Drop Nataly Dawn’s new album How I Knew Her into a search engine and you’ll turn up lots of talk about the singer-songwriter’s surprise turn from the whimsical covers of indie duo Pomplamoose (her YouTube-driven collaboration with musician and partner Jack Conte) to an eclectic folk rock-ish album of probing, poignant songs that chronicle, among other things, her struggles with faith and identity.
But one of the most intriguing things about How I Knew Her is how it came to be in the first place: Back in July 2011, Dawn launched a Kickstarter project asking fans for $20,000 to fund an album of solo, non-Pomplamoose material. By the time funding closed in early September, she’d quintupled her target figure and raised an astonishing $104,788.
The new album hits stories this Wednesday (it’s streaming live at Paste now), and it’s already drawing critical acclaim from places like Drowned in Sound (“…combines sweet and tender vocals with unbridled energy to create something genuinely infectious”) and The Boston Globe (“…has the nicely ramshackle clomp of a live band”). I caught up with Dawn last week to talk about her live studio experience, the album’s Kickstarter inception, how she still went into debt to make it and why she’s frustrated with musician Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter critics.
You just wrapped a national tour for the new album. How did it go? You were on the road with Ben Folds Five, and you opened for Clint Black at one point.
Yeah, and actually I’ve heard several people be like, “Well I don’t really understand that bill, I don’t understand you really with Ben Folds or Clint Black.” But it makes so much sense, actually. The audiences in both scenarios were so receptive to my music and also really attentive to the lyrics. I think that’s the most important thing when choosing an audience — are you going to be dealing with people who care not just about what you’re playing, but what you’re saying. And if you have that, then chances are they’re actually going to listen to you and not be doing a bunch of other stuff during your set. I was really impressed by how easy it was to win over both Ben’s and Clint’s audiences by just being naturally funny and singing from the heart, so yeah, it was a great experience.
You raised more than $100,000 via Kickstarter to do this album, which was something like five times what you originally asked.
Kickstarter was a fairly new thing for artists when I was looking into it. A friend of mine, Julian Nunes, had just done a Kickstarter project, and she’s a YouTube artist just like me. I was watching her project and she asked for around $13,000 and made around $80,000, so it was like, “Wow, that’s a significant amount of money, I could use that.” And so I had this idea for my album, I had these songs, and I reached out to the Pomplamoose fanbase and to my own fanbase, which at that time was probably like 99% Pomplamoose fans, and I said “Are you guys interested in helping me make this other album?” And they totally were.
I set my budget low just like Julia had at $20,000 and knew that I was going to need more than that to make the sort of album I wanted. I knew from the start I’d laid out a budget that was actually off by several thousands of dollars. I knew that I wanted really exceptional players on it, I knew that I wanted to record it in a studio and I just knew that there were going to be lots of things I’d want to do that were going to cost money. We have this studio at home, but I wanted to have the actual studio experience — I wanted to play with session players. So I reached out to the fanbase and we raised over $100,000 in 50 days. It’s crazy.
And the album wound up costing even more than that.
Yeah, it did. The great thing about having a public budget is absolutely nothing. You don’t get any favors. You’re not this independent artist in the eyes of the musical world. You’re somebody who has a budget and everyone knows exactly how much you have, so why should they take a cut from what they’re getting paid? I paid top dollar for everybody who played on this album.
Not that I’m complaining about it. It’s fine, I understand it. It’s just not what I’d anticipated when I drew up my original budget. Add on top of my inexperience, some more inexperience and a couple mistakes here and there, and you know, one day in the studio cost me $5,000, if not more. If we made a mistake one day in the studio or there were some technical issues, that got really expensive. I ended up opening up some credit cards, I think three or four, and borrowing some money from my parents. I’m debt-free now, fortunately, but there was a time when I was about $40,000 in debt. So yeah, I decided I was going to go all Imogen Heap on this album, you know, take out that second mortgage on my house and go for it. When am I going to raise another $100,000 to make the album of my dreams? I wanted to make it as good as it could be.
A few months ago you wrote about Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter project, where she raised somewhere north of a million bucks, then asked the musicians to basically work for free, and there was this enormous critical backlash from her Kickstarter supporters who felt she was exploiting her musicians given how much she’d crowdsourced. You were pretty upset about that backlash. In fact the words you used in your post were “I’m angry … angry enough to give everyone boycotting Amanda a piece of my mind.”
The problem is that Kickstarter contributors think they’re shareholders. That said, I think it got tricky in my case because I made the album, and I honestly thought I’d be delivering it months after I made it. But once [record label] Nonesuch heard the album and decided they wanted to get involved, I was completely out of any amount of money I’d hoped to put into marketing, public relations and so forth.
Fortunately this label wanted to invest in my album, so I started talking to them, and that’s when I started prioritizing the release of the album over my Kickstarter backers. Not only that, but I wasn’t really explaining the whole process to them because it wasn’t locked down. It wasn’t like “Hey, I’ve definitely got this record deal and they’re going to put money in,” it was more like “Well, we’re in negotiations and I can’t exactly tell you that.” I couldn’t be like “I’m negotiating with the label right now and it may or may not happen so sit tight.” There were lots of things I felt like I couldn’t tell them at the time.
I don’t know how I’d do it differently if I could go back, but I know there were people that were offended, there were people who were just grumpy because they didn’t understand what was going on. They didn’t understand why I’d need a label if I’d already funded this myself. If I’d just made the album and given it to my backers and not gotten the whole label involved, there would have been a lot less negative sentiment and this “Where’s my album? I’m a shareholder!” spirit. You live and learn. I’m really glad I did things the way I did, I’m just sorry it took so long.
Given that, would you use Kickstarter again?
Yeah, I would either do Kickstarter or Pledge Music. I’m a little bit on the fence about it, but I love the fact that I can crowdsource. There’s no label in the world that’ll give a debut artist $100,000 to make an album. That doesn’t exist. I don’t know how much I’d be offered to make my second album, but chances are I could do better on Kickstarter and I’d have more creative control. It’s hard to know exactly, because I don’t know what I’m going to do for my next album, and I’m certainly not against Kickstarter. I just learned a lot the first time around, and I think I’d be a lot better at it in the future.
How would you say your new album is different production-wise from your prior stuff?
How I Knew Her is really different from any Pomplamoose album, and not just the place where we recorded it, which is already a big enough thing. We’ve been recording in this small, very, what’s the word…the opposite of what live-sounding is. We had blankets on the walls, it was very muted. And then I went into this very live-sounding recording studio, where we’re dealing with completely different technology, we’re recording to tape, we’re recording on this gigantic soundboard and dealing with completely different microphones, space and technology. And then you throw in the fact that we’re not overdubbing everything like we do with Pomplamoose. With Pomplamoose it’s just Jack and me playing everything, and so we sometimes record the drums live, but for most of our stuff, we record each hit for the drums separately, then create the beat.
With How I Knew Her, I really, really wanted there to be a live sound to it. I wanted it to feel like people playing together in a room, really good musicians playing together in a room. Most of the songs were done one take all the way through, which is the exact opposite of how Pomplamoose records. I love that. I want to do all the rest of my albums that way. Not necessarily all of Pomplamoose’s albums, but I love playing with really good players in a cool space.
You’ve released several videos of the new songs where you’re playing in the studio. Are we looking at video of the actual takes on the album?
Absolutely. I set aside a good chunk of the budget to have a film crew there, because I knew at the time that chances were YouTube would be my only way of telling people about my music, so I wanted it to be good footage, and we got some really good cameras, some really good lighting rigs. Eric Kallevig came in with a production assistant and they were so good at just capturing everything but not making it about the filming. Obviously the music was the main priority, but they were really good at capturing everything, and I’ve got terabytes and terabytes of footage to wade through.
You and Jack said back in 2011 that you thought there’d always be room for new music and new musicians. Isn’t there also an Apple App Store problem, where really great stuff gets lost in the noise?
I think there was a lot of truth to what we were saying at the time, before YouTube was completely saturated. We get far fewer views, Pomplamoose gets far fewer views, I get far fewer views on YouTube than I used to when Pomplamoose was in its heyday. It’s not just because Pomplamoose stopped making music, it’s because it lost its novelty. I mean, who cares about somebody playing guitar in front of their computer and covering a Beatles song? That used to be interesting several years ago, and now it’s like “How was that interesting? Why did we care about that?” But we did, and there was something new about it, and there’s so many new forms of technology that appear every year — you either catch the wave or you don’t. We were fortunate to catch the wave of YouTube in the very beginning, but it’s definitely a lot harder today to get something noticed.