When Creativity and Commerce Collide: A Conversation with Nadia Ackerman

When Creativity and Commerce Collide: A Conversation with Nadia Ackerman

When artist and entrepreneur Nadia Ackerman opened a store in the pricey neighborhood of Dumbo, Brooklyn, her friends worried she might starve to death.

“Are you sure about this?” they asked. “Are you okay? Are you eating?”

Now, with her business firmly established on the local scene, the Australian expat can’t help but laugh at the memory. “Oh, I’m more than okay.”

A desire to interact with customers spurred Nadia's decision to launch with a brick-and-mortar shop, rather than an online store. Called “Natchie”—after a nickname her father gave her when she was thirteen—the business is deceptively simple, but wholly original: Nadia sits down at her piano and writes a song; once it’s produced, she draws an image that represents the song’s meaning. The resulting product is the illustration itself, which includes the song’s lyrics, and a code to download the accompanying song.

In addition to running the store, Nadia appears as a singer on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, and Good Morning America, hosts her own radio show, Natchie Night Fly, and performs with an eight-piece band.

Curious to understand how she balances creativity and commerce, we met with Nadia in Dumbo. She shared what it means to have a physical presence in a digital world, the importance of vulnerability as a tool for creating entrepreneurial opportunity, and how kindness and optimism always make for better business.

 

My journey has been a collection of strange circumstances and mistakes. Nothing I’ve done that got me here was an actual plan, per se.

You came to New York because you were trying to make it as a jazz performer. You’ve since become a sought-after singer, an illustrator, and business owner. How did you manage the transition?

I came to New York as a jazz singer. I gave that a good shot, but I hit a wall. I started writing my own music, but the stuff that came out was not jazz at all; I call it “intelligent pop music.” When I was working on my second album—in 2012—I started seeing my songs as drawings. I hadn’t known I could draw; I was not an artist by any stretch. But as I composed each song, I had this complete image in my head of a drawing. I knew how big the paper was, what color pencils to use. I just had this information sent to me, like it was channeled, and I knew I could do something with it.

I rented out a studio and went about drawing every song on the album. When I finished the record and had an album launch in Manhattan, I framed all the drawings and I put them on the walls. At that show, I explained to the audience that I drew every song on the record. Several of them were surprised. Even my band was like, “What? When did you do that?” Now people want to buy the work. At first I found that really disturbing because they were my drawings and they weren't for sale. So my journey has all just been a collection of strange circumstances and mistakes. Nothing that I've done that got me here was an actual plan, per se.

Your songs and drawings come to you fully formed?

Yes. I can hear the melody and I see the drawings, if that makes sense? I generally write a song in 20 minutes to half an hour. A lot of people hate me for that, but it just happens; I don't work on songs for weeks on end. When I'm in the moment, writing the song, I'm also seeing an image of what the drawing is going to be. It all seems very strange, but to me it’s as normal as brushing my teeth.

 

How did you parlay your talent into a viable business?

After I sold my first batch of drawings, I thought: What if I start with greeting cards, and on the back of these drawings there are lyrics and then a free download code—so that you have this complete experience where you’ve got music, lyrics, and drawings?

I started out making greeting cards and selling them at markets around New York City every weekend for two years, which is where I developed all of my products: greeting cards, prints, and frames. I opened my own store when I’d had enough of setting up and packing up, being at the mercy of weather and other vendors, and only having a table to present myself. I could see a much larger vision of what I wanted to do. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I did it.

Did you have difficulty combining commerce and creativity?

No. The funny thing about me is that I am equally creative as I am... I have the commerce head. It was more disturbing that, when I first started, people wanted to pay money for my drawings. It was brand new to me. I understood buying music, but I didn't understand buying a drawing, because I had no training. I didn't give it any value.

How do you maintain this near-esoteric creativity while running a physical business? Those things ostensibly require separate skills.

I think I have a very strange brain where everything exists altogether. For example, I draw in the shop. I have an area at my front desk where, if it's quiet, I'm drawing, which people absolutely love. They cannot believe that the artist is actually in the shop.

 

My work is very vulnerable. You can see the pain in it. All the sadness, all the excitement, all the happiness. A lot of people cry in my shop.

Does that kind of interaction explain why you decided to open a brick-and-mortar shop, rather than an online business?

I love connecting with humans. So for me, the whole idea of an online store didn't interest me at all, because I can't meet my customers. I can't interact with them. I can't share stories. Believe me, there are times where I've been so busy and so tired maintaining and running the shop, where it's just like, “Man, I could have just done all this online.” But it's not the same. It's really not.

Also, with a physical shop, the amount of opportunity that comes through the door for business has been mind-blowing. People always ask, "How did you get such an such opportunity?" And I say, "Oh, she just walked in the door as a customer."

Is the crux of your business’s growth predicated on this kind of human interaction?

Oh yeah. For instance, I got picked up recently by a Japanese department store. In November of last year, a Japanese guy walked in here with another Japanese guy. Their English wasn’t great, so there were a lot of charades and hand movements while I tried to explain my art.

Anyway, he went through everything; he was here for about 40 minutes, and he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He'd never seen anything like it before. Long story short, my art is now exclusive to Loft in Japan. They have 70 stores, and they're flying me over in September for the launch.

The Natchie philosophy: engage everyone, never underestimate the power of communication, and great things will happen. True?

Hands down, it's all about communication. I treat every single person the same. Every person who walks in the door, even if they don't speak English—which happens a lot, because Dumbo is a very touristy area. I've got an information poster in the store that explains what Natchie is in five different languages.

 

The idea of an online store didn’t interest me at all, because I can’t interact with my customers. I can’t share stories.

There are many other talented, entrepreneurial artists in New York. What helped you stand out?

The first thing is that there isn't really anyone who's opened an entire store that solely features artwork by one person. People walk in, especially other artists, and they freak out. They're so freaked out for me, asking things like: “How could you be successful with a store like this?” “Are you okay?” “Are you eating?” I'm like, “Oh, I’m more than okay.”

But I think the biggest thing I have going for me is this concept with the music and the free download code—and that's sort of the hook that gets everybody, because no one's done that before. It's so unusual and rare. It grabs people.

And, thirdly, my work is very vulnerable. It's very emotional. You can see the pain in it, all the sadness, all the excitement, all the happiness. And people are really drawn to that. A lot of people cry in here. I had no training, so my drawings are very honest, and it's straight from the heart.

Are people buying you, just as much as they’re buying your products?

Both—a lot of the songs are about personal struggles that I've had. There's a song called “Underground,” which is about depression. I struggled with depression years ago, so drawing it is pretty intense.

The far corner in the shop is what I call “the intensity corner.” As you come deeper into the store, it gets deeper. There's grief; there's loss; there's struggle. And it's really interesting, because some people are naturally drawn there. I'll say, "That's really interesting that you chose these drawings.” Or often I'll say to them, “Are you okay?” And they're like, "No, I'm not actually. How can you tell?" And I'm like, "Well, you just chose a drawing about depression. So I'm just checking that you're okay." We go deep.

A lot of people come in here and stay for a while. Sometimes, I get people who come in—this happens quite a bit—and they're like, "I was driving past in my car and I slammed on the brakes and I don't even know why I'm in here. And I just pulled the car over.” It happens a lot: the store calls people; they get in here and they don't know why they're here or what it is.

 

How do you handle your public relations? You’ve been on SNL, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Good Morning America. Surely their producers aren’t all driving past your store and feeling that magical pull.

I don't actively reach out for anything, which is pretty unreal. With those kinds of shows, there's a pool of singers; there's probably about, I don't know, 10, 15 of us that are considered the regulars. And we do all the jingles, all the sessions, and we get called for those shows.

You've sung with many big names: Sting, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Elton John, Billy Joel. Do you have a favorite?

Sting is dear to my heart. James Taylor is pretty fantastic. Very, very nice. Very real.

From a public relations perspective, it’s interesting that you’ve been able to use these singing gigs as a way to grow your business.

Yeah. When I first opened the store, I was like, "Okay, I really need to find a publicist." And I just haven't had to yet.

 

I could see a much larger vision of what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I did it.

What explains that organic publicity?

The uniqueness of my mission and my energy. I'm very warm and normal. If someone asks me a question that's personal, I'll absolutely answer it. I don't mind. There's a drawing called “Mourning Town.” It's about my dad dying. I've no trouble in sharing that.

These days society is all about false pretense, and “How can I look perfect, cover all the cracks, and make sure you can't see anything?” I'm the total opposite. That’s refreshing for a lot of people.

You have your eight-piece band, your store, your art. Between all of those commitments, how do you decide where to allocate your time and resources?

The most important thing I have to manage is the commissions that come in, so I set priorities: these people are getting married in September, so this needs to be done now because it's got to get to Italy. I keep a list and check it every day to make sure I’m organized and on track. The rest is just about being present as things pop up.

You started drawing in 2012. Was there something that you had to do or learn about in order to make Natchie a success business?

When I started out, I only sold greeting cards. After they kept selling out, I thought of adding more stuff. I'd say it's really started to become successful now. Like, right now. I can feel it changing gears, and more and more is getting put onto my site.

 

What do you attribute that to?

Expanding the business and having the store, absolutely. When you're at a market and you've only got a table, there's only so much you can do. And when you have a store, seven days a week you have a chance at reaching people. It's not just five hours on Saturday and five hours on Sunday. You've actually got this massive amount of time. You never know who's going to walk in the door.

The power of human interaction: a game-changing client might walk through your door at any time...

You never know!

Entrepreneur, artist, and singer Nadia Ackerman is a client of Bench. Browse her artwork, and drop into Natchie—Nadia’s retail store in Dumbo, Brooklyn—when you’re in New York.

Photos by Taby Cheng.

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