She's a YouTube phenomenon. She's a ukulele-wielding smartass and an incredible talent. She's Julia Nunes - and she just woke up.
Fairport native Nunes has been working her 19-year-old butt off lately. She just got back from a handful of dates opening for piano popster Ben Folds, she's in the middle of recording her second album, getting flooded with fan mail, dealing with more than 1 million YouTube hits, and being hounded for autographs. Actress Molly Ringwald just sang her praises in a morning-show interview earlier this week. Consequently she finds herself fielding interviewers' questions at all hours of the day, sometimes in her pajamas.
"Technically you might call them jammies," she says between yawns. "I call them the clothes I wore yesterday."
Nunes is a serious musician with bright blue eyes, bright blonde hair, and a perpetual smirk. She has a knack for turning a phrase into something much more than your standard girl-with-a-guitar lament. Plus she's got a big, beautiful voice - and a little ukulele.
Nunes first made the scene four years ago in the informal singer-songwriter collective that came to be known as Chicks With Picks; five young women who rose above the coffeehouse caterwaul cliché to offer some refreshing, lyrically insightful, and compelling music. Nunes' migration to the ukulele separated her from the pack even more.
Boredom led Nunes to the uke. She was killing time in The House Of Guitars one afternoon when she happened upon the tiny instrument.
"I just disappeared into the back of the store and started singing 'I Can See Clearly Now' embarrassingly loud. People were like, 'What is she doing?'" she says.
Nunes and the uke were a perfect fit.
"I could dance more easily whilst playing," she says.
And though she already knew her way around the guitar neck, the uke offered new possibilities.
"A lot of it was playing chords I didn't even know were chords," she says. "One of my favorite things about the ukulele is, pretty much anywhere you put your fingers, you're making some sort of chord. I think on every one of my ukulele songs, I don't know what chords I'm playing."
Nunes was already creating a buzz with YouTube videos of her own songs played on guitar, complete with harmonies and clever, though perhaps a little rudimentary, video editing. Once the ukulele entered the equation, people really started to take notice - including the folks at Bushman, a company that manufactures ukuleles in Nashville, Indiana.
The Bushman bigwigs urged Nunes to enter the company's World Ukulele Video Contest. The prize: a new Bushman ukulele.
"I had no idea who Bushman was," Nunes says. "But I was like, 'Free ukulele? Hell yeah!'" Nunes immediately pounded out a ukulele cover of Destiny's Child's "Survivor" for the contest.
"It wasn't 24 hours later that she made that video complete with three-part harmony," says Bushman founder John Hall. "And that video won the contest."
After Nunes' win in December 2007 the buzz went from bumblebee to chainsaw.
"She got a lot of exposure from the contest," says Hall. "And then it snowballed. It started running away. I mean, it was really amazing to watch her grow so quickly in popularity on YouTube."
Along with her music, Nunes began posting ukulele covers of popular tunes by The Beatles, Weezer, Coldplay, Kanye West, and The Weather Girls. And though the idea of the songs being done on a ukulele may seem a bit wacky, Nunes' delivery is well played and clever -and, yeah, it's funny as hell.
Then one spring morning she discovered her original tune "Into The Sunshine" had more than 1 million hits. She was a little unnerved.
"I had just woken up and was like, 'Whoa, this is weird. I don't get why people are watching this, but OK.'"
Ben Folds was one of those people watching. The college-friendly alt-pop star dug her cover of his tune "Gone," and offered her the opening slot on some of his tour dates this past spring.
"His manager contacted me on MySpace," Nunes says. "I was not at all excited, because I was sure someone was fucking with me. But it turned out to be legit. They were like, 'Is it Nu-nes or Nunes? We want the team to say it correctly.' I was like, 'There's a team?!'"
Nunes' cocksure confidence took a powder when gigs with Folds actually started coming together.
"I flipped out a little bit," she says. "I was really nervous. I don't dance around on stage and I don't perform with anyone. I was pretty nervous that just me up there with a ukulele wouldn't be entirely... I mean, I'm opening for Ben Folds. It was just a very stark presentation, just me and my instrument. I'd always envisioned getting up there with a band and rocking out."
The first gig was at Western Connecticut State University in front of 2000 fans. Nunes was so nervous backstage she was jogging in place. Come show time, Nunes tore up the ramp to the stage at full speed.
"I love sprinting up that," she says. "Because the second you get to the stage people start freaking out. They have no idea who you are and they just start cheering for you."
After her first song the cheers continued. Actually, the crowd went nuts.
"It was ridiculous," Nunes says. "It's kind of reassuring when the crowd cheers."
It was at the second tour stop in Philadelphia that Folds first invited Nunes up to duet with him on "Gone." The crowd really went bananas
"It was pretty sweet," she says.
After each show Nunes would spend up to an hour at the merchandise booth meeting excited fans, signing autographs, and posing for snapshots.
At present, Nunes has more than 27,000 subscribers to her YouTube account, which currently hosts 43 videos. Her most recent video, "Balloons," received more than 600,000 hits in the first four days it was posted. And it has gotten to the point now that musicians are covering Julia Nunes' songs.
"I think it's probably the most rewarding thing I've gotten out of this," she says. "People telling me I've inspired them to pick up their old guitar or buy a ukulele or start writing songs. I mean, music is something I depend on to get me through the day. And I think if I can inspire somebody else to find that outlet, that's just so awesome. I love when people cover my songs. I think it's a combination of embarrassment for myself, just hearing those words coming out of someone else's mouth, and feeling respected, I guess."
CDs, photos, and T-shirts are flying out the door. She has sold more than 2000 copies of her debut disc "Left, Right, Wrong," and that doesn't include sales on iTunes and other online music services.
Bushman is feeling the quake, too. "We get calls all the time, people saying they want to buy a ukulele like the one Julia has," says Hall. "So yeah, she's been very, very good for business. And of course, we're big fans."
Bushman has sold more than 200 of the "Jenny" model that Julia plays, and the instrument is now back-ordered for months.
"We sell more than we make," Hall says.
Bushman flew Nunes out to Nashville, Indiana, for its annual Ukulele Luau this past May, and the company has given her several ukuleles. A Julia Nunes signature model is also in the works.
"There are some great players out there," Hall says. "What Julia brings to it, which is a little unique from the others, is No. 1, she's also a good singer. A lot of folks can play the ukulele but they can't sing. She brings the complete package. The other thing is she has this contagious enthusiasm. People really like her excitement; it's honest and pure. She appeals to young and old. And she's a great minister - an evangelist to the instrument."
Nunes is off from Skidmore College for the summer and is working on her second album - this time with a band - in Saratoga Springs. Major labels have begun sniffing around, including Atlantic Records, which is arranging a showcase for Nunes in New York sometime in August.
Despite the Nunes mania, she plans on sticking with school for the time being, where she's studying music, business, and media design. She also wants to hit the highway and return to the cities she played with Folds, who is a fan himself. The two still keep in touch.
"Yeah, we text," Nunes says.