When Natalie D-Napoleon, the singer, songwriter, and poet, walks into my office early in the morning, she looks, to my surprise, well rested. She’d played a gig at SOhO the night before, so I was expecting her to be more exhausted. But she’s bright-eyed, relaxed, and open-hearted.
Natalie recently won the prestigious Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize in Australia. “I started writing when I was 10,” she tells me. “I would toss and turn and I’d get up and write my ideas in my notebook. And as soon as I wrote them down, I could go to bed.”
I’d heard Natalie perform at Sings Like Hell a few years back, and was moved by lush sound — combining folk, country, and bluegrass, she’s at once modern yet able to recall a timeless, rural sound. Those qualities have allowed her to grace the stage with such luminaries as Vic Chesnutt, John Doe, John Butler, Steve Kilbey (The Church), Grant McLennan (The Go-Betweens), Morphine, Mark Olson (The Jayhawks), Ken Stringfellow (REM/Big Star), Henry Wagons, and Victoria Williams.
Our paths frequently cross at Santa Barbara City College as well, where I teach film studies and Natalie mentors students as a teaching assistant in the writing center. “I’ve always written, and my husband [Brett Leigh Dicks] works at SBCC,” she says. “He encouraged me to come tutor.”
Born in Freemantle, Western Australia, Natalie jokes that she “came from one West Coast to another West Coast.” She was raised on Croatian folk songs and American singers like Linda Ronstadt. Her parents were farmers. “All they wanted from their children was to get an education,” says Natalie, who became an English major. “I went to one of the top universities, University of Western Australia.” There, she constantly wrote essays, but would often stop to write a poem.
After graduation, she worked in the university’s admissions department for 10 years. “When I was 20, I put a notice in a record store to start a band in Perth,” she remembers. “I always loved acoustic music, especially American.”
That led to the indie-rock band Bloom, which released a debut album Cable Thing in 1997, won the Western Australian Music Industry Award for Most Promising New Act, and played venues all around Perth. “Those were fun days,” she says with mischievous smile. “Stage diving! It was a fun time to be part of the music scene in Perth.” She worked full-time during the day and then “changed into my rock clothes and played until midnight.”
Bloom lasted about four years. Upon its demise, she formed an acoustic band with her first husband called Flavour of the Month, which landed songs on compilation albums and released Fear of Falling on Treadmill Records in 2000. Her marriage fell apart around 2006, and after the divorce, she started playing solo, which she’d never done before. Inspired by the book Eat Pray Love, Natalie also traveled to Croatia and Egypt.
Around that time, the photojournalist Brett Leigh Dicks — an Aussie who’d written a nice review of their album but had moved to Santa Barbara, where he once wrote for this newspaper — reconnected with her. “Why don’t you add America to your journey and we will travel in my Mustang eating in greasy diners?” he asked her in an email that she’s kept ever since.
They fell in love, corresponding by email, speaking on the phone, and spending time together in three-month stints. “Santa Barbara seemed like a lovely place to start my life again,” says Natalie, who is now the mother of a very active eight-year-old boy named Samuel.
In 2014, she started a Masters in writing program through Swinburne University, which inspired her to restart her daily writing practice. “Writing went on a backburner while I was [song]writing and playing music for about 15 years,” she says. It wasn’t long before she won that Australian award for her poem “First Blood,” and, next year, Ginninderra Press will publish a poetry collection of hers called Stories & Sand.
“I’m just going with the flow where the doors are opening,” she says.
Natalie D-Napoleon answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your current state of mind?
Humbled and ready to embrace new challenges. Life has a way of bringing us all to our knees. While I was getting my poetry award in Australia, my husband had emergency life-saving surgery. It reminded me that this life we all live is a precious gift that hangs by a thread, and to never take those we love for granted.
What do you like most about your job?
I love the fact that I get to help transform students’ lives through writing. Watching students’ writing improve and their confidence grow during the semester is an absolute gift. And then there’s always the magic moments I have working with one-on-one tutoring, particularly when a student shares a touching story in a personal essay. It affirms my faith in humanity.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Good food, good friends, good music, stimulating conversation, dancing, and the loves of my life by my side (my husband and son).
What is your greatest fear?
Snakes - just like Indiana Jones. I grew up on a farm in Western Australia and we were surrounded by bush and poisonous snakes - they were always slithering into our house and yard. That fear extends to the snakes in our government and corporate world as well :)
Who do you most admire?
My grandmother, Ivica Unkovich, because she lived through World War II, raised six children, and left Croatia to start a new life with her second husband, my grandfather, in Australia when she was 40. She was working in her garden growing vegetables well into her seventies. Her grit and quiet strength inspires me to this day.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Clothes and musical instruments. Whenever I’m feeling down, I go clothes shopping and it always gives me a boost. There’s nothing like a new frock to lift a girl’s spirits! Recently I bought myself a Gibson Songwriter and wrote an album worth of new songs, so that was a great investment/extravagance.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Honesty and a genuine heart.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Lying and being passive aggressive. I’d rather hear the unvarnished truth than a well-polished lie.
What do you most value in friends?
Honesty, humor, open-mindedness, and the ability to have an intelligent conversation.
What is your most marked characteristic?
My enthusiasm for all things creative.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Australians swear way too much, so I can’t seem to break that habit. From me, my son knows all the bad words to call Donald Trump. Oops!
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to be able to dance. I mean I can dance, but really dance like the folks on “So You Think You Can Dance?”
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’m a worrier and over-thinker. If I could wave a magic wand and make those parts of my personality go away I would, but meditation helps a lot with that.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Starting my life again in a foreign country with nothing but a suitcase of clothes, a notebook, and a guitar. And raising an awesome seven-year-old who warms my heart and makes me laugh every day.
Where would you most like to live?
The island of Korcula in Croatia where my family is from. It’s a little piece of heaven on earth in the Adriatic.
What is your most treasured possession?
My guitars. At the moment the Gibson Songwriter is my favorite.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My husband. He’s witty and smart — you can’t beat that!
What is your motto?
Expand yourself, open your mind. Don’t let others shrink you.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Frida Kahlo, for her unflinching view of herself as a woman and an artist. I admire how she turned her pain into art, and respected native peoples and their myths.
On what occasion do you lie?
When I’m faking it to make it. (All performers know about this one.)