About eight years ago, amid what seemed like a relatively successful albeit not quite superstar music career, Natalie D-Napoleon posted on social media that she was done with music. I’d met the Australian singer/songwriter soon after she’d come to Santa Barbara in 2008, and I was shocked to see her — of all the mostly making it musicians in town — be the one to hang up the guitar.
“I poured all my hopes and dreams into it,” she told me last December over Zoom from her home in Fremantle, Australia, which is also where she grew up. “I played every sticky-carpeted pub, from Perth in Western Australia to Stockholm, Sweden, to shows in Arizona and Texas. I was just burned out.” Instead, she started working toward a master’s in creative writing, taught in the writing center at SBCC, and wound up writing poetry instead of the novel she’d planned to do.
“I didn’t quit music altogether,” she explained. “I quit my career aspirations for music.” But she kept playing for herself, and upon completing her master’s, she went out and bought a new Gibson Songwriter guitar.
“It was a really serendipitous thing to do,” said the songwriter, who’d had no luck writing new material for more than three years. “Maybe the well’s run dry with music,” she’d thought, but then, “I picked up my guitar and the songs started coming out.”
Meanwhile, her poetry — as collected in the book First Blood — was so good that she won a prestigious award in Australia as well as a PhD scholarship to Edith Cowan University in her hometown. That would eventually mean leaving Santa Barbara with her young son, Samuel, and her husband, Brett Leigh Dicks, an Australian photographer and journalist, who, incidentally, I hired as a freelance music writer for the Independent back in 2005.
But before their July 2019 departure, D-Napoleon wanted to record her songs here. “The whole heart and soul of the album is Santa Barbara,” she said, explaining that many of the songs were written on the front porch of her East Cota Street house, around the corner from the Los Agaves on Milpas. “There is some ancient, American thing about playing guitar on a porch. I would call my music California-front-porch music.”
She reached out to revered music man Jim Connolly, and he suggested the century-old Deane Chapel on the Westmont College campus in Montecito. With the backing of Connolly, Dan Phillips, and Doug Pettibone, D-Napoleon went to work in March 2019.
“I had nothing to lose. I had time limitations and budget limitations, and the one mic in the chapel really ticked both those boxes,” she said. “It was fantastic acoustically. When you go into a wooden room that’s 100 years old, as a musician, we know that sounds good to our ears.” The wooded outdoors didn’t hurt either. “I felt like those oak trees have spirits as well,” she said. “They’re there in every note on the album”
It was an intense weekend of recording. “I left nothing behind — I felt like I had run a marathon,” she recalled. “I finished the last take of ‘Broken’ and I literally collapsed to the floor. I didn’t even have another take in me. I was done.” That song wound up being the last track on the resulting album.
She spent the next few months polishing the album (with help from composer Jesse Rhodes), did a goodbye show at the Lobero Theatre in June 2019, and then she moved the next month to Australia for the PhD program. “I had this beautiful album that I had no idea what to do with,” said D-Napoleon, who never planned to revive her music career. “I just intended to get the songs down and do them some justice.” But when she shared the album with friends, the response was unanimous: “Everyone said that this is the best thing you’ve ever done; you have to release this.”
Fast forward a year — including six months of the pandemic — and Natalie D-Napoleon finally unleashed You Wanted to Be the Shore but Instead You Were the Sea to Australian audiences on September 30, 2020. It instantly skyrocketed up the indie charts in Australia, hitting #1 on one of them and being named a top 10 release by Rhythms Magazine, the country’s “bible of roots music.” After some initial American buzz last March, including praise as the best release of March 2021 by the Americana Highways blog, she’ll be officially releasing the album in the United States in September, with radio campaigns starting this summer.
Aside from the album’s vocal and instrumental qualities, the songwriting is particularly personal and emotive in nature, diving deep into the feminine perspective on issues like domestic violence, lost pregnancies, second marriages, and childhood trauma — sometimes autobiographical, sometimes fictional. “I want to write about women’s experiences in a different way,” said D-Napoleon. “I feel like we have been written about so much, but women’s voices in music haven’t been heard to as great an extent, and in a way where we’re talking about the complexity of women’s lives. We end up being clichéd: We’re the muse or the bitch or the whore.”
D-Napoleon looks forward to returning to perform the album in Santa Barbara whenever that’s possible, and she is planning to play next January at the Folk Alliance International Conference in New Orleans and in March 2022 at SXSW in Austin, Texas, no matter what. She’s nearly done with her PhD and will then be looking for a professor job in both the United States and Australia.
“We’ve left it wide open,” she said. “If I get a great job in the U.S., we’ll come back. If I get a great job here, I’ll stay here. I’m hoping I can make a life where I can play music and be a writing teacher and write poetry. For both Brett and I, our dream would be to split time between both countries.”