Indie-folk darling Allison Ponthier faces her own mortality and blooming into her identity on her latest EP, Shaking Hands with Elvis out now via Interscope Records.
Following the release of her debut 2021 EP, Faking My Own Death, Allison Ponthier has further peeled back the layers of her evolving musicianship and bestowed upon us her latest project, Shaking Hands with Elvis— a coming-of-age through-line grappling with grief, growing up, and gravestones of Hollywood’s icons. The songwriting on Shaking Hands with Elvis feels youthful in the details while confronting topics of death and fame with a sense of maturity and vulnerability. The indie-folk singer’s sophomore EP marks a new peak in her career after touring with the likes of Bleachers and Lord Huron, and scoring a conversation with Elton John on Apple Music’s Rocket Hour. Last month also ticked off a milestone of Ponthier’s career after performing her first ever headlining shows at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn and Hollywood Forever Cemetery (perfectly lining up with the EP track bearing the same name) in Los Angeles.
Trading her birthplace of rural Texas for a new beginning in Brooklyn, the now 25-year-old’s introduction to a community where she finally felt safe to come out and connect with other queer peers has undoubtedly impacted her growth both as a human being and as a songwriter. “Moving away from somewhere and starting new will not just fix all of your problems. You really do have to do the work to unlearn a lot of the things you picked up in a place that was maybe not safe for you, or you have bad memories and were a different person in”. Now having access to safe spaces, Ponthier acknowledges the significance of the internal work needing to be done after a transformative period in one’s life.
“I’ve really grown to love myself, especially recently,” the singer acknowledges, reflecting on her ADHD diagnosis. Catching a Feeling, off the new EP, chronicles pieces of Ponthier’s experiences as someone with ADHD, underlining phases of special interests that came and went— “Horse girl, emo stage / Zooey Deschanel / A theater kid putting on a show / All by herself”. Ponthier celebrates the various avenues of creativity her ADHD leads her down and considers her unique modes of self expression as a “superpower”. She accepts the place ADHD holds within her identity, recognizing that, without it, she would be a completely different person.
Overcoming major life changes in her early 20s, including suffering the loss of a close friend— the inspiration behind the EPs title track— Ponthier loosely tracks her progress as she comes into her own across the project. Shaking Hands with Elvis is an open book— Ponthier is unafraid of voicing her faults, asking herself questions, and reckoning with topics she previously didn’t know how to talk about. Across her project, the singer recognizes the power that lies within being honest with your feelings and voicing the parts of yourself you may leave in the dark, as these parts still serve to shape your sense of humanity. “A big part of your identity is acknowledging your faults and weaknesses. In my real life, I’ve noticed that saying your problems out loud can actually be more relieving and more empowering than being like ‘I’m so great, I’m incredible, I’m an amazing person.’”
Allison Ponthier stays true to the story on Shaking Hands with Elvis. Treating the EP as a series of diary entries, Ponthier carries her heart on her sleeve. “These are accurate depictions of my life, I’m not trying to write to impress certain groups of people.” She refuses to compromise on the authenticity of her experiences, avoiding brushing what’s less desirable under the rug or negotiating between hyperboles and exaggerations.
Looking at the project as a whole, there is an evident thread that runs through the overall narrative being told. Ponthier begins the story from the opening track, Autopilot, voicing a lack of control of her life and emotions. The pre-chorus highlights an absence of maturity, and perhaps a realization that changing as you get older is inevitable, as she sings” And I can’t grow up if I’m not ready to die.” The EP goes on to process the experiences that come with growing up and obtains a sense of acceptance—both of Ponthier’s circumstances and the emotions that come with them. The closing of the project, marked by the titular track, portrays a wiser individual that understands themselves and what they’ve been through. “‘Autopilot’ really does feel like the anger and resentment I had toward being different and screaming it out in a rebellious way; Shaking Hands with Elvis feels like I’ve been through so many things since my Autopilot days”. Ponthier is always swimming in a pool of emotions, but by the end of the EPs 20 minute run-time, we’re confident she’s learned how to tread water.
One of the standout tracks on the EP, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, explores the perception of Hollywood stars after they’ve passed on and what this means in terms of Ponthier’s own career. From the perspective of an artist, the track tries to find a line between icon status and objectification— the line between celebrity and person. Referencing famous names like Norma Jean and drawing inspiration from the treatment of women like Marilyn Monroe, Ponthier is captivated by the placement of the rich and famous on pedestals. Though her career is still fresh, the singer thinks frequently of the possibility of subjecting herself to a similar fate.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery is paired with a music video set in what could have been a graveyard dive bar in Halloweentown or Corpse Bride. Featuring a “poodle Elvis” character that leads her into the afterlife, the video depicts Ponthier as the newly deceased “Hat Girl,” whose passing has graced newspaper headlines in big bold print. What comes after death is an extravagant party populated by quirky characters who all turn their attention towards Ponthier, who has since done a magical costume change into a mermaid-like getup. It’s all incredibly campy, as this larger-than-life artistic representation is integral to Ponthier’s artistic expression.
Drawing inspiration from B-movies, off-broadway shows, and claymation such as Coraline, Ponthier approaches her music videos with a DIY style that highlights the handmade quality of the production. Her appreciation and dedication to the craft comes from the heart behind the making of each project. “I really want my songs to be like mini movies, where maybe it’s not your exact story, but because it’s not your exact story and you can relate to the feeling so well, it’s more about the emotion that it’s similar to than the situation”.
The EPs title track and closer, an interesting euphemism for death, is the result of Ponthier’s grief over her friend’s sudden passing and curiosity about what happens after you die. “The song, to me, really helped me process [loss] because I had never processed it before… Even if I didn’t put [the song] out, it would still be my favorite song I’ve ever made because it had a real-life purpose for me.” Without the guidance to process such a loss, Ponthier vocalized her initial hesitation towards writing about this experience. However, the song came together in just over a week after the singer decided that writing about her grief felt the most involved and authentic fragment of her life at the time. Nothing else seemed to fit quite right.
Shaking Hands with Elvis underlines various stages of grief wrapped into one collective experience. Ponthier opens the track proclaiming “I’m mad at the man in the sky / I’m not sure he exists,” allowing herself to feel anger and to place blame for what transpired onto a higher power out of her control. Between soft melodies, a plucking guitar, and soft twinkles of piano, she imagines an afterlife with rhinestone angels and an everlasting spring where her friend approaches Elvis at his big theme park in the sky. “Some things in life are too hard to understand / I’m just trying to cope the right way, well, the best way that I can”— perhaps there is something tangible between comforting images and bouts of indignation. There is, however, a level of acceptance that Ponthier reaches by the bridge, though not without a last crushing ache to the heart, “They say you’re in a better place / I know, I know, but damn / I miss my friend”.
Allison Ponthier’s sophomore EP is a true example of songwriter’s catharsis through documenting their lived experiences. As a storyteller, both musically and visually, Ponthier connects with her audience through vulnerable honesty, as someone unafraid to admit their own shortcomings because they wouldn’t be who they are today without them. “I really want people to take away from this EP that there is something interesting, fulfilling, and celebratory about talking about things you struggle with, or your weaknesses, or your own faults.” Audiences can resonate with Shaking Hands with Elvis’ search for empowerment in the darkest and most frustrating places within ourselves. Through her songwriting, Ponthier exhibits an emotional growth that teaches us to bring our imperfections to light, as they allow us to connect more with ourselves and others. In this way, there exists a thread that runs from hardship to healing.
By: Weronika Koleda