Julia Nunes Finds Her Own Way

Music Features Julia Nunes
Julia Nunes Finds Her Own Way

“Make sure you take care of your body while sitting on the floor,” the musician Julia Nunes says to a crowd of 40 at Downward Dog Dance, a studio and community space nestled in a strip mall on the outskirts of Richmond, Va. While some devotees arrived early enough to secure metal folding chairs, most of us are fidgeting to sit comfortably on the uncarpeted floor, taking Nunes’s directive to “listen to your body” as we settle in for her intimate show. In person and in her voluminous social media presence, Nunes gently encourages her audience to take care of themselves, though she advocates for practices that are less glossy than the face masks and serums that have become totems of our consumerist “self-care” moment. For Nunes, listening to your body means not-so-sexy practices like crossing and uncrossing your legs, drinking water (“I want to be an advertisement for water,” she tells me earlier that day), and breathing. Her vibe reminds me of a low-key guru, one who’ll coax you toward inner peace without making you buy anything. She’s charmingly self-aware about how this earth-mother vibe comes off, though: “I’m not high, I swear! My brain is just fun to be in.”

Nunes’s latest music, compiled on a compact album called UGHWOW, out this Friday, bears this statement out in a musical sense. Whereas her earlier work was primarily ukulele-based indie pop, the newer material takes a hard turn toward bass-heavy R&B, which showcases her distinctive, low-alto voice and knack for catchy melodies but fills your headphones with gut-punch beats and cavernous vocal effects. “I wanted to make music that sounded like it could fit on a playlist of music I was jamming to in my regular life,” Nunes says, citing SZA, Frank Ocean, Drake, and Mac Miller as influences. Given that Nunes began her career as a teenager strumming original tunes on YouTube and opening for Ben Folds, this surprising twist in her evolution suggests that living inside her brain must be, yes, fun—even if the new songs dwell in post-breakup sadness and hard-core introspection. In her words, UGHWOW could soundtrack “a rave at the end of the world.”

Watch the exclusive premiere of Julia Nunes’ video for Feels Good>

Part of why Nunes can keep shape-shifting—playing living room tours as well as club dates, making sparkly acoustic music and sludgy dark pop—stems from her early decision to remain completely independent and in charge of her career. When we say “indie pop” or “indie rock” these days, we’re often describing a genre or sound more than a financial situation, as labels like Sub Pop, Matador, and Polyvinyl host artists whose music sounds “indie” but gets distributed through structures resembling scaled-down versions of major labels. Nunes’s arrangement differs considerably: like Amanda Palmer and a growing cohort of media-savvy young artists, she finances her music through Kickstarter and Patreon but retains control of her masters and self-directs basically every aspect of her career. “I do have a super unique situation on my end,” she explains. “It’s so much freedom.”

Music history is dappled with stories of precocious musicians being exploited by record labels and others. Consequently, younger talents like Maggie Rogers and Billie Eilish are leading the charge in prioritizing financial and creative independence above all else. Nunes caught on to this early, thanks in part to her parents’ guidance. Her father is both a lawyer and a songwriter, making children’s and boogie-woogie music on the side, while Nunes describes her mother as “a huge music supporter and just a very organized human being.” When Nunes began writing songs, her parents offered to help with the business side. Rather than signing with anyone else, she releases music on her own label, Rude Butler, named after a minor character in The Sound of Music. “My dad kept me out of contracts that would’ve had me indebted to a record label,” she says. “His advice on keeping my masters and all of it has kind of shaped how aware I am in the music industry.”

While remaining independent yields clear advantages, it can also pose challenges, some of which Nunes faced while making UGHWOW. Unlike previous projects, she had lots of ideas but no finished music when she launched the Kickstarter in January 2017. “I would say on this run, that freedom messed me up,” she admits, referring to a hard deadline she set for delivering the record to her backers but then postponed. She reports having spent a year “getting my legs under me” following a breakup with a partner who was also her manager.

As an independent musician who relies on long-term fandom to keep her career going, the breakup required Nunes to rethink how she wanted to present her “public self” on social media, Kickstarter, and Patreon. She ultimately decided on a mix of increased privacy and extreme vulnerability, which meant withholding more details but also sharing a video of her “crying and writing a song”. This rupture in Nunes’s personal and professional life created stress-inducing pressures around the lapsed deadline, but the time she spent processing and healing led to wrenching, honest work and even more comfort with standing on her own. On this “super dense” record, she says, “Every word is just ripped from somewhere back behind my heart. You know, where there’s dust in the back and you’re like, ‘I don’t even want to look at that’? I went back there.”

To suit this process of emotional excavation, Nunes wanted to work with a new producer, preferably one who hadn’t heard her sunnier, predominantly acoustic early work. Through a festival called Girls School L.A., which showcases and connects female-identifying musicians, Nunes found Shruti Kumar, a Julliard-trained musician, producer, and composer who’s done arrangements for Alicia Keys, Nas, No Doubt, and Vampire Weekend. Kumar’s production, as well as engineering by Vira Byramji and Eva Reistad, has created what the kids would call a “big mood”: a suite of songs that cut with lines like “If looks could kill / Then that photo of you / Would hold my throat til my face turns blue”, surrounded by minefields of explosive beats, synths and rhythmic vocal effects.

Nunes’s collaboration with Kumar blended the singer’s instinct for vocal arrangements with the producer’s fluency in contemporary studio technology. Describing “No Sudden Moves,” Nunes recalls sending Kumar a vocal recording where she oscillated between two notes and beat-boxed under it. Kumar took that spare template and added huge drums, some of which are programmed and some played by Sarab Singh, who’s also hitting glass bottles. Nunes’s beat-boxing and initial vocal tag made the final cut, as did an additional beat “that’s Shruti banging on the inside of a piano.” Opening track “Feels Good” is, in Nunes’s words, “part love song, part self-care anthem” written about someone who shares her “philosophy of doing whatever makes you feel good, whether that’s falling in love or staying hydrated.” Where “No Sudden Moves” sounds both hesitant and assertive, “Feels Good” activates a groovier, more consistent tone through Nunes’s vocal flow, syncopated handclaps, and vocal snippets cut to accent the melody percussively. Like most songs on UGHWOW, it’s anchored by a thudding bass that makes anthems and dirges alike sound dance-worthy.

Nunes just wrapped up a living room tour and will play album-release shows in July at the Hi Hat in L.A. and Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. Wherever the new music takes her, she hopes to continue playing intimate venues where, through a Q&A and extended meet-and-greet, she and her fans can “really get to know each other.” Rest assured that these ornately produced tracks also work beautifully as stripped-down acoustic jams; at Downward Dog Dance, Nunes and her bandmate Chase Burnett played “Not True,” a gutting torch song, and “Used to Want,” a kiss-off number that, frankly, slaps both on UGHWOW and in a yoga studio accompanied by just a guitar. This truly independent, fan-forward approach has served Nunes so far, and as she moves ahead, she plans to follow path-carving musicians like David Bazan, Amanda Palmer, and Ben Folds: “They’re adults that’ve found ways to sustain their fan base and their ability to make music, even though they’re not going to turn into Ariana Grande anytime soon. They’re just working musicians.”

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