Jamie O'Neal

by Amanda Flinner

Australian singer/songwriter Jamie O'Neal burst onto the country music scene in 2000 with her debut album Shiver, which included the chart-topping songs "There is No Arizona" and "When I Think About Angels," both garnering Grammy nominations for Best Country Song. A year later, she won the ACM award for Top New Female Vocalist, but Jamie was no newcomer to the industry.

Growing up in a family where both parents (Jimmy and Julie Murphy) were professional singers meant Jamie's talent shows were not the sweaty-palmed affairs at middle school gymnasiums that most kids suffered through. They were live performances with the family band where country greats like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson were part of the lineup.

"I watched from the side of the stage at the way they connected with a crowd, and that's what made me want to be a performer," she remembered.

For years, she's also been a sought-after songwriter, penning hits for Martina McBride ("How Far"), LeAnn Rimes ("Surrender") and Reba McEntire ("Pink Guitar"). Before that, she was touring as a backup singer for the Australian pop superstar Kylie Minogue.

After a five-year break from recording, Jamie is back in a big way. In addition to starting her own record label, Momentum, and launching new artists like country singer Rachele Lynae, she released a new album of her own, Eternal, in 2014. In this compilation of classic covers, Jamie digs deep into her country roots with traditional songs of love and loss from Patsy Cline ("Leavin' On Your Mind"), Loretta Lynn ("Don't Come Home A Drinkin'") and The Gatlin Brothers ("I've Done Enough Dying Today"), to name a few. There's also one original, a comedic song co-written by dad Jimmy Murphy, called "Wide Awake."
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): You've performed songs you've written and songs you didn't write. What's the difference between singing your own words versus somebody else's?

Jamie O'Neal: Well, I think when you come up with the melody yourself, it's really comfortable and you're just doing what comes naturally, whereas when you sing somebody else's song, you're kind of trying to make it your own. But it's almost more of a challenge because you want it to be your own, and you don't want to sing it like either the demo singer or the original artist. You've got to get outside of your comfort zone a little bit, but it's still more fun. I find it really fun singing other people's songs.

Songfacts: With your new album, you're performing songs that aren't only written by other people, but that are already established classics. How did you make those your own while still honoring the originals?

Jamie: Well, I think some of them I've lived with for so long - like, "Help Me Make It Through the Night," my mom used to sing when I was a kid, and I would stand on the side of the stage watching and listening to her sing it. So that had a special place. Then Patsy Cline, "Leavin' On Your Mind," I've been singing that for a long time, and "I've Done Enough Dying," the Gatlin Brothers song, we'd been opening for them when I was a kid. So a lot of these songs had really great memories for me, and it was a no-brainer to include them on the album.

Songfacts: How did you even go about choosing them? Were they all songs that you had sung live before or were there some that you had just always wanted to do and never got the chance to do before?

Jamie: It was little bit of both. There were a couple of songs I had been singing for a while and then there were some that I always admired and loved and said, "Oh, I want to do that one." Then there were some that my husband (engineer/musician Rodney Good) really loved, and he and I really went through everything, trying songs and picking the ones that we felt just suited my voice the best, and ones that I could hopefully bring something new to, like a new style.

Songfacts: I'm sure many of them have influenced you as a singer, but were there any in particular that inspired you as a songwriter?

Jamie: Yeah. I think it's really hard to find some of these big torch-type songs like "Leavin' on Your Mind" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night." You don't hear a lot of songs like that these days that are just that really raw emotion. It's almost like desperation in a way. I feel like back then people used to sing and lay it all out on the table when they loved somebody. Now I feel like we hide that a little bit more: everybody wants a positive up-tempo party song or a feel-good beach song. So those desperate songs about being in love and missing the person or being desperate to have them back again, you don't hear those a lot on the radio.

Songfacts: Singing them live more recently, did you feel that people are receptive to hearing songs like that again?

Jamie: Yeah, I absolutely think so. I think there's songs, like "The Sweetest Thing," that'll live on forever, and when you hear it, it takes you right back to where you were when that was a big hit for Juice Newton, which I think amazingly enough was a hit in country music and pop music - and not simultaneously, but a few years apart. That's the first time I've ever heard of that happening with the same artist.

I think that song stands the test of time and that's what makes it a classic to me is the fact that everybody knows it. Not just in one little area of music, but across the board, everybody knows that song.

Songfacts: "Golden Ring" was originally a hit for Tammy Wynette and George Jones and you brought Andy Griggs (known for hits "She's More," "You Won't Ever Be Lonely") in on that for a duet. How did he get involved with the project, and was he already familiar with that song?

Jamie: Oh yeah, I think Andy is familiar with every country song that's ever been released. He and I are good buddies. We've been touring on the road together, and he recorded here at my studio. I just really wanted to get him on the album, and it seemed like the perfect song for us to sing together. He's just so good, and I think it really suits his voice.

It's weird, because we didn't even record it together at the same time, but we sing it live together on stage. I was here when he recorded it, but we kind of know what each other are going to do vocally, like it's an instinct. So I think our voices really mesh well together.

Songfacts: Was it easier or harder to record these songs? Rhonda Vincent was talking about a duet she recorded with Daryle Singletary of the George Jones/Melba Montgomery song "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds." She said they thought they'd knock it out really fast because they both knew it so well, and then it ended up taking hours because it was a lot more difficult than they thought. Did you find that to be the same or different?

Jamie: I think it's always a little bit more of a challenge when you are singing someone else's song. You spend more time because you have someone to compare it to. When you're doing your own songs, you don't have anything to compare it to, so it's just easier.

Jamie's dad, Jimmy Murphy, found fame as a recording artist in New Zealand and as a star on the Australian bandstand. He also serves as General Manager for her Momentum label and manages the music career for his other daughter, Minnie Murphy, as well as for Rachele Lynae. His songs have been featured on the Desperate Housewives soundtrack and America's Funniest Home Videos.
Songfacts: The newer song on the album, "Wide Awake," I listened to that without reading anything about it first, so when it hit the chorus and it was about snoring, I laughed so hard. I just did not expect it. What was the story behind that one?

Jamie: Well, my husband snores really heavily. I wrote it with my dad, and my stepmom snores really heavily. So like most good songwriters say, write about what you know, and we sure know that. We sure know snoring. [laughing]

Songfacts: Now, you wrote that one with your dad. Is that harder or easier than writing with other people?

Jamie: It's easier in a way. We're real comfortable together, and he's pretty laid back, so you don't feel the pressure. Some people blow in, it's like, "I've got three hours. We need to write a hit, let's go."

Songfacts: Going back to some of your older songs, you also covered Eric Carmen's "All By Myself," for the Bridget Jones' Diary movie. Were you familiar with that song beforehand?

Jamie: Oh, yeah. I love that song. I've always loved that song.

Songfacts: Were you familiar with the book by Helen Fielding before you did it? Did that have any influence on your version?

Jamie: No. I actually wasn't. But I sure was excited to be in there, because I love Renee Zellweger and I love Hugh Grant, so it was really great. I got to go to the premiere and everything.

Songfacts: It's just such a dramatic song. Where did you pull that drama from to record it?

Jamie: Yeah. Boy, that is a real challenge to sing a song like that. It's just one of those songs that has such a range to it that you've got to dig deep just to get the notes out.

Songfacts: Now, for the Reba McEntire song, "Pink Guitar," which you co-wrote, was that autobiographical at all? Was there an actual pink guitar?

Jamie: No. It's funny, because [co-writer Shaye Smith] and I love the color pink. And Gibson made a pink guitar for me when I wrote that song, even before Reba cut it. So that song has always been close to my heart just because of that.

But they always come up with guy colors for guitars or more of a neutral. But every girl is attracted to pink and loves to play a pink guitar, especially little girls. My little girl is playing the guitar now and just loves it.

Jamie's daughter, Aliyah, made a cameo appearance in the music video for the 2005 song "Somebody's Hero." Partly a celebration of then-newfound motherhood, it was also a tribute to the generations of strong women in Jamie's life. She explained: "The thing for me was, when you have a baby you start thinking about your own relationship with your mother, and when you were little, how much you looked up to her. Then you move to, 'Gosh, my baby looks up to me so much. I don't want to let her down. I want to be a hero to her.'"
Songfacts: For "There is No Arizona," had you been to Arizona before you recorded that one?

Jamie: Yes, many times. I actually went to Sedona I think probably 25 years ago, maybe 22. I just fell in love with that little town, you know, before it even got the commercial success that it has today. I just love it.

Songfacts: Had you been to all of those different places in the song: Grand Canyon, Tombstone, Painted Desert?

Jamie: Yep. It's definitely one of those states you could travel around and go to a lot of different places.

Songfacts: Was it Arizona that inspired you to write it or did you already have the idea for the song in mind and then you just picked a place that worked?

Jamie: Well, when I went into the writing appointment, I had "Sedona" written down. I said, "I want to write a song about Sedona," and I told them about the town. I'd been there in the fall and there was a lot of mist. I said, "It's mysterious and it's spiritual, and I think we could be really descriptive. We could describe the feeling you get when you're there." My co-writer said, "Well, that's weird, because I have written down in the title, 'There is no Arizona,' which was a line from the Dolores Claiborne movie of Stephen King's. So I said, "Well, that's it, we have to write that."

Songfacts: That's interesting – an unexpected connection.

Jamie: Yeah, when I played in Bangor, Maine, which is where Stephen King is from, his assistant was in the crowd. So when I told that story, she must have gone back and gotten a book. Anyway, he ended up autographing a Dolores Claiborne book and sending it to me and saying, "Dear Jamie, there really is an Arizona. Love from a fan, Stephen King."

I thought that was so nice. It really meant a lot to me. It's one of the best gifts I've ever gotten.

Songfacts: That's pretty neat, too, because I think he's known for not giving out many autographs. From what I've read, he doesn't like to think of himself as being a celebrity or anything like that.

Jamie: Yeah, he seems pretty down to earth.

Songfacts: Now, another fan favorite is "Trying to Find Atlantis." And that's a really funny anthem for single women trying to find the perfect guy. Was that true for you?

Jamie: That's a song that I didn't write, which was funny, because it's written by two guys and they're both straight. So they had to dig deep for that one.

Songfacts: They really fooled people with that one.

Jamie: Yeah, when I first heard the song they had written it as a girl trying to find a perfect man, and I changed it to the perfect man, because it's not so much about finding a perfect man out there, it's more about finding the perfect right one for you. You know what I mean? I don't know, maybe I was being over-analytical, but I felt like it was a better message.

Songfacts: Yeah, it's a little word but it makes a big difference when you change it.

Jamie: Yeah, it really does.

Songfacts: Was that always a fun one to perform? Do you still perform it?

Jamie: Oh yeah. I usually open my show with that. It's a really fun one. All the single women love it.

Country singer Rachele Lynae is the flagship artist for Momentum. She released her first single, the party anthem "Til the Cows Come Home" in 2012 and launched her self-titled debut album in April 2014, which also spawned the popular singles "Fishin' For Something" and "Touch the Stars."
Songfacts: When I got to talk to Rachele Lynae, she mentioned that "When I Think About Angels" was really inspirational to her as a songwriter. What was your inspiration for that one?

Jamie: Well, it's dedicated to my dogs on my album and I always say they're like furry little angels that come into our lives. We're so lucky to have them, because they're so loving and they just want to be with you, and they don't care what you do or where you go. There's that easiness that you get with your pets that you somehow don't get with people.

Songfacts: Yeah. It's unconditional love.

Jamie: The song was inspired by them. But I wrote it with Sonny Tillis and Roxie Dean - the three of us used to get together every week and write. We just were talking about people that you date and how sometimes when you're so obsessed with them, every thought leads back to them, whether it's having lunch or dinner or listening to a song, everything just reminds you of them. So, that's kind of where the idea for that came out of.

Songfacts: We were talking about that, how there are a lot of cool visual details in that song, like the lyric "why does the color of my coffee match your eyes." Was that something you were playing around with a little bit?

Jamie: Oh yeah, we rewrote some lyrics, too, because I think at one time we had something about M&M's melting on your lips, and so we ended up changing that line to sugar instead of M&M's. I know we rewrote it at least a couple of times. When we originally wrote it, we didn't have a bridge, so we went back and put a bridge in there.

Songfacts: Where was the video for that one shot?

Jamie: In Los Angeles on a set. On the Universal set or sound stage, whatever you want to call it.

Songfacts: How did you come to start your own label and what stood out about Rachele to be your flagship artist?

Jamie: I've just had so many females coming to me needing a place to record and a producer and co-writer to help them find their sound, and she and I really clicked together when we started writing together. I just loved her spirit, and I recognized that ambition that she has as when I was a young artist starting out.

It just made sense. I think we've had a great first couple of years with her and there's more great music to come.

Songfacts: What did you bring from your own experience with record labels? Were you trying to create the same experience you had or did you want to go in a different direction?

Jamie: Well, I think it's really hard when you don't have that big machine in place, but we have a great team of people to at least get the music out there and be passionate about it. That's been really fun. I helped her pick the photographer and stylist. Being on the other side, being the artist that other people pick the stylist for, I've enjoyed helping her pick the right person.

Songfacts: You also seem to have a knack for choosing the right songs. From what she told us, she almost didn't include "Words in Red," which is one of her most powerful songs on that album, until you encouraged her to perform it in the studio. Is that just as easy for you to do with your own songs?

Jamie: Yeah, that's a good question. Sometimes it is hard when you're too close to something to see, and I've had a lot of people say, "Oh, that was always my favorite song."

I had a song on my second album called "When Did You Know." So many people love that song, and that was one that I was like, "Oh, I don't know." I didn't write it, but there was something I didn't like about saying to a guy, "When did you know that I wasn't the one?" It's just not something I would do. It's like you're wasting your time. What does it matter? It just seems like something I wouldn't do, so I didn't really want to do it. Then everybody was like, "No, you have to do that song." Then, once it was put out a lot of the fans said, "That was one of my favorite songs on the album." So I was glad that I did it, because I think sometimes you are too close to it, and you do need people to tell you which one they think is one that you should cut. So hopefully that's what we do with Rachele is help her narrow that down.

Songfacts: You also co-wrote and performed a duet with her on that album, the cheating revenge song "Two for One Special." She said that was really fun to write. You guys had so many ideas that some of them you couldn't use.

Jamie: [laughing] Well, we spent a lot of time laughing and a lot of time talking about what kind of revenge we would take. Here's this young girl, she was 23 or something when we wrote that, but Shaye [Smith] and I are older and we've all been in the trenches with relationships, so we had a lot more crazy ideas. Some of it was just so mean. It was like, "Oh, we can't put that in the song." So, of course, Rachele wasn't going that far.

Songfacts: When you first started out, you did a tour with Kylie Minogue. What are the differences between doing a pop tour versus a country tour?

Jamie: Well, she's still huge in London and probably can't walk down a street there because she's a humungous star, but when I toured with her, at that point she couldn't even go anywhere. I mean, when we would come off stage, she had a decoy. There were so many crazy, crazy fans. And they were so young.

When we would come out on stage, the screaming would be so loud we couldn't hear ourselves sing, so the first two or three songs, the screaming would just be unbelievable. I've never experienced that magnitude - 60,000 people at Wembley in London. I don't think I've ever toured with a country artist - well, maybe Kenny Chesney - that's played to that many people night after night.

Songfacts: When you were a kid you got to perform with a lot of country greats. Are you still able to get starstruck after that?

Jamie: I guess because I did grow up around it I don't get that way now at all. I've met so many of the artists that I really, as a child and even adult, looked up to, like Bono and Sting, some of whom I think are the best songwriters ever. No, I don't really get too starstruck, but I do admire people's music.

Songfacts: Is there anything else you'd like people to know about the new album before we wrap this up?

Jamie: I'm just really excited for people to hear Eternal, and I hope that there are songs that they remember. I also hope there are new songs they've never heard and go, "Wow, I love this song." Because I think that's the most important thing is sharing these great songs with everyone.

May 22, 2014. Get more at jamieoneal.com. Here's a video of Jamie talking more about the album.
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Comments: 1

  • Camille from Toronto, OhLove Jamie O'Neal, gorgeous songstress,love her hits and will have to check out the music on her new album. Cool story to read about the Stephen King connection.
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