22-year-old singer-songwriter Julia Nunes went from obscurity to 48 million views for her YouTube page in a few short years. She takes a hands-on approach to her career, creating her own videos, album art, T-shirts and more. Ben Folds is a fan; he took her out on tour after she posted one of her Ben Folds covers online. We asked Nunes, whose new album Settle Down drops February 28, about her road to success, her approach to songwriting and more.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
The first song I ever wrote was when I was in a ska band at age 13 and I don’t really count it because it was a group effort and about a Mexican restaurant. Once I was left to my own devices I think my songs improved at least a little. At 14 I wrote a song called “I’m sorry” where the rhyme scheme was A A A A… every single line rhymed with “ite” so, right, might, night, fight, light, etc. I wasn’t awesome, but it was better than “Mexican Restaurant.”
What’s a song on the new album your particularly proud of, and why?
“Stay Awake” is my anthem for all the people who stay up late for absolutely no reason, but during the hours of 1:00am and 5:00am everything they’re doing seems really important. If California Girls and American Idiots get anthems, voluntary insomniacs should too. So I’m especially proud to have written one.
What’s a lyric on the album you’re especially proud of?
“Nothing’s That Great”: “I thought I had grown, become more mature, but now I am sure that I’m as dumb as I ever was” is my favorite line, it’s not even that hard to narrow it down… is that bad? I just feel like we’re constantly looking back at our previous blunders trying to convince ourselves that we’re smarter now and would never make that mistake again, but most of the time history repeats itself, even if that history was a week ago.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I hate strings of words for sure. “Put your hands up” is one of them. If one more auto-tuned voice tells me to put my hands up and I’m not a hostage of a Ke$ha bank robbery, I’ll freak out. “Precarious” is a word I love. I’ve never used it in a song, but its time will come.
What’s your typical approach to songwriting? Do you revise a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Lot’s of times I’m just doing the dishes and by the third plate I’m lost in a melody and blurting out thoughts in rhythm. I usually write songs in one go, no revisions. One of the songs that is on the album, “Fair Weather,” was written while I was reading. I realized when I got to the end of the chapter that I had no idea what I’d just read, but I had a verse and chorus of a song to run and write down.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
Some times it’s really hard to get through “First Impressions” at shows because I can see the audience and there are people who are clearly feeling what I felt when I wrote it. I think it’s one of the best and worst things about writing from personal experience, you re-live those moments every time you play the song and you can see people re-living their own moments that made them relate to the song in the first place. It’s amazing to share that moment with people, but I’m not a huge fan of crying in front of people.
Who’s an underrated songwriter in your opinion?
All of my friends. I’m lucky enough to be friends with an amazing talent pool. My best friend Lauren O’Connell writes these beautiful, haunting songs, and I first witnessed Greg Holden’s songwriting prowess when we toured England together in 2009. I’m also quite fond of Jack and Nataly of Pomplamoose, Katie Costello, Chad Vaccarino and Ian Axel, all of whom deserve to make Rihanna’s salary.
What do you consider the perfect song (written by someone else)?
“God Only Knows” – Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
What advice do you have for those trying to get as many hits as you did via YouTube?
My best advice is to do something new, something you haven’t seen yet. I’ve never really claimed my title as creator of the multi -layered video, but I know I’d never seen one before I did it. Most importantly, make something that you think sounds awesome, or find hilarious or beautiful, because your taste is not so weird that no one likes what you like. There are people who are just like you out there. So if you’re in to it, people like you will be in to it too.
What advice do you have for having a successful KickStarter campaign?
I’ve donated to a couple KickStarter campaigns so I now know it from both sides. The biggest factor for me is specificity. I want to know exactly what I’m getting. Which is why I thought it was necessary to put some snippets of the songs in my video, just to make sure they knew I wasn’t making a punk record or anything. I also think KickStarter should be used less like a fundraiser and more like a bake sale. People shouldn’t feel like they’re “donating.” They should feel like they’re getting something of value in exchange for their hard earned cash… like a cookie.
What compelled you to post your Ben Folds cover online?
Ben Folds is one of my all time favorite musicians and songwriters. I just make videos of songs I can’t get out of my head. A better question would be why haven’t I covered all of Ben Fold’s songs?
How was the experience of meeting and touring with him?
I’ve forgotten the lyrics to one of my own songs twice ever in my life. Once on stage at a small coffee shop in front of like three people and it was gut wrenching. The other time was on stage opening for Ben… gut wrenching doesn’t even describe it. The truth is, those two instances were not very far a part. I went from playing open mics to opening for my absolute favorite artist in the world. To say I was unprepared would be an understatement. I was terrified every night.
About a year after we toured together and I’d come to consider him a mentor of sorts I was thrown on stage with him again at a show in my hometown and it was no less thrilling than the first time.