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'How I Knew Her': Nataly Dawn

From YouTube to the concert stage, a 21st century singer/songwriter blazes her own path

By Andrew Luthringer
MSN Music

Nataly Dawn / ©Jeffrey Marini
Nataly Dawn

"It's been a big 24 hours!" Nataly Dawn sounds slightly out of breath.

Understandably so, because in the day before this interview was conducted, she had been busy. She played at President Obama's Inauguration brunch in Washington, D.C., rehearsed for the first time with her four-piece band in preparation for the launch of her tour with Ben Folds, and found out her song "Please Don't Scream" from her newly released solo album, "How I Knew Her" (out now on Nonesuch), was the Starbucks Pick of the Week. Even the hardworking, level-headed and modest Nataly admits that big things are happening fast for her right now.

Together with her multi-instrumentalist partner (and producer of "How I Knew Her") Jack Conte, she performs as Pomplamoose, and the duo gained a large following with their superbly crafted (and entirely homemade) "VideoSongs" series on YouTube. In addition to their own originals, the duo proved adept at creatively repurposed covers of pop songs by artists including Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, which helped fuel their popularity and visibility.

But Nataly's musical interests and inclinations are broad and deep, and her new album shows a more personal and introspective side of her talent that may surprise older fans, as well as gain her many new ones. Featuring 12 original songs, the album has a timeless, confident and open sound, with Nataly's delicate and emotive voice supported by an earthy band sound that reveals delicious details and nuance with repeated listens.

MSN Music: You first came to prominence and began building a fan base by disseminating your work with Pomplamoose on YouTube. Now you find yourself in what might be described as a bit more of a traditional record deal.

Nataly Dawn: It certainly is very different from where we started out in Pomplamoose. The funny thing is, both Jack and I have always been more invested in our solo work than we have been in the band. The band is something we did for fun, and when it really started taking off, we decided that we needed to take a break from it. It was becoming a headache, ALL business and no fun, and a lot of pressure from exterior voices ... and we decided that we wanted to take a few steps back. And it was a really good decision, because now we're actually able to come back to Pomplamoose and start making things. We've already made a few songs together in the last few months, and we've put out these singles, and it's refreshing to go back into the studio now that we've had some time apart to work on other things. It's a dream come true, obviously, to be able to focus on this solo stuff, but that's not to say that Pomplamoose wasn't also a dream come true. They've both been amazing experiences, but very different ones.

Your process in making "How I Knew Her" also seems as if it must have been very different. It's got a much more rootsy, live-band atmosphere to it.

Jack and I have always enjoyed music that has a live feel -- we've always enjoyed that more, generally speaking, than overdubbed stuff, especially when it comes to singer-songwriter music. It just has a much more vibe-y feel to it. I definitely didn't want my music to sound like Pomplamoose. ... I really wanted to record to tape, do a lot of live tracking and only overdub after we'd gotten good live recordings in the studio.

You're about to kick off your tour tonight. Do you prefer to be a creature of the studio, or would you rather be playing live?

Playing live is so much fun; it's really fun. But being on tour is kind of grueling [laughs]. ... But so far it's been really awesome because I've been around people who are really good, and so easy to be around. ... It has so much to do with the people who are in the band with you. ... But that said, I'm also kind of a homebody [laughs]. I don't like eating out; I love cooking! It's hard to be away from home.

Watch: Nataly Dawn and Pomplamoose videos

Pomplamoose was really the right approach at the right time, as far as how well you used the YouTube platform. It would be a lot harder to reproduce that success the same way now. Do you feel as if you're going to move away from the "VideoSongs" concept a bit more in the future? Are you changing your approach to how you reach and cultivate fans?

Well, YouTube has always been one element of what we do. It always got the most publicity, because like you said, it was new when we started doing it, but Pomplamoose has always been doing licensing. As soon as we could afford to go on tour, we started touring. We've always been trying to do lots of things, not just YouTube. Obviously we live in an era where social media is crucial -- I've been investing way more time in Facebook and blogging, but also continuing to make videos. For the album, I have footage and I'm planning on making a video for every song on the album, and putting them out on my channel. It's very much in the Pomplamoose "VideoSong style," except for the fact that I hired a professional video crew and lighting crew to be there in the studio. I had a little more décor budget, so that made it feel, I don't know, a little bit more professional, a bit less homey ...

I'm just ending up combining a whole bunch of different ways of staying in touch with people and reaching out. ... I think it's really important to have people talking about you online, and in print, and on radio, and to tour, and to just work as hard as you can possibly work. I'm fortunate that I still have this very present fan base on YouTube, and I can still make things that make them happy, but they're not the only group of people that I'm trying to reach.

How does simultaneously making a video and recording affect the music, if at all? Do you think it changes the way you perform?

The most important thing while we were recording was the music. The cameras were there, sort of capturing something behind the scenes almost. They'd set up the cameras and shoot, but they weren't walking around while we were recording. They just tried to capture as much as they could, without getting in our way. There are definitely moments where you look into the camera and you acknowledge that you have a viewer, which is something I'm used to doing from recording Pomplamoose. People respond way more when you make eye contact with the camera! [laughs] It took a few years to get used to that.

In some ways, the "job description" for a musician is very different in this era, where so much time has to be spent taking care of things like social media. Do you find it difficult to figure out how to prioritize keeping up with fans versus actually sitting down to make some music?

You go through phases of different activity, and it's hard! [laughs] I find myself wanting to write more, when I have to be doing something else. It's always this tug-of-war:  Do I respond to these emails, and send out those forms, or do I pick up my guitar and write a song? I'm very fortunate that I have people working with me at this point. ... I think that's kind of what was killing Pomplamoose. We were SO focused on being independent that we ended up doing too much work. The more popular we became, the more stuff we had to do every day. It was so hard to know how to take on that load of work, and we just got stuck. Finally we ended up finding a great management team, and then the label, and it really lightened the load. For a percentage, obviously, [laughs] but it is worth it!

What's your writing process for your solo work?

I tend to hear melodies first, and maybe a bass line -- and sometimes the melodies have words with them, but oftentimes they're just melodies with filler words that I end up replacing later with more thoughtful words. ... The thing that takes the longest, of course, is the lyrics, which usually stem from, ohh, something in my life that I'm trying to process.

I read somewhere that you described your songs as autobiographical. But when I hear the music, I actually hear so many different points of view ... 

It's funny, I've really regretted that word! It's only in fact 68 percent autobiographical! [laughs] Of course there are elements, things from my life, but there's also, as you say, a lot of different perspectives: Writing from the perspective of my mom talking to her mother ("How I Knew Her"). Writing from the perspective of close friends ("Even Steven"). It's a lot of writing from the perspective of "her," from the Woman, which is why it made sense to me to call it "How I Knew Her." At the same time, all of the characters are people who are very close to me.  Biographical would perhaps be a better term!

Andrew Luthringer has worked in the digital division of Warner Music Group, and during the ringtone craze as a music editor at T- Mobile. He has been an editorial presence at MSN Music off and on since 2001. He has written and produced numerous reviews and interviews with Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, Michael Brecker, Hilary Hahn and many others.

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