Monday, September 18, 2006

searching for water- a profile

Searching for Water
by Alexis Stember

Crystal Ponzio wears a simple black spaghetti strap dress and black cardigan while sitting barefoot on the couch of a small, shared East Village apartment in New York City. The first thing that strikes you when meeting her is her confidence and sincerity. She smiles and before a word is spoken, she has already given you the impression that you will be lifelong friends.

It is morning when we speak and she wears no makeup, but thanks to the naturally warm skin tone she inherited from her Mexican ancestors, she has a golden glow none-the-less. "I'm fourth generation American," she tells me, "but I have really strong connections to my Mexican background because of growing up in El Paso, right across the border." She says this without a hint of a Texan accent.

Her heritage and hometown seem to have been huge factors in shaping her character; she speaks of them with great appreciation that almost borders on guilt. "In El Paso, you can see Mexico from any highway. You look over the border and it's like stepping back fifty or sixty years and going into a third world country.... It's really humbling to look at something like that and see where you come from."

It is these qualities of humility and compassion that make her so disarmingly approachable and genuinely endearing. You know she's not pretending when she says it's nice to meet you; she is truly engaged in and moved by the encounter and needs no simple syrup of false exclamations to sweeten the experience. She connects.

I met Crystal four months ago, when she first arrived in New York with a suitcase, a guitar, and a head full of songs. We were joined by an unlikely party- the website Craigslist, an online community board where people can find anything from an eight-track machine to a date for the night. I had posted a room that was available for rent in my apartment and she responded.

There were a number of things I found immediately appealing about her: like me, she had a day-job in advertising, had musical aspirations, and was close to her family. What impressed me most, though, was the grounded optimism and educated fearlessness she exhibited. She had the grace of someone who knew herself and trusted life on an unspoken, visceral level. She seemed to me a wonderful walking paradox: at once fully ambitious and yet peaceably content with where she already was. This continues to be apparent in her attitude toward her musical career: "Before it was like, 'Oh my gosh, I want to be a rock star,'" she says, "Now I look at music as more of a marathon. I picture myself as a 70-year-old woman with silver hair singing folk songs. It's the bonus in my life."

Crystal started writing music four years ago, around the same time she first picked up a guitar and began to play. "I just felt inspired to try and equip myself with tools to write songs, perform, and sing. It's what gave me a lot of joy...." She moved to Los Angeles and began to "cut her teeth" musically, enduring her first few disastrous gigs. "You look back on those things and they're so valuable. It's just a good life lesson to just stumble through a few really bad experiences when you're faced with something that scares you."

From Los Angeles, she went to Chicago, where she met and started working with a producer who helped her with her first CD; four collected songs she had written. Her musical style on the album fuses elements of pop and country, a style she has started to leave behind in favor of a more folk rock sound, one that merges her cowboy heritage with the musical influences of Sheryl Crow and Neil Young. "I've been writing a lot about the desert and looking for water. It seems to be characterized by the fact that I was raised in a place where there was virtually no rain, where it's dry and everything looks dead. It's the song of the wayward wanderer because that's how I feel in my life."

The real core of her music is found not in her genre, her lyrics, or her musical arrangements, though, but in the lush expression of her vast vocal abilities. The whispered qualities of such resonant and darkly intoned lines as the opening of the song World on Fire belies the scorching power of her voice when she cries out in the full-bodied chorus that though the world is on fire, she is fine.

As a lyric, it's almost trite, yet coming out of her mouth it is wholeheartedly believable because for her, it is true. "I'm starting to strip things down musically and just focus on writing from my gut," she says, a statement that falls very much in line with another recent stripping down in her life, one inspired by a return to her religious roots. "It [her faith] actually came back to really slap me in the face. I wasn't just casually coming back to my faith. It was like purging and gutting everything I had worked up to in twenty-five years."

Growing up, Crystal and her two siblings rebelled against their Christian backgrounds the way most teenagers rebel against anything they recognize as familiar. "My parents were like, 'Look this is what we believe is the truth and we're praying for you every day and we want God to be center in your life.' There's nothing they could ever do to force us to feel that way, but it's something we all found our way back to."

The beauty is that Crystal seems to have managed to continue her families tradition, practicing her faith with the same unimposing grace demonstrated by her parents, a faith that leads by example rather than instruction. I didn't even learn that she was religious until we'd lived together for two weeks, and it came up only incidentally after I asked where she was going one Sunday, to which she responded, "Church."

Though we've talked about it before, I asked her for the sake of this story to tell me more about her faith, something I've always been intrigued by given my unfamiliarity with most religions or their respective practitioners. What I discovered was further evidence of something I always held to be true: that human beings have far more in common than we often acknowledge. "When you boil it all down," Crystal explains, "it's just love. That's what the Bible is. That's the only thing I can go to when I try to explain to people why I believe what I believe.... We should just love each other."

Crystal will be performing her first NYC show October 1st at The Bitter End @ 8pm. You can read more about her and download her music at:

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“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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