Julia Nunes was destined to become a professional musician. She may have tried to escape her fate by majoring in business at college. But those DIY music videos she made for friends blew up on YouTube, and a desk job will have to wait.
"I'm thankful I'm doing this at the right time and the right place," Nunes, 21, said during a recent phone interview. "But I also don't have a deserving attitude about it. I know I'm not guaranteed anything. I'm just hoping, and I see the circumstances are in my favor."
Nunes (rhymes with "tunes") grew up in New York surrounded by music. Her father has played piano and guitar as long as she can remember. He wrote children's music as well as his own songs, played in a blues band and is now the keyboardist in a rock group called Chesterfield Kings.
Nunes herself started playing piano at age seven before switching to guitar in her early teens.
"Music became a very private thing for me," she said. "So playing piano in our living room just didn't feel as great as hunkering down in my room alone and writing songs there."
Once she picked up the guitar, she began to write songs. Initially Nunes wrote about "things I always wanted to say to certain people that I didn't have the guts to say to their faces." Her first composition was a big apology. From there the subjects ranged from crushes to anger to being unable to support a loved one.
"Even as a 13-year-old, writing those kinds of songs, I still really like some of the songs I wrote at that age," Nunes said.
In fact one of those, "August," opens her recent EP I Think You Know. It's next to a much newer song, the enervating "Comatose." Nunes thinks the juxtaposition of the two songs reflects her own divided nature.
"I think it fits with the songs I write now," she said. "It's definitely much more simplistic and innocent, I suppose."
Still, even listening to a song like "Comatose," one wouldn't describe Nunes' work as jaded. She has a melancholic side, but her sprightly, bubbly disposition generally wins out. Perhaps it's Nunes' use of the ukulele that tilts the balance.
She added the instrument to her arsenal by accident. While waiting on a friend to pick out a guitar at a music store, she spotted a small plastic ukulele, which, in retrospect, Nunes now believes wasn't even for sale. But she picked it up, and songs were flowing out of her before she even left.
The timing was perfect. Nunes discovered the ukulele just before she was to leave for summer camp, where she hesitated to bring her guitar for fear it might get damaged by rowdy campers.
"Since that summer, it's just been a really great thing to play when I don't feel like lugging around a big guitar," Nunes said. "I can take a ukulele anywhere. Even if I write a song on guitar, I can transpose it. I play them both equally."
That's not the only reason she likes the oft-underestimated instrument.
"It has a certain attitude, especially when I'm playing it," she said. "I play it sometimes ironically. Then sometimes I embrace the plucky, upbeat, cheerful nature of it. It's easy to apply it to lots of different moods because in some songs it highlights how so much passion and fervor can come out of a young girl like myself or a small instrument like the ukulele."
Whatever the case, Nunes has become an unofficial advocate of the ukulele, thanks to her Internet exposure. After leaving for college, she continued writing songs, even though she had no ambitions of performing them professionally.
Still, Nunes wanted to show friends back home what she was working on. Rather than using a social networking website like Facebook, where she says her whole high school could see what she was doing, she began uploading videos of herself performing in her dorm room onto YouTube.
Nunes now has her own YouTube channel called "Jaaaaaaa" (her nickname in high school, concocted after she randomly held down the "a" key after typing "j"), which has garnered more than 34 million views and more than 150,000 subscribers. Many of the videos are covers of songs by artists like John Legend, Say Anything and Spoon. But the first song Nunes added to YouTube that was hers, "Into the Sunshine," was featured on the site's homepage. That's when her profile exploded.
Has she been surprised by the response?
"Completely and totally flabbergasted every day of my life," Nunes said.
Indeed, she gives YouTube all the credit for her current success, which has included opening for Ben Folds at his request after seeing her online ("something I was wholly not prepared for"), getting name-dropped by Molly Ringwald on national TV ("I don't know if thoughts were really tangible at that moment. I was freaking out a little bit") and performing at Bonnaroo last year, which she'll do again right after her Indianapolis debut.
"I don't think it would be possible to do what I'm doing without YouTube," Nunes said. "I also don't think I really would've pursued a musical career."
That business major? It's now music.
"My plans had nothing to do with making any sort of job out of music," she said. "It was all an accident. I have to thank YouTube and everyone that found me there and pushed me in the direction I'm going now. I couldn't even imagine going back to where I thought I was going."
Nunes can't really say why she was "chosen" out of so many. Nor does she know what it takes to stand out in such a saturated market.
"I've battled with that a lot, where I wasn't sure I really deserved it," she said. "If anyone really knew what it took, they would just do it. I just try to do what makes me happy. Hopefully people will respond to that because I know there's a lot of B.S. that goes around – people trying to do what they think you want them to do. I don't think that works."
She may not have been prepared to share the stage with Folds, but the experience, along with many others in the two years since, has sharpened her performance skills. Back then Nunes, still a relative unknown, couldn't assume that an audience would participate in a show.
"So every time I get on stage now, and there's a cheering crowd that knows all the words, I don't take it for granted," Nunes said. "I appreciate it every time it happens, because I know it doesn't happen for a lot of people."