Julia Nunes Is Relentlessly Personal: On New Music, Big Changes, and Community Being Crucial

Feature image by Chase Burnett

The first time I ever heard Julia Nunes sing was when A-Camp was still on a mountain that gave you altitude sickness. It was a weird Camp experience and a weirder period in our collective lives, but her rich alto and that lil ukulele stuck with me. Back when I was the director of an a cappella group, I even arranged her song “Waiting” for our emo little group of gal pals. Her career has spanned a decade, and in that time her sound has grown and matured, from the early covers she used to post on Youtube (to the new covers she posts on Spotify sometimes) to her newest album, UGHWOW.

Containing what one might consider a surprising lack of uke, UGHWOW talks about being alive today, struggling, and all the feelings and experiences that come with this magical thing called life. The album is, at its core, the obvious next step for her. Still as intensely personal as ever, but now with a beat you grind on your boo to in a dark house party. In light of her upcoming East Coast tour, we sat down to chat about honestly, everything, and our conversation was a dream. Music, cancel culture, community, crowdfunding, growing; I wanna be her best friend. She knows who she is and what she wants to do, and this newest album is just the first step.


Al(aina): How long have you considered yourself a professional musician?

Julia: Wow, I think my first paying gig was when I was 19, so 11 years.

A: What do you think has been the most surprising change in those 11 years?

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J: The most surprising change… The day that I launched my first Kickstarter, I matched the highest offer that I had gotten from a record label and I was like, “oh wow I can actually like do this on my own, huh?”

A: What’s attractive about crowdfunding to you?

J: Everything. It’s basically like everything, all of your hopes and dreams about the music industry of “Oh my god, I could make The Thing and I could hire the best musicians,” minus all of the scary stuff about the music industry of like…someone could control what I’m doing and like someone owning my songs. It’s all the good parts minus all the bad parts.

credit: Chase Burnett

A: When did you do your first kickstarter?

J: I could be wrong about this, but 2010?

A: So, it’s been almost 10 years of doing Kickstarters, and I know you have a Patreon now; how’s crowdfunding changing?

J: Well it’s definitely become something that you don’t need to explain. It used to be that you had to answer “what is a Kickstarter, why would you do a Kickstarter?” So many people thought asking for money that way was begging back then, but now it’s just pre-sale of a record; it’s pretty standard.

A: Do you think it’s a sustainable model?

J: I do. I’ve put out three records with Kickstarter. And I’m pretty sure my next one will be the same. It really is your fans becoming your record label. Which I think is what record labels are trying to do in the first place. They’re trying to judge how many people would be interested in this record and that’s how much money we’ll give you to make it, and we’ll just hope that our estimations are correct. And basically Kickstarter takes out all the guesswork. It says this is how many people are interested in your work, here’s what your budget can be.

A: So when fans become the record label, how much of a decision do they have in the work you create? What does that feel like? What are the risks of putting your business into the hands of people that could decide that you’re canceled at any moment, in such a direct financial way?

J: Right. Cancel culture. I find that stuff pretty interesting. I feel like cancel culture might not be as effective as the people who are cancelling think it is. Just looking at someone like James Charles, who got very, very canceled, is doing better now than he was before he got canceled. And you know like so many people have tried to cancel our president and no such luck. So I feel like cancel culture is actually not a great mode because not everyone agrees — beauty of human beings. And something I’ve noticed about cancel culture is that people who disagree with the canceling will come back more ferociously to support. And so for me the risks in it — I’ve found myself afraid that I’ll lose people. Either because there’s an opinion out there or just because I’m changing, and I haven’t even let the opinion come in yet.

…when you come out ferociously, people will respond to you either with ferocious support or ferocious venom.

Like, this record’s different than anything I’ve ever done, and I was afraid. And I actually think taking a step out, putting yourself out there, even if there’s a risk of being canceled or just… like for me I wasn’t afraid of being canceled, I was afraid of people being like “what?! I’m sorry you’re not playing the ukulele anymore? Who do you think you are?” You know, I could really lose a lot of people, not even because they’re being dicks, but because I’m doing something they don’t like. And I’ve actually proved to myself over and over again when you come out ferociously, people will respond to you either with ferocious support or ferocious venom.

A: Let’s talk about the album, because I feel like it is super different but it’s also very much a Julia Nunes album.

J: Thank you!

A: Yeah, I really love it. Talk to me about it. Tell me what inspired it…why do you think it’s different from your other sound?

J: Well, I worked with a producer named Shruti Kumar who really just nailed it. I love her so much – the way that she approached everything, just feeling over formula and constantly pushing me out of my comfort zone. I was so raw when I came to her, just emotionally unable to believe in what I was doing and she was like “Oh, these songs deserve something very special and I’m gonna give it to them.”

So to have a collaborator who was that involved and who understood the words and who was not interested at all in being married to my own sound, I think she helped me to step out of the box. I’m looking at a picture of her right now because I’m making a collage, and I want to kiss the screen. I love you Shruti!! She was recommended to me by a mutual friend of ours,  Anna Bullbrook who runs GIRLSCHOOL LA, so I kinda just knew from the getgo that Shruti was good people, that I would be taken care of. I had no way of knowing that I was about to have a therapy session and creative expression every single time I went into her office.

A: How do you think you’ve changed since your last album?

J: Everything has changed. [long sigh] You know, I just went through the most significant heartbreak of my life, you know?

There were places that I was really comfortable, and one might say stuck, and I just had to like come out all the way and become my own person. I hadn’t really realized how much responsibility I wanted to put on another person for forming my life.

A: Yeah.

J: And it wasn’t just the end of a relationship, it was like the end of like, an era of my life. There were places that I was really comfortable, and one might say stuck, and I just had to like come out all the way and become my own person. I hadn’t really realized how much responsibility I wanted to put on another person for forming my life. I had been in back-to-back relationships for eight years, and now I’ve been single for two so it’s like everything is of my own making.

It was a struggle. I did not like the process of piloting my own life, so you kinda hear me on the record being like “no! I don’t want to!” And I think I’ve gotten… the biggest difference between me making the last record and me making this record is that nothing was taken lightly in the making of this record. I feel like in prior records I really would let things slide and, like it’s fine, no one likes their own music that much. But with this record it was like everything I’m saying is too intense for me to have even one pea in the mattress.

A: I love that!

J: I couldn’t handle it if I was putting this music out and I didn’t like it, even a little bit, because it’s just like already too irritating to splay yourself out that vulnerably, so it was like none of this could stand. Shruti will tell you I was so specific on everything. We mixed “No Sudden Moves” maybe 20 or 30 times.

A: Wow!

J: It was intense!

A: And it shows! Okay. So you’re making a collage.

J: Yeah.

…now I’m like every single moment, every single piece of art, every single conversation all matters and life is really short and I don’t wanna waste this time on anything.

A: Whose work inspires you right now, either artistic or otherwise?

J: Wow, such a good question. Musically I’m super inspired by Lennon Stella. I think that she’s just crushing indie pop. Mark Ronson just put out a record with a bunch of different singers, and it’s led me to… I already knew a bunch of them like Yebba, and King Princess, Angel Olsen, and Clairo.  She’s like a tiny pop star and she made this lo-fi record. It sounds like something that I would’ve listened to in high school. It brings back all of these nostalgic feelings about being newly aware of your autonomy. One of the lines [from “Bags”], is “every second counts I don’t wanna talk to you anymore” And then later she says “Every minute counts I don’t wanna watch TV anymore” And it’s just like the urgency of life, I kinda forgot about that for a while, and now I’m like every single moment, every single piece of art, every single conversation all matters and life is really short and I don’t wanna waste this time on anything.

A: How has that idea of every second/minute counting contributed to your art lately?

J: Just like laying it all on the table. I think the release of this record was the beginning of an avalanche. I’ve been really scared. Because of the sonic jump and because of the subject matter, I’ve just been like, “Oh man, what’s gonna happen?” and now I’m reminded of how important it is… what it means to people when I do put myself out like this and how good it feels. To be so private is actually selfish in this funny way. And even, you were asking about my inspirations. I just saw a Mitski show, and the way she dances. She dances the way that I’ve always wanted to dance but I didn’t wanna look stupid, but now I’m like who cares about looking stupid the world is ending, and everyone looks stupid. To be disliked is a given, so just like let ‘er rip!

A: How are you taking care of yourself as a public figure/queer person, etc?

J: I really love the most accessible simple forms of self care like creating a clean space, you know, cleaning my room. Drinking enough water, building my consciousness around the things that I’m doing. So like, enjoying every bite of food and being there for my food when I’m eating it, because it’s not just about healthy food it’s about your vibration when you’re consuming it. And surrounding myself with good, good people. I think that was probably the hardest part of the last two years, I found myself super alone, of my own making you know. I had really become very judgmental. I was disconnected from my family, my friends, and I was just doing this thing where nobody was actually a good person, so kinda doing group therapy and taking care of my mental health to remind myself of the beauty in the world, because there is so much beauty that it’s easy to ignore, it’s easy to focus on the stuff that’s wrong.

It’s almost tempting to think that the productive thing is to be in a constant state of anger. Anger is so important to express and to let propel you and to make you active. Anger is important. But being in a constant state of anger is not the thing. Not the way.

A: I love group therapy. Anyway, thinking about community. What does community mean to you as an artist — especially thinking about how your fan base was built around living room concerts. But also what’s community mean for just you, Julia, the human?

J: Truly one of the biggest focuses of my life is community. I think community is something that people experience at whatever depth they’re willing to go. SO it’s a personal responsibility. That whole adage about being alone in a crowd, I think that’s where the reminder is that it’s on you to let people in and to know that you’re not always going to be safe and cared for in the way you want to be cared for, so you kind of have to boundary your way to a life that feels good and to a mental strength where you can still play when someone’s not holding you the way you want to be held, and to stay open.

So in my career that means there’s a room full of people and maybe someone came to the show expecting something different. And I can either let that make me feel terrible or I can remember that I’ve been doing this for 11 years and people are complex things, and maybe what I was doing 11 years ago spoke to this deep, deep, kid inside of this complicated adult, and I can see the room differently now through a lens of the journey that led that person to be there. Like, how deep and rich that person’s life is before they walked into the room with me. Everyone is this wild universe, every single like I get belongs to a whole story that I speak to. I could cry right now just thinking about it, the number of lives I’ve dropped into feels… it’s such an honor. And to be present to that in a room, it goes back to this selfishness thing. I get to remember that it’s not really about me. I get to have fun. I’m best for them when I’m into what’s really happening and so I do the work to make sure that’s true, but on the day, my mood is given over to the ceremony that we’re all performing which is music and this community experience. In a world where it’s so hard to get out and it’s so hard to spend your hard earned money on something you can’t eat or touch, you came out to experience art with a bunch of other people who want to experience that same art and that is… that’s my community and I feel a responsibility and also so much joy and honor. So the community of my career is very special.

It’s almost tempting to think that the productive thing is to be in a constant state of anger. Anger is so important to express and to let propel you and to make you active. Anger is important. But being in a constant state of anger is not the thing. Not the way.

Oh, and another piece of that is the community I work with. So Shruti is my producer, Vira Byramji is my mixer, Heba Kadry is my masterer, Emily White is my manager, Pompy (which is her nickname because her last name is Pompei — Pompy Pompei) is my other manager and Chase Burnett is my bandmate and like the people that I work with, that community, is so important. I shot a music video yesterday with these two directors that I met in a yoga class and they brought on a crew of people that they had met on a terrible, miserable set, where they were all annoyed with what was happening but loved one another. And I got to be with their energy yesterday and I’ve never worked my body so hard. I was dancing for nine hours and I was so happy the entire time. Everyone was working towards the same goal.

I’m working on this theory — out loud, to you — I could apply this theory from everything of the community of my audience to the community of people I work with to the community of people in my life. It’s when you care about something, you work hard at it. And you can give of yourself so much more freely to make the thing better. The work you’re doing or the show you’re at or the house you live in or the party you’re at, you’re like I want this to be the best thing, or I want this friend to have the best time and given from a place of this is dope and I know what to do to make it even better, versus any other way of giving.

A: Yeah it’s a good theory. I think we’ve been talking around this, but I wanna ask it straight out. It seems like you’ve been moving away from the model of just surviving to thriving, as an artist/friend/etc. So what are your thoughts on surviving versus thriving? How are you thriving now?

J: I think that my method towards trying to thrive are all about where my attention goes. And I know better than anyone that you can’t ignore the bad. You can’t ignore anger or sadness or frustration, but you can do those things responsibly. So over the last two years I’ve been like if I’m gonna go down I’m gonna do so responsibly in therapy or in some sort of contained way. I’ve learned about this exercise called fear inventory, and it’s this exercise where you write only for twenty minutes and then you read it out loud and you rip it up. And even that exchange with the person, there’s no “Hey, how’s your day?” You just read it, the person says “Thank you for your honesty” you say “Thank you for listening” and then you rip it up and say bye. And you just go do the rest of your day.

And so, sometimes I will put my attention on the things that hurt me so so bad, or the ways that I don’t have control over other people, and like what I make that mean, and what my fear is underneath it and why and what’s the worst case scenario, and I get to address those deep dark voices in the back of my head, and sometimes I do it in song, sometimes, you know?

And then, the knowledge that life moves in this down, up, down, up, fashion. I go down to come up more freely and drop some of those fears at the bottom, and for the most part, I keep my attention on what I want. Behind every complaint is a desire, and so the name of the game is my attention is this magic wand, and whatever I put it on grows. And that’s like friendship and love and music and fashion and exercise and consciousness and strength and beauty and sex and flowers and nature and traveling and family and honesty and…

A: etc. etc…

J: Yeah.

credit: Chase Burnett

A: How did this album help you come up more freely from a down?

J: I think just liking it. Loving it in fact. The music video that I shot is for a song called “Used to Want” and there was a point in the middle of the day when one of the members of the crew was like “Wow, this song is very sad, but it’s such a banger!” and I was like, yeah! I’d experienced being super low, and I knew it was possible to not be sad anymore. I had no idea when it was gonna stop, but I knew it was possible. So I wanted to make something so that when I wasn’t sad anymore I could still listen to this and [makes hyped up noises]. And thank god Shruti was there. This record was like my magnum opus of “I’m not gonna be here forever, so what am I gonna do with this?”

A: So in addition to the video what’s new and exciting?

J: I’ve got a tour in November I’ll be doing on the East coast. This music video is coming out in October. And if i can get my shit together, I really wanna put out a music video for “Feels Good” because it was like the summer jam. I want a little back to school, summer jam, bring the summer into your school year vibe.

A: Hot Girl Semester, perhaps. Okay, last question: If you had a mission statement what would that be?

J: Well, I had my bandmate write my bio for the press kits and his first line was “Julia Nunes is relentlessly personal.” He also said I have a cello voice. So maybe my mission statement is: to be relentlessly personal and make art as I learn.

I think that something I care a lot about and I want people to know is how perfect things are. That’s the lesson I’ve really hammered home for myself recently. The hardest stuff sucks so bad because there’s just a lot of stuff to drop and I think if you hold onto that little rope when shit is going down and everything feels terrible. I can attest to like an entire year going by with me being like “I hate this, but I’m positive that there’s something on the end” and there’s just hail mary passes and seeds you didn’t even intend to sprinkle on the ground that are gonna grow during the worst times of your life. I feel really strongly about reminding people that the darkest days are not forever.


Download or stream UGHWOW wherever you listen to music. You can sign up for her mailing list to stay in the loop.

Alaina is a 20-something working on a PhD in Performance as Public Practice. They are a mom to three cats, they listen to a lot of NPR and musicals, and they spend a lot of time on Pinterest lusting over studio apartments. They are actively trying to build A Brand on twitter @alainamonts. One day, they will be First Lady of the United States.

Al(aina) has written 270 articles for us.

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