April 29, 2019
Released On September 25, 2015
Released By Rude Butler Records
“I don’t know what I want / but this isn’t it”
It’s funny the lines that stick out to us from songs, especially ones as emotional and deep as Julia Nunes offers up on her 2015 record Some Feelings. But above all the cathartic, inspiring, and galvanizing lines Nunes pens and vocalizes on this record, it’s this simple line from “Locked In My Mind” that really pops into my head when I think of her music: “I don’t know what I want / but this isn’t it”
Music nerds know the struggle, cycling through songs and records, trying to find something perfect for that moment… and coming up short over and over again. Honestly, I can’t even begin to comprehend the amount of time I’ve wasted in my life just hitting skip on my phone or laptop while trying to find something to listen to. I’ve made whole car trips where I did nothing but hit skip, flying past some of my favorite songs and artists of all time because it’s just not the “right” moment, whatever the hell that is. Again, I don’t know what I want… but this isn’t it.
Really, on these restless musical days, I’m just looking for something that ticks all the boxes. Popular music that feels esoteric. Melodies that are both sugary and bitter. Profound lyrics that also contain a great deal of wit and humor. Simplistic music that also transforms into something towering. Basically, music that barely exists. Sure, most of my favorite bands and artists do this to some degree, but more in an album format as opposed to song, meaning if I want that full effect, I’m going to need to devote a few hours to go through a couple of records, with stretches of songs that are going to resonate in the exact same way. No, what I want is someone who’s capable of doing it in a single song, multiple times over in a different and original way each time.
And that’s where Julia Nunes comes in. Someone armed with the simplest of instruments — the ukulele – that’s still able to deliver some towering musical moments (“I Don’t Want To“). Someone capable of crafting the brightest melodies imaginable and then twisting them into something forlorn and tortured in the same thought (“Then OK“). Someone capable of making you think “wow, that was deep” and “that was ridiculous funny” in the same song (“Cool Thanks“). Someone capable of making a pure pop hit (“Make Out“) and an intimately bare tune (“Fondly Enough“) sound like two sides of the same coin.
Julia Nunes’ music is the cure for the restless musical heart. She’s an artist with unbelievable range — as a singer, as a lyricist, as a producer – but more importantly, she’s someone who’s able to use that range to create truly astonishing works of art. Just look at “Something Bad,” one of the highlights of the record. It starts off plain-spoken, with a vocal pace and register that everyone could follow. But as the song goes along, you quickly realize you’re not going to be able to remotely follow her as she twists the song into rough terrain (that snark on “And I want you to hear about it”) and then quickly elevates it straight into the clouds (try as I might, I’ll never be able to hit those vocal lifts on the bridge). Lyrically, let’s just push aside how justified Nunes makes self-destructive tendencies after a breakup feel — just look at this line from the bridge: “And if you sit on your feet / Don’t be surprised when they fall asleep / Painfully useless underneath / Sounds so familiar don’t you see.” Yeah, that one hits deep. Oh, and don’t forget about the production which helps transform a simple ukulele melody into a stirring composition that perfectly accentuates every assertive declaration and tender reflection, making a song with enough room for wallowing and affirmation. This is a song that checks all the boxes.
And really, all of the songs on Some Feelings check the boxes here, like the deeply mesmerizing opening track “Then OK” and the endlessly charming “Locked In My Mind,” one armed with a baroque understanding of pop music and the other setting out to make music that’s both forceful and whimsical. On some listens, her words cut deep (the assertion of “Nothing’s perfect / tell yourself that it’s worth it” is endlessly encouraging), while others provide melodies that suck me out of whatever moment I’m in at the moment (the cathartic apex of “All The Same” is the moment every Idol/Voice contestant is in search of). It’s a record that excels in the background and spotlight, helping to provide color in every moment of your life from distraction to introspection.
In this sense, Some Feelings is a pillar of modern-day music, blurring the genre lines around its firm singer-songwriter style in order to create something truly magnificent and unforgettable. It’s a sound I can’t wait to hear more of in the future, and lucky for me, new music is on the horizon from Julia Nunes, due out summer 2019. (For updates, make sure to jump on her e-mail list at julianunes.fanbridge.com.) In the meantime, I still have this record to sift through, helping to ease my restless mind when I just can’t decide on what to listen to.
And most days, I still don’t know what I want, but luckily, I know that this is it.
Melodic luminary gifted with a dynamic grasp of resonant words & stirring tones.
The deeper into the Information Age we drill, and the deeper the Information Age drills into us — via phones that demand an impossible share of our attention, social networks that are becoming increasingly confusing, and don’t get me started on Alexa — the more we need music like Some Feelings. Throughout the album, Julia Nunes’ lyrics carve out figurative internal spaces — places for healing, escaping, and most importantly, being at one with yourself. The first instance that stood out to me was in “Don’t Feel.” “I knew it was right to be alone tonight / When I sat here and watched you cry / And I don’t feel anything,” she sings in an elegantly streamlined verse and chorus. A similar self-imposed solitude shows up in the second verse of “That Was Us,” which confesses “I lied to you when I said you should go / I pushed you out so that you wouldn’t know.” In other spots, the space Nunes makes takes the form of a license to be an authentic version of yourself. I love how she uses a question in “Cool Thanks” to push back against the other side of a conversation, and by extension, the expectations that can plague social interactions: “Compliments make me uncomfortable / Am I allowed to say I don’t agree / Without making it seem like I’m feigning humility / Or deeply insecure?” The honesty there is both striking and admirable. And while it’s true that internality also has a dark side (Nunes sings about being “Stuck inside / Locked in my mind” in the next track), there’s a vital sense of power to owning your own mental real estate. If humanity is going to make it out of the Information Age alive, that sacred space is going to be what saves us.
I think what’s most apparent about Some Feelings as a whole is the honesty of the record. Up until this week, I’d never heard of Julia Nunes, so the opening number “Then OK,” my first every introduction to the artist, was quite powerful. I was immediately charmed by the unapologetic strength in Nunes’ voice. So often, at least in my opinion, I think record companies force feed us female vocalists with the same angelic, lilting coo. Sure, it’s soothing and sounds “pretty,” but I also want to hear women with forceful voices that aren’t afraid to use them. And let me be clear here; I’m not saying Nunes is Rob Zombie, I’m saying that her voice has a full, robust, almost dense timbre that many of her contemporaries don’t have. What’s also refreshingly honest about this record is the songwriting. I especially appreciated “That Was Us,” which is, quite simply, a good hard look at a bad relationship. “There is photographic evidence of how we used to be.” I love that! Describing old photos as “evidence” is just such a great way to convey the loss that’s occurred — all the feeling is gone, and now it’s just a crime scene where we’re trying to figure out who hurt who. But where there’s honesty in pain, there’s also honesty in humor, and Nunes laughs in the face of life’s pleasantries on “Cool Thanks.” Her self-aware (for better or worse) proclamation that “manners are lost on me, I find it exhausting / pointless to be so polite, I’d rather just fight” made me chuckle and rewind. And for my money, nothing indicates a great record like an instant re-listen.
I must confess I don’t understand the appeal of the ukulele — it’s so limited on both the harmonic and timbral levels that it really only produces one mood: a kind of perky melancholy that can only go so far. However, I have heard that those same limitations make it easy to learn, which may be why there was, about a decade ago, a raft of ukulele-playing YouTubers trying to use a small instrument to gain big attention. Not one of them moved me and I try to actively avoid the whole genre, which tends to feature people covering songs that were absolute crap to begin with (Bieber and Sheeran and Drake and Swift and Grande and Jonas, et cetera) in a way that only serves to further expose their musical weaknesses. I didn’t even want to listen to the Billie Eilish album because I saw a passing reference to her having posted a YouTube uke song some years back. Turns out the Eilish album is damned good, which is why I always eventually give everything a try with open ears. Now on to Julia Nunes and her 2015 album Some Feelings, which does a lot to prove much of the above rant wrong. While she is as guilty as any of the uke-Tubers of extending the life of lousy pop songs, she does an excellent job of doing as much as possible to shake off that legacy on Some Feelings, employing her rich mezzo-soprano and plainspoken lyrics in a beautifully simple and unaffected way. In the end, the sensitive production, which surrounds her ukulele in many imaginative ways, and her own songwriting make this just a darn good singer-songwriter album. She’s been working on a follow-up since a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017 and, while I’m not sure what’s taking so long, maybe it’s not too late to kick the uke to the curb altogether. (Editor’s Note: new Julia Nunes music coming summer 2019!) I think it would make for a more timeless sound that would allow us to focus even more closely on her fine songs.
Picture-perfect romance in all shapes and sizes.
April was a weird one this year in Milwaukee. What I mean is, it was weirder than normal. It was so weird that its weirdness is worth mentioning. During a particularly bizarre week, it was 70 degrees on a Monday and it snowed later that same week. And despite the fact that it snowed on April 27, I’m hoping we’re through winter weather patterns. Now, maybe I can take a moment to laugh at the absurdity of it all. This winter was a an ugly one, and to have it leave out the front door only to sneak in through the back was frustrating, to put it mildly. But that week where it was 70 and snow in a span of a few days kept coming back to me as I listened Some Feelings. I think it has to do with the ukulele and the lyrics. The ukulele has always had a tropical and/or sun-kissed vibe to me. There’s something breezy to it, and perhaps even a bit silly. Maybe it’s because the word is silly, either when written out or spoken aloud. There’s a care-free air to its sound, is what I’m saying. So I guess that’d be the 70 degree day. And then you have the album’s lyrics, which don’t match the tone of the instrument. The album is dour and reflective, and, in some cases, dismissive. I guess that’s the snow in April. It’s an odd, almost paradoxical, pairing. But I think it works because Some Feelings also has a sense of letting-go, which in a way is being care-free or breezy. I don’t know if I’d play this while on a beach, but I might if I wanted to get into that mindset.
For the last four or five years, instead of a story at bedtime, my 8-year-old has asked for songs. My husband and I, along with her biggest brother, all take turns with this bedtime routine. When it’s my oldest’s turn with her, they watch songs from Undertale or Google Translate Songs. She and Daddy watch the songs she’s put on a playlist on his phone, mostly from movie and TV soundtracks (there’s little variance in their choices, it’s all stuff she knows well enough to sing along to loudly). On Moo and Woo’s nights — she told me a few years ago she wanted me to call her Woo and I could be Moo so we would rhyme and she was so earnest that I couldn’t tell her I’d prefer not to be Moo — she usually lets me pick things I think she’ll like. We cycle through her favourites; right now, they’re Rachel Bloom’s “I Steal Pets,” The Regrettes’ “Seashore,” and Lizzo’s “Good As Hell.” She doesn’t always like what I play, but I love that she’s open to whatever, and that her tastes are diverse. After my first listen of Julia Nunes’ Some Feelings, I had already decided I was going to see how she felt about it, I just hadn’t picked a song. Then, as I was laying on the couch tonight listening again and trying to figure out how to write about it, she walked through the living room and stopped. “Moo, who’s that girl that’s singing?” So I told her. “I like this. Put it on my playlist, please.” Well, all right. “Cool Thanks” was my favourite, anyway, and I guess we’ll be listening to it again at bedtime.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Beyond everything, it’s Nunes’ deep emotional range that makes her music truly astound listeners.
Normally, if someone recommended an album to me under the descriptor of “ukulele driven pop,” I would politely decline to listen. When I think of ukuleles, I think of teenagers at open mic nights messing up the chords to “Riptide,” or singing Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” over that twangy strum that always somehow seems to convey a happy-go-lucky, “we’re at the beach” sound, no matter the context. On Some Feelings, Julia Nunes sticks the ukulele right at the front of the mix, bold and proud, yet the songs manage to straddle the line between dark indie confessional and singer-songwriter acoustic pop, without ever fully committing to either. Alas, my view of the ukulele as a one-dimensional instrument is shattered. The production on this record serves each individual song, as opposed to shooting for the charts on every track, which is something to be appreciated. The closing tune, “Fondly Enough,” sees Nunes stripped of the backing band, with only her and her ukulele leading the way to the finish line, while a few tracks on the album, such as “Don’t Feel” and “All The Same,” start with bass double stops and keyboard drones. These change-ups serve as welcome departures from the more standard strummed intros that could serve as a “safe” consistency. The production choices on this record are definitely well thought-out and the arrangements manage to surprise the ear and keeps listeners guessing. Whether you’re a fan of the ukulele, pop music, singer-songwriters, or what have you, there is certainly something to be learned from the way Nunes executes these songs.
I truly feel that the right music comes to us at the right time. Like everything, it waits for the perfect moment, where we truly need it the most. It has been a rough week for me personally, but also globally. I’ve been feeling just so helpless about the state of our planet and with Earth Day being so recent, it’s all weighing on my mind. I’ve been stressed about personal relationships, about a career path — basically everything just piling up and reaching the tipping point I suppose. Then I pressed play on this album and it was exactly what I needed: the perfect combination of emotion and music, and just the right melodies to bring me peace. This album is beautiful and I really have no other words to describe it. It has such a sense of hope through all of its ups and downs, and in this time of such uncertainty, it is nice to hear such an inspiring collection of music. The soundtrack to my past week, it is, again, just beautiful.
I had put it off as long as I could. What we loosely referred to as “the office” had become a place with surfaces upon which any random object could be placed. These included unopened mail, electronic parts, books that didn’t fit on bookshelves, and CDs that I’d picked up at shows or which were included as a bonus to digital purchases. I no longer own any device capable of playing a CD. Unfortunately, however, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt at the thought of throwing them out. Knowing that someone out there might still collect them and probably still has the means to play them somehow means that I am committing the gravest of sins. For me, the CDs sit in this office and gather dust. Occasionally, in the heat of the moment, they inadvertently become coasters for cold beer when company comes over. “The Sadies! Love that record!” my friend Shaun comments as he drops his condensation-covered beer glass on top of what, for the band, is the sum-total of years of hard work and emotional investment. The problem is partly the way my mother used to scold me before throwing out extra or unwanted food. “Think about the children in Ethiopia?!” It’s a very strange sort of logic. By eating the food, I was in no way aiding the children in Ethiopia. By not eating the food, however, I was somehow offending… them? It’s the same with these CDs in the sense that I don’t want the CD to wind up in a landfill somewhere when it could sit on the shelf beside someone who still desired physical media.
This all comes to mind because as I start to unravel the bits and pieces of random accumulations, I am unwilling to admit are inconsequential to the positive progression of my life, I am listening to Julia Nunes’ Some Feelings. The experience of it is a positive progression indeed. It’s regrettable that I am not as tuned in as I’d like to be to some of the stars emerging from that even more relevant musical performance medium — YouTube. Apparently that’s where she emerged as a multi-instrumentalist performer and songwriter. I completely missed her. But she’s delightfully upbeat for an independent female singer-songwriter and I don’t mean that in a sexist way. The ones who typically find their way to my ears through other channels are often the most bleak, melancholy, “I-am-an-over-enunciated-vowel-away-from-cutting-myself” artists. (Shout out to the wonderful, but impossibly sad Julien Baker!) Even at her most low-key on “Better Than This,” there’s an inherent and refreshing positivity. As she sings “I was cold and I was angry / Now I am gone and you should thank me / But I can hear it in your voice / It’s like you don’t have a choice, but… / you are better than this / You are better than this”. It may be that the Nunes is not addressing the second person in this narrative. The refrain is cleverly self-directed, as though she’s reminding herself that she’ll rise above the very sentiments communicated during the verses. Nothing here is presented in absolute terms. Each negative feeling is balanced with its antidote in the form of melody or lyrical resolution. The record also doesn’t easily fit into categories such as “folk” or “pop” — while it maintains an easy, wonderfully accessible pace, the record has elements of everything from upbeat pop on “Make Out” to the monumentally relatable “Cool Thanks” where she speaks the truest words ever spoken in song or in language: “Yeah, I lost some weight but I think that it’s strange to comment on anything that I can’t change.” I don’t own Julia Nunes’ CD in its physical form. Were I able to attend her show in New York — and I would — it’s entirely likely that I would purchase her CD just for the chance to say, “That was a great show! Thank you for your honesty, sincerity, and sharing your talent. Most importantly, thanks doing it without dragging us into a deep and dangerous depression.” And then I would bring her CD home where it would wind up on my desk along with these others. Feelings don’t have to be heavy. Feelings can be light. Feelings can be real. Feelings can be communicated through any medium in all kinds of forms. And so, I have now clicked the little heart that ensures Nunes’ Some Feelings will drop into my heavy rotation playlist. As for these others CDs, despite my feelings, I’m going to toss them and learn to live with the irrational fear that the band members themselves will one day show up and ask me personally if I still have their CDs. “I am sure they’re around here somewhere”, I’ll say, as I close the door to the office.
Survival Sounds by Rubblebucket
Chosen By Guest Contributor Julia Nunes