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We here at Grassrootsy are so pumped to kick off this week’s full-time artist series with the incredibly talented Colorado-based Danielle Ate The Sandwich. Danielle’s career is one most independent artists could only hope for. From almost overnight explosive exposure due to a homepage feature on YouTube, to becoming one of the most traveled and sought-after ukulele artists, Danielle has had the opportunity to share the stage and collaborate with Pomplamoose, Leo Kottke, Mumford & Sons, & Suzanne Vega, to name just a few.

In today’s post Danielle talks about her start in music, how she found her niche audience, authentically connecting with fans, fanning the YouTube flame, and the significant role social media and branding have played in opening bigger and better doors in her career.

1. For readers who have never heard of you or listened to your music, can you give us a quick rundown of who Danielle Ate The Sandwich is? 

Hello! I’m Danielle Ate the Sandwich! I consider myself a solo folk singer/songwriter. I am based in Colorado and tour around the country, performing in small venues, coffeeshops and ukulele festivals. I have a large following on YouTube and use social media to manage and promote my music. I was always involved with music and loved to write stories and poems, but it took me a while to accept that the best medium for me, was songs. I am a late bloomer and didn’t admit I wanted to share my songs until my early 20s. I like to write about myself and the things that fascinate and frustrate me. My songs are usually about death and God, relationships, the government, gay rights, compassion and the mechanics of society. I approach these in a gentle way, as if one step outside of the issue, trying to keep an open mind about both sides of the story, but always letting my perspective and thoughts have the last say.

2. Over the years we’ve spotlighted working artists who use music-making as their primary or sole source of income. Can you tell us how you decided to go this route? Was it an easy decision? Have you ever second-guessed your decision? 

I was raised by responsible Nebraskans who taught me to take pride in hard work and self sufficiency, so it was hard for me to become a potentially failing, self-employed singer/songwriter! I had no idea what that would look like or how it could be possible. I was working a regular job at the time my music started to gain popularity, but thanks to the exposure from YouTube, I was reaching fans across the world who were buying my CDs and requesting I tour to their cities! I realized I was making almost as much money making music as I was at my 9-5 job and figured if I focused on music full time, there was a potential it could become a legitimate way to make a living. It essentially started, formed and laid itself gently in my lap before I acknowledged it. I was a scaredy cat (and still can be), so it found a way to present itself to me where I could finally agree, “Yes, ok, this is what I will do now.” After convincing myself that it could be possible, I tried to convince my parents. It was implied that I would get an insignificant, part time job to make sure my bills would get paid, this comforted them as much as it did me, but through the power of the universe and that which is meant to be, I’ve been successfully self employed as a singer/songwriter since 2009!

A lot of people ask me, how do I get big on YouTube or how do I get discovered? They want that big break, quick, intense exposure, but very few people talk about longevity and how to stay productive and inspired through the moments of a lull. 

3. You’re one of the ”lucky” artists who got ”discovered” so-to-speak on YouTube.  And with over 41k subcribers it’s not abnormal to see one of your videos with 50-100k hits. Was it a slow build or something that happened over time? Have you ever looked back and tried to figure out how or why fans latched on so tightly to your content? 

When I uploaded my first YouTube videos, they were slowly gaining views and attention. After about a year a half of the slow and steady climb, one of them got featured on the homepage of YouTube (back when they used to do that). This gave me a huge burst of views, subscribers, and even some website and blog features! After that big break, the videos I uploaded shortly there after got a lot of views quickly and the whole thing progressed pretty rapidly! I like to think the YouTube videos were popular, because the fans liked the songs, but also the refreshing bits of humor and wackiness. I hope people could really see me and who I was. I am enough of a business woman to acknowledge the power of image and branding, but I do feel that being yourself is the best way to present yourself. It’s easy to keep the image going, if it’s simply who you are.

That was over 5 years ago now and things have calmed down quite a bit! I still have a huge and supportive following on YouTube, but the views and interaction are fewer and farther in between! A lot of artists who got big on YouTube at the same time as me have really nurtured their audience and made YouTube the focus of their career. I don’t think I successfully did that. The longer I do music for my job, I’m learning there are phases. Some days you’re climbing stairs and some days you’re just staying on the same step. A lot of people ask me, how do I get big on YouTube or how do I get discovered? They want that big break, quick, intense exposure, but very few people talk about longevity and how to stay productive and inspired through the moments of a lull.

4. As a ukulele artist you’ve developed a cult-like following of ukulele-loving fans. You play ukulele festivals, ukulele meetups, and themed shows (in addition to other events). Did you actively look for your niche or did it find you? 

This is another instance when something incredible found me when I wasn’t looking! (I need to start paying better attention!) When I first picked up the ukulele, I had no idea there was a community of players with so many opportunities and avenues of support! After I went to my first ukulele festivals, I started to realize and feel the amazing heartbeat happening around this instrument I had chosen to fall in love with! In the last couple of years, the ukulele community has truly shaped my career. I started off playing late night shows in dive bars, for twenty somethings drinking PBR, which is truthfully not my scene. With the support of the ukulele community, I play clean and well lit spaces full of bright and enthusiastic fans who like me, because they love the ukulele!  As these ukulele events shape my career, it’s become harder to acknowledge and nurture the non-ukulele playing audience. There are two or more groups of people I could play for and different ways to pave the roads of my career. It’s been interesting to try to set down the perfect path!

I’ve actually had booking agents turn down working with me, because they didn’t know what to do with me, almost like I wasn’t generic enough to just open for their bigger indie bands!

5. You’ve branded yourself as ”Danielle Ate The Sandwich: serious folk songs, silly everything else”. Having seen you live, your set is in fact very deep and heartfelt with comical light-hearted stage banter in between songs. Do you ever feel conflicted over which part of you ”wins out in the argument”? Do you feel more pressure to be mature and folksy at times, and goofier at other times? Does it affect how your promote yourself, design your artwork, or portray yourself on social media?

Joy, Joy, Joy! You’re asking all the questions I constantly ask myself! I have gone through phases in my career, where I wanted to be taken seriously and thought about acting more mature, or where I resented YouTube because it took away from my songwriting. I’ve regretted the name ‘Danielle Ate the Sandwich’ several times, but I don’t think I’ll ever let it go. I have figured all this out as Danielle Ate the Sandwich. It is a symbol of everything I have done and can do.  As I’ve grown into myself and my career, I’ve gotten a little better about just doing what I do and trying not to think about this kind of stuff too much. As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to me as an artist, to be who I am and it’s easiest for me to be a confusing mix of fart jokes and tender, serious songs about life and death. My choice to do this, may not make me the perfect product. I’ve actually had booking agents turn down working with me, because they didn’t know what to do with me, almost like I wasn’t generic enough to just open for their bigger indie bands! Some days that still feels like an insult and a professional detriment, but when I’m being really smart, it’s one of the best compliments I could ever be given. For me, it’s a gift to be a slightly unexpected version of everything. I think musicians are often branded as products, but we’re not one thing. We are not laundry detergent. We’re not just cool leather jackets and acoustic guitars. We laugh at jokes and make mistakes and can be foolish and we can be really really wise. And I’d like to honor that if I’m able to. Young musicians and writers, you are a product, but you are first and foremost, a person!

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6. How (if any) has your online presence played a role in the major opportunities you’ve been given over the years (opening for Mumford & Sons, Suzanne Vega, the HBO special).  

I think at the root of things, the exposure from the internet is responsible for everything I have today. Most of the impressive gigs I landed, were due in part to the promoter or host hearing about my YouTube success. I had a manager at the beginning of my career who helped me get a lot of great gigs and exposure, but again, a lot of it was backed up with the volume of my social media success. Today I use social media EV-ER-Y-DAY to promote gigs and my new projects, but most importantly to find new gigs and new projects. I am so serious about social media. It’s free to the artist and the audience. It’s an amazingly important tool and this day and age, I believe it’s the biggest asset for an indie artist. It’s not perfect for everybody, it’s hard to get it all started and active, but for me, it’s a great way to manage things and connect with my fans!

7. Last but not least, what is the most significant lesson you have learned living as a singer/songwriter?

I’ve learned a hundred million lessons from being Danielle Ate the Sandwich. I think this year has taught me to be very grateful for everything I have and everything I don’t have. I try not to compare my career to others, in an effort to be happy for them and not feel bad about myself. If there’s something I want, I will work hard to get it, but at the end of the day I strive to be very happy with what I have.

And another good lesson I’ve learned in many different ways and at different times, is if you want something, but don’t know how to do it, just try something, anything. The hardest part can be figuring out how. Don’t wait, don’t make too many plans, jump in and do your best and figure it out from there! Just get started!

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