Usually, when you write your very first song and upload it to YouTube, you don’t get five million views.
Julia Sheer did. That was when she was a high school senior in Golden, Colorado, and the song was called “You Will Never Be”. Even six years later, after a lot more views on YouTube of a lot more songs that she sang, it’s a song that’s still a special kind of enchanting. Julia Sheer can write a song.
Usually, when you can write a song that millions of people listen to over and over, you would probably write a lot more songs and upload all of them to YouTube.
Julia Sheer didn’t. She did keep recording songs, though, songs that meant something to her, songs that she thought people might want to hear her sing. When she put them on her YouTube, sure enough, millions of people did want to hear her sing. Most of the songs on her YouTube channel, the one with half a million subscribers, are songs that other people had written, although she didn’t stop writing by any means. She released her own tracks and sold hundreds of thousands of downloads, making her one of the most successful independent, really independent, artists online.
It wasn’t even really anything she planned. “I was just was kind of putting those videos up on the side, and then it just kind of snowballed in to what it is,” she remembers. “I never really expected it to just take off and I would have all of these subscribers and followers and views, but it just kind of happened.”
Naturally, when your YouTube channel has tens of millions of views by the time you get to your high school graduation, the great big music business is going to want to talk to you about it. That summer six years ago, when she was still only eighteen, labels began flying Julia Sheer to Nashville and New York, and she was offered several big record deals. Of course, if you’re offered a big time recording contract right after you get out of high school, you wouldn’t usually decide to pass all of it up because it’s not exactly the way you want to make music. Julia Sheer did, but she doesn’t regret it. “I thank God every day that I didn’t sign those record deals,” she says, “because I wouldn’t be in Nashville making country music, and that’s what I really really wanted to do.”
That was only part of it, though. Sheer had a very good reason for what she chose to do, but the whole thing was just so unusual that nobody except Julia Sheer could really imagine what that reason could be, until now. It wasn’t the kind of reason she could put into a sentence or two, so instead, she put it into the five songs on her brand new EP.
The first song on the EP is a delicately beautiful track called “If I Can’t Make You Love Me”. Maybe there’s not a real good way to say exactly what makes a singer’s voice beautiful, or bold, or beguiling. But as you listen to the rhythmic and melodic subtlety in Sheer’s vocal, you’re less and less and surprised. You’re less and less surprised that stadium-packing numbers of people, spread out over time zones and internet connections, already listen to her, and listen a lot. It’s not just her picture perfect vocals, either. The architecture of her songwriting is just as refined; it’s strong and musical, and her songs can wrap a lyric around you in a way that a lot of radio hits could only dream about.
So usually, when an artist can write that well, they would want to write all of the songs on their record, wouldn’t they? Julia Sheer doesn’t. “I think a lot of the time, people think they have to write every single song on their record,” she says. “But there are so many amazing songs being written every single day that nobody is getting to hear. They’re getting overlooked, because people want to write every single song on their record, and I just don’t think that’s necessarily the way to do it.”
She feels especially strongly about the song “Takes One to Know One”, for which she’s just finished the EP’s first video. Although not very explicit by the standards of pop radio, the chorus is just a little raw for country radio, and Sheer is actually recording two versions of the song. “When I heard the demo of that song, it just struck me so hard,” she says. “I just immediately knew I had to put that song out.”
As for the other three songs on the EP —”Vinyl”, “What’s Gone Is Gone” and “Right Where You Left It” — they could all walk right down Main Street in broad daylight. They’re all hook-driven music poems that make you feel as if you liked them before you ever heard them. Still, that’s not really why she chose them, at least not exactly.
“I went out and looked for songs that were absolutely, undeniably me, that I could relate to, but also songs that I knew every other person on Earth, basically, could relate to.” she says. “As a listener of music, that’s what means the most to me, is when I hear a song and I’m like, that person is singing about my life.” That’s what means the most to her as a listener, and although it seems unusual, that’s exactly what means the most to her as an artist. “I wanted these songs to be, not only could I relate to them, but every girl out there that’s sitting at her computer because she just got broken up with is going to be able to listen to them and be like, oh my gosh, she’s singing about my life.”
For Julia Sheer, it’s not just a question of picking songs, although it sounds at first like something you hear often, about the importance of a song. With Julia Sheer it’s different though, it’s not just a question of knowing what a song can do, it’s knowing what a song can be.
Before there were any video stars, much less online video stars, the importance of a song was already a touchstone for the illuminati of the music business. Even back when big time music executives still accessorized with cigars and fedoras, they all knew that you have to look deeper than hit records and hot artists to really see what’s making it all move. It’s the song, the right song, that turns all the other wheels. That’s what a song can do, and knowing that, as some of them will be the first to point out, is what makes them the pros.
That’s practically amateur hour compared to what Julia Sheer can see. Much too often, the pros miss all the poetry, because that cold-blooded insight into what a song can do misses all the warm-hearted enchantment of what a song can be.
That’s what Julia Sheer looks for when she looks for a song. She looks so deep that she can see the people who would love to hear it, and she can see just as clearly why they would. “I still look for those kinds of songs that really, really mean something to me, that I can really relate to, because I want to be that person for someone,” she says. “I want to put out music for people so that when they’re sad, or when they’re happy, or, you know, when they’re feeling anything, those are the songs that they listen to. I want to make music for those kinds of people.”
Usually, when an artist has already been heard eighty-seven million times, you wouldn’t say that all of that was just the beginning. But the way that Julia Sheer can sing a song, and the way that she can see beyond it, she’s probably just getting started.
Photos of Julia Sheer by David Aday