A genuinely new way to attract legions of fans doesn’t come along often, but Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn have found one. Their duo, Pomplamoose, is being courted by major labels, and you’ve probably seen and heard them on this past holiday season’s TV commercials for Hyundai automobiles. At press time, they were booked to open for the Dresden Dolls on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. The magic ingredient is YouTube. “If you ask how YouTube has impacted our career,” Jack says, “I’d tell you that YouTube is our career. It’d be impossible without YouTube.”
Thousands of musicians upload videos to YouTube every month, of course, and most of them haven’t a prayer of getting noticed. What makes Pomplamoose special is a chemistry brewed from three key ingredients. First, they’re solid pop musicians. Their arrangements are catchy and their sound is rootsy, not gimmicky, with lots of acoustic piano and Wurly, not to mention Nataly’s clear, wistful voice. Second, about half of their YouTube videos are fresh arrangements of well-known songs by pop stars such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Michael Jackson. Fans of those artists who cruise YouTube for videos are quite likely to discover Pomplamoose. Their cover of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” has been viewed more than five million times.
Third—and this is the unique factor—Pomplamoose doesn’t do music videos in the conventional sense. There’s no lip-syncing and no hokey storyline. The videos are shot in their home studio while the tracks are being recorded, and they have two rules: If you see it, you’re hearing it; and if you hear it, at some point you’ll see it. They call the results “video songs,” and the rules are important.
The videos, which Nataly edits when she’s not playing bass or singing, are eye-catching, with fast cuts and multiple frames. “As I’m watching it,” she says, “I’m thinking, ‘How do I make this more visually stimulating?’ I try to make it so that it’s not just,” in a dull monotone, “And here’s the piano. And here’s the voice. And here’s the guitar.”
Jack’s keyboards include an Adam Schaaf upright grand, a Wurlitzer 200 electric piano, a Hammond Aurora organ (a solid-state model, not a tonewheel), and a portable Casio M-100. “The Schaaf upright was built in the 1890s,” he says. “It’s almost six feet tall. I love the sound of that piano. For a while I wove some felt in and out of the strings, so it sounded like a plunk—almost a pizzicato sound.
“I love the Wurlitzer,” he goes on. “Such a classic sound, and so versatile. I can run it through my whole guitar rig—all of my distortions and reverbs and delays and weird Electro-Harmonix effects. That makes for a great sound, especially when you record it out of an amp instead of going through a direct box. I have a Fender Twin, also from 1972, and I run the Wurly through that. The Twin has two huge speakers, but it’s great with the Wurly, because the Wurly is like a bass instrument. It really woofs through the Twin.
“I usually mic the Fender Twin with my Neumann TLM-103. Sometimes I’ll put the mic right up against the cabinet. I usually put it to the right, so it’s not quite on the center of the cone. If you put it in the center of the cone, you get a more round, open tone. If you put it toward the edge of the speaker, you get a little more of the attack and the brighter side of the tone. Sometimes I put the mic back ten feet, or face it away from the amp toward the wall if I want more of a roomy, washy sound.”
Both Jack and Nataly come from musical families. “My dad is a jazz piano player,” Jack tells us, “and my mom is a jazz singer. I grew up with their music in the house. They’d play together.” He started playing piano at age six, and picked up the guitar in college. “After that it snowballed into all the other random instruments, which I don’t really play—I just hack my way through. Any drumming I’m doing is very recent and after a lot of practice. I don’t have great drummer’s time. In the last ten or 12 video songs I’ve been doing live drums, but I do still sometimes sample the various elements of the kit, then construct beats based on those samples.”
Two more pianos have lately found their way into Pomplamoose— a Bösendorfer Imperial grand, which Jack’s father gave them, and a Heintzman & Company baby grand, built in 1928, which will be in Nataly’s studio.
“My parents always wanted me to play an instrument,” Nataly explains. “My dad is a pastor, and my mom directed music at church. Most of the time she was playing piano and directing the choir. So they started me on piano at a pretty young age, and I was really resistant. Eventually they gave up on piano, and I picked up the guitar. About five years ago, I begged them to get me a bass. When I compose, I mainly hear bass lines. I don’t know how to explain them, because I’m not trained from a technical standpoint. But they got me a bass, and that was the best investment they could ever have made.”
As ubiquitous as their covers have become, Pomplamoose’s original songs are quirky and distinctive. “Usually one of us will come up with a riff or a melody line,” Jack says, “or Nataly will sing some words or something, or I’ll play a keyboard part and say, ‘Go!’ then Nataly will sing a melody over it. Once we have this founding idea—a combination of a melody and a keyboard riff, or a groove and a lyric—then we sit down together and work our way through the melody and the form of the song.”
“What usually happens after that,” Nataly elaborates, “is that Jack will engineer the drum part so that we have something to play onto. He works for a few hours on the drums, and I spend that time working on lyrics. Then we come back together and discuss the lyrics and move things around. So even that is a collaboration.”
“We start recording right away,” Jack reports. “We don’t, like, orchestrate the song first and then go back and film and re-record everything.”
“As soon as we like an idea,” Nataly confirms, “we say, ‘Let’s record it.’ Sometimes you like a different idea more as you keep going, so you redo something. It’s very organic, I guess.”
They record the video clips as they go. “It’s just like you would record a normal song,” Jack explains, “except that whenever you track something, you also press Record on the video camera.” The process of editing is complex, however. The video is captured into a separate program, and then has to be manually aligned with the audio by dragging and dropping. “For video, we’ve been recording onto a little Canon home camcorder,” he goes on. “However, recently we’ve been recording directly onto the computer through QuickTime, so that we can skip the whole process of downloading the footage from the camera to the computer.”
Since lip-syncing would violate the video song rules, how do they make sure they’re using the right video when there are multiple takes? “When we were recording with our old camera system,” Jack explains, “we’d do what we called ‘greening’ a take.”
“I don’t think that’s a term in the industry,” Nataly laughs.
“We’d record maybe ten takes,” Jack continues, “and the last one would be the one we’d like, so the next thing that we’d do is take a piece of green paper and hold it right in front of the camera and hit Record. That way, when we were looking through hundreds of thumbnails of takes, we’d find the green box, and we’d know that the take before it was the good take.” Now that they’re recording video directly to the computer, the process is easier: They simply name the good takes and drag them to a “Good Takes” folder.
Now, about those cover tunes: “Covering songs used to be something that pop bands just did,” Jack says. “I don’t know why pop bands don’t do that anymore.”
“Even the Beatles’ first album had covers,” Nataly chimes in.
“I like taking a melody and ditching everything else,” Jack goes on. “Ditching the chords, ditching the drums, just taking that melody and building something completely different around it. The way we pick our songs is, we gotta love that melody.”
“Earlier on,” Nataly explains, “we were covering songs that we liked from an artistic standpoint. Then we realized, we want to be making originals. So if we’re gonna do covers, they need to serve a purpose in the sense that they allow us to make more originals.”
“Which isn’t to say we’re ditching our artistic attachment to the melody,” Jack adds. “If the melody doesn’t inspire us, we’re not gonna cover it.”
Even without the cover songs, Pomplamoose would have a strong video presence. “Music without packaging is like any product without packaging,” Jack insists. “It won’t sell. You can have the best product in the world, and if nobody knows about it, you’re not gonna sell it. So the way we package our music is in video form through YouTube. For us, that’s been very successful.
“Short-form content has gotten a huge boost in the last five years because of YouTube. The way for us to attach music to short-form video is through these ‘video songs.’ The thing about our videos is that they’re not amazing, expensive, creative videos. They’re boring shots of us recording in the studio. It’s not like we’re making amazing videos and terrible music. I think it’s probably more the opposite. We’re making cool music and boring videos.”
Nataly, the video editor, interrupts, laughing, “Hey!”
“There are a bunch of people making video songs now,” Jack goes on, “and some of them are getting serious about it. But what I’d like to see is a ‘real’ band, a signed band, start to take advantage of the power of YouTube. Because signed bands aren’t selling that many records right now. If these bands were to shoot video while recording an album, then post YouTube videos once a week for six months, they’d sell way more records! I don’t know why they haven’t done that. I think the labels don’t get it. Everybody still thinks YouTube is this amateur platform for babies’ butts and cute animals.
“It’s not any burden to put a camera in the studio,” he points out. “When I track something, instead of pressing one Record button, I press two. That’s it. The camera is non-existent. I don’t think about it. I mean, yeah, I line up the shot. But I’m not thinking, ‘I want to put this in the background and get a flashy . . . ’ or anything like that.”
Nataly has a different view, possibly because she’s the lead singer. “I have a different relationship with the camera,” she says. “There’s a little bit of acting in the video singing process. People don’t realize that if they see Mariah Carey singing in her video, like, she’s in the sound booth in front of the mic. Instead, they think, ‘That’s what people look like when they’re singing.’ But people generally look really stupid when they’re singing! I mean, if you’re trying to focus on pitch and enunciation and all those things, and trying to sing with emotion, it takes a tremendous amount of focus. People will watch me singing, and they’ll be, like, ‘You’re so flat and you don’t have any expressions.’ That’s because I’m singing it! I can’t be acting it with my face. So occasionally I try to act present. I try to give the camera a little look so that I’m like, ‘I know you’re watching me, I know you’re there.’
“I think girls are more aware of the camera,” she smiles. “We do want to look good, you know.”
“It’s all about the audio for me,” Jack replies. “My philosophy is that if I’m concentrating on the music, the video will be an honest depiction of the truth. Then again, I’m ugly, and no possible lighting can make me look pretty, so I’ve given up. [Laughs.] Nataly is different. She’s gorgeous, and the lights make her look more gorgeous.”