To compellingly explore the nuances of the human experience within the confines of the pop music format is a remarkably difficult task, but on their new full length, Velveteen, Toronto’s reigning power pop champions PONY manage the task with both finesse and panache.
While PONY’s genesis can be traced back to 2015, its current incarnation took shape in 2018 when songwriter Sam Bielanski paired with guitarist and collaborator Matty Morand during the writing process for their 2021 Take This To Heart Records debut, TV Baby. In the strange and unprecedented isolation that surrounded the two or so years around that record’s creation and release, Bielanski and Morand made the best of their downtime by challenging themselves to write a new song each week. The end result of that effort was over 200 songs and finely honed songwriting chops that are plainly evident in the pitch perfect pop hooks and timeless indie rock swagger that make up Velveteen’s 10 tracks. Influenced by countless hours of television, literature, and self-reflection, the record is also the band’s most vulnerable material to date, examining the complex relationships between longing, connection, and authenticity to oneself.
“I have learned that we become our most authentic selves when we allow ourselves to be open and deeply affected by someone else”, says Bielanski of the songwriting process. Coincidentally, that process was accompanied by a 9-month struggle with insomnia whose influence manifested itself in an unexpected and surprisingly direct fashion.
“I listened to an audio book of The Velveteen Rabbit every night until I fell asleep. I became obsessed with the story but I never listened all the way through. The way I eventually interpreted the story was that it's the love that we give and receive that makes us real or whole. The one chapter I found especially heart wrenching is when the velveteen rabbit is trying to hang with the real rabbits of the forest, and through comparison he realizes he isn’t as real as he thought he was. It was a good lesson for me even now because I'm constantly fighting the urge to compare myself to others. Your individual experiences make you who you are and nothing can change that. That's what I thought, until I finally listened to the entirety of the story and found out that at the end of the book, a fairy turns the velveteen rabbit into an actual rabbit, and then I got really confused.”
Through the unlikely combination of a misinterpreted children’s story, isolation, and a bad neighbor whose demands for quiet forced Bielanski to record many of the record’s demos into the headphone mic of their iPhone while locked in a closet (which happens to double as a vocal booth for their voice work as Jazz Hooves on the current generation of My Little Pony), Velveteen emerged. Though Bielanski doubles down on the importance of connection and collaboration when reflecting on the album’s creation.
“Once I was happy with the songs, Matty would add their contributions until we felt the songs were nearly done. It was amazing to see how much the songs would change every time a new person was added into the mix. It wasn’t until we recorded them with [recording engineer] Alex Gamble that the songs truly came to life for me. I guess Alex was the fairy who made Velveteen real.”
While those ideas comprise the record’s thematic crux, the scaffolding surrounding that core is a hyper catchy concoction of freewheeling 90s college rock, its more radio-friendly counterpart, and early 2000s alternative that manages to reference 30+ years of guitar music while never being at odds with itself. Where other bands might lack cohesion, PONY fuses the sheen of Third Eye Blind, the anthemic pomp of Weezer, and the unguarded vulnerability of Rilo Kiley into a formula that feels as effortless as it does fresh.
Misinterpretation though it may be, Bielanski’s vision of a stuffed rabbit’s quest for radical self-acceptance is the beating heart that gives Velveteen life. As effusive as they are reserved, triumphant as they are reflective, no comparison is required to determine that PONY is definitively real.
Velveteen is out now via Take This To Heart Records