DIY Pop Star Julia Nunes Shares Her Summer of Pride Playlist & Premieres Brooding 'No Sudden Moves' Video
If you’ve ever gone down a YouTube rabbit hole, you’ve likely stumbled across musician Julia Nunes.
The Rochester, N.Y.-bred, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter first found a home on the platform more than a decade ago, and has since grown her account (dubbed "jaaaaaaa") into a robust network of global fans that currently boasts 250,000 followers. Today, Billboard has the exclusive premiere of the artist’s brooding video for new single “No Sudden Moves,” helmed by non-binary director Frankie Orr. The track appears on her upcoming third full-length LP UGHWOW, set for release this Friday, June 21 (pre-order here).
In the clip, Nunes is in the middle of a bathtub-set existential crisis. “I’m kind of in a memory battle with myself in a bathtub thinking about a woman,” she tells Billboard. “There is a woman who flashes in and out of the shot - sometimes I’m alone and then she’s in the bath with me. The song is about falling in and out of love really really fast and just lamenting how much of a trip it can be. (Laughs.) The video itself is kind of an acid trip. It gets all kaleidoscope-y and crazy.”
From her dorm room at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Nunes performed ukulele covers of tracks by Say Anything, Band Of Horses, The Foundations, Weezer and The Beatles beginning in 2007. Her version of the latter three bands’ "Build Me Up, Buttercup," “Keep Fishing” and “All My Loving” have netted 3.3 million, 1.3 million and 2.1 million views to date, respectively. Her cover of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” won the 2007 Bushman Music World Ukulele Video Contest, and actress Molly Ringwald (of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles fame) shouted her out on Good Morning America as the reason that she took up the ukulele.
In 2008, another A-lister — artist/producer Ben Folds — took notice. Reaching out to Nunes on Myspace after hearing her cover of his song “Gone," Folds then tapped her to support him on a few dates on tour the following year. (See this cute AF clip of Nunes performing “Gone” with the star in 2009). Since the co-sign, the 30-year-old talent has collaborated with the likes of Rozzi Crane, A Great Big World and Jenny Owen Youngs, performed on Conan, and leveraged her online fandom into very real DIY success thanks to a sturdy crowdsourcing network via platforms like KickStarter, which she has used since 2011, and most recently Patreon, where she currently has 609 'patrons.'
Nunes' YouTube community have remained ultra loyal through the years, as both fans of her online content as well as financial investors in her career: in 2011, her first-ever Kickstarter campaign “Julia Nunes would be nothing without me,” raised a whopping $77,888 (from 1,685 backers), which resulted in the release of 2012's Settle Down, which peaked at No. 9 on Billboard's Independent Albums chart and No. 12 on the Heatseekers Album Chart, according to Nielsen Music. Her follow-up campaign on the platform “Julia Nunes + Feelings = New Album” pulled in almost double that -- $134,403 (from 3,258 backers) -- for her more introspective follow-up: 2015’s Some Feelings. That LP’s lead single “Make Out” chronicled her embrace of her identify after coming out as queer leading up to the project's roll out, and has netted over 3 million spins across platforms to date. Nunes wasn’t fazed by the idea of "coming out" to her legions of loyal fans. "At this point I have an amount of levity about it. I really don’t envy the mindset of a person who thinks its worthwhile to hate love in any form,” she says.
Her third and most recent KickStarter effort “Julia Nunes Makes Music” brought in $71,025 (from 2,409 backers) last year. The fruits of the process can be heard on UGHWOW, her most experimental offering to date, produced by Shruti Kumar, a Julliard-trained composer whose credits include Vampire Weekend, No Doubt, Alicia Keys, and Nas.
To celebrate Billboard’s Summer of Pride, Nunes also put together a Pride-themed playlist aimed at spreading the positivity and joy found in self-acceptance. “It’s so easy especially for queer people to get down on themselves and on love and the world’s perception, whether or not they’re being accepted, so I wanted to make a playlist of songs that help you beat that mind game,” she says. “It’s about reminding yourself over and over again that love is the best, and that if you’re queer you’ve figured out something about love, and that is a win.”
On the eclectic set, the artist opted for a mix of both standard love songs and tracks by queer artists — including Janelle Monae (“Primetime”), Troye Sivan (“My My My,” “EASE”), King Princess (“Holy”), Christine and the Queens (“iT”) and more. “I saw Troye Sivan at the Mint in L.A. really early on. It was a secret show that he was rehearsing for his next tour and he had just put out Blue Nieghbourhood. I remember thinking it was the kind of queer music that I’d been waiting for! So sensitive and deeply feeling and still a straight up pop bop," she says. Another Sivan cut “EASE” further explores this feeling of discomfort that can be pervasive to the LGBTQ community at large. “‘Like ‘what is it that makes you feel at ease?' It’s a reminder that that’s an important question to ask yourself and the people you love.”
Elsewhere on the set, Nunes highlighted cuts by Frank Ocean (“Ivy”), Miley Cyrus’ Dead Petz phase (“Slab Of Butter (Scorpion)” featuring Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel), and more. ‘It was hard not to make it all Frank Ocean honestly,” she jokes. “On “Ivy,” the lyric ‘I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me.’ That line is how it feels to realize that someone who you think is dope also thinks you’re dope.”
Nunes also included a number of outlier tracks — like Ariana Grande’s mournful Thank U, Next cut “Pete Davidson” (“Messy straight love is sometimes really relevant!” she jokes) to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” “The confidence of just like 'I’m gonna do this shit my way' is so important and everyone needs to be reminded of that everyday, just like do it your own way, there’s nothing else that matters,” she says. “If you believe it, it’s golden. If you love it, it’s golden. And I love that song for that. The confidence of the lyric “mistakes I’ve made a few, but then again, too few to mention.” (laughs). Incredible.”
Being "out" in L.A. is a “beautiful thing,” she says, thanks to the strength of its local queer community. Nunes shouts out the local LGBT Center, where she donates all of her clothing and volunteers are always needed. “It’s so accessible and they make it so easy," she adds. "Every time I’ve been the people just care so deeply and I think that’s why I am as out as a I am because theres just a sense of relief when you know that you're not alone and pride is that — a reminder that you’re not alone.”
Now fully comfortable in her own queerness, the artist acknowledges the activists that came before her. “They’ve created a world where I came out and everything was chill (laughs),” she says. “I told my dad that I was dating a woman and he went to the store and got a rainbow flag and put it outside the house.” While her hometown of Rochester was not “inhospitable to queerness,” she explains, it isn't like Los Angeles. “It does take a certain amount of conviction to be loud about pride. I’m so grateful that my dad grew up Catholic, married this woman from New York City who had a bazillion gay friends,” she adds. “My mom lost good, good friends to the AIDS epidemic and she was around for a lot of the beginnings of Pride, living in New York City and witnessing the culture back then and how it’s evolved. People like her pushed people like my dad to be accepting so that by the time that he had a queer daughter then I’m the one pushing him. Then as a household we’re pushing Rochester.”
The overall definition of Pride has changed for her as well, as she’s further embraced her own identity. “One of my life philosophies is that your attention is kind of like a magic wand in the things that you put positive attention towards. Pride just nails that,” she says. “Pride was created when it was not actually safe to be out. It’s about showing your love and I think that that creates an environment where other people feel safe to love who they love.”
Looking ahead, Nunes hopes her own ease in coming out can inspire others struggling with identity to feel fully comfortable embracing their own uniqueness. “The hope for me is that my presence makes it easier for any other queer person to feel that it's safe to come out,” she says. “Or that it makes it easier for any other queer person to imagine that a career like mine is possible for them.”
An avid fan of short runs of intimate and acoustic “living room” shows via the platform Undertow across North America, Nunes’ most recent run hit this February and March. Next up, she’ll play a series of full band shows on both coasts, including stops at Hi-Hat in Los Angeles (July 2) and Rockwood Music Hall: Stage 2 in New York City (July 30).
In all of her artistic endeavors, Nunes balances “the vast spectrum” of her creative self, and the two extremes to which she's naturally drawn. “I am this DIY mega indie artist and then I want to make this super high production record,” she says, also citing her preferred style aesthetic as shown on her album cover -- rocking both “a flower crown and flannel.” “Even the songs themselves are all the way up, super happy, and then the last track on the record is called "Used To Want" and its just like the most brutal processing of what it is to love someone who really is glad that you’re gone.”