Pony Hunt Explores Endless Variables in a Fluid Universe with VAR! LP

California-born, Chicago-raised Jessie Antonick, a.k.a. Pony Hunt, recorded her newest album VAR! in New Orleans, but inspiration came from light years away. Its title is a reference to the scribbled note of astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1923, upon realizing that what he’d previously identified as nebulae in the Milky Way were, in fact, something else. He’d identified a variable from another galaxy, which would lead him to discover the Andromeda galaxy, expanding our knowledge of the universe.

There is a sense when listening to Pony Hunt of being immersed in a universe of Antonick’s own construction. The many layers of instrumentation, and the intermingling melodies and atmosphere demand attention. In this way, VAR! is meditative and healing, especially when inhabiting an imagined time and place provide respite from our pandemic-affected lives.

“I hope that my music transports people into a feeling or a space,” Antonick confirms. “When I’m writing songs, I feel all-consumed by what I’m doing. The goal is to create space or an environment that wraps around a listener.”

On first single “Stardust,” there’s layers of ‘60s psychedelia and harmonic doo-wop vocals, the raw, steely sound of surfy guitars, and the contained fury of drums that want to become savage but remain firmly leashed. Atop it all, Antonick’s gorgeous, soulful voice teeters on the edge of being haunting in its romantic perfection. Her formative influences in Chicago punk, pop music of the ‘90s (Nine Inch Nails, Wilco) and ‘60s R&B, soul and rock reveal themselves in the layers of sound, and the tools used during recording.  

“We used a lot of vintage equipment,” she explains. “The AMPEX 351 [Reel To Reel Tape Recorder] is from the 1950s, I think, and we used a handful of vintage microphones as well in different places on the album. We used ‘60s tube amps for the electric guitar, and there was an older organ in the studio from the ‘60s and ‘70s that we used pretty consistently as well. We also used a Rhodes, for a vibey, dreamy sound. I really love the sound of that electric piano; it’s unique, different, beautiful. I had one song with violin and cello, also.” The violin and cello show up on “Who Are You,” recorded with a friend from New Orleans – strings player and vocalist free feral.  It’s a lovely, doomed love story cushioned in a waltzing melody. 

VAR! was recorded in home studios, with a number of engineers, Antonick says. “I recorded with a couple of my bandmates, Sam Doores and Duff Thompson. They had a little studio set up in the Holy Cross neighborhood of New Orleans, so we did a lot of recording on their AMPEX 351 reel-to-reel, then I took those base recordings and added to them. I had friends in Colorado do some overdub, I recorded some in my apartment, and we pieced it together over a couple of years.”

Since releasing her debut Heart Creak in 2016, VAR! has been in varying stages of creation. In the intervening period between albums, Antonick moved from her houseboat home in Oakland, California to Louisiana, New Orleans. “When I lived in Oakland, mostly I lived on a sailboat in a marina because a friend offered me a place to stay, which happened to be his houseboat. It was a run-down marina that was also a really fantastic artists’ community, so I was surrounded by musicians and artists of all kinds and the water, of course, that was beautiful. I was working as a sail-maker, so I was sailing a lot and working in the trades, a unique trade. I think all of that conspires to inspire my music,” Antonick says, and that’s certainly true of the fluidity, movement and tidal rhythms on Heart Creak; water, the tides and physical connection to nature underlie the themes of the album. The constant movement of living on the water and the sense of being carried in any direction, at any time, are central to Pony Hunt’s nature.

On VAR!, Antonick explores a different kind of fluidity. “Gender is definitely always coursing through my investigation in life,” she says. “I grew up classified as a tomboy. In pictures of myself as a teenager, I look like a 16-year-old boy. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where I wasn’t pushed into a gender role; I only felt that in societal and cultural systems. Those questions have gotten more complicated as I’ve gotten older and experienced the world a lot more. Society really wants to push me into being a woman, being female, having sex with a male, all these things women are supposed to have. I’m gender-fluid, or gender-queer, but it’s something where I don’t feel satisfied when I say those things. I haven’t figured that quite out yet.”

Now 36, she says, “I feel like those things weren’t on the table when I was growing up. Later in life after being called ‘she/her’ all this time, I get to be called what I want? I’ve never had that before. I sexually identify as queer, but I remember, when the only things on the table were being a lesbian or bisexual, I cringed. When ‘queer’ landed on the table, I went, ‘I am totally that!’ It gives me breathing room to be what I want to be at any moment.”

Whatever else she may be, she is undisputedly channeling the formative sounds she grew up with. Chicago’s DIY punk scene awoke in her a sense of freedom to challenge ideas of womanhood, work, and identity. “When I was a teenager, I had older siblings who were really into the punk scene in Chicago, so that’s the music I was introduced to and loved being part of. It’s loud, abrasive, energetic and just so good… that was the first music that lit me up,” she remembers.

The undeniable element of roots and country in her music was the result of a very different Chicago band. “I remember listening to Wilco – the local Chicago band that everyone loved when I was growing up, and they were my gateway to more Americana-style music. My influences on VAR! are very much 1960s rock, R&B and soul influenced. The Velvet Underground are huge for me; they’re vibey in all the right ways. Irma Thomas – when I hear her sing, she’s just the Queen of New Orleans soul for a reason.”

Steeped in the culture of a historically musical, artistic city – one that is rich with stories, blood and tears – yet addressing very modern concepts of fluid gender identity speaks to the juxtaposition between vintage and new that Pony Hunt embodies. It’s fitting that the album was the first to be released on Antonick’s new imprint, Wing And Wing, on July 23.

“I’m a co-owner; it’s myself and a woman named Lindsey Baker who runs Wolfie Vibes [PR]. Lindsey is also a wonderful musician [and plays in] Guts Club. We met through the New Orleans music scene, playing some shows together,” Antonick says. “We wanted to shine a light on queer-owned, female business, overlooked musicians. There’s a lot of really amazing queer musicians out there.”

Follow Pony Hunt on Instagram for ongoing updates.

New Orleans Piano Paragon Laura Fisher Premieres Solo Dreampop Single “Fiction”

Photo Credit: Daniela Dawson

Laura Fisher was planning a trip to Europe when everything fell apart. As a touring musician (and someone who travels for work generally) Fisher had been monitoring the oncoming pandemic since the beginning of 2020, and though it happened a bit earlier for her than for most other Americans, a panic set in that prompted her to check a few things off her creative bucket list before it was too late.

First, she compiled a bunch of her early work, spanning approximately 2008 to 2018 and recorded across New Jersey, Philly, New York, and her current hometown, New Orleans, and released them via Bandcamp as a retrospective entitled Tracing Our Veins in Spherical Time. Then, she set her sights on recording an album of short piano works inspired her rigorous neoclassical training with celebrated childhood mentor Meral Guneyman. The studio where close friend and collaborator Adam Keil worked was closing, and the beloved piano that many of the songs were written on was going back to its owner, so in the fall of last year, Keil and Fisher recorded most of what would become APOPHENIA (referring to humans’ tendency to see patterns and meaning in random information); it was released (also via Bandcamp) in February 2021.

Somewhere along the way, Fisher found time to revisit two songs she’d written some twelve years ago, and let Keil (also her bandmate in New Orleans math rock outfit Matron) give them the production she’d often imagined would bring them to life, though neither had collaborated in this way before. “He’s somebody who’s definitely influenced my taste in music – we’re just super close friends. For the last few years it’s really sort of shifted my listening habits, among other things, to more electronic pop and dreampop and a very particular sound that I’ve always loved, but it’s sort of taken over my scope,” Fisher explains. “For the most part he just kind of rolled with it. I was there for all the steps but I really just wanted somebody else to take the lead on it and I feel like the sounds of bands that we really love, like Broadcast and Warpaint and Blonde Redhead, just sort of naturally infused into these tracks in particular.” The songs will be released on 7″ via New Orleans imprint Strange Daisy Records on September 10th, with the a-side, “Fiction,” premiering today via Audiofemme. The physical 7″ will come in a variety of randomized colors; it’s the first time Fisher has ever had her music pressed to vinyl.

Those who have followed Fisher’s previous work – like Matron, or her now-dissolved grunge quartet Tranche – might be surprised by Fisher’s new approach to singing. “I’m historically more of a belter, and leaning into the power of singing,” she admits, “but I’m more interested now in a softer and dreamier approach.” That style lends itself well to the lyrical themes of “Fiction,” in which Fisher sings, “Stick around for long enough/Maybe I’ll become someone you want to love.” Imagining herself as a variety of inanimate objects, she flickers in and out of focus, all in the service of somehow making herself more desirable for a romantic partner who doesn’t seem quite as interested. Fisher calls it a “classic pining-for-somebody song,” and even her delicate vocal delivery can’t conceal her frustration that the feelings aren’t mutual.

“I don’t actually ever want to change who I am so that I can be something somebody would want, but I think we all go through that ‘What if?’ in our heads,” Fisher says (and she’s spot-on). The song is built around exploring a fantasy created in her mind, asking, “How do I make this thing that I want so badly real, and if I can’t, can it be real in a song?” Of course, when the song was written in her early twenties, she wasn’t as ambivalent about making her desires a reality.

“I’m still a very emotional person, but emotionally, I was very dramatic [then],” she remembers. “I feel things really intensely, so it’s easier for me to channel those things by turning them into visuals… just imagining all of the ways that you can sort of read through your emotional experience as a story or poem. It helps to create these places so that there’s somewhere where you can feel safe feeling them.”

Revisiting the song written so long ago, at the height of a now-fizzled infatuation, was “funny at first,” she says, adding that she did eventually get together with the person the song was written about, and though the relationship was “brutal,” they’re now friends again. “It’s been plenty of time so it didn’t really ignite any sort of emotional turmoil again or anything,” Fisher says. “It’s amazing how we can feel so intensely that we write a song about it or write in our journals about it or talk to our friends about it and then like a decade later just not feel that at all.”

“I think it’s part of human nature to want things so badly,” she adds. “So often it’s just in our heads. You know, I’m older now and I look back and I’ve sort of come around to the idea that sometimes the fantasy is enough. We can avoid not-great situations by not letting it play out and letting it live in a song.”

Keil’s sparse but urgent production gives the track a beguiling mix of sensuality and sadness, like all the best trip-hop songs of the mid-90s, from Massive Attack to Portishead to Radiohead’s more electronic-leaning cuts. Fans of Fisher’s new style will be pleased to learn that she’s working with Keil on a new solo EP in a similar vein, with a “local super group” that includes members of People Museum and Julie Odell as her backing band, built around a synth pop sound with drums. She’s hoping to re-record some of her own parts to reflect her new singing style. And Matron devotees needn’t worry, either; Fisher is halfway through recording the band’s debut (also slated for release via Strange Daisy) in a collaborative writing process put on pause during the pandemic.

“More recently is the first time I’ve kind of come full circle around to that, even though a lot of the solo stuff I’m doing is collaborative to some degree. It’s been an amazing experience just meeting people who I connect with in some way; we have different tastes but they overlap in some places,” Fisher says of working with Matron. “I feel like it’s just pushed me to be a better writer. I’ve gotten clearer on what I want, how writing as a process functions, and it’s just become more natural over time. And it’s retained its fun in that way – [songwriting is] this playground that sort of never really runs out of allure.”

Follow Laura Fisher on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.