"I Think It's a Whole Lot More Fun"
An Interview with Julia Nunes About YouTube Comments, Her New Album, and Remaking the Record Industry
I've interviewed musicians and authors and politicians many times before, and I know how the process goes: You send an e-mail to a publicity person and arrange a time with them for a phone interview with the "talent." Maybe it's because she mostly records her songs from her own bedroom, or that she sings directly into the camera, but when it came time to interview Julia Nunes, I was surprised when my e-mail to JuNu Music, which I addressed directly to Nunes, was returned by a publicity person. In retrospect, my surprise sounds ridiculous—she's a touring musician with three albums, of course she has a manager—but at the time, it almost felt disappointing. So luckily, when it came time to talk with Nunes, she was airsick and the conversation was awkward, which was exactly what I'd hoped it to be. She may not just be a kid messing around in her bedroom anymore, but there's still no showbiz polish there.
You've always said in comments and in your videos that you don't have a music career; you've talked about it like it's a hobby. Is it still a hobby?
I guess I've been reluctant to let go of Plan A, which is to graduate college, get some sort of fancy job, and pay my parents back for school. But I definitely wouldn't mind making music Plan A, and I think I'm going to give it a try for a little while. I definitely... take it much more seriously during the summers, because in between school and all of my other commitments it's hard to do it during the school year. But last summer I did Bonnaroo and a tour through London and a couple other random shows, as well as recording an EP. I put the pedal to the metal during the summer, and I think I'll take it much more seriously in the coming months.
But you're going to stay in school?
You're definitely internet famous. Do you think that being internet famous is like being regular famous?
I think it's different. I mean, I obviously don't know what it's like to be regular famous, but I've been a fan of people who are regular famous and, like, I went to a show and the band was going to stay after and sell CDs and I was all pumped to meet them. But then you meet them and you have nothing to say and you're all nervous. But then these kids who come up to me, we have these inside jokes, and the kids know what I'm up to, what I'm like, the jokes I think are funny, and we can converse like regular people. I think it's a whole lot more fun.
I have to admit I was kind of surprised when I sent an e-mail to your website and got a response from a manager. For some reason, I was expecting to hear directly from you. And I've done interviews before, I know that going through support staff is just standard procedure, but the way you present yourself online convinced me that you were doing everything yourself. Do you think people treat you differently because you record music in your bedroom? You've worked with Ben Folds—do your fans treat you differently than his fans, do you think?
Well, I think it's a whole different way that people approach music. I don't think record sales happen because kids have to buy those records to get the music. They could easily download my music from wherever. But they see my videos, they know what kind of person I am, and I think they like me; that's why they buy my stuff from me and make it so I can continue doing it. I think [the music industry is] gonna turn into that.
And you have a third album coming out in January, is that right?
And this is the first one you've worked with the kids from Pomplamoose?
How was that? Did it change making an album from a solitary thing to more of a collaboration?
Well, they're all my songs still. That was kind of confusing for people—[fans] didn't know if I was writing songs with [Pomplamoose], and that isn't the case. I wrote all the songs, and then Jack and Nataly from Pomplamoose wanted to help me record it, mostly to just flesh out the songs. Because I think mostly what I do with my YouTube videos is that I take really orchestrated songs and I strip them down to a small rhythm track, ukulele, guitar, and you know, a couple of voices, so my brain doesn't really work in terms of instrumentation, and that's how Jack's brain works, completely. So he helped me be like, "Oh, an organ should go here," and I was like, "Whaaaaat? An organ? No!" And then he'd play it and I'd be like, "Yeah! That sounds amazing." Just the things that he thought to do were really surprising. He took one of the songs and added the chimes from my porch for the chorus, and they just happened to be in the same key... just things that I never would have thought to do. And he has all of the equipment, so we would be working in the studio for a couple of hours and then Jack would take it all home and polish it, just hanging out in my sister's bedroom, where he and Nataly stayed. I really liked how Jack and Nataly were able to produce their own music with, you know, a whole bunch of different instruments, but it didn't sound like the stuff on the radio. It didn't sound overproduced.
Do you have any models in the way you approach your career? Because you do seem to be sort of winging it.
You know, in a charming way, not in a messy way. But do you look to anybody to sort of figure out where you're going?
I think there's a crew of musicians who are doing the same thing; we're all just trying to see what we can do on our own. I made a bunch of friends, and we're all kind of leaning on each other to figure out new ways to do it on our own. Like Pomplamoose. And I did a tour in London with Greg Holden and he's doing the same thing, and Lucas Carpenter, Lauren O'Connell, we're all just kind of trying to see what happens. And I think we give each other ideas and help each other out. We're kind of forming our own models.
Has anybody sold out yet?
Not so far as I can tell. I think selling out is a weird term, because we're all just doing what we love. And so long as we keep doing that, I think that's respectable.
One of the things that appeals to me is that your songs are literary, and I was wondering about what you read.
I think my favorite book in recent years was Water for Elephants, but I really like John Green books, and he's actually like an internet guy, he writes books and does videos with his brother and he's written Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns. I'm not that big of a reader, though. I read a lot for school and not a lot for pleasure.
The songs that you cover seem to be different than the songs that you write. The songs that you cover tend to be more sort of emotionally based, whereas the songs that you write have sort of more concrete elements. They may not necessarily be from your life, but they seem to be, they could be from your life. Do you cover the songs that you want to write?
I wish I could dissect songs and then use them to my benefit. But really, I have no power over how my songs turn out, they just kind of... happen. I know I've talked to Jack a lot, and he knows music theory and he likes to play with form a lot. He's been going through the Beatles catalog and analyzing the forms of the Beatle songs, whether they went verse, chorus, or started with some sort of lead-up that they never used again. And he's like, "Yeah, you should really play with that, see what you can do with it." And I was like, "Oh, man, I wish." I wish that I had power over what comes out. It's always a toss-up. Which is why some of the songs are girly little ballads and some are screaming rock songs. Either way, I do them on acoustic guitar and ukulele.
Do you just cover the songs that you like? Do you think you'd be good at them? What sort of process do you go through in choosing your covers?
I think it's more songs that I like to play. Because there's definitely a ton of songs that I like but aren't that fun to play, you know. And then there are songs that are super-fun to play, like 3OH!3's "Don't Trust Me," that I don't really like listening to, but playing it's so much fun.
Do you enjoy editing your videos?
Yeah, that's actually why I started. I learned how to edit videos in high school in a film-editing class. We worked in groups, but I always took over the editing and filming. I think if I wasn't doing music, then video would be my thing.
How do you deal with the YouTube commenters? Commenters on YouTube are the worst!
Oh, yeah. YouTube commenters are like the most vicious people in the world—and the most giving, I would say. Sometimes, people admit to the saddest and scariest things in a casual YouTube comment. It always surprises me when you get like, "Hey, I've been in the hospital for a couple of months and I've just been trying to amuse myself with internet things and then I found your stuff and it's really brightened my day." That makes me feel great. And then the next comment is, like, "This is the gayest!" I think it's hard to take offense to those things, though. I used to, but I mean on YouTube, Beyoncé is "an idiot dum-dum that makes terrible music," so the commenters are going to be mean to any- and everyone. If I am on the same level as huge stars when it comes to the insults that get thrown my way, then, you know, I'm not going to care.