Nataly Dawn of indie pop duo and YouTube phenomenon Pomplamoose releases her solo album How I Knew Her this week on Nonesuch Records. We talked to the California-based singer-songwriter about conquering the Internet with covers, hating obvious rhymes and more.
What’s been the most popular Pomplamoose cover? Why do you think that is?
We were not among the first to cover “Single Ladies,” but Beyoncé’s video was popular for a long time. It was our first popular (non-jazz) cover and it came out around the same time as the dancing baby video and Kanye making a fool of himself at the VMA awards. So yeah. That was our “right place at the right time” video. Our fan base quintupled in three months.
Have you heard from the artists you’ve covered?
We did a collaboration with one of the writers of “September,” Allee Willis. She contacted us out of the blue and asked if we wanted to try writing together, so we went down to LA and made a song in her home studio. Another person we got to work with was Ben Folds, who I’ll be going on tour with this month! He got in touch with us to collaborate on a song, which ended up on his record “Lonely Avenue”. He’s one of the artists I am most happy to have befriended thanks to Pomplamoose . . . him and Brad Mehldau. They’re both creative geniuses and just all around great people.
How would you describe your solo album?
There are many different genres present on the album — from folk to country to jazz to alternative — so it’s hard for me to say what it sounds like. But I can tell you how it was recorded, because in my opinion that’s really what gives the album a sense of continuity despite the various genres. The bulk of the album was recorded at Prairie Sun Studios: an old converted hen house with wood walls and concrete floors, and full of timeless instruments. We recorded live takes of every song to tape, so in all the songs you can feel that there are people playing together in a room. Another thing that ties the album together are the lyrics. The songs were written mostly on guitar over the course of two years — two pretty difficult years — so they reflect a lot of what was going on in my life at the time. That said, very few of the songs are actually sung from my perspective. Mostly, I found myself observing a lot of the women in my life (thus the album title) — close friends, family etc. — and trying to express their stories, which helped me in turn figure out what I was going through.
How were you able to raise over $100,00 for How I Knew Her?
Why, thanks to my incredible fans, of course! I was fortunate enough to have a very thoughtful fan-base who wanted to see what I could make. I asked them to fund my album in exchange for various things (items of clothing, paintings, posters with hand-written lyrics, covering the song of their choice, etc.) hoping to reach $20k by the end of my 50-day project. I continued to release simple music videos pointing people to my Kickstarter page and eventually was featured in the Kickstarter newsletter. By the end of those 50 days I had raised over 100k, which is way more than I anticipated, but in the end I was lucky to have gone so far over. Every penny of that money, as well as all my savings and whatever else I could get my hands on went straight into funding the album. I think that’s the case for a lot of ambitious Kickstarter projects. People tend to put their life savings behind whatever they’re doing, because when are they ever going to get a chance like this again?
Who are your songwriting heroes?
I like that question so much more than “who are your greatest influences?” I never know how to answer that honestly. But my heroes – now that I can do. Tied at the top of the list are Elliott Smith and Paul McCartney. Followed by Conor Oberst. I’m also a big fan of Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell. But the people who have influenced my songwriting the most on a day-to-day basis are Jack Conte and Lauren O’Connell, who I’m fortunate enough to share a home with.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
The first song I remember writing was when I was eleven, and no, it was not good. But I remember from a young age always having trouble practicing the piano (or later on guitar), because as soon as I started playing someone else’s work, I had an idea for a song. That’s still the case today, but the more you push yourself to really listen to other people’s work, the better your own songs get. But just for the record, I don’t think I wrote an actually good song till I was 21.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
It was in French, and it was terrible. Something about a rose wilting and that being symbolic of lost love. It was bad. We’d just gotten a keyboard, and I was eleven, taking classical and jazz piano lessons. In my spare time (instead of practicing), I wrote this song for my friends and I to sing during recess. At my school, people sang a lot in between classes. Kind of like Glee, except that nobody sounded good.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
I often write melodies or bass lines that don’t turn into anything. So probably about 40% of ideas get attempted, and out of that percentage 80% get finished. You do the math.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
It’s hard for me to pick out just one song, but I’m really proud of how the title track turned out. It was one of the songs I was most attached to lyrically, and I love Jack’s string orchestration. We worked for a while on making it really crescendo up to the cacophonous, booming bridge, and then it drops all the way back down to just guitar and vocals. It’s just so poignant. So yeah . . . Jack completely surpassed my expectations on his arrangement of “How I Knew Her”.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
The lyrics that took me the longest to write were for “I Just Wanted You to Get Old,” a song about a close family member’s illness and the feeling that I never really appreciated that person enough. I spent hours just sitting in front of my computer writing nothing at all. Because the person it was about hasn’t passed away, but there was a time when it seemed like it was just a matter of time. It’s a short song, but I’m glad I spent those hours figuring out exactly what I wanted to say.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
For me, the hardest part is usually the lyrics, because I’m faced with the decision of how honest I want to be – how much I’m comfortable revealing or concealing. So even if the idea for the song comes quicker now than it used to, the execution and the details take longer to work out. For better or worse, I’m more careful than I used to be.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I hate the word “sometimes.” No one should be aloud to start songs with that word. On a more nit-picky level, I also cringe at really obvious rhymes in songs. Like rhyming “never” with “forever”, or “love” with “above.” I like there to be some mystery to where the song is going. That’s one of the reasons I love Conor Oberst’s lyrics so much. You think you know where he’s going, but then he drops some crazy half-rhyme and you’re completely thrown off. It’s great.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is . . .
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I wrote a song called “Dying to Live” a couple years ago about a close relative’s battle against cancer, and I’ve been told by several people that it meant a lot to them.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Not really. I’m terrible at keeping journals and any fictional pieces I’ve started haven’t gotten passed the 5-page marker. I have a huge admiration for people who actually have the perseverance to write novels and keep journals. I shall forever be a slave of sporadic, short-form content.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
John Lennon. Jack has often compared my song-writing process to that of Paul McCartney (I think because we both play the bass and write intertwining melodies), so I’d like to test out his theory. My theory is that I’m no Paul McCartney, but what if I’m wrong??? WHAT IF I COULD HAVE BEEN THE BEATLES????
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
My roommate, Lauren O’Connell. People need to know about her.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
“God Only Knows,” by the Beach Boys. It’s just perfect in every way. A completely unpredictable melody and series of chord changes that feel so right despite the fact that they’re so foreign. It’s both light and profound at the same time. The production is playful and dreamy, and the choir of overlapping melodies at the end. . . I could just put that on repeat and listen to it till I forgot everything I knew.