Daniel Nunnelee

Back in early 2022, Daniel Nunnelee self-released a sweetly offbeat love song called "Pick and Choose" – a prime showcase for his poignant yet joyful form of folk/indie-rock. An instant viral sensation that amassed over a million streams in just ten days — and soon led to such triumphs selling out a string of dates on his first-ever headline tour — "Pick and Choose" found the Memphis-born artist facing pressure to put together a debut album delivering more of his strangely enchanting and soul-baring songwriting. But rather than rush out his first project, the Nashville-based singer/songwriter headed to a cabin in the Colorado woods and holed up in absolute solitude as he sketched a new batch of songs, tapping into the graceful musicality he first developed by playing guitar in church in his former home state of Mississippi. Newly signed to One Riot Music, Nunnelee now makes his long-awaited debut with June, Baby: a sublimely idiosyncratic album revealing both his old-soul sensibilities and wide-eyed perspective on finding your way in the world.

As Nunnelee points out, the title to June, Baby nods to his birthday month and to the duality he embodies as a quintessential Gemini. "There's a lot of opposing ideals within these songs, where one moment I'm singing about just wanting an ordinary life with someone I love and the next I'm talking about wanting the freedom to be totally spontaneous," he says. Produced by Gabe Goodman (a producer/songwriter/musician who's also worked with Maggie Rogers and Del Water Gap), the album sets Nunnelee's nuanced self-reflection to a one-of-a-kind sound matching the unbridled energy of his live show with a decidedly homespun charm (an element partly inspired by his longtime love of Paul and Linda McCartney's 1971 classic Ram). With its steady abundance of unexpected details — e.g., Nunnelee's contributions on trombone, a sample of his grandmother singing a Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson song — June, Baby brings an undeniably playful spirit to his existential questioning and, in turn, gently leads the listener toward a brighter state of mind.

Mainly recorded at Heavy Duty Studios in L.A., June, Baby came to life in a series of free-flowing sessions featuring his close friend Noah Pope on drums and Goodman on bass, with Nunnelee handling everything from guitar to piano to Mellotron. For the album's opening track, he selected a heart-on-sleeve song called "Deer Trails" – a quietly enthralling reverie that first emerged at the Colorado cabin. "It was this beautiful spot that's completely isolated with no running water, so you have to bathe in the stream and get water from the well every day," says Nunnelee, an inveterate nature lover who also wrote much of June, Baby at his favorite park in Nashville and at another remote cabin in Mississippi. "I went there after my first headline tour and tried to process everything that was happening in my life, and ended up writing 'Deer Trails' about a daydream where I work a normal job at a coffee shop and I'm sneaking off to the breakroom to call my partner."

True to the album's ever-shifting emotional current, June, Baby next launches into "Do You?" and its wildly anthemic plea to break away from the mundane. In a shining example of Nunnelee's singular narrative voice, the raw and restless track opens on a lyric merging brilliantly warped humor and unguarded sincerity ("I kinda wanna get arrested for a victimless crime/Get caught doing something stupid/Sleep in jail for the night/Just to call so you can bail me out/And give me a hard time"). "It's a song about wanting to live in the moment and let crazy things happen, but being with someone who's very structured and needs to plan everything out," he explains.

A truly gifted vocalist who brings a soulful naturalism to every song, Nunnelee slips into a spellbinding tenderness on "ily ily ily." In composing the sprawling and dreamlike slow-burner, he mined inspiration from his fascination with Brazilian artists like Tim Bernardes, Gal Costa, and Caetano Veloso and included a lyric penned in Portuguese. "It's about the experience of being away from home all the time and how that affects your relationship — how you can end up constantly grieving the time you're not spending together, instead of enjoying the time that you do have," he says. "After I wrote it I went over to Noah's house and we tracked it live right away, so what you hear is him figuring out the drum part in real time. We tried recording it again, but that first version had some kind of magic to it that we could never replicate."

One of the most unforgettably lovely moments on June, Baby, "Pick and Choose" finds singer/songwriter Katie Pruitt joining in for an updated and more expansive version of Nunnelee's breakout hit, featuring a lush string arrangement from composer Julian McClanahan (Wallows, Remi Wolf). "That song came from being so infatuated with someone in the early stages of dating them, which is what inspired that opening line: 'Swear you could break my arm/And it'd probably make my day,'" says Nunnelee. "In the end it's about how you don't get to pick and choose who stays in your life and who you end up losing." Elsewhere on the album, Nunnelee explores such emotionally heavy matters as anticipatory grief (on "I Wanna Die Before You Die," a gloriously frenetic 40-second outburst) and the stifling effects of anxiety (on "Kick Down That Door," graced with a galvanizing guitar solo and Nunnelee's spirited performance on trombone). And on "Are You Proud of Me?," June, Baby closes out with an exquisitely stark piece of autobiography that opens on a clip of his grandmother singing the classic country tune "It's My Lazy Day." "We did a version at the studio on grand piano, but it sounded forced so I decided to record it on my own at home," he says. "It's about recognizing that I'm not exactly what my parents wanted me to be, and asking if they're proud of me anyway. The audio of my grandmother was recorded before we lost her to cancer a few years ago, and I wanted to include it on the record as a way to honor her and my mother."

A near-lifelong musician, Nunnelee lived in Memphis until age six and took up guitar at ten, in his then-hometown of Senatobia, Mississippi. By age 12 he'd begun performing in church, thanks to the encouragement of a youth pastor who'd given him guitar lessons. "Even though I don't go to church anymore, that was a very formative time in my life," he says. "I didn't know how to tune a guitar yet and I'm sure it sounded terrible, but it was such a safe and supportive place for a 12-year-old to start out." Toward the end of high school, Nunnelee began playing covers and the occasional original song at the only bar in town, then continued honing his chops at open-mic nights at the campus coffeehouse while studying at Middle Tennessee State University. During his time at MTSU, he released his debut single "Put Me in the Ground" – a subtly powerful track that gained major traction online after premiering in September 2017. After dropping out of school in 2019, Nunnelee moved to Nashville and worked a food-delivery job while playing guitar for other artists and building up his own body of work, then struck gold with the arrival of "Pick and Choose." Along with supporting artists like Madi Diaz and Shakey Graves on tour, he soon started bringing his high-energy live show to headlining dates all across the country. "My bandmates are my best friends, so we always go crazy and have a lot of fun onstage," he says. "I think it helps give the crowd permission to enjoy themselves too, which is important to me — I want people to feel like they can let go and dance, but also allow themselves those moments of sadness in the softer songs."

In the past few years alone, Nunnelee has cultivated an extraordinarily close connection with his audience — a natural outcome of the warmhearted vulnerability of his lyrics. "When I talk to people at shows they'll tell me how a song helped them deal with a breakup or the loss of someone they love," he says. "There was even a couple who told me that 'Put Me in the Ground' helped them realize they were stuck living the same day over and over, so they sold their house to live out of their van and travel all over. It just shows that you can never predict how you'll affect someone." And with the release of June, Baby, Nunnelee hopes that listeners might take whatever they need from his songs, whether it's a deeper communion with the natural world that endlessly inspires his music or a monumental shift in their outlook on life. "In a lot of these songs I'm talking about being scared, but I hope people come away with a new feeling of freedom to do whatever they want," he says. "I feel like I just started to unlock that freedom in the past year, and hopefully the songs will be some kind of reminder to everyone that this is their life and they're the only ones who can live it."

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