NASHVILLE With her first single, "There Is No Arizona," steadily climbing the
Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart at #16, Jamie O'Neal seems to have bucked
recent trends, becoming country's only female artist debuting this year to have a song crack the top 20.
"This is a surprise, but everything is a surprise," O'Neal said with a laugh. "That I even got a record deal is a surprise! I've been singing since I was 8 and wanting to get a record deal since I was 10 a part of you is going, 'Yes, this is what I always wanted to have happen.' But another part is going, 'I can't believe it, I can't believe it!' "
Her pinch-me-so-I-know-I'm-not-dreaming enthusiasm is understandable. In this post-Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Dixie Chicks era, Music Row executives have furiously scrambled to sign beautiful female singers. But when it comes to new artists, it's the men who have made the biggest splash on radio playlists this year, O'Neal being the lone exception.
Significantly, her debut album, Shiver, which was released in October, is also doing well on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, sitting at #28 after five weeks. Her strawberry-blond mane and huge blue eyes notwithstanding, Mercury Nashville Records signed O'Neal on the strength of her other assets, asserted the label's Keith Steagall.
Steagall first heard O'Neal sing at a studio demo session, and was wowed by her vocal abilities. "This is somebody who is an incredible singer and interpreter," said Stegall, who is himself an artist and producer, as well as label vice president. "Not to take anything away from her being an attractive woman, but she just possessed an incredible instrument.
"Her voice is very unique, and she's sung most of her life," he added. "When you find people who do it most of their lives, like any great instrument they know how to use it. She has the ability to make you feel it when she sings."
Shiver is an unusual release, full of songs about loss and disillusionment, embellished with melancholy harmonicas and mournful strings. It's not the glossy uptempo fare one usually hears from new country artists these days, and it's a stark contrast to O'Neal's own reach-for-the-Ray-Bans future.
"Whatever you're going through at the time is what you end up writing about," notes O'Neal, who co-wrote nine of the album's 13 tracks, including "There Is No Arizona" (RealAudio excerpt). "I'm sure if I were writing right now for the album it would turn out a lot different!" Indeed, prior to Shiver's release, O'Neal married singer Rodney Good (who duets
with her on the decidedly upbeat "Where We Belong" [RealAudio excerpt]) and their romance and marriage was the inspiration behind Shiver's happier tunes, she points out.
One of the most heart-breaking compositions is "I'm Still Waiting" (RealAudio excerpt), a song O'Neal wrote after her grandfather passed away. "I wrote that for my grandparents. My grandmother has Alzheimer's; I wanted to write about that feeling of waiting for someone to come back, because he was always waiting for her to come home [from the hospital]. He kept everything in the house the same."
"Arizona" is another of O'Neal's co-writes, and that song's dreams-to-dust message is something she can relate to from a professional sense. Born into a musical family, O'Neal and younger
sister Samantha had a peripatetic youth: home was an RV in a KOA campground, as the family toured the country playing state fairs, conventions and such. Jamie and Samantha began singing with the family act when their ages were still in the single digits. But when she was 13, her parents divorced.
"It was very hard, because it not only split up the family but it split up the singing act as well. Our whole lives were tied up with that," she noted. O'Neal continued to perform even following her mother to her native Australia, where she landed a gig singing backup for pop chanteuse Kylie Minogue. But her heart was in Music City and she was determined to make
a career in country music. Back in Nashville, O'Neal followed in the path of singers like Trisha Yearwood, who earned their rent singing song demos (trivia fans take note: O'Neal sang the demo for Faith Hill's hit "This Kiss").
While she's been honing her songwriting skills, it's O'Neal's performing background that sets her apart. "She looks very seasoned when she performs," said Steagall. "She has that other part that's very important to have; what I call 'star power.' When she's on stage she's very at ease and in command very naturally."
"My sister and I have been singing for so long, we've never known anything else," O'Neal noted. And when given a choice, she picks performing over songwriting. "Performing and singing are number one for me. I don't feel like I would give up songwriting, because I love to have a hand in what I'm singing about and I write a lot of my own melodies.
"But making that connection on stage is what is more important to me. You can write forever in your room, and if nobody ever hears it, it's not really taking it to the next step, it's not giving the gift back."