Allison Ponthier knows the hardest part of making anything is getting started. When she was young, she “always wanted to write songs,” fanatically scribbling rhymes in a diary, but gave it up — the prevailing narratives of natural talent, artistic genius, and spontaneous inspiration put the brakes on her songwriting aspirations. She didn’t pick it up again until she turned 19: “It just took me that long to build the confidence.”
Now, after a short stint in jazz school, a scholarly approach to YouTube song tutorials, and consistent writing practice, the 26-year-old Ponthier has crafted a songwriting method that reliably turns the mundane into the profound. Her 2021 EP Faking My Own Death shows the hand of a seasoned artist, with lyrics that mine her personal life for unexpected twists and turns. (“It took New York to make me a cowboy,” says the Texas-born, New York–based singer on “Cowboy.”) It helps that she has the backing of songwriting heavyweights such as recent collaborators Lord Huron, Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, and Ethan Gruska (whose productions with Phoebe Bridgers soundtracked the pandemic).
To provide a closer look at her process, Ponthier gave us a tour of her songwriting notebook — but not before noting that “no one looks at this, by the way.” The details it contained on the making of her single “Autopilot” is a master class for anyone looking to break through creative barriers.
Step One: Take a walk
“The process for this song was very similar to all my songs: I go on a walk. I come up with like a million different song concepts. All I want to do is take the things that feel most obvious or interesting to me and get them on a piece of paper before I forget. ”
Step Two: Write ideas down, whether good or bad
“On the right side of my journal I have all of the names of songs that I would like to write, and I have their little blurb next to them. Like, recently I’ve just really wanted to make a song about not being able to drive. ‘Autopilot’ was not called ‘Autopilot.’ When I wrote it down, this pitch was called ‘Can’t Drive,’ which is a way worse title.”
Step Three: Free-associate
“In this phase, where I’m just writing things down, nothing is off-limits. It’s whatever is sticking in my head that stands out to me. For ‘Autopilot,’ I wrote down an old beater car; Christine, the Stephen King movie; covered in sweat; shaking awake from a night terror; car alarms. There are also a bunch of rhymes, like ‘pristine-16-Christine.’ Literally, this stage is just like a word vomit.”
Step Four: Pitch your songs to yourself
“Then when it’s time to actually write the song and sit down, I Shark Tank–style pitch these songs to myself or to whoever’s in the room. It always kind of comes down to what I want to write that day because that’s what’s going to be the best song.”
Step Five: Find the narrative
“Next up, I write the story of the song. One of the best things I learned was from a YouTube video that I watched by Lake Street Dive. They write down the story of the song. You’ll never be unhappy with the outcome because you said exactly what you wanted to say the whole time. The concept for ‘Autopilot’ was that I have a huge phobia of driving. I’m terrified to get behind the wheel and it always causes big problems between me and my family, because they’re like, Get a license and go do something, kid.”
Step Six: Translate the story into lyrics
“After I really get the concept of the song down, then it’s kind of a free-for-all. I think I made an offhand joke, I just wish everything was autopilot — I wish my fears were handled for me by modern science and technology. When I said autopilot, I knew that that was such a beautiful word to describe not only the feeling of not wanting to drive, but the kind of state of arrested development you get when you’re afraid to do something. Driving cars is very mundane for a lot of people. They do it every day, but for me it’s my big fear. It’s something I think about all the time. It’s something I used to measure myself up against other people and I feel like I fall short.
So in the first verse, I literally had just watched Christine, by Stephen King, the night before. ‘Shaking awake from my nightly fever / I shouldn’t have watched Christine alone.’ It’s a movie about a car that comes to life and kills people, which is the perfect personification of my fear of driving. And then it goes into my personal fear of driving, when I was 16. There was an old broken-down car that my dad and stepmom wanted me to drive in and it scared me ’cause I was like, This car is going to fall apart and I’m going to be in it: ‘If my stepmom got me in that old beater / Then I would have stayed 16 years old.’
Then after that, I was like, Well, what’s another really funny thing that contributes to my reason for not being able to drive? Part of that is I’ve been in driver’s ed three times. I’m on my third permit. So the next verse has to be about me being afraid to stay in a room with 16-year-olds and look like I’m terrified the whole time: ‘I’m old enough to be their teacher / So why am I worried to make mistakes?’
The chorus needed to be about the concept of the song, which is I hate driving. I don’t feel like I can do it. And the only way I’ll ever drive is if everything is automated: ‘Unless I wake up in 2100 / On autopilot / I can’t stay between the lines.’ And then there’s a breaking point: a heavy electric guitar screaming at the end that sounds like someone who is frustrated, who doesn’t feel understood. And it’s saying, Yeah, this is my weakness, but this is also who I am. And people need to accept that if they accept me.”