The glow of the stage faded from blue to red as the band kicked their set into overdrive. They’ve been playing for nearly an hour to the crowd at VidCon 2015 in the Arena at the Anaheim Convention Center. Sweat is slipping down from their temples as they bake under the intensity of the stage lights but no one slows down. They’ve each got the same look on their face: pure joy.
And no one looks more exuberant than Julia Nunes. As she alternates between crooning and belting out songs, her face never loses its glow. She is in her element. Flanked by her bandmates, Nunes looks every bit a rockstar as she furiously plays her ukulele.
Yep, you read that right. Nunes is a ukuleleist and a damn good one.
She first found success doing covers on YouTube where she amassed over 200,000 subscribers. She’s taken that success and run with it, releasing four albums of original songs, with the crowdfunded fifth album, SOME FEELINGS, set for September 25th. She’s also shared the stage with Katy Perry, Weezer, and Amanda Palmer, performed on Conan, and opened four times for one of her idols, Ben Folds. Not bad for a woman and her ukulele.
“I’m just insanely lucky and I never forget that,” she says.
Sitting down the day after her performance at VidCon, Nunes looks like she might still be riding high. “Last night is the most fun I have ever had on the stage,” she said, smiling widely. Despite the bright lights she could see the face of every person in the audience and of her band on stage and it electrified her.
“I love a room packed to the brim with 500 people. I love that kind of room. I want to be able to feel the audience right there.”
That connection with the audience is key for Nunes. It’s why she enjoys playing at venues like VidCon, Bonnaroo, and SXSW but also has a profound love for doing acoustic “living room” shows for 50 or so people. It’s likely familiar territory for an artist who started out as a child putting on shows with her sister.
Growing up in a musically talented family, she began playing piano at age four. And hated it. But music is in Julia Nunes’ bones. So she soon found other instruments, eventually landing on the ukulele, and discovered what she loved most was songwriting. “I care deeply about lyrics in the songs I listen to and my own songs. I think writing a song that totally encapsulates how you feel is one of the most gratifying and satisfying feelings in the world.”
That often means Nunes’ work is very personal but that’s how she likes it. In fact, she doesn’t know any other way to write except to draw from her own life, even or perhaps especially when it makes her feel vulnerable to listeners. “I think it’s why I have the fan base that I have,” she says proudly. “I think that honesty and being open is what endears people to me.”
As much as Nunes loves her fans, they love her back even more. In the age of crowdfunding, fans are putting their money where their passions are and they are plenty passionate about Nunes. The Kickstarter for SOME FEELINGS raised nearly $135,000, five and a half times the campaign goal, thanks to 3,200 backers. It wasn’t Nunes’ first Kickstarter venture. Her fourth album, Settle Down, reached its $15,000 campaign goal in less than 24 hours and went on to raise nearly $78,000. But Nunes was still shocked by the response for SOME FEELINGS.
“That first Kickstarter blew my mind and then I almost doubled it the next time around. How is that even possible?” She shakes her head, laughing, and says in disbelief, “I’m doing something right.”
Aside from giving her the means to release her albums, the level of commitment from her fans has pushed Nunes to “raise the caliber” of her music. She wants her albums to have the same quality as anything a record label might put out. But that doesn’t mean she’s chasing international fame and fortune.
“I never want to be so famous that I can’t go anywhere,” she says with no hint of false humility. Nunes seems to be that rare artist that has not only determined her limits for herself but embraced them wholeheartedly. “I would like to play a show for 8,000 or 10,000 people but I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much if I played for 50,000 people. My goal for myself is always to be able to play any show that I want and have a blast with the crowd there.”
Watching the crowd at VidCon 2015 there’s every indication Nunes is surpassing that goal. The group hugging the stage grows denser as Nunes slides from one song to the next. More and more people sitting in the Arena’s stadium seats, perhaps thinking this was a good time to relax, trickle out to the dance floor. The shy ones, like me, content themselves with bouncing and swaying in time, toes tapping along instantly. Many of them grin and shake their heads, amused and maybe a little baffled that they’ve been compelled out of their seats. But they can’t resist. The magic combination of Nunes’ poignant lyrics and ukulele infused rock n roll reaches out from the stage and grabs every one of them. No one is disappointed. They’re having a blast.
SOME FEELINGS releases on September 25, 2015. The first single from the album, “Something Bad,” premiered this week.
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