Pony Boy, the moniker of singer-songwriter Marchelle Bradanini, may not yet be a household name. But her music has already been in many households. Most notably, her languid stomper “Happy Ever After” popped up on Gotham and Mr Robot, while her swoony slow-dancer “Trouble” got sizeable airplay on Nashville and countless other shows lending intrigue to her beguiling songs.
The resounding approval of these tracks was a surprise, if only because her mission was far more modest. “I just want to like my own music,” says Bradanini, who released her debut full-length, Blue Gold, on the boutique imprint, Cosmic Thug Records, which Bradanini co-founded alongside Nashville producers, Adam Landry and Justin Collins. “It’s a simple thing to say, but the hardest thing to do.”
She speaks from experience. Before forming Pony Boy—named after a character in The Outsiders to capture that “classic American feel”—Bradanini had an eclectic past of starts and stops from singing Puccini to Punk Rock to Pop and even a stint working in Politics, publishing, and studying poetry before returning to her first love of music.
Those setbacks actually inspired the persistent depth of themes and sounds that permeate Pony Boy, starting from the outlaw spirit of her breakout EP, The Devil in Me, to the refined cinematics of Blue Gold.
The latter opens, perhaps tellingly, with the epic “When Tomorrow Comes,” which cautions of failing to fulfill one’s potential. “For better luck how I could taste it,” she sings. “To live a life that is not wasted.” A reverb-laden soundscape dripping with twang, it sets the tone for what’s to come: a darkly romantic exploration of angst that Wanda Jackson would’ve made back in ’61—the year Bradanini’s guitar was made—had she presaged punk rock.
Blue Gold inhabits a dream state between art rock and alt-country, swaying between hope and lament, her velvety voice punctuated with sharp edges. To Bradanini, delivery is as important as lyrics. “Words matter,” she says, simply.
The breadth of her musical references is dizzying: Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, PJ Harvey, Cass McCombs, Hank Williams, Daniel Johnston, the funk singer Betty Davis…. “Before, I’d mostly heard classical music, top 40, hip-hop, some Bakersfield country growing up. But in college I was exposed to so much music that push the boundaries from a gut wrenching vocal like Billie Holiday or Karen Dalton to a crazy groove in a Weather Report song or a kick out your teeth Stooges or Bad Brains tune and my mind was just blown right open” Bradanini says. “I felt like the possibilities of music were so much deeper and exciting .” By the time she got into Le Tigre, she was determined to start her own project. “I remember their website listed all their gear and urged, ‘Now you go start a band!’ It was this sense of freedom: You don’t have to wait for someone to give you permission.”
Still, great humanistic soul belies her feminist punk ethos. “I love the intimacy of singer-songwriter records, dimensions to your voice, people who don’t exist in a scene,” she says. The fact that Bradanini and her English writer/director husband lived between Nashville and the UK during the formation of Blue Gold, in turn, lends a sprawling feel to her tracks.
“The record is looking at California when it’s in the rear-view mirror,” says Bradanini, who identifies most strongly with the warm music community in Nashville. “Sometimes you gain perspective on a place when you leave it.” This sense of flight manifests itself most profoundly in “Marquee Man,” a sultry satire about an actor with an ego that is so inflated; he’s a legend in his own mind.
You can hear that spaciousness in the American Gothic of “Magnolia,” an homage to the late, troubled Magnolia Electric Co. frontman Jason Molina. “It’s about how the most brightly burning people can also be the most destructive,” she says. “The video is going to take place at a high-stakes dart match in London, featuring multiple separate sets of identical twins.”
Bradanini, who studied film in college, considers videos the final step of actualizing her creations. “As soon as I write I song, I picture, thematically, what’s happening,” she says. “An outside collaboration is exciting, because I’m a fan of so many visual artists.”
And she didn’t hold back when it came to asking artist peers to bring Blue Gold to life. The David Lynch-esque video for “Magnolia” is being shot by Nick Ogden. Photographers Joaquin Trujillo andBrian Paumier (who have works in SF MOMA and The Metropolitan Museum of Art respectively) were recruited to bring “When Tomorrow Never Comes” to surrealist life, shooting on location in Trujillo's hometown just outside Zacatecas, Mexico. And actor-filmmaker Travis Nicholson crafted the clip for the ambling, guitar-kissed “Metal Dreams co-starring comedian, Chris Crofton, in downtown L.A.—where “Paradise is a distant road / Stretches out through the great unknown”— to capture a Raymond Chandler noir vibe.
Although Blue Gold is Pony Boy’s first album, every bit of it reverberates with the maturity that comes with experience, an almost necessary series of failures and successes. “Oh, I have tons of recorded music that I didn’t release that are in song purgatory, because I knew, ‘they weren’t quite there yet,’” Bradanini explains. “This process of discovery took a while. And yeah, I have often felt like an Outsider.”