You won’t find many musicians with a better grasp on the conundrum that is surviving in the modern music business than Nataly Dawn.
Dawn and partner Jack Conte are the duo behind the popular indie band Pomplamoose, a tech-savvy outfit with its roots in the North Bay that has been at the forefront of a slew of new Internet-driven ways to reach a critical mass of people and earn a good living without signing to a major record label.
The couple met while attending Stanford and eventually made their home base in Marin, where Conte was raised in Corte Madera. They now live and work in a ranch house and adjacent shed in the rolling hills near Sonoma, having built their band – and their brand – behind innovative marketing strategies like reimagined YouTube covers of songs like Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) and Lady Gaga's "Telephone,” as well as a series of ubiquitous (some would say too much so) Hyundai ads during the 2010 holiday season.
Dawn just released How I Knew Her, a solo album that offers both a sonic and lyrical departure from much of Pomplamoose’s poppy, lighthearted fare. We spoke to Dawn about her recent tour with Ben Folds Five, recording her solo album at Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati, her band’s do-it-yourself history and her decision to break from that history, at least for now, in signing with Nonesuch Records for her solo release.
Patch: So how was the tour?
Nataly Dawn: It was great! But it’s very nice to be home again. Jack and I live in a very remote part of Sonoma, with vineyards around us. It’s beautiful. But yeah, the tour was fantastic. I couldn’t imagine a better way to start off the year with this new record. Ben (Folds) has always been open to us sending him our creative ideas for feedback, and I sent him a master of my album and he really liked it and he said yes to having me open for him.
P: Were you nervous?
ND: I was. I didn’t know much of his audience and if they would be receptive to my music. But it was an eager audience that was there to have fun and was very attentive to lyrics, so they were extremely receptive and I sold a ton of albums.
P: Was it weird not having Jack by your side?
ND: I definitely was concerned mostly just being away from Jack. That makes me sound needier than I actually am. But I have never been on a tour without him. It’s really important to have someone on tour who can be your rock. A tour can really be a pressure cooker. But it was super fun.
P: Did you and Jack speak much during the tour?
ND: I always marvel at couples who are constantly checking in and calling each other. That’s just not who we are. Usually we’d end up talking to each other at the end of the day, but at that point I was just a heap of exhaustion. We’d end up talking on the phone with me mumbling. After a couple days of that, I realized it might be better to call him. He was under the impression that I was miserable during the tour, and it was the opposite. But I got sick during it and was incredibly tired each night by the time we talked.
P: Let’s talk about How I Knew Her. There seem to be a number of major differences between the process of making this record than with Jack and Pomplamoose.
ND: There are so many differences between this and Pomplamoose. I came to Jack with 18 demos and 12 of them ended up on record. Also, Pomplamoose stays pretty light in their lyrics, not delving into pain, family, loss, religion, all topics that I was struggling with and got into on this album.
Lastly, Pomplamoose is all about us doing everything ourselves, recording one instrument at a time and then overdubbing everything. I didn’t want that for my album. I wanted it to sound like a bunch of really great musicians all in one room, so we flew up some great session musicians from LA and recorded at Prairie Sun.
P: Tell me about your decision to, for the first time, put an album out via a label. You guys had become masters at using channels like YouTube and Tumblr to build up a huge following without depending on anyone to do it.
ND: Pomplamoose has been doing an incredible job as an unsigned band and it’s what we really became known for in the beginning. But the truth of the matter is that we haven’t been very productive in the past two years. YouTube is far more saturated than when we started putting videos up, so we don’t get nearly as much of a response as we used to. It’s just a lot harder to get noticed online these days. But YouTube is still an important part of the process and we’re very fortunate in catching the wave that we did.
That said, I went into the album process looking to do it on my own. I had raised more than $100,000 through Kickstarter. But there had been from the beginning a lot of interest from (Nonesuch president) Bob Hurwitz. I felt like there was a real understanding there. They weren’t doing what a lot of major labels or subsidiaries of major labels. A lot of those labels invest in a bunch of small acts and one of them succeeds and the others get dropped. It’s one of the really nasty things that labels do. Nonesuch doesn’t do that. They spend time and invest in established acts. I was drawn to that longevity. Even though it’s possible to make it without a label, the specific nature of this label made sense to me.
P: Technology has been such a huge part of Pomplamoose’s rise. Has that been a conscious decision along the way or is the use of those technologies – from YouTube and Tumblt to Kickstarter and now StageIt – just ingrained in you?
ND: A little bit of both. A lot of our education made us more prone to entrepreneurial approaches to the whole music industry. Jack just really had the foresight in using YouTube. And yeah, now StageIt has been a really important part of us making a career. We generate a few thousand dollars just from doing a show from our house.
P: How do you look back on those Hyundai ads? The exposure was incredible.
ND: Placements are really important for artists now. For the most part, fans are more accepting now than they used to be that artists need to make a living and corporate things are helpful to artists. If you go way back, it was always assumed that big money would fund art. It’s nice to move away from the hippie art for art’s sake. It’s nice when you don’t have to waiter to be a musician.
We’re always interested in those opportunities. But we have turned down a fair amount of placements that we didn’t want our names attached to, like McDonald’s and WalMart. With Hyundai, they ran our ads so many times that by the end, everybody wanted us to shut up. But there were so many people who found us through those ads, and Hyundai was great, and still is, to us.
P: So what’s the rest of the year look like for you? The album is out.
ND: We’re jumping into a nationwide tour in March, kicking it off at South by Southwest. Assuming the release goes well, I’m hoping to do a European tour possibly this summer. It’s all contingent on this release, which is a totally new thing for me – totally foreign and weird.
For more on Nataly Dawn and to buy her album, check out her website