A flash of insight, and established composer and pianist Clara Ponty decided to take the plunge. She decided to sing songs.
“When I was in school, I was so focused on becoming a virtuoso classical pianist, the next Vladimir Horowitz, even though I always sang in choirs and loved to sing,” Ponty recalls. “Then, one day, I had an inspiring flash. I really wanted to sing words. I felt for the first time, deep down, that singing was a natural part of my musical evolution and compositions.”
Ponty’s glowing voice transforms her signature piano style on Into the Light (Harmonia Mundi; U.S. release: April 10, 2012), a bright tribute to happiness and the authenticity it demands. On hummable tracks—“Like a Dandelion” and “Sunshine” stand out—Ponty brings a gentle energy to upbeat, jazzinflected pieces. Her voice floats over sunny brass, lively bass, and a distinctively nimble, smart touch on the keys.
Supplementing her complex compositions with catchy melodies and honest lyrics reminiscent of Carole King, Ponty’s work is buoyed by the musical might of top artists from five countries and many genres: pop, jazz, classical, Celtic, West African, and folk. Collaborators include the outspoken, jovial Nigel Kennedy; jazz violin pioneer Jean-Luc Ponty; global experimenter/cellist Vincent Segal; and deep-hearted poet Mike McGurk.
“For me, the real strength in life is to live one’s authentic path and to dare to go into the unknown,” says Ponty. “I’ve learned that it’s this ongoing inner work that leads to happiness, and that gave birth to the music on Into the Light.”
Ponty had used her voice as an instrument on past recordings, but something kept urging her to sing songs, to use words. It promised to add a different dimension to her wide-ranging instrumental pieces, compositions that draw on composers as varied as Debussy and Steve Reich, on classical technique, jazz sensibilities, and even delicate hints of Latin rhythms (as in the gorgeous “Coeur à Coeur” featuring her father Jean-Luc Ponty’s deft violin).
“I was intrigued by the possibilities. The voice can hold a note far longer than the piano can, and you can give a more personal expression to it,” Ponty explains. “This step was very natural and channeled more of my femininity and sensuality.”
Yet taking that step proved daunting. Then, as Ponty began crafting the demos for Into the Light, she sang on a handful of tracks. She sent them off to Stuart Bruce, veteran engineer/producer who has worked with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Kate Bush. Bruce liked what he heard, and he wouldn’t let Ponty off the hook. “I wanted to dip my toe in, just sing a few songs,” smiles Ponty, “but Stuart said, ‘No, you’re going to sing on all these tracks.’ I was so anxious about it that I actually broke out in a rash.”
Ponty soon discovered, with Bruce’s able guidance, that she could sing her heart out. Used to composing solo, she found herself collaborating with songwriters and wordsmiths like poet and cult jazz lyricists Mike McGurk, “Mike has a pure quality to his work,” Ponty notes. “He has the exceptional combination of philosophical depth and a childlike joy that really stands out.”
Ponty created a new kind of piece centered on the vocal line, setting aside her usual, highly contrapuntal approach in favor of spare, eloquent melodies. “A piano melody and vocal melody aren’t the same,” Ponty reflects. “I had to strip down the melodies in general. I admire great melodies that are pure and simple, as that kind of melody is extremely hard to compose.”
To enrich Ponty’s evolving songs, she and Bruce invited a delightfully international mix of performers to join Ponty in the studio. Ponty flew to Poland to catch Kennedy, who dove into the project with true joie-de-vivre, bringing both classical gravitas and Celtic spark to songs like “The Path” and “Taking Turns.” She reconnected with French cellist Segal, who turned out to be an old college buddy from Ponty’s conservatory days in Los Angeles and who brings his rich tone to the globally-inflected ballad, “Spinning Wheels” and “The Phoenix.” Ponty’s father once again contributed to the album, thoughtfully tuning into the songs and adding his rich, lyrical sound.
"I found my way to break out of the instrumental medium, which is a long and proud family tradition handed down from my father and grandparents,” Ponty notes. “This expanded my mode of musical expression and gave me the joy of finding my own voice."