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Jamie O'Neal Biography

Last updated: 02/07/2010 11:00:00 AM

The first thing you notice is the voice ?a sunburst of emotion that lets you know you're in the presence of someone special. It's throaty and powerful, full of confidence, brimming with personality and shaded with country, soul and gospel textures.

The second thing you notice is the songwriting ?lyrics that stray off the beaten path to explore new shadows of the human heart. These songs are the works of a woman who understands the beauty of true craftsmanship.

Jamie O'Neal is that rare individual, a debut artist who arrives with her talent fully formed. A superb live entertainer, a polished songwriter and a real "singer's singer," Jamie has poured a lifetime of experience into the creation of Shiver, her first Mercury Records album.

It is a remarkable listening experience. Critics are already raving about the haunting, sultry sound of "There Is No Arizona." She is joyously in love on the bopping "No More Protecting My Heart" and the driving twanger "You Rescued Me." The title tune is a lovely ballad, while "Sanctuary" marries a pulsing beat with her gospel-tinged performance. She mourns deeply to the accompaniment of sighing strings on "I'm Still Waiting," but turns humorous and wry on the scampering "Frantic."

Jamie approaches the Richard Marx tune "The Only Thing Wrong" as a blues lament, yet turns in a solid country duet with labelmate Mark Wills on "I'm Not Gonna Do Anything Without You." She gives a poignantly aching vocal to the sad "She Hasn't Heard It Yet," but is equally adept with the percussive, uptempo "When I Think About Angels." Love ballads such as "Where We Belong" and "To Be With You" sound especially sweet coming from the newlywed newcomer.

"I have always wanted to be in Nashville," says Jamie O'Neal. "I have dreamed of this my entire life."

That is not an exaggeration. She has been preparing for Shiver literally all her life. Jamie O'Neal was born in Sydney, Australia as the first child of professional musicians Jimmy and Julie Murphy. When she was two the family migrated to Hawaii, where younger sister Samantha was born. When Jamie was seven the musical Murphys settled in Las Vegas to perform at The Golden Nugget casino. And when she was eight, she took to the stage.

"Once Dad learned that Samantha and I could carry a tune, suddenly we were on stage. I was eight and Sam was six. She and I sang 'You and Me Against the World' looking at the floor." Dad, Mom, the girls, a tutor and a four-piece band were gypsies throughout Jamie's girlhood, traveling throughout the U.S. in a motor home to perform at state fairs, hotels and conventions. Samantha's specialty was "You Light Up My Life." Jamie knocked 'em dead with "Southern Nights," "I Got the Music in Me," "Evergreen" and her father's original country tunes, such as "Daddy Let Me Sing With the Band."

"We opened for a lot of the country stars at the fairs," Jamie recalls. "The one I loved the most was Dolly Parton. She was so sweet to us kids. And she loved hanging out with her band. I was just so impressed with her as a person, as well as a musician."

Inevitably, the Murphys came to Nashville to record. Jamie was a young teen when the family lived in Music City. The act recorded three LPs on Music Row to sell at shows before breaking up when Jimmy and Julie divorced. Her mother returned to Australia. Jamie continued to sing with her father, who relocated to L.A.

"I actually went to Beverly Hills High when I was 16 and 17. It was awful. I had never been around real kids before and you know how clique-y they can be. I was studying musical comedy and drama. David Schwimmer and Jonathan Silverman were in my class. But I would be gone so much on the road, so I was never a part of any crowd. I felt out of place; and I'd barely scrape by on my tests. Then I'd go on the road again. I finally just dropped out of high school. I wanted to come back to Nashville and pursue singing on my own."

Back in Tennessee, her spectacular voice attracted attention at once and she was soon singing songwriter "demos" for Nashville's song publishing companies. But this sojourn ended prematurely when a visit to her mother in Australia turned into an extended stay.

"Over there, you can make a living singing live. There's a place to sing on every corner. The sound systems are terrible, which means you have to sing harder, which means your voice is getting in great shape. Here in the U.S., singers are spoiled."

Australian pop star Kylie Minogue ("The Loco-Motion") hired Jamie as a backup vocalist and she toured internationally with her for two years. One music-business figure took Jamie aside with this advice: "You're such a great singer, but when you look for songs, you're not going to get the best because you're an unknown. Have you ever thought about writing? I really think with your sense of melody and your voice, you should give it a try."

She did, vowing to create something good enough to bring her back to Nashville. Her mother suggested changing her name to differentiate herself from The Murphy Family. "O'Neal" sounded right to both of them. Julie Murphy did something else for her daughter during that visit Down Under. Jamie didn't think either her songs or her demo tapes were good enough to send to Nashville, but Mama knew best: She overruled her daughter and mailed a tape to an old acquaintance in the country capital.

That tape reached the ears of producer Harold Shedd, who called offering plane fare and a song-publishing contract. Jamie didn't think twice; she jumped at the opportunity, arriving in Nashville for keeps in 1996. After two years with Shedd, she was offered a contract with EMI Music, this time to develop her as an artist as well as a songwriter.

Jamie O'Neal quickly developed a reputation as a formidable vocalist, singing backup on records by Mindy McCready, Clay Davidson, Jason Sellers, Chely Wright, Ronnie Milsap, Sonya Isaacs and others. Lee Ann Rimes recorded her song "Surrender." Chely Wright has recorded "Comin' Undone." Jamie also cowrote the Tammy Cochran single "So What."

She was making rapid progress both as a session singer and a songwriter, but Jamie O'Neal says she felt impatient and frustrated because none of the labels wanted to let her make her own style of music. That changed when EMI arranged an audition with Keith Stegall at Mercury Records.

"It was October 12, 1998, the best day of my life except for when my honey proposed to me. I sat in Keith's office and sang 'Sanctuary,' then 'She Hasn't Heard it Yet.' He stopped me after two songs. I thought, 'Oh please, just let me do one last song; I swear I'll sell it.' 'When I Think About Angels' was going to be the last one and I thought I'd blown it. Instead, he said, 'I don't need to hear anymore.' He loved the songs! He loved my voice! He said, 'I don't want to change a thing.' I thought, 'This is the guy for me!' I knew I wanted to work with him no matter where he was."

Keith immediately brought Jamie to Mercury Nashville President Luke Lewis, whose enthusiasm matched that of Stegall's, and a deal was immediately in the works.

"When we started to work on the album last fall, I had the strangest feelings. It was the hardest thing to remain unemotional, even though I knew I was ready. It was like, 'It's finally happening,' but when your dreams all start coming true, there's a part of you that is completely scared and nervous. I've never felt that before. Just seeing these great players playing my songs was such a thrill. I have a label that believes in me; and then when I performed at Fan Fair I felt like the fans believed in me, too.

"This is what I have always wanted. A lot of people go, 'Why didn't you go for a pop deal?' But I have always wanted to do country music. I love the faithfulness of the country fans. I love the fairs. And I especially love how the audience relates to your songs. What you are saying means much more to them than it does to pop fans. Nashville is where I belong."

In addition to star vocalist Mark Wills, Shiver features contributions from ace guitarist Brent Mason, champion fiddlers Stuart Duncan and Aubrey Haynie plus singers Bekka Bramlett and, of course, Samantha Murphy. Jamie's little sister is pursuing a pop-music career in Nashville.

The robust male harmony voice on "Where We Belong" and many of the album's other tracks belongs to songwriter Rodney Good. And if romantic tracks like "When I Think About Angels," "To Be With You" and "You Rescued Me" ring with a certain authenticity, it's because Rodney proposed to Jamie during the making of Shiver. They were married in Florida a few weeks after completing the CD.