Grady Smith
February 23, 2012 AT 05:59 PM EST

When Julia Nunes first uploaded a video of herself singing an original song called “A Welcome Vacation”  onto YouTube in January 2007, she never expected what came next.

“I put it on YouTube instead of Facebook because I wanted it be more private!” Nunes, now 23, insists. Suffice it to say, she didn’t get her wish. Over the last five years, the Rochester native has amassed 50 million video views, scored 207,000 subscribers on YouTube, toured with Ben Folds, released two albums, played at the Bonnaroo festival, and performed on Conan.

Now, she’s gearing up for the release of her Kickstarter-funded fourth album, Settle Down, which will be available on Tuesday, Feb. 28. So how exactly did Julia go from Web upstart to main-stage star? Read on:

Nunes started getting into YouTube during her freshman year of college. “I’d just been ripped away from all of my musician friends that I had in high school,” she explains, so for her, YouTube offered a way to show those musicians what she was working on since their graduation. Yet Nunes, who plays a multitude of instruments (melodica included), usually only featured the ukulele in her Web videos — not totally by choice.

“Obviously, in my dorm room, I didn’t have room for a piano,” says the singer, “and any time I pulled out the guitar, I had two roommates who were like, ‘That’s so loud! Can you just go to a practice room?'” Thankfully the three eventually reached a compromise. “The ukulele was quiet enough that they could deal with it,” says Nunes before quickly adding. “aaand they loved Jason Mraz songs, so as long as I played them some stuff, they were fine.”

After about a year of performing both ukulele-infused originals and covers, Nunes had quietly developed a fan base of about “a thousand” subscribers without really trying. “It was all ukulele enthusiasts,” she says.

But things quickly changed in Jan. 2008 when YouTube featured one of her videos, “Into the Sunshine” (above) on its homepage. Viewers were enamored not only by the cheerful ditty, but also Nunes’ editing style, which saw her overlaying her videos with other clips of her singing harmonies and adding instrumental flourishes. “In one day, she remembers, “[my subscriber count] jumped to ten thousand, and definitely a broader spectrum of people.”

As the alto-voiced singer kept posting new videos online, her view counts grew exponentially. “Certain covers just got me so many more fans,” Nunes says. “‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ was a huge one.  It didn’t get featured or anything, but over the next couple of weeks I just saw it on so many Facebook pages.” (That video currently has 2.6 million views.)

It wasn’t long before she was spotted by the wife of piano-man Ben Folds, who invited Nunes to open for him for four shows in May 2008 after seeing her cover his song “Gone.” “Before I really played my own shows, I was opening for Ben Folds!” she recalls.

In November of that year, Nunes ended up on the YouTube homepage once again with her ambitious stop-motion video for the original song  “Maybe I Will,” which brought on another a new load of listeners. She spent three days shooting the video in her bedroom, but the hard work paid off: It’s currently her fifth-most-watched video.

Still, it was an out-of-left-field moment a few months earlier that brought Nunes her biggest bump to date. Molly Ringwald appeared on Good Morning America in June 2008 to discuss her show The Secret Life of the American Teenager. In an offhand moment, Ringwald mentioned that she had recently purchased a ukulele after being inspired by “this girl, Julia Nunes, on YouTube.” That simple comment, says Nunes, brought “more attention than anything else has ever gotten me. Molly Ringwald!

NEXT PAGE: How Julia raised $77,000 for her new album Settle Down

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