Jamie O’Neal’s time in the mainstream country spotlight was short, but memorable. She kicked off her career with back-to-back number one hits “There Is No Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels,” which powered her 2000 debut album Shiver to gold certification. However, subsequent single releases stalled at radio and her planned follow-up album was shelved, eventually leading to the end of her deal with Mercury Records. A tenure at Capitol produced the 2005 album Brave and another pair of hits with “Trying to Find Atlantis” and “Somebody’s Hero,” but history eventually repeated itself with further unsuccessful singles and never-released albums.
Now Jamie O’Neal is embarking on a new chapter as the head of her own Momentum record label, free of major label constraints and of the need to depend on radio play. Her fans’ wait for new music is finally over as she preps to release her first new album in nearly a decade with Eternal, due out May 27, on which she covers a selection of classic tunes that helped shape her into the artist she eventually became. I recently had the chance to sit down with Jamie O’Neal to talk about these exciting new career developments.
You’re about to release your first new album in a few years. You must be very excited.
I am, definitely. I’m excited to have something new out there, but it’s actually old because the songs are traditional. But I think for a lot of people who haven’t heard them before, it’s going to kind of bring those songs to new ears and new fans hopefully.
What made you feel this was the right time for your first covers project?
You know, I’d never done one before, and I’d always sung a couple of these songs in my show. And my mom used to sing “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” which is kind of what started the whole thing – the old Sammi Smith song written by Kris Kristofferson, one of my favorites. It started out just with my husband and I talking about the songs that we loved, and he said “You know, you’ve been singing these and the fans love them. You should record an album.” These kinds of classics, some of them went to number one and Top 5, they’ll hopefully live on forever. Like “The Sweetest Thing,” Juice Newton, is one of those songs that was a pop hit, number one, and a country hit a few years apart, which is really unique. So I thought that was really cool. One of the first songs I wanted to do was “The Sweetest Thing.”
That was one thing that really stood out to me, that you have some less-expected cover choices. It’s not just songs culled from Classic Country for Dummies, if you know what I mean. There’s some good variety.
[Laughs] Exactly! Like “Born to Run,” Emmylou Harris, might not be a very well-known song, but for me that’s how I felt when I first got to Nashville. I’m hungry. No one’s going to stop me. I’ve got someplace to be. I’m going to make it. I was born to run. I just love what the song says and the message and everything.
There’s definitely no shortage of great songs to choose from in the Emmylou Harris songbook.
Oh, I know. I could have done a thirty song CD really.
It seems that for a lot of people a covers album is the kind of thing that can go very right or very wrong. What qualities do you think are essential for a really great covers album?
That’s a good question. I think staying true to the songs and not changing the tracks too much is important. It was important to me. And I think adding your own element to it is really important so it doesn’t just sound like you’re a karaoke singer. I call myself a soulful country singer, so I wanted to keep that soul in there and sing songs that I love to belt out because I do love big ballads. For me, I’d recorded and written so many mid-tempos, so it was cool to be able to put quite a few ballads on there.
What are your favorite covers albums, country or otherwise?
Well, I love Martina’s album. She did some really cool different choices on there, I thought, and I’ve always loved her voice. I love Seal’s album, and I love Micheal McDonald’s Motown album. That would probably be my favorite.
Can you give me some insight into how you went about choosing songs for this project?
Well, I really picked my favorites, and my husband brought in a couple and said ‘What about this one? What about that one?’ One song that I love is the Bruce Coburn song, my favorite on the album, called “One Day I Walk.” It’s kind of got that bluegrassy feel to it – something different for me. And I did a bunch of backgrounds on there. It’s one of my favorites.
And you have Andy Griggs playing the George to your Tammy on “Golden Ring.”
Well, he came last night and sang with me, and he’s just as great as ever. We’ve been touring together for the past couple years, doing gigs. We just did a country cruise together, and we just really enjoy doing show and singing together. I love his voice.
What the story behind the album’s only non-cover, your original “Wide Awake”?
My husband keeping me wide awake every night with his snoring. I’ve got it figured out now. I have a sound machine on in between us on the rain and thunder and beach sound and another sound machine with the white noise, and I pretty much drown him out. I’ve had a couple people, actually a couple PDs, said “Send that to me and I’ll start playing it.” So I feel really fortunate about that, because I think a lot of people can relate – a lot of women.
One big thing that you’ve had happen recently is that you’ve added “label owner” to your resumé. How would you describe the challenges and rewards of recording on your own label as opposed to a major label?
Definitely less of a budget – I’ll tell you that! You know the days when you used to get a stylist out in Los Angeles or New York and they would fly you there and you’d pick clothes and spend $10,000 on outfits and a $1,000 on a stylist to do your hair and makeup. It’s really difficult these days because even the majors have had to really tighten the budget, and the independents really do as well. So you have to figure out a way to do things for yourself a lot of the time. In the past, everyone was doing everything for me, from my website to everything, marketing and all that stuff. So now I’ve really had to learn, which I feel like I have from some of the best in the business. Capitol Records and Mercury, some of the staff that I’ve worked with, I’ve learned so much from that I feel like, hey, this is cool. I can kind of look at things from a different angle.
You have Rachele Lynae as the Momentum flagship artist. How did you come to work with her?
Her family was friends with my dad back in Bellingham, Washington, because that was where my dad lived, and they lived in Linden, Washington. They kind of met in the recording studio, and she was like a teenager at that point. And then she moved to Nashville to go to Belmont, kept in contact with my dad, and when she made an EP, she met with him and played it for him, and he brought it to me. And it’s funny because my daughter was one of the first people to hear it because my dad was putting it in his CD player, and so my daughter was coming up singing these songs and saying ‘You need to hear Rachele. She’s really good, Mom!’ I was like ‘Really?’ Because I listen to her. She has good taste in music. And I figure kids are the ones that, if they don’t like something, you know it’s probably not trending.
Do you feel like you have a signature song?
Probably “Arizona” because it’s so unique and different. It seems to me that I’ve been mistaken for Deana Carter or Carolyn Dawn Johnson a lot, and Carolyn said that she used to get Deana Carter as well. That’s the thing – getting your face out there and not just your name and your songs, but usually when you say “Arizona,” that song is pretty well known.
What’s next for you? Do you have anything coming up that you would like to let people know about?
Well, I’m going to be doing a video for “Wide Awake.” The album is coming out May 27. I’m gonna be touring doing different dates here and there out of town on the road, so be looking for me out there, and the music will be on iTunes!