April/May 2015

by Richard Thorne

Jamie McDell: Surfy? Yes! Dumb? No!

by Richard Thorne

Jamie McDell: Surfy? Yes! Dumb? No!

A carefree surfer chick out of Mangawhai, her debut album was knocked up with the aid of the York Street Studio house band and released when she was just 19. It might have gone unnoticed were it not so Kiwi beach-life catchy, but ’’Six Strings & A Sailboat’’ went on to win the NZ Music Award for Best Pop Album in 2013. Now Jamie McDell is back with her second –– armed with a degree and the benefits of added maturity, buoyed by the confidence of songwriting success, still aided by members of that original studio band and now backed by a legion-like fan base. A busy manager of her social media profile and active public ambassador for Surf Live Saving NZ, Jamie talked with Richard Thorne about the making, and up-for-it naming, of ’’Ask Me Anything’’.

‘I’’m just young and dumb’’ sings Jamie McDell in the third song of her very good sophomore album. Young? Yes. Dumb? No. Don’’t buy it.

It is about as close as the winsome 22-year young singer/songwriter gets to being disingenuous, personal honesty and integrity being high on her values chart.

She talks freely and volubly, frequently prefacing her answers with, “To be honest…”…” – unnecessarily, you soon get the feeling, because Jamie doesn’t really do guile. A natural honesty shows in her confident, direct manner, her unfussy dress and absence of make-up, her social media postings, videos, song lyrics and even in the title she has given her new album, ’’Ask Me Anything’‘. It’’s also implicit in her chosen musical genre –– while known as a successful pop artist it is country-pop –– and it’’s the country part that has her heart.

“I hope that in the future I can cross over to the country side more, and that might not be something I can do here in NZ. That’’s like a real dream that I will fulfil, no matter if it is successful or not. Being in a situation where the real storytelling and musicianship is the thing, and being able to sing live is the only way you get anywhere. That side of it interests me, and is something I’’d love to try.””

Five Years From Now is rather more direct. ’’I’ve seen punk and pop and indie –– all it means is that the generations can’’t come to agree. But I know I won’’t be bothered by that scene, as long as country brings me back to 17. But it’’s all they know…’…’

“That’’s one of my favourites on the album. The songs I write by myself take about half an hour at the most, so it’’s definitely a word vomit. My manager asked me what I wanted to be doing five years from now –– and I just replied, ’’It’’s a ridiculous question’!’””

Even while the NZ public was still catching new singles off her gold-selling 2012 debut album, her record company were sending their new golden girl off on trans-Tasman co-writing excursions. Still new to the game then, Jamie admits to being a bit miffed by the directive.

“That was a real personal challenge, being put into co-writing with people. At the beginning I took quite a lot of offence to that suggestion and found it so strange that I would have to go and sit in a room with someone else and write songs! But I had to take the opportunity and realise that people weren’t trying to ruin my life. I definitely understood it was more about pushing my own music in ways that I wasn’t used to, rather than cutting into my brain, which I felt like initially.””

While the co-write sessions didn’’t produce many songs (“We’’d write them but they weren’t songs I believed in,”” Jamie notes), they did eventually lead her to Aussie-based ex-pat Scotsman Stuart Crichton, who ended up producing ’’Ask Me Anything’’.

Crichton established his credentials with the early ’’90s progressive house sound, and has worked since as writer/producer with a number of pop artists including Selena Gomez, Westlifer Brian McFadden and Aussie superstars Kylie Minogue and Delta Goodrem. (He’’s also behind the soon-to-be released new Gin album.) Jamie admits being nervous about working with him initially for just that reason.

“As much as I’’m a pop artist, I do enjoy working with people who maybe have more of a rootsy background. But I was really lucky to have him, he was just a perfect part of the puzzle for me. He is a songwriter too, but would never interfere with the lyrical content, he always made sure the story was mine.

“Stuart’’s strength is that he is a fantastic musician and producer, so he could do all this cool layering that I don’’t know how to do. I feel like we worked together more on a writer/producer level, which I really enjoyed, and he turned out to have more belief in my songwriting than most people I’ve worked with before.””

For the last three years Jamie has been studying for a degree in graphic design at AUT in Auckland, and her new album was worked on between semesters in two-week stints in McFadden’’s Sydney home studio. She laughs that she also became best friends with his wife and his dog.

“I write everything on the guitar and it’’s hard to send in a song I’ve played on the acoustic to a record label, because some people can’’t hear what it might turn out to be. So I did demo some songs with my existing band and sent them over to Stewart, and he sometimes would choose to keep Scottie’’s drum track or some of Huia’’s guitar or something. So he was appreciative of where I’d come from with my first album and who I love to work with. He’’s a great guy.””

Alongside McFadden’’s input are a couple of other notable collaborations, including Rai Thistlethwayte, lead singer of Aussie pop rockers Thirsty Merc.

“That was cool ’’cos I’m a huge Thirsty Merc fan,”” she grins. “Stewart just knew Rai as a mate, and we initially wanted him to do a piano part on Luck, which is the last song on the album. When he came in I was gushing about being such a big fan and eventually we decided to write something – we had been playing with a few ideas in the hope he might. Rai is a crazy multi-instrumentalist and that was a really quite a cool experience for me.””

After all the emphasis on collaborative composition, 11 of  the album’’s 13 songs are Jamie’’s own. She wrote the emotive sleepy album closer Luck in Melbourne with Jebediah frontman Kevin Mitchell (aka Bob Evans).

“He was interesting for me. A lot of writers I had met would say things like, ’’Radio’’s gonna love this’’, and I didn’’t really like that! It didn’t make me feel that involved, whereas Kevin was quite quiet and very about the feeling. He offered some chords he’’d had for years and that’’s how we wrote Luck in the end. To be on a professional level with a musician like him, and come out with something like that was pretty special. And Rai added some piano which is cool!

“With my first album I was given York St with five musicians, and I could ask them to do whatever wanted. Not having to work everything from the ground up was quite different. I did have to often let Stuart know that I did want musicians to come in and work on the songs, which luckily did end up happening. I like working with musicians who know more about music than me!””

After a final couple of weeks together refining the mixes, the album was finished by early March last year. Aside from the whole process of album creation being very different to her first album, Jamie struggles to identify other major contrasts, saying that although three years older, she herself doesn’’t feel that different, and hears little change in her music. The one other major difference seems to be in how her record company, Universal NZ, have been more actively involved.

“The core values are there –– the songs are stories of my lifetime, or people around me, and have all come from a sort of pop/country influence. Like probably most people, with the first record you are picking from your whole lifetime songwriting, and for me it was such a natural process. I had probably the most ideal situation that you could see with someone on a record label, in that they didn’t really talk to me about it at all. They let me choose the songs and left me alone in the studio.

“I guess with a bit of success and working with a new team on this album there’’s been a lot of different opinions thrown in. I found that a real challenge to be honest. But it means I’m confident coming into this, because I have had to stand up for myself –– whereas before I was just being me,”” she laughs, feigning a girlish voice.

“I find it hard to explain [why] myself, but I think what happens is that marketing teams (for instance) are always looking for new ways to get stories across and things like that.

“The problem with me,”” she laughs again, “is that I will never try to be cool, and I think that’’s where we have a clash. My music just isn’’t going to lend itself to that, because it has a certain style and structure, and I don’’t really care. I don’’t like following those types of things because they don’’t really last, but obviously if you are in marketing you are trying to make sure things are current.

“For me, my fanbase like that I’’m kind of an average Joe, I guess, so that made more work for them. But that conflict isn’’t necessarily a bad thing, it pushed me to be a bit more innovative in what I was doing. And at the same time it’’s not a bad thing to be fighting for yourself.””

The year-long delay between album completion and release would challenge most artists, though it did allow her to complete her AUT studies. Jamie says they had a few earlier release dates that didn’t feel like the right time –– like winter, which is definitely not her favourite time of the year.

“We finally figured, ‘Let’’s go for it’, and that took a bit of pushing from me. I know it is hard for some people to understand where I’’m coming from, from a professional point of view, and so it took a while to convince them that I believe in this stuff.””

She has, by now, learnt a lot more about the machinations of the music industry and seems happy enough with the way things have panned out.

“You are going to go through that in all senses of the industry –– someone has to make the call. It’’s not a question of radio play, I’’m lucky in that I find structured pop songs with hooks are natural for me to write. I think the struggle was more around my image, which was weird for me – with people in marketing wanting to do something a little bit different than before. I find that hard because I am continuously communicating with my fans everyday, and I feel that I have a good idea of what they respond to –– and that stretches not far outside of what I am. So when it comes to those conversations I am always quite strong in pushing for a natural image.

“’’You need to dress a bit more cool…’…’ I get that’’s all part of it, but I did work quite hard from the beginning to make sure that my image was what I was doing every day anyways, and that was really effective, so I wasn’t too interested in compromising that.””

She’’s happy her image has changed naturally, just from the maturity that comes with growing older. Likewise her ’’sound’’, which she contends hasn’t changed, other than with the input of a different producer.

“It’’s still music that relies on that basic acoustic guitar track that is then built up. It’’s still coming from the girl with a guitar. Writing is just something I do all the time. I know a second album is a struggle for a lot of people because you are choosing from maybe just two years of material, but being 18 years old and releasing an album and having some sort of platform gave me a lot of inspiration, and I have tried to make sure that I remain quite prolific, so that challenge wasn’’t there.

Heard alongside ’’Six Strings & A Sailboat’’, which sold well enough to be badged gold, ’’Ask Me Anything’’ impresses with its breadth, Jamie comfortably slipping between a range of emotions and musical backdrops, the calypso steel drums of My Old Hands for instance.

“It might help you to know that one of my biggest [fave] artists, and one I have listened to my whole life is Jimmy Buffett. To be honest, that’’s where I get really comfortable in using those sounds. In an ideal world I’d try to make myself a female Jimmy Buffett! It’’s almost like I am fulfilling a childhood dream with those kinds of things – wanting to sound a little bit like him. It’’s really weird but I do get really excited about those things!””

Actually it’’s not the first (or last) time that the American ’’gulf and western’’ singer/songwriter and sailor gets a big mention in our hour-long chat, and Jamie giggles at her own admitted foibles.

“I did get worried that the album would be too eclectic, because there is quite a range of feelings on there. But that’’s how I tell stories, and all parts of my life are very different. That’’s why the album ended up with its title –– because every side of me is on there. I didn’t want to pick one song as the title because sometimes it makes people think that song represents the entire album, which is not the case with any of them.””

In keeping with her very real surfer girl image, Jamie has to think about any goals set with this album.

“I did’n’t really have a goal for the last album and I can’’t say I do for this one…… Really what will be important for me will be being able to put on a tour and play live shows that are really awesome, and I think a lot of the songs on this record will help me do that, just because there is a little bit more drive and dynamic that can be put in a show.””

Her 2012 album drew various comments to the effect of Jamie McDell being our Taylor Swift, a comparison she enjoyed since Swift is known for being a prolific songwriter.

“But not if it was just because I am blonde and play the acoustic guitar!”” she laughs, eyes rolling.

Talk of Swift inevitably brings her famous local bestie to mind, and with that the question of the Lorde-effect creating expectations on other young Kiwi female artists like her?

“I think (luckily) probably not in terms of people’’s expectations of me, just because of the genre difference. But I feel certainly like, I’’m not sure if it’’s an excitement or anxious, knowing that it’’s actually a possibility for something like that to happen. I am quite excited for the younger generation to grow up in a world where a NZ artist can get a Grammy and be #1 on the Billboard chart.

“I try not to let it affect any decisions I make, you have to focus on your own thing. The place for me is not that direction –– in my dream of dreams I’d be playing country music in Nashville, so that’’s where it probably didn’t cross over to my goals.””

The appeal of experiencing America’’s home of country music is evidently very real, but as Jamie explains it’’s not about being around the stars and star-making machinery.

“For me it’’s about being in a place like I was with my first album, where I would meet musicians who have been playing guitar, or drums, for years and years and years, and could really show me something about music in its natural form and structure. And being in a place that really appreciates that side.

“I know that in NZ there is a certain pop crossover that needs to happen with my music to make it work. I know this, but I would really love to experience a place where that wasn’’t the case.””