PONY Walk Us Through Their Upbeat, Probing New LP “Velveteen” Track by Track

Sam Bielanski and Matty Morand take us through the influences on their sophomore LP, ranging from The Sopranos and The Velveteen Rabbit to Third Eye Blind and RHCP.
Track by Track

PONY Walk Us Through Their Upbeat, Probing New LP Velveteen Track by Track

Sam Bielanski and Matty Morand take us through the influences on their sophomore LP, ranging from The Sopranos and The Velveteen Rabbit to Third Eye Blind and RHCP.

Words: Mike LeSuer

Photo: Matty Morand

May 19, 2023

There’s only a two-year gap between Toronto power-pop duo PONY’s debut and sophomore records, but the lead-up to the two years in question were as different as they could possibly be. A global pandemic didn’t particularly help with the insomnia and sense of isolation that helped inspire Sam Bielanski’s songwriting on the group’s 2021 debut TV Baby, though the downtime afforded by quarantine likely helped Bielanski and bandmate Matty Morand hone the sound they’d established on that record.

Yet while Velveteen does reach further into the rafters than its predecessors while maintaining a saccharine grunge sheen holding their spot in the same pop-punk class as peers like Charly Bliss, the album takes frequent unexpected left turns which, the band shares, were often explored due to unlikely media consumption across the years the record came together. Backstreet Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Spin Doctors, and Third Eye Blind all get mentions in the track-by-track breakdown they shared with us, while the album takes its name from The Velveteen Rabbit—the type of kids book you may encounter as an adult and be surprised at its continued (if not increased) resonance.

With the album out today via Take This to Heart Records, both Bielanski and Morand broke down each track on the record, which you can read as you stream along below. 

1. “Très Jolie”
Sam: “Très Jolie” is about falling hard and fast, and allowing your love-brain to trick you into believing that you’re in a healthier mental state than you truly are. Falling in love has this way of making us feel invincible, and I personally love to suffer in silence and really try to hide it when I’m struggling mentally. I don’t think I’m great at hiding it though. “Très Jolie” is about the conflicting emotions of falling in love with someone when you don’t quite love yourself yet. I was also listening to a lot of Third Eye Blind when I wrote this song.

Matty: This might have been the first song we really worked on together for Velveteen. We were still getting our footing and trying to figure out what this record was going to be. When we recorded TV Baby I went into the studio thinking I was the bass player, and then a day or two in, our guitar player quit and I ended up writing and recording lead parts in the studio. When it came time to make Velveteen I wanted to make sure I was able to really spend time with the songs and be meticulous. I pictured the song opening with everything on 10 and then when the first verse hits everything gets sucked up and it’s this very vulnerable moment like, “Do you ever picture us together!?”

2. “Peach”
Sam: “Peach” is a story about someone who finds themself in a relationship that starts off sweet and kind, but as time progresses the love becomes more and more conditional. Love turns into control in such small and incremental ways that you don’t realize you’re losing yourself until you’re almost completely gone. The first version of the song didn’t have vocals over the bridge, we added it months after initially recording. I feel like that moment in the song is such a pivotal part that almost didn’t even exist.

Matty: “Peach” is just one of my favorite songs, period. The guitar parts in this song are all about creating this beautiful, saccharine-sweet scene that fits the lyrics. Big sparkly tones, pretty chords with droning open strings, descending octave runs—just trying to hit the dopamine release button until it’s too much. The fact that this song existed without a bridge at one time seems so funny to me now. We’d been listening to the demo and were both thinking, “Does this need something else?” So we sat together in the kitchen with an unplugged guitar and put the bridge together and even then it was just this instrumental section. We recorded Sam’s vocals at home after we’d finished tracking in the studio and sent them over to be added to the track.

3. “Sick”
Sam: A lot of the songs were inspired by hours of TV consumption, but “Sick” was actually inspired by a book I read called A Bit Much by Sarah Jackson. I really related to the main character, Alice, who seemed so lost and tangled up in confusing relationships—the kind of relationships that often consume us when we’re younger versions of ourselves. This song was probably the most fun to record in the studio because we were able to keep components from my original demo, but we also added so many more elements and ideas. We were all pretty into the “Two Princes” snare sound, and I think it fits the vibe perfectly.

Matty: Sam and I both love the big, slick alt-rock from the late ’90s and early 2000s. There’s something about Third Eye Blind or whatever that just hits in a way that nothing else does. This song originally came with the drum break that you hear at the beginning, and we added real drums in the studio. We weren’t sure how that was going to go—it’s not always easy to incorporate samples with a real drummer, but Josh, who played on this record, found a place to fit in so seamlessly. It was fun making this song and bringing in all these little pop production elements to make each chorus feel bigger than the last. I love that stuff. My boss Liam at the record store where I work gave me the snare that we used on this track, so shout out to Liam. 

4. “Sucker Punch”
Sam: Initially this song was written about the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos. I didn’t write it with the intention of putting it on the record, but it was constantly getting stuck in my head, so I felt like it was telling me to include it. The first demo was written on my iPhone, and it sounded completely different, pretty unhinged and chaotic, and it didn’t have a single guitar on it. Once I was sure it was going to be on the record, Matty stepped in and really helped shape the aesthetic with all the beautiful guitar parts. I think my favorite part of this song is the “The Call”–inspired element at the beginning and end of the song. 

Matty: I think Sam writes such great vocal melodies and I’m always afraid to step on them, so I spend a lot of my time writing for PONY picking out the spots that I think can benefit from more guitar and leaving out anything I think isn’t completely necessary. I never want to do any more than the song needs. “Sucker Punch” had a little more room, and as a result I feel like this is the widest representation of my guitar influences. During different sections of the song I think I tried to channel J Mascis, The Cure, Johnny Marr, and a little Turnstile. We still haven’t finished watching The Sopranos, though.

5. “Haunted House”
Sam: This song was another iPhone demo that was always getting stuck in my head. I knew I wanted this song on the record the second I wrote it. I remember when I had my heart broken for the first time it felt like I was going to quite literally pass away. Every sad song on the radio made me cry, and I just knew I was the saddest girl in the world. I think comparing healing from a broken heart to being trapped inside a haunted house is honestly pretty relatable.

Matty: The original version of this song was straight up gothy synth pop. We had actually tried to collaborate on it about a year before, but the pandemic had me so rusty and I felt like there was nothing I could contribute that wasn’t taking away from the song. When it came back for the record I leaned into some heavier guitar and shoegaze influences which in the past I might not have thought were acceptable in the PONY universe, but we’re enlightened rockers now. I was relieved to have my redemption moment with this one.

6. “Who’s Calling?”
Sam: This song might be my favorite on the record. I was really struggling starting the process of writing a new record after we released TV Baby. I wasn’t feeling inspired by anything except this playlist Matty made with only upbeat Cure songs on it. In the depths of the pandemic, I was forcing myself to write at least one song every week; after I wrote this song Matty said to me, “I think you’ve found the PONY LP2 sound.”

Matty: This song was probably the highlight of making the record for me. By the time we were working on this song together, we’d worked out some of the kinks in our collaborative writing process and a lot of it just came together naturally. The lead in the pre-chorus was a last-second addition that came after learning some of Johnny Marr’s guitar parts from the live Smiths album, Rank. I’d played bass in a bunch of bands in the past out of necessity (including this one!) but never really felt like I learned to play like a bass player. With this record I wanted to put a lot of care into the bass parts and make sure they were serving the songs as best as they could, and I think the bass was so important in this song. Our bestie and former roomie Lilly [Mehari] came to the studio and sang the “Who’s calling?” parts in the second chorus and that makes me so happy every time I hear it.

7. “Did It Again”
Sam: This was the first song I wrote after we finished our first record. I was lukewarm about recording this song for this record because I felt it was too similar to some of the songs on TV Baby. In the time between writing this song and all the others, I felt like I really grew as a songwriter. But as we were working on it more and more, I fell in love with it. I think it's so easy to alienate yourself when you’re already feeling alone or lonely. That’s kind of the essence of “Did It Again”: disguising your depression as independence.

Matty: We made this record in two different studio sessions. This is another song from the first batch and we hadn’t quite worked out how we’d be collaborating yet. In the past a lot of it was done at band practice, but for this record it was really just Sam and I with our Logic Pro drummer plug-in boyfriends. I could lie and list cool indie-rocker influences, but if I’m being honest, I became Red Hot Chili Pepper pilled over the course of the last couple of years. The lead guitar on this song—particularly in verse two—is just me trying to write John Frusciante guitar parts. 

8. “French Class”
Sam: I wanted to capture the rush of desire that accompanies a new crush—that palpable sense of longing you might feel wanting someone you don’t believe you’re good enough for. This song definitely stands out on the record to me. It’s a little bit different than the others vibe-wise, and it’s far more true to my original demo; a little more subtle and a little dancier.  I wrote the songs on this record differently than the last one because we were stuck at home all together and I didn’t want to annoy anyone. So I would often make full instrumental songs on my phone and then add vocals last, which is pretty much the opposite of how I wrote the songs on TV Baby.

Matty: Even though this song is pretty different from the rest of the record, I knew it had to be on the record the first time Sam let me hear it. We spent the last couple years really holed up writing music and learning to produce. Prior to this record I don’t think either of us really thought about that stuff outside of the band-in-a-room method of putting a song together, so it was really fun to make something different like this. Most of what’s here is straight from Sam’s demo. The bass and lead guitar were written in the studio, and I had the privilege of having my voice on the record (I do the “ahs” in the chorus).

9. “Sunny Rose”
Sam: This was an early demo I made during the pandemic. The song is largely about trying your best when you’re feeling your worst, and hoping that no one notices that you’re struggling. I think sonically the song kind of conveys this feeling too, because it becomes more and more unhinged as it progresses. I know personally I’m pretty bad at hiding when I'm struggling, even though I think I’m fantastic at fooling everyone.

Matty: This song had a few big ups and downs, and for a while we thought it might not make the cut. It’s kind of a different feel from most of our songs. It swings and has these big dynamic shifts that took us outside of our comfort zone a little bit. The verses I’d imagined as something from Angel Olsen’s My Woman record, and then in the chorus I was playing the big chunky chords with some pretty straightforward rock music leads, which we decided sounded a little bit too buff when we were in the studio. For the lead part we came up with some layers that made it feel a little cuter and more like something from the PONYverse. The last remaining bits of my big rocker leads can still be heard over the “sunny rose” part at the end of the song.

10. “Haircut”
Sam: The first line of this song was inspired by the child I used to nanny, and how at such a young age she exhibited such a huge sense of self. It was truly inspiring to me as an adult who’s still, to this day, so fucking confused. But the song goes on to express the feeling of being let down by growing up. This was another song I was not sold on until we worked on it in the studio. I think this song had no idea what it wanted to be until Matty, Alex, and I were all in the room together putting her together. 

Matty: This is one of the older songs on the record and it ended up being the last one that came together. Sam had made a draft of this song shortly after we finished the first LP that might have just been one verse and the chorus, and it was always stuck in my head. By the time we were working on the new demo for this one we were pretty lost in the sauce, and it wasn’t clear where this song should go. My original idea for the vibe kind of came from an alternate take of that Beatles song “And Your Bird Can Sing” that was on that recent Revolver reissue. I was struck by how simple the strumming pattern was, and I wanted to do something kind of like that. I know it doesn’t sound anything like that song, but that was the first step. 

When we got into the studio we continued putting it off as long as possible, but by the time we’d played through it a bunch of times to record the drums and bass for it and started figuring out guitar tones, it started coming together. Sam’s guitar tone reference for the verses was “Celebrity Skin” by Hole, and our engineer Alex suggested we try his Rat pedal and do a huge blown-out guitar in the chorus—which was not what I’d envisioned, but it clicked instantly. On one of the last days it felt like something was missing, so I suggested we try bringing back this synth line from Sam’s original GarageBand demo, which Sam played on a Farfisa organ and that sealed the deal. I also snuck some “Can’t Stop” by RHCP–style guitar sounds in at the end.