helped you record the upcoming album, also worked with Wanda Jackson, the legendary rockabilly artist.

MB: Yeah, and he was also the touring guitarist with Warren Zevon and just recorded the new Fiona Apple record. Amy [Aileen], who’s actually his daughter, is now the drummer for Fiona Apple live as well. Great drummer; great person. Because they’ve been with such a great range of people, they brought sensibilities to the project from rockabilly to singer-songwriters. Also, they helped in capturing honest performances. Most of the recordings we did were just one take live with scratch vocals. We were like, “OK, we’ll just lay down a vocal and then we’ll get a real performance later.” But, there is just something there when you’re not thinking about performance. I would listen back and those takes would be the ones I would connect with the most, even if there were bruises or imperfections. For me, it’s more about how I can make something that seems like an honest performance, and something that is organic and real as opposed to being a perfect, pop product.

OS: Springsteen has a song called Pony Boy and his album Nebraska is also based on the same Starkweather-Fugate murder spree that you talk about in The Murder Ballad of Carrie Lee. Do I sense a Bruce fan here?

MB: [laughs] Yeah, and I feel like people take being a Bruce fan several different ways. There’s the arena Bruce fan, and then there are the Nebraska purists. But, I think that as a fan of American songwriters in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan, you can’t help but listen to Nebraska and hear the bold artistic statement. There are so many great tracks and it’s so stripped-down. That whole record was supposed to be done with the E Street Band, but obviously the songs didn’t translate to the really big band setting. Also, obviously, “Born In The U.S.A.” is often taken out of context. It’s a song that’s supposed to offer cultural criticism, but is often used in the exact opposite way! The great irony are people who dismiss Springsteen too easily and don’t really give him credit for what he’s done. There’s so much meat there, and so many great songs. When you say you’re a fan, you get the “Oh, OK” response, but honestly I just don’t have time for the indie police.

OS: You have a Masters from USC in Poetry and Screenwriting. Does that inform your songwriting process at all?

MB: Well, I was into music when I was younger, which was when a lot of pop stuff was being made. I just thought that if that was how I had to make it in the music industry, then I’d rather just go to college and be normal and do music for fun. I don’t want to be in a girl group and sing about lollipops written by weird older men [laughs]. When I went to school, I was adamant about not doing anything creative. I studied political science. I went to D.C, and I worked in Congress. I was going to go to law school, and then I took a Pro Tools recording class and started playing guitar again for fun. There, I met my best friends who became my collaborators for a long time and turned out to be people that I played in bands with and had a great connection with. That helped me rediscover my love of music. It wasn’t about the marketing, and it wasn’t about getting a major label deal as a tween pop star. We started playing in a band and we got an offer to play a couple of shows in the U.K.

At that point, I had gotten into law school, and I had also gotten into graduate school. And so to basically to hide the fact from my parents that I was playing in a band, I decided to go to graduate school. It was like, “Look! I’m normal! I’m doing responsible things!” But the great thing was that, going to a great film school like USC, I got to learn about so many great films and read all of these great poets there: Patti SmithBaudelaireBukowskiFerlinghetti, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. People that say so much with so few words. There’s something that’s very similar between writing poetry and writing lyrics; in both, you have such a small space to say so much. I’ve always loved imagists, who are like the opposite of R. Kelly, who doesn’t really have any metaphor [laughs]. There are all these great Dylan songs like “Highway 61” where you get images thrown at you and you need to have your own experience and understand it for yourself. I like that, as opposed to knowing exactly what the song is about and being told exactly how to feel. I think that reading a lot of poets helps inform that sensibility. There’s this idea called objective correlative, which is why you think about sadness when I say the word “blue.” It’s about images that have these correlating emotions. Tom Waits is so great with that. It’s like, “What the hell is a Filipino Box Spring Hog?” You smell the song; you feel it.

OS: You’re at a really exciting place right now, having just released the album’s first single and looking towards the full release. What are your plans for the future?

MB: It’s been a great response so far. Right now, we’re just planning more playing out live and more touring. There are also a few more things to do for the record, which is just a matter of hunkering down and working them out. We’re trying to find our people and connect to others who like what we’re doing and who we like as well. We want to expand and find different places for our music to go. It’s about letting the music find a life of its own.

Check out the video for Pony Boy’s single “Not In This Town” below.

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