I found Julia Nunes the same way that everyone finds her: I fell down a YouTube hole. It probably started with some dumb teenager getting hit in the balls or a newscaster laughing at something inappropriate or a similar clip, but it wound up, somehow, at a video titled "Survivor Destinys Child on Ukulele." It was one of Nunes's first videos, from 2007, and I was immediately enthralled. Watching this kid—she was 18 when she made it—singing multiple, spliced-in harmonies with herself and strumming her ukulele was the kind of revelation you get when you find some rare, audacious act playing their first-ever club show and killing it.
After watching the video a couple of times, I continued digging; any number of people on YouTube play ukulele covers of songs—the theme from Shaft, "Tears in Heaven," "Toxic"—but none of them have Nunes's spark. I started watching Nunes's other songs. The a cappella cover of "Jesus Walks," while not as technically impressive as "Survivor," at least proved that Nunes had a panache that was worth following. Her smile twists off to the side when she's especially pleased with herself, and her bright blue eyes, filled with a miniature halo of light from her laptop screen, always twinkle when she hits the end of a song; she's having fun, and it's almost always fun to watch someone having fun.
Most exceptional musicians do one thing really well. Prince's real talent is his ability to produce music that sounds just like dirty sex. Thom Yorke's wail triggers the existentially scared lost child in the listener. Beyoncé can belt better than almost anyone. Julia Nunes has two remarkable talents: She's gifted at arranging popular music, and she's a brilliant editor of her own videos and audio.
Nunes has recorded dozens of covers now, and it's never just a rote replication of a text. She always brings something new to them, sometimes even streamlining a song into something more raw than the original—she transforms "Mr. Brightside" from an anthem to a personal narrative, she shrinks "Flagpole Sitta" down to a coffee-shop love song. The editing of the videos is flawless, down to the very last second. ("Editing videos is totally my thing," Nunes said in a recent phone interview. "I think if I wasn't doing music, then video would be my thing.") Nunes knows how to bring out the lovable doof in herself, the kind of hilariously dorky romantic who dances spastically all around her dorm room while her roommate is out on a date.
This approachability typifies a new kind of fame; at the time of this writing, her YouTube channel has 141,710 fans, and her tours—planned to coincide with breaks from college—routinely sell out clubs in Memphis, London, and New York, and she's done two shows at Bonnaroo. Nunes is part of a generation of musicians who make their own media and personally cultivate adoring fan bases online. Their DIY approach refutes the impersonal megastar tactics the record labels have lived on for decades. "It's a whole different way that people approach music," Nunes says. "I don't think record sales happen because kids want to buy music. The kids could easily download my music from wherever, but they see my videos and I think they like me and that's why they buy my stuff from me."
Nunes has two albums (2007's Left Right Wrong and 2008's I Wrote These), and with three exceptions—the catchy and accessible songs "Binoculars," "Maybe I Will," and "Into the Sunshine"—her original songwriting hasn't caught up to the very high level of her arrangements. The other tracks on the albums are often funny and always technically strong, but when they're not playing, they fade into an indistinguishable blur.
But her upcoming album, produced by San Francisco folk-pop duo Pomplamoose, could be a breakthrough. Nunes says Pomplamoose's Jack Conte added layers to the sound, like organ and wind chimes, that she never would have thought to include, and this more layered sound could help Nunes as a songwriter; when she performs the new songs solo, she'll hopefully have to do the same alchemy on her own work that she does with other people's music—finding the essential hooks of a song and sharpening them down to their simplest joys.
Until recently, in videos and comments, Nunes has referred to music as her hobby (she plans on finishing school). When I ask if, three albums and several tours in, she's reconsidering the possibility of a career in music, she seems open to the idea. "I've always just been reluctant to let go of Plan A, which is to graduate college, get a desk job, and pay my parents back," she says. But things have been going well: "I wouldn't mind making music Plan A, and I think I'm going to give it a try."