Led by singer-songwriter Sam Bielanski, Toronto power-pop outfit PONY started putting out singles back in 2017, but it wasn’t until last Friday that they came through with their debut full-length, TV Baby, via Take This To Heart Records. Though they’ve changed members over the years (the band’s line up now includes Matty Morand aka Pretty Matty and drummer Lucas Horne), their core ethos has remained more or less the same: sharp, 90s-inspired songwriting that serves as a cheeky yet honest document of generational malaise and the general awkwardness of growing up. Described as an album “dedicated to the indoor cats, the introverts, and those who value their independence above anything else,” TV Baby is packed with driving hooks, catchy melodies, and more than few relatable lines, including “I’ll just stay home alone and keep rearranging the furniture in my room till everything is perfect/ To distract me from the things that make me feel so worthless” and “My Christmas card, every year, it reads, ‘We’ll always have a couch for you to sleep on.’” Though PONY aren’t shy about wearing their influences on their sleeves, Bielanski powers through each song with enough confidence and personality to make it feel like more than just a sweet dose of nostalgia.
We caught up with PONY’s Sam Bielanski for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her songwriting journey, the tumultuous process of making TV Baby, and more.
How would you describe yourself growing up? Did you have a strong connection to music?
Yeah, I definitely listened to a lot of music growing up, but I was actually way more of a theater kid. I did a lot of musicals growing up, so I guess, in a sense, I was musical, but I didn’t start writing my own songs until I was probably in my late teens, early 20s. That’s when I started to realize I actually prefer being the one in control of writing the song and not just singing a song that someone else has written.
Do you remember when that shift started to happen?
I actually went to college for musical theater and my plan was to be doing that as a career. And after I graduated, I did a few shows and had a few jobs and realized that it was just not – I feel like when you’re trying to be an actor, you’re kind of relying on other people to be creating material for you to perform, and you can only do so much on your own. So I guess I just had this realization that I would just write my own songs and kind of be the one in control.
What were some of your influences during those early stages? Was it mostly pop-punk, or did that come later on?
At first, I think I was trying to do more of a singer-songwriter thing. And that just never really felt right. So I ended up getting an electric guitar and I was listening to, like, a lot of Best Coast and a lot of this band called Bleach, and I was really into a kind of surfier rock sound. And all of the songs that I was listening to were about young women or young non-men kind of discovering themselves or going through breakups and just kind of growing up.
This is obviously your first album, but you have some singles dating back to 2017 and you’ve been playing live shows for a while. How did the project initially start and what has the band’s journey been like over the past few years?
It’s kind of been an up-and-down journey. The band started with me and three other people, and then those three people left the band, mostly just because they, like, wanted to get married and not tour. And after they left it kind of became clear to me that I had to be the frontperson of this band and basically just try and look for people who would want to play the songs with me. And so, for a while it’s been rotating members, but lately, this past project was me writing the songs, and my partner Pretty Matty and our drummer Lucas kind of filled in the blanks. The songs on this record are all mine; they’re my songs, my ideas, my vision, and then the other members just helped bring that vision to life. Where, prior to this release, the band was trying to be a bit more collaborative, but it just never felt right and it never worked.
Was it challenging to kind of step in and have a bit more control over the process?
It was so hard. It was so, so hard and I think that’s why it’s taken us so long to get this record out, because in the past I’ve been working with people who would take things really personally when I’d say, “No, I don’t really love that idea.” I’m also kind of a people pleaser, or at least I have been in the past, so it was very hard for me to tell someone like, “I would love it if you played something more like this.” But with this record, we were in the studio with a producer, and the producer was basically just kind of undermining me and talking to me a bit like I didn’t know what I was doing, and then they ended up just, like, ghosting us halfway through the process. And so, that was actually a blessing, because then I was like, “Oh, I have this opportunity now to make this record exactly how I want to make it and I’m just going to do that and not make any exceptions for anyone else.” And it was really hard for me to do that because I’m so used to being more accommodating, but I’m really, really proud of the record. When I listen to it, I’m like, “This is exactly what I wanted it to sound like.”
I’m really sorry to hear about that experience with the producer, that’s terrible! How was the process of then picking things up and finishing the record from that point on?
So, we pretty much fully recorded the record, and then after we were done in the studio, our producer ghosted us, and we were just kind of left with these weird unfinished songs. And the person who was producing the record, he wanted to play on the record also, so there was a bunch of blank spaces missing and it was a very confusing time because I was like, “Are you going to play on the record or what’s going on?” And then they completely vanished, and we basically sat on the record for maybe six months because we were waiting, it was this weird waiting game. And then we just decided, I was like, “We have to go back into the studio.” So we went back into the studio with a different engineer, his name is Josh Korody, and the first day we were in the studio, he was like, “Oh, you guys really want this to sound like Hole, Celebrity Skin.” And I was like, “Yeah.” And he was like, “Okay, cool. Got it.” And anytime I had an idea he was like, “Cool, perfect, let’s make it happen.” There was no nonsense, there was no, like, “Are you sure, Sam?” “You don’t really know what you’re doing here,” “Trust me, I’m the producer,” like, none of that stuff. He really empowered me, and also my partner Pretty Matty, he really empowered me to be the boss and make those decisions. I don’t know that I would have been able to find the confidence in myself if I wasn’t working with people who were like, “Yeah, you’re good, just trust yourself.”
That’s so important, and certainly I think part of why the songs feel so confident and empowering.
It’s true, it’s funny because the record is really about, like, being fed up with being this person that you don’t feel like you are, and it wasn’t even until during the process of recording that I was like, “Yeah, you should take your own advice.”
You mentioned that you sat with the record for about six months before got back into the studio – I’m curious how your perception or your feelings about the changed over time.
When we first finished in the studio, when we were playing this waiting game, I didn’t want to listen to the songs, because they sounded like they were unmixed, they were missing instruments, so much was missing. And so they just sounded very weak to me. We were on tour in the summer and we were like, “Oh, let’s put the record on in the van and see what it sounds like” because we hadn’t listened to it in so long. And we put it on, and I had to leave the van – I was like, “I need to get out, this is not right.” Listening to the songs made me really emotional in a bad way because I was like, “They don’t feel strong, they don’t feel like the person singing the songs is sure of themselves.” I don’t know if it’s just because we had such a traumatizing experience in the studio with our producer or if it was just because they didn’t sound finished, but they really sounded weak and not confident.
So it was more just the production or the way they were recorded, but you still felt confident about the songs themselves?
Yeah, I definitely did, but I was a little unconvinced. I was like, “Are these just bad songs?” And I felt really conflicted about them because they sounded so strange; I had this vision in my head of how I wanted the songs to sound and they just sounded so far from that.
Obviously, this was quite a while ago, but I came across a quote from one of your first singles where you described the band as “the band that would play on a high school roof at the end of the 90s teen movie.” Do you still aspire to have that kind of vibe?
That’s definitely still where I feel our aesthetic lies, like, ’90s romcom, the band that would play a prom, you know, a fun band that is singing about just how growing up is really way harder than I thought it was going to be.
You mentioned music about growing up, and how that was a big part of finding your own voice, but it sounds like coming-of-age movies also played a role as well.
Yeah, absolutely. Josie and the Pussycats is my number one favorite movie. When I saw that movie – I saw it in theaters on the day that it came out, and I was like, “Oh my God, I am Josie. I’m going to be Josie when I grow up, if it’s the last thing that I do.” And so I begged my parents to put me in guitar lessons, which didn’t end up working out well for me, but I still was like, “I’m going to be a rock star.” And I loved 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, Princess Diaries, like all of the movies where there’s a dramatic makeover scene, those were my jam growing up. And all of those movies have such amazing soundtracks as well.
Seeing those films or listening to music that kind of revolves around growing up, is that something that still resonates with you?
Totally, I feel like I’m always going to be growing up. I know that’s obvious because we’re all aging, but it just seems like as time passes on, I’m still just always learning things about myself every day. I just feel like the movies in the 90s really captured growing up in such a fun way.
Yeah, and when I think about that, I often wonder if it’s like, the fact that we’re always growing up, or if some part of us still feels stuck in that teenage age, in a way.
Yeah, I think I definitely would describe myself – I don’t know if this is like gonna make me look like a weirdo, but I definitely would describe myself as, like, a forever teen. Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids and I don’t want to have a conventional sort of life, I guess, but there’s just something about having that energy still that is very freeing. I definitely don’t look back on my teens and am like, “Oh, I wish I was still a teen,” you know, because I was not smart back then. But I do still feel some sort of attachment to the culture and the nostalgia of my teens.
Do you mind delving into more of that nostalgia?
The way I see it is that it’s like you have an old T-shirt that’s really soft and you’re just constantly reaching back for that T-shirt, even though you have a nicer clothes in your closet, but there’s just something about this T-shirt that when you put it on, it makes you feel safe. And I think it’s like, when you can look back on your childhood or look back on your teen years, you can be in control of the memories that you choose to look back on and you can remember like, “I used to dress like this and look absolutely ridiculous” or “I used to watch this movie all the time” or “I would listen to this record over and over and over again,” and it’s like you are way more in control because you are kind of curating your memories and curating the nostalgia. Whereas when you’re actually a teen and living through it, you have absolutely no control and you are just kind of the worst version of yourself possible – or at least I was.
No, I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling. And I don’t know if you agree, but a lot of the themes of the record do feel very generational, in a way, or are relatable to the millennial generation.
Yeah, I totally do. I feel like we millennials have a lot of self-worth issues, you know, because our parents grew up – I don’t know if this is actually true or not, but like, things seemed to be so much easier, when I think about my parents when they were my age, they like, owned a home and they had all their shit together. Whereas I don’t really know anyone in my friend group who is like that. It seems like we’re all just still trying to figure it out, we’re still growing up. And I really think that TV Baby is the soundtrack to that journey.
The song ‘Couch’ in particular comes to mind. Could talk a bit about the inspiration for that song?
That song is basically just talking about the experience that I’ve had of like, trying my whole life to pursue an artistic career and my family is just always worried about me. I remember my grandma one time being like, “So, do you really think you’re gonna be famous?” And I was like, “Well, no, grandma, but I have to at least try.” Or my mom was like – I mean, I lived in Toronto for 10 years, I paid my rent on time, I paid my bills, you know, I was like, a functioning member of society – but my mom would always be like, “I don’t understand your bohemian lifestyle.” I was like, “What do you mean, lady? I go to work just like you every day.” But just like, feeling so misunderstood by your family because you’ve just chosen a different way of life, I guess, is what ‘Couch’ is about. And also, my parents have said multiple times, “You know, you can always come and live with us!”
The idea of self-worth and being worthy enough for others is actually something I wanted to touch on, because it is something that comes up a lot on the album. To the extent that you feel comfortable talking about it, how do you reflect on those ideas now?
A lot of the songs on the record are kind of about me breaking up with friends who were not necessarily the most positive to be around. Especially when you maybe are more of a people pleaser or you want to avoid conflict, sometimes I think you can find yourself hanging around with people who kind of want what’s worse for you or they want to see you struggle or like – misery loves company, basically, is what I’m trying to say. And so a lot of the songs were written about me realizing like, “I don’t want to be that company, I don’t want to be the person that you want me to be just because you’re unhappy.” And I feel like, especially after this whole year with coronavirus and spending so much time alone, I feel so happy with the people who I’ve chosen to keep in my life. And I feel so confident still knowing that I made the right choice and choosing myself over the other people who definitely didn’t want what was best for me.
I’m glad to hear that, that’s so important. You mentioned lockdown as well, and I wanted to ask you, how does it feel to be releasing this album during this time, especially since a lot of is about wanting to stay home alone not wanting to do anything?
It’s always interesting to talk to people about like the past year of my life, because before the pandemic I was working two jobs, I was in two bands, we were practicing all the time, we were touring all the time. And so I truly didn’t even really have time for a social life. And then the pandemic hit and I lost both my jobs and the bands that I was in, we couldn’t practice, we couldn’t tour. And I also was not able to have a social life, like truly, the only thing that’s really changed for me from before times to now is that I can like have a bit more time to actually do things that I want to do creatively.
What are some things that you’re working on?
Since the pandemic, I’ve been doing a podcast every week called 2 Much TV where my partner and I each write a song about a different episode of TV. At first I was like, “Oh no, what did we get ourselves into, that’s a lot of work,” but it’s been really good to keep myself accountable as a songwriter, because I know that I can fall off really quickly if I don’t have a deadline. So it’s been a really cool way to continue to write songs that may or may not be, like, forever songs, but just a cool way to keep writing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.