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by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Jamie McDell: Stepping Stone

by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Jamie McDell: Stepping Stone

It’s been a decade since Jamie McDell ran off the beach and into national attention as a promising new folk/pop artist, with a delightfully innocent, barefoot enthusiasm for those simple youthful pleasures like gathering around a beach bonfire. Having announced a few years ago that she had Nashville in her sights, McDell has just released her fourth album, this one confidently and revealingly self-titled, as Nur Lajunen-Tal reports. Made with the support of NZ On Air Music.

When Jamie McDell was seven, her family made a decision that would change the course of her life forever.

“My dad came from very humble beginnings, and worked really, really hard to end up becoming a lawyer for one of the better law firms in Auckland, and was on a pretty good salary,” she explains. “But his passion throughout his entire life has been sailing… By the time I was seven years old, he decided to leave his fancy job at the law firm, buy a yacht (without telling my mum), and move us onto the sea, where we lived on a boat in the Mediterranean!”

The influence of these experiences has been evident in the trajectory of McDell’s music career. Signing to EMI at 16, McDell found commercial success with her 2012 debut album, ‘Six Strings And A Sailboat’, and its 2015 follow up ‘Ask Me Anything’. Though driven by McDell’s guitar and youthfully honest folk lyrics, these earlier offerings had a definite pop edge.

Then McDell made a decision which parallels that of her father when she was a young child – to leave behind the commercial pop world.

“I got to a point where I was saying to my manager at the time that I think I really wanna make country music and I wanna go to Nashville, and he said to me, ‘You’ll be making a choice then, to leave behind some of the commercial success, and you need to be ready for that.’ And I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Even if I wanted to write another Life In Sunshine, I just don’t even think I could. I don’t even think I would even know how, or have it in me to do that in a real way. So it’s almost like I had no choice.”

McDell released her fourth album at the end of February 2022, and she chose to self-title this one.

“I think it probably just comes from the pride I feel for this record and how I feel like I’ve… I guess a cheesy way of saying it would be ‘found myself and my sound’, and the music that I really wanna create,” she explains.

“It’s just to do with being super proud… Something that’s been really important to me in writing this album was to really connect with my authenticity and really say what I mean to say. It’s been scary- I know the album’s quite personal and I definitely felt a bit of anxiety around releasing it, but I think it will feel quite freeing when it finally comes out!”

Despite the influences of Nashville, her new album does have a homegrown country sound, partly, as McDell explains, due to the recording process. 

“We tried to record things relatively live. So have a few musicians in a room and, you know, they might do a couple of goes at a song, but we wouldn’t ask for too much more and just keep it really live and human feeling. We definitely aren’t perfecting things… not overdoing anything with auto-tune or not doing too many vocal takes and cutting things up and placing them together. It’s all a bit more open, and if there’s imperfections, then that’s cool. Celebrating that part of musicianship and the voice that’s not perfect.”

Hearing imperfections in your recorded voice can take getting used to, as McDell relates.

“The record I made prior to this one, it was called ‘Extraordinary Girl’. We probably did that even more in a live setting. We recorded with a full band in the studio, over the space of two or three days… I remember hearing those recordings and kind of freaking out a little bit because I hadn’t really heard my vocals with so much wobble and imperfection, and so I had to get used to that a little bit. I think that was quite a good way to set me up for this album because it’s kind of a balance.”

Sonically, her new album offers quite a range, from intimate, emotional numbers such as Something More and Boy Into A Man, to more upbeat numbers such as Botox, Not Ready Yet and the jaunty Daddy Come Pick Me Up, a song that reflects back on her own youth.

“When I was a young girl, starting to get into parties and drinking and stuff, my dad would always say to me, ‘No matter what trouble you get yourself into, please just call me and I will come get you.’ And I remember being 28 in Texas, kinda just like having a bit of a shit time, and thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I just want my dad to be able to come and get me right now.’ And I just thought it was funny how, you know, the older we get, those sorts of things don’t fall away.”

Coming of age is a prominent theme of the record as a whole.

“I think hopefully what happens is that you become a little bit less self-absorbed, and you start to find a little bit more curiosity,” McDell muses on the subject. “I know for me that’s been in my family and my parents and their stories. I’m interested in their successes but I also wanna be able to relate to some of the things that were hard for them. Coming of age is when you}re starting to wonder a little bit more about how things have been for everybody else and not just necessarily what you’re going through.”

This kind of curiosity has manifested in several songs from perspectives other than her own. Over the course of the album, she sings from the perspective of friends, family and characters. Perhaps the most unusual in terms of perspective is Sailor.

“It’s actually from the perspective of a lighthouse,” McDell explains. “I kind of wrote that as a sea shanty. I’m not religious but my closest spiritual experiences are usually to do with the ocean. So I guess in a way this is like a country gospel ocean tribute!”

However, there are still several highly personal songs on the album, including some of McDell’s most soul-bearing and vulnerable moments yet.

“When I write something that I feel is really honest and vulnerable, in that space, I feel quite proud of myself,” she says. “It’s almost like when you’re in a therapy session and you get to the crux of something that you haven’t been able to say out loud, and you feel like a weight has lifted and that you’ve done something really brave. But living with those songs and those thoughts afterwards, you go through ups and downs of wondering whether you’d shared too much, or whether you’ve said something that’s going to upset someone.

“I think that’s natural when you’re trying to stay true to your story. There’s obviously going to be amazing parts of that, and there’s going to be really difficult times. I think it’’s just being prepared to experience both… my best songs often come in a rush, and they happen within 5 or 10 minutes, and somehow you’ve fully written this thing and you don’t even know where it’s come from! I know that happened a lot more when I was a teenager. It happens maybe once every 10 songs now. But those ones, I find them to be the most special.”

One of those songs was Poor Boy, which was written from the perspective of her father, telling the story of his life and that big decision to leave his job and pursue sailing.

“It’s quite a story song,” she says. “You’d almost think that I would have spent some more time nutting out the detail. I suppose I’d been told these stories of my dad’s life ever since I was a kid, so maybe it made sense that they all kind of rushed together at once… The whole concept of that song is to value those real-life experiences over material things. I’m really inspired by that way of living, and I’m really grateful that that’s something that my dad has instilled in me – taking those risks and going for something that’s meaningful to you.”