By Grady Smith
February 23, 2012 at 05:59 PM EST

When Julia Nunes first uploaded a video of herself singing an original song called “A Welcome Vacation”  onto YouTube in January 2007, she never expected what came next.

“I put it on YouTube instead of Facebook because I wanted it be more private!” Nunes, now 23, insists. Suffice it to say, she didn’t get her wish. Over the last five years, the Rochester native has amassed 50 million video views, scored 207,000 subscribers on YouTube, toured with Ben Folds, released two albums, played at the Bonnaroo festival, and performed on Conan.

Now, she’s gearing up for the release of her Kickstarter-funded fourth album, Settle Down, which will be available on Tuesday, Feb. 28. So how exactly did Julia go from Web upstart to main-stage star? Read on:

Nunes started getting into YouTube during her freshman year of college. “I’d just been ripped away from all of my musician friends that I had in high school,” she explains, so for her, YouTube offered a way to show those musicians what she was working on since their graduation. Yet Nunes, who plays a multitude of instruments (melodica included), usually only featured the ukulele in her Web videos — not totally by choice.

“Obviously, in my dorm room, I didn’t have room for a piano,” says the singer, “and any time I pulled out the guitar, I had two roommates who were like, ‘That’s so loud! Can you just go to a practice room?'” Thankfully the three eventually reached a compromise. “The ukulele was quiet enough that they could deal with it,” says Nunes before quickly adding. “aaand they loved Jason Mraz songs, so as long as I played them some stuff, they were fine.”

After about a year of performing both ukulele-infused originals and covers, Nunes had quietly developed a fan base of about “a thousand” subscribers without really trying. “It was all ukulele enthusiasts,” she says.

But things quickly changed in Jan. 2008 when YouTube featured one of her videos, “Into the Sunshine” (above) on its homepage. Viewers were enamored not only by the cheerful ditty, but also Nunes’ editing style, which saw her overlaying her videos with other clips of her singing harmonies and adding instrumental flourishes. “In one day, she remembers, “[my subscriber count] jumped to ten thousand, and definitely a broader spectrum of people.”

As the alto-voiced singer kept posting new videos online, her view counts grew exponentially. “Certain covers just got me so many more fans,” Nunes says. “‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ was a huge one.  It didn’t get featured or anything, but over the next couple of weeks I just saw it on so many Facebook pages.” (That video currently has 2.6 million views.)

It wasn’t long before she was spotted by the wife of piano-man Ben Folds, who invited Nunes to open for him for four shows in May 2008 after seeing her cover his song “Gone.” “Before I really played my own shows, I was opening for Ben Folds!” she recalls.

In November of that year, Nunes ended up on the YouTube homepage once again with her ambitious stop-motion video for the original song  “Maybe I Will,” which brought on another a new load of listeners. She spent three days shooting the video in her bedroom, but the hard work paid off: It’s currently her fifth-most-watched video.

Still, it was an out-of-left-field moment a few months earlier that brought Nunes her biggest bump to date. Molly Ringwald appeared on Good Morning America in June 2008 to discuss her show The Secret Life of the American Teenager. In an offhand moment, Ringwald mentioned that she had recently purchased a ukulele after being inspired by “this girl, Julia Nunes, on YouTube.” That simple comment, says Nunes, brought “more attention than anything else has ever gotten me. Molly Ringwald!

NEXT PAGE: How Julia raised $77,000 for her new album Settle Down

Since then, Nunes has released three independently recorded albums of original material, as well as a collection of YouTube covers online. Her second album, I Wrote These, came together quickly. “I recorded it in a barn my freshman year of college entirely for free,” says Nunes. “In truth, it’s not the most professional of efforts…you have to really love my music to listen to the poor production of that album.”

Each subsequent release since I Wrote These, though, has demonstrated a substantial increase in production quality — and many of the tracks from that disc have been rerecorded for Settle Down.

In addition, Nunes has also performed lives shows across the country throughout her college career. “For almost my entire junior year of college, I was on tour every single weekend,” she says. “I basically had three days of classes every week: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The rest of the week I was traveling.”

All that live experience served her well. In June 2009, she performed at the Tennessee musical festival Bonnaroo, and a year later, she was asked to play it again. During one of the festival dates in 2010, she even got to hop on stage with Weezer. Just last month, Conan O’Brien asked her to perform on his late-night talk show, and she made her television debut there playing current single “Stay Awake” on Jan. 24.

Now, Nunes is preparing for the release of Settle Down, which was funded entirely by her fans through the website Kickstarter. Initially, Nunes had drawn up a budget of $18,000 to record her album in 16 days in Brooklyn. But she wasn’t prepared to take that financial leap independently, so she looked into the world of crowd-funded music — with some major doubts.

“Fans have watched me all this time, and I’ve never needed $20,000,” she explains. I was really worried that they would feel taken advantage of, and it left a bad taste in my mouth to ask for money.” Nunes ultimately decided to seek $15,000 in funding, and she would cover any other costs herself. She set up her Kickstarter goal with a 30-day time limit, and was shocked by her fans’ generosity.

After 24 hours, Nunes had already raised $19,000. “Immediately, we were like, ‘Thank God!'” she remembers. Over the course of the month, money kept flowing in, and Nunes ended up raising over $77,000, which allowed her a level of flexibility in the studio that she’d never enjoyed before.

Suddenly, “We could spend more time, we could afford to mess up a little bit — to be a little bit more creative.” Nunes happily added quirky features to her record, like her new favorite instrument, the Snapple cap. “I’ve fallen in love with that noise,” she says. “It’s all over the album. That kind of stuff came out of having the time and letting some breathing room into our schedule. It was so necessary, and I was unbelievably happy while it was happening, and I still am.”

Despite all her success, Nunes still has trouble believing how all these pieces came together to give her her dream career in music. “I feel unworthy because I know so many people really try hard to do what I’ve done, and it just kind of happened accidentally,” she confesses. “I’ll be honest, at first, I was just kind of like, ‘Why? Why does anyone like my music?'” But hearing audience response has made Nunes a more bold artist. “I just had to learn to take it seriously, to earn it in my own eyes…. They’ve pushed me to consider myself an actual musician.”

Listen to Julia’s current single, “Stay Awake” below, pick up her album Settle Down on Feb. 28, and check her out on her latest tour.

Are you a Julia Nunes fan? If so, how did you discover her? Will you be checking out her new album?

Follow @EWGradySmith

More YouTube stars on EW.com:

‘A Very Potter Musical’ star Darren Criss talks about his EP and the future for Team StarKid

YouTube’ Christina Grimmie: The 17 year-old talks about her album, opening for Selena Gomez

Kina Grannis’ jelly bean-infused video for ‘In Your Arms’ is totally amazing

YouTube stars Karmin make their ‘SNL debut’

YouTube delights: Five singer-songwriters you should get to know

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