How Ukulele Artist Danielle Ate the Sandwich Built Her Music Career Online

Danielle Ate the Sandwich Interview

If you’ve spent any time checking out rising musicians on YouTube, you’ve probably seen Danielle Ate the Sandwich’s popular original songs or cover videos. Danielle is a uke-slinging singer-songwriter with a dash of comedy who touts inspirations like Paul Simon, Death Cab for Cutie, and Katy Perry.

I got the chance to talk with Danielle today about her musical upbringing, writing the songs for her new album The Drawing Back of Curtains, and her personal journey of growing up as an artist on the Internet.

TL: How did you get started in music?

DATS: I came from a musical family where we were encouraged and, um, forced in a way to take piano lessons and join the choir. I also always really loved writing stories and poetry and whatnot. As I got older, I kept it a secret, but I wrote songs. I think because my songs were a bit off the beaten path of the songs we were singing in choir and the songs I was learning in orchestra and band, I never shared them with people.

I was writing songs since I was ten years old, but I wasn’t sharing them with anyone because I was a very shy kiddo.

I really studied violin heavily in high school. I think my family wanted me to carry it on into college and become a famous violinist, if that’s possible. I feel like it’s even harder to be a famous violinist than it is to be a self-employed singer-songwriter.

But anyway, I dropped the violin and then when I went to college I started a band with some of my friends in school who also just happened to play instruments. We performed at open mic nights and I really loved it.

When college and life paths took them different ways, we kinda had to break up. I knew I wanted to do this more but I needed to do it on my own. I needed to share these songs that I’ve been writing, so I took a big step and started performing solo my handwritten songs, and eventually through playing open mic nights and booking small shows in Colorado, which is where I live, then posting videos of me performing these songs on YouTube, people started to hear them and catch on.

More and more opportunities came my way. A lot of things kind of happened on accident, and kind of came out of nowhere. I don’t know if it’s a story of magic, necessarily, but I had no idea I’d end up here.

TL: Let’s call it magic then! So, in terms of where you are now, I see you a lot with a ukulele. When did you get into playing the ukulele? 

DATS: My friend, who was also in my first band, had one at his house, and I picked it up and started noodling around on it. I really loved it, and he let me take it home and borrow it, and then I started writing songs on it.

When I found the ukulele, I knew it was an instrument but I didn’t know it was a thing, or that it would become a thing, I just thought, wow this is really cute, and it’s easy to play since I already had the foundation of playing guitar, and I liked what it was bringing out in me.

Then my friend gave me my own ukulele so he could have his back, and then kind of like a whirlwind before I knew it I had written an entire album of songs on the ukulele. A couple years later I started being invited to Uke-Fest, and now I really get it.

It took me a while to figure out that there was this community, not only that loves the ukulele and loves people who play it, but who wanted to learn about it and wanted to get together and play and jam. My career has actually kind of shifted from an indie singer-songwriter to more of a ukulele artist because the ukulele community is very supportive and they hire you to play concerts and to teach workshops.

The ukulele has been another big surprise, and it’s definitely my instrument of choice, the one I take out of the case first, and my favorite thing to sing with and write with.

TL: It’s funny how sometimes just going from one instrument to another can be all that you need to get a huge shot of inspiration.

DATS: I agree completely. Even playing a different ukulele that has a different tone can inspire a new set of songs. I feel that way with a lot of instruments. There should be an online rental system where every year they send you a new instrument to try and learn, and then if you take to it you can pay to own it, or you can send it back.

TL: Sort of like when you get DVDs in the mail from Netflix?

DATS: Yeah, Instrument-flix. They’ll send you a piano in the mail!

TL: That would be so great! So, switching gears a little, one of the things I really like about your videos and your songs is the way that you inject humor into your performances, but you’re also a really serious songwriter too. Is it a balance you have to find with those two aspects of yourself or is it very natural and organic for  you?

DATS: It’s natural until I start to think about it.

Whether that’s me in my own head or the voice of my fans and people who know me, and there’s also the voice of me as a woman growing up. I want to be taken seriously, should I still do this wacky stuff? It’s gotten harder to find the balance as I’ve grown up a little bit and become more successful.

When I first started, I wasn’t thinking about it enough. I should have probably been thinking about it more, but in my first YouTube videos I have wacky skits and then I play a sad song about a breakup or about death. I do really like to have seriousness and silliness, because it feels truly who I am as a person. I’ll talk about death and God for four hours, but I also want to watch Full House reruns and dress up in funny hats.

It’s funny though, when you hear that people like a part of what you’re doing, then you want to commit to always doing that, and then I start to think about it too much.

My new album is very mature and serious and there was a worrying voice in my head that said nobody’s going to like this, it’s too serious. But I’m growing up, artists change, people change, and hopefully we never lose who we are but it’s inevitable that we become a bit different.

TL: You mentioned your new album. The Drawing Back of Curtains was composed as the soundtrack to the HBO documentary Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson. How did you get involved in that project?

DATS: I have some friends in LA who are filmmakers. I met them several years ago when they found my songs on the Internet and we kept in touch.

We worked together a little bit when they used some of my previous songs in one of their films called The Bedwetter. I said, you can use these songs for free, and they said we’ll pay you back. And then this film came across their desk, they’re friends with a relative of the artist Edith Lake Wilkinson who’s the subject of the film. When they started to film, they got in touch with me and asked if I’d be interested in recording potentially the whole soundtrack.

I of course panicked because I have no idea how to do that, but they were very supportive and the perfect people to work with for a first time project where I felt very insecure.

So this project really came about because I was friends with wonderful people. It’s kind of all thanks to the Internet and the randomness of finding music and finding friends online.

TL: Was writing music for this film similar to your usual process? I get the sense that you like stories a lot in your songs, so was it helpful having a story kind of all ready to go for you?

DATS: When I went to dive in, I was thinking that I needed to go about it completely different. I was writing songs for a movie, I was writing songs for hire. There were people who I had to impress. And then there was this person, the artist who the movie’s about Edith Lake Wilkinson, and I needed to tell her story.

I really let that influence me negatively at the beginning. It almost stunted any progress that I could have made.

So I had to shake all that off and say, okay Danielle, what do you know how to do? You know how to write songs. You still have to put your own voice in it because they hired you because they like your voice.

And you have to think of this woman, Edith Lake Wilkinson, who I became very close to in a very supernatural way. I wanted to believe that she was surrounding me and that I was connecting to her.

So it was different, and it wasn’t at the same time. It needed to be similar to my previous process because that’s all that I know how to do. If you don’t know what to say for her, what would you say for yourself? I definitely still tried to tell her story, but I used my own voice and my own experience when I didn’t know exactly what to say for her.

It was kind of a wild experience. It was pretty arduous as it was going on. Now that it’s done I can look back and say, it’s easy. It’s easy to compose a soundtrack. There were ups and downs for me for sure. It was a wild process.

But I think that any project that’s challenging and that you’re passionate about is gonna have those moments of getting bit in the leg and taken down and pulled into the gutter, and then you gotta climb out for the moments of the glory. 

TL: Now on to the scariest question. What’s next on the horizon for you?

DATS: I don’t have specific plans. As a self-employed musician, you just kind of have to keep the balls rolling.

I’m going to continue to tour through the fall, tour the new album, and promote the new album. I’m trying to get together songs and the schedule to record a new album that will be solely my project, so I have that to look forward to and do.

Honestly, I’m coming to a really interesting point in my life. I’m a 29-year-old woman and I’m trying to find gratitude in every moment and be happy with exactly where I am. So there’s this balance I’m trying to find of working hard but also not trying to force it.

People ask me, are you going to get a record deal, are you going to open for big bands, are you going to audition for American Idol? And I’m just thinking that what I want is to make music, eat good food, relax, and make a living but also try to be a really happy and satisfied person. I don’t want to let potential success cloud the success that I have already. But that sounds like I could very easily become a couch potato, I don’t know, I just want to be happy.

TL: I get the sense that really doing your work makes you happy, just writing and singing and playing. Everything else is icing on the cake.

DATS: Absolutely. I think when you get busy with other stuff, like projects and record labels, you forget what you like about it which is writing and singing. The busier I am and the more impressive I look, the less time I have to do the stuff that I actually really enjoy, which is writing songs and telling stories. I love to perform, but it’s a very different thing than being alone and writing.

Don’t miss Danielle on tour, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to her YouTube channel for all her latest updates and new songs!

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