Raised in the old West Village of New York City, Natalie Gelman grew up amidst artists and true bohemians. At the age of 16, she borrowed a friend’s guitar, wrote a few songs and began busking on subway platforms. With a powerful voice reminiscent of Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Joni Mitchell, Gelman’s honest, heartfelt songs captivated tourists and commuters alike.
Natalie’s passion and persistence led to admission into the prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts, where she received classical training in opera singing from coaches of the Juilliard School and the NYC Opera. After attending the University of Miami — and graduating in 2006 with a degree in vocal performance — Gelman embarked on 1,500 mile tour from Miami to New York City on rollerblades. Along the way, she performed in numerous venues, sold her self-titled debut album and donated the proceeds to Children International. Despite being hit by cars twice and rollerblading through tropical storms, Gelman completed her journey on July 17, 2006.
In 2013, Natalie released her second album, Streetlamp Musician, with producers Charlie Midnight and Mark Needham. The music video for her song “Most the While” was selected for the 2014 New Media Film Festival. Natalie is currently in the midst of recording her first full-length record, which was successfully funded through Kickstarter. She is planning for a spring 2015 release and continues to tour nationally.
Learn more about Natalie at her website, www.nataliegelman.com.
Top photo: Brent Florence
What was your childhood like, and what initially drew you towards performing?
I grew up in a musical and artistic home. My parents are both artists and had me studying classical piano and violin from the ripe young age of four! I loved music, but I was never too interested in either instrument.
Singing is always what resonated with me, and I would put on concerts at dinnertime and often get kicked out of the dining room because I just wouldn’t stop singing once I started.
It wasn’t all music lessons and concerts for my family, though; I had a tough childhood in a lot of ways and my connection with music and the joy and confidence it gave me really kept me going. Before getting into LaGuardia high school, which was a great experience, I was severely bullied in school and didn’t have a good circle of friends. Because of that I learned to entertain myself with music and spent all my free time being creative.
Performing in public didn’t come as naturally as performing for my family in the dining room either. I was so nervous for my first solo when I was only seven years old that I hid under a piano. When the choir director found me, I told him I couldn’t sing the solo and made some excuse about not remembering the music at all. Somehow he convinced me to sing that night in front of a few hundred people.
Lots of other moments that should have scared me from ever performing in public kept happening. I actually repeated the hiding under a piano trick at a piano recital just a few years after that when I did actually completely forget my music and ran through the audience to hide in another room!
It’s been a series of awkward moments, but I always knew I wanted to do this and there was always something drawing me to performing and share music. I think that’s what still drives me to do this. Nowadays I rarely get nervous, and I really value the connection and sharing an experience with people at a performance.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
When I first started writing songs I was listening to a lot of Jewel and Sheryl Crow. My style back then was so similar to them that I heard those comparisons all the time. Since then, I have explored a lot more within the singer/songwriter genre and am a big fan of Patty Griffin and Paulo Nutuni. I also have lots of the singer/songwriters I’ve met at conferences or playing shows together that inspire me. I love finding new music and usually it’s the lyrics that I latch onto first and fall in love with.
I think all the work I did studying classical music and singing opera and musical theater made me a really sensitive melodic writer. Also, all of the different genres and instruments I’ve studied have helped develop my ear. I write from a very song-focused point and with a lot of focus on the final sound and sharing it with people at a show or on a record.
What is your songwriting process?
I don’t have a real set process but usually one of two things happens: I’ll either have some lyric/melodic inspiration come at once and then sit down to hash out the rest of the song, or I’ll find a title somewhere in a newspaper or magazine or from something someone said and I’ll have to work out what that means and write from that.
A lot of lyrics come from asking questions to myself and figuring out why it sparked and inspired me in the first place. Sometimes there’s more then one direction to slant the lyric and I have to choose early on — those can be harder to write because it’s all still so new and, by choosing to take the lyric and song in one direction, I know I’m (at least temporarily) cutting out the other possibilities.
Other times, especially when the inspiration is fresh, the lyrics will come pouring out easily and my work is to refine them and make sure I’m saying exactly what I mean to and working out any superfluous words.
Partially because I get to perform so much, playing live is a big part of my songwriting process too. I bring songs out when they are still very new and like to see what kind of reaction they get in the show. If I see that something isn’t connecting the way I thought it would, I’ve been known to go back and change it… a short cut of this process is having a co-writer, which is also one of my favorite ways to work. It’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off of and hash out a song.
Musically and lyrically, how have you evolved since you first started writing songs?
I’m not sure I can accurately answer that. I have definitely grown as an instrumentalist. I think more about the instrumentation while I’m writing a song too — both a live show where I’m accompanying myself on guitar, piano or ukulele, and for a record where I can bring in a number of players and instruments to change the feel of a song. I think I’ve grown tremendously as a lyricist, and I have co-writing with some fabulous people including Charlie Midnight to thank for that. Between his high standards and my own, I’m known for agonizing over lyrics because I really want to be honest and clear.
I know that whatever I’m writing, I’ll potentially be singing live thousands of times and there’s a pressure to make sure I’m 150% happy with every lyric and the whole vibe of the song.
What goes through your mind in the moments before you go out on stage?
I’m just excited. I really do love performing for people now and taking them on the journey of a show. In the last few minutes before performing I’m usually just making sure I have everything I need to help me put on a great show and trying to stay really present to whatever happens.
I’ve found that for me, surrendering control and being comfortable with whatever happens has been the key to having more successful performances. I have a general plan of show, especially the first few and last few songs I want to do, but I like to communicate with the audience and so I’ll spend that time just before a performance going over where I am and if there’s any particular story or something I want to remember to bring up that will connect us all and help break down the barriers between the audience and me and let us go on a journey together.
What’s the most memorable audience you’ve performed in front of?
That’s a hard question. I’ve had some really memorable audiences when street performing. There’s been quite a few amazing house concert and listening room audiences but there is something extraordinary about connecting with people on a NYC subway platform.
I’ve had so many moments that have really made an impression on me, from getting a group of strangers on a platform clapping and singing along to a song I wrote to assumptions of people who I never thought would ever listen to my music come up to buy a CD and even homeless people being super grateful for the concert and connecting with them. There was one incredibly humbling moment when a man emptied his paper cup full of coins from that night into my guitar case. It still makes me cry when I think about it. He insisted and was so truly happy to give me what he could. I know that had to be a huge amount for him and it was so hard to accept, but it makes me remember the huge value and impact these songs have on people.
There have been a number of experiences like that when I’ve been busking. All the walls of a typical show are down so I think it leads to those moments of connection happening more often and at a very deep level.
Via a successful Kickstarter campaign, you recently raised over $16,000 towards your next album. What was the fundraising experience like for you, and is Kickstarter something you’d recommend for other artists?
Yes, isn’t it incredible?! I’m really happy with that success — my campaign goal was $12,000 and I reached that only halfway through. I definitely needed more than that to really get this record off the ground, and I’m so happy that my Kickstarters kept supporting and pushing the project forward even though it was already funded. It’s amazing how people can come together and give what they can to help launch something they believe in.
This was my second Kickstarter campaign, and I definitely think it’s a great tool for artists. It’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster when you’re running the campaign as you get emails every time a pledge comes in. The fairly slow and steady climb that took me towards my goal this time was hard because I was expecting it to be similar to my first campaign where ~33% was funded in the first 48 hours and another ~33% in the last 48 hours.
This campaign was a lot more work in getting the word out and reminding people. There was still some great initial support right out of the gate and it’s easy to get worried as things slow down a few days into the project that it’s not going to get funded and all the work will be in vain. It really gets you worried not only about your project and embarrassed if you don’t reach the goal but also that you’re letting down the people who are on board already and have to figure something else out.
That community accountability continues after it’s funded and you are on your way with the project. I’m really happy to have not only the support of this core group of supporters but also the pressure to make something incredible and work extra hard to give them a great record.
There is so much faith your fans have in you when you do something like this — it’s incredibly humbling and I’m so grateful for it!
What’s the best song you’ve heard recently?
I recently played a show with a fabulous singer/songwriter out of Nashville, Leticia Wolf. She’s got a song called “Come Live With Me” that I’ve had stuck in my head since we played together. I love her lyrics because they are so relatable and speak to so many while still being so personal and really about her own life. I also was drawn recently to Richard Hawley’s “Tonight The Streets Are Ours” recently after watching Exit Through The Gift Shop and hearing it in the closing credits.
I’ve also been listening to my own songs from the new record I’m working on and “The Answer” is sounding so good. I’m sure it sounds pretty narcissistic, but I think it’s a great song and I’m really excited to share it with folks as soon as the record is ready. It’s been a favorite at shows since I wrote it about a year ago, but you never know if that magic can be captured in a studio recording. This one is looking really good, which I couldn’t be happier about.
What did you learn about yourself during your 2006 rollerblading journey?
That’s a funny question to me because I set out on the rollerblading tour partially to prove to myself that I could do anything I wanted to. I think I learned that in some ways, but I also think I knew it before I even set out on the tour. It’s nice to have that reminder now that my focus and drive can get some huge things done. While personally fulfilling in that I did it, it wasn’t a big success in helping me get much press and new support for both the charity and the record I released as part of the tour. I think I learned a lot about graciously asking for and accepting help and more about being clear with my intentions for a project. I’m always asking now what I want to happen before even going out on smaller tours. It helps keep focus on the big picture and reminds me why I do the little things I have to do each day and at each show that are steps towards my bigger goals.
Do you still rollerblade?
I probably would more if I still lived in NYC. The Westside Highway has a great path that is well-paved and I used to go out and love to ride. Where I live now has a nice long 14-mile bike path but I took it once and after taking off my blades I realized that the rough pavement had been stressing my knees. I’m sure it’s something I’ll take up again if they pave it or I move somewhere that has a path that’s good for rollerblading.
Even before heading out on the rollerblading tour in 2006, I didn’t do major extensive training. I was fit and I had done some long distance trips throughout Miami, in particular out to South Beach and back to Coral Gables once. But I was so busy making my first record and preparing for my senior recital and booking the rollerblading tour shows, sponsors and logistics that I just didn’t have enough time to actually blade! It’s just always been something I’ve enjoyed and I’m fascinated by the cobweb of roads connecting us.
If you could offer one piece of advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?
I was 18 when I was thinking of dropping out of college and going for my singer/songwriter career in music. I actually went as far as canceling my classes after my sophomore year, but a week before they were about to start, my mom insisted that I go back. I’m happy I have a college degree but looking back even just 10 years later, I would have told myself to go for it and start working on my passion full-time. Also, that was a bit before I learned to think about whether something would really matter a year or month or even a day after it was getting to me. Once I started asking that question, most things in life that would have been issues earlier stopped even mattering.
What are you working on next?
I have a few projects I’m working on. I’m really looking forward to putting out this new full-length record in the spring. I’m also working on another release that I’m hoping will come out in the fall next year. The second one will have some of my lullabies, ukulele-based and the sweeter songs I’ve written, including the “Sundance In Your Eyes” single I released earlier this year. The two records really took shape simultaneously and the songs seemed to find homes amongst themselves between the two projects.
I’m also excited to keep touring — I’m working on my first European tour for next spring, which is long overdue. It’s been a goal of mine for a while and the stars aligned for me to finally get over there! I’m sure I’ll find plenty of new things to write about through all of that and it won’t be long before I’m working on my 5th and 6th albums!