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By James Rea

Whether you're a budding young artist who's looking for a producer, or a seasoned one, you may want to consider Jamie O'Neal...but only if you're prepared to sing your ass off.

Jamie O'Neal
Jamie O'Neal

I wasn't the least bit surprised when Jamie O'Neal announced the launch of the Momentum Label Group in 2012 and was producing their flagship artist. After all, who better to 'produce and guide' the careers of the next generation of Nashville stars than one of the best singers on the planet, who has 'Seen it All'...and remained FEARLESS.

The nice thing about Jamie's fearlessness is that, when she described the pride she and Keith Urban both felt, the night they took home the ACM's coveted Top New Vocalist of the Year awards, I got to meet the same little girl in her, who used to scat 'lick-for-lick' with George Benson's BREEZIN' album, in the car with her daddy, on the way to The Murphy Family gigs.

When O'Neal (whose birth name was Jamie Murphy) was two years old her parents Jimmy and Julie Murphy, both professional musicians, moved to Hawaii. When O'Neal was nine her parents took the family to Las Vegas, where they performed at the Golden Nugget casino. Both she and her sister had inherited their parents' musical ability so their parents included them in their act called The Murphy Family. It must be in the genes because later, Jamie's youngest sister Minnie Murphy also became a recording artist.

Fast forward...Jamie's mom sent a tape to Larry McFadden, who used to play for Mel Tillis and he played it for Harold Shedd. Harold Shedd said: "I want to see this girl in person" and paid for me to come over and meet him and that's what started it all.

The Producer's Chair: What do you attribute, to your longevity in the music industry?

Jamie O'Neal: I remember Reba at an after party talking about reinventing herself as far as she never wanted to get bored. She always wanted to find something new to do. There are a lot of people that would be afraid to put their foot on a Broadway stage. I don't think Reba is afraid of anything. I think she's fearless. She's fearless and she's always got something to prove to herself, more than anything else. You know what I mean...being on a TV show, living in LA, doing Broadway, always doing something new. She's a designer. I read a quote from Taylor Swift where she says "I don't want to shock people, I want to surprise them." That's how Reba is. To me so many artists just sing and that's all they do. I often wonder why they don't try something new? I'm surprised that more female country stars don't dip their toe into the unknown.

O'Neal's career came together at 29 when she signed her first publishing deal with 'the one and only' Harold Shedd at the Music Mill. NSAI has since bought the Mill and their offices are there. Jamie had her first big cut from that catalog. "When I got first got To Nashville Russ Zavitson said the magic words to me that I will never forget. He said Harold's wanting me to sign you and why should I have to sign you? What makes you so special? How do I know you can even write?" I remember telling Russ "I'll tell you what. I think I can sing just as good as anybody else and I will prove it to you. Give me three months of a trial. If you don't like what I do in three months then you can send me home. If you like what I do then you pick up my option. And he said "well, that's fair". That's how we worked out our deal. That was it. It was three months. There wasn't a big negotiation of...I want this and I want that. He gave me three months. And I wrote everyday. Sometimes twice a day. They ended up picking up the option and I ended up staying.

The Producer's Chair: How did you eventually meet Keith Stegall?

"I ventured from Music Mill when they were not doing so well. They were dividing up. Russ had left. And Lisa Ramsey was leaving so I was lucky enough to have Jason Houser at EMI sign me. They set up an audition with Keith Stegall and I had never been so scared in my life. Cause I love him. I love his songwriting, his singing, his producing, everything. He was so down to earth and so disarming. I guess that was what floored me. I was expecting him to be more pompous, kind of like an executive. He was just a real guy. And that made me want to be with him even more. I was supposed to sing 4 songs but he stopped me after 2 and said, "I want to sign her". If you get him in your corner it's like having a champion. He flew the flag for me big time. If it weren't for him I don't think I would have a career."

Keith not only signed Jamie to Mercury, but the when she left the label after having her baby he got her signed by Mike Dungan at Capitol and continued to produce her. Needless to say Jamie can't say enough about Keith, when reflecting on her journey. And what a journey it was...

"From a young age, I had a bird's eye view as entertainers like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle performed," she says. "I watched from the side of the stage at the way they connected with a crowd, and that's what made me want to be a performer."

One can only imagine how much O'Neal learned, touring with the likes of Reba McIntyre, Martina McBride, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and Toby Keith while impacting country music with her soulful powerhouse voice and immense amount of passion behind every word she sings.

After the release of her debut album SHIVER in 2000, which spawned her hits "There Is No Arizona" (No. 1), "When I Think About Angels" (No. 1), "Shiver" (No. 18) and her 4 Grammy nominations, which set her path to stardom on fire, O'Neal became a household name. And...when she released her sophomore album in 2005 with Capitol Nashville and scored more hits on country radio with "Trying to Find Atlantis" (No. 15), her anthem for mothers everywhere, "Somebody's Hero," went all the way to No. 3.

The incredible part is...Jamie doesn't play an instrument.

"I write with my voice. A lot of times I start with a drum loop or something on my ipad. And I'll sing the melody in the car which allows you a lot of freedom because I have always relied on my vocals. To me, I go by instinct and my ears. My whole life has been that way. I'm pretty quick at harmonies, layering parts and writing melodies. I totally rely on my ears and instinct for everything."

The Producer's Chair: How did your biggest cuts with other artists come about?

"The LeAnn Rimes cut came about because my co- writer was signed to Big Tractor. That was Scott Hendrick's company. So that was one of those fluke things where LeAnn Rimes' fan club person played it for LeAnn and she loved it. For How Far (Martina cut) definitely Gary Overton played that for Paul Worley. The Reba cut was very inside because Cindy Owen, one of Reba's best friends and also one of my close friends, played Pink Guitar for Reba herself. And Reba loved it. That was a dream come true for me because I just admire her and Martina so much. They are amazing."

Jamie also placed songs on the soundtracks of Bridget Jones' Diary and When We Were Soldiers, as well as on the ABC smash Desperate Housewives.

And...she was named the Top New Country Artist by Billboard which further propelled appearances on numerous national television programs including The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and many others.

It is a measure of respect she has earned that after Celine Dion was unable to sing "All By Myself" for Bridget Jones, the producers searched country music for its most powerful vocalist and chose O'Neal. And, when Carrie Underwood won American Idol a search for a top-flight duet partner led once again to O'Neal.

But don't think for one minute that O'Neal didn't endure 'The Bad and The Ugly' along with 'The Good', as well.

I got offered my deal with Capitol pretty much right after I got dropped from Mercury. But Luke Lewis dragged his feet. He really really really did his best to try and have me lose momentum going from one label to the other. Because I don't think he knew it was going to be that easy for me to get another record deal. Irving azoff (my manager at the time) was calling up Luke and asking him "why are you doing this to her? Come on, you're screwing us around". Luke even had the nerve to say that I had been the one to "decide to have a kid" and thus ruining the momentum. Boy, talk about post partum depression.

But what that experience did was, because I was having such a hard time, I wrote "Brave" and "Somebody's Hero" and with my new baby "I love My Life". So the album that would have come out, if it had come out right away wouldn't have been the same album. It goes back to ~ everything happens for a reason. The long, drawn out time that it took to get most of my album from Mercury turned out to be nine months. Luke played games for almost a year but in that time I wrote those songs. That's when I wrote Brave because I was going through having a baby, crying everyday, I'd been dropped from my record deal and was unsure of everything. So that's how Brave came about. That song was about dealing with depression, the struggles, the ups and downs that we all go through and weathering the storm. Who better to write a song like that with than Tim Nichols and Annie Roboff. They had been there too. We've all had some sadness in our lives."

No doubt Jamie's vast experience when it comes to 'business matters' coupled with her awards and her compassion for artists, led to the formation of Momentum Label Group in 2012. Jamie's decision to start producing outside artists really kicked in when her Father Jim Murphy discovered their flagship artist Rachele Lynae. As a matter of fact, it appears that everything has come full circle, when it comes to family.

In 2014 O'Neal and her engineer/musician husband Rodney Good, whose discography boasts everyone from Roy Orbison & Waylon Jennings to Dolly Parton & the Dixie Chicks, produced Jamie's current album in their studio The Grotto. ETERNAL is an 11-song collection that infuses great country classics with fresh energy — featuring O'Neal's own unique take on iconic tunes such as "Leavin' on your Mind" (Patsy Cline), "The Sweetest Thing" (Juice Newton) "Help Me Make It Through The Night" (Kris Kristofferson), "I've Done Enough Dying Today" (The Gatlin Brothers), and the George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic duet, "Golden Ring," which features O'Neal with Andy Griggs.

Jamie O'Neal
Jamie O'Neal

"I've always operated as being in a family act. My dad has been a big part of decisions I've made in my career all along. I work with my husband and my dad and now my daughter Aliyah (12) also sings and writes music with us. It's always family for me, which I think is important. It does make it more fun to bring the family along. I have to go out and play by myself now and Rod stays here with our daughter because of school. So I'm out there and it's like …I miss them being there. It's just not as much fun when they're not there."

The Producer's Chair: What is the most important thing that you learned about producing from Keith Stegall?

Jamie O'Neal: I think listening to the artist. That's how he was. He pleases you and he lifts things to the next level and makes it even better by bringing what he brings to the table. That's one thing that he's great at, including the artist in ideas. I've been in the studio with some people who make me feel like the little woman in the corner recording and "we'll get to you later, honey, with your ideas and things". He wasn't like that at all. I'd say to him; "What if we did this or what if we did that" and he absolutely brought me in on every decision. He gives you a feeling of family with his producing. Glenn Warf, Brent Mason, Eddie Bayers and the musicians who he surrounds himself with are his buddies. I mean everything from eating lunch together, to a casual atmosphere and just having fun. His studio vibe is not being too stressful and is something I carry today into the studio.

When I wrote There Is No Arizona, Mike Rojas was the keyboard player on the demo and he created the keyboard line. But when we went to track the song, Keith used another keyboard player who couldn't do that same timing because it wasn't instinctual for him. But I wanted it on the record and I said: "That's not it. He's not playing it right." Keith ended up using Mike Rojas and nailed the part. He stepped out of his comfort zone by using somebody he had never used before. And he listened to me. I was nobody. He could have vetoed me and absolutely said we are not using this person. But he never did that and I appreciate that. I've learned so much from Keith. If I had to name one person who has been the most influential mentor in my life, he is THE guy.

The Producer's Chair: Launching a new label is quite an undertaking. What led to your decision, to start Momentum?

Jamie O'Neal: It had a lot to do with Rachele. We started thinking...we can do this our-selves. The Indie thing really started happening and we started thinking, why can't we be an Indie? Why can't we be the team behind this? There were several models to look at who have had success like Broken Bow, Black River, Big Machine. That's a huge machine! We're doing it in a smaller way but even if you're smaller to start out with, we have bigger dreams and plans down the road. Developing Rachele Lynae, developing other artists down the road and still writing and recording my own music is the goal.

The Producer's Chair: What can Indie labels offer that Major labels don't?

Jamie O'Neal: I think artists taking ownership. You know...having a bigger piece of what you're doing. Because we are a smaller label, the creativity is there for everyone to throw their ideas into the pot. It's not like we have eight singles and 8 artists waiting to get out and onto the radio. A lot of what these labels are able to do is trade off. "Hey, I'll give you a Carrie Underwood-Fly Away if you play my new artist so and so". And they'll add that record because they get this big contest with the bigger artists. We don't have that trading power and that I think unfortunately, those trade offs never go away. But the independents can break artists...look at Kelsea Bellerini. It can happen. With enough time, money and the right song you can break through.

The Producer's Chair: Just how social media-savvy do artists have to be today?

Jamie O'Neal: The thing is, now-a-days, labels, booking agents and even radio are looking at your numbers and reading your Instagram posts. They are looking at your tweets, your followers, and they're seeing how rounded of an artist you are. It's one of those things like JR Ewing on Dallas. You loved to hate it. You hate it but you watch it every week. The same way radio probably hates this whole social media mode that we're in right now but yet they feed off of it and read it every day. We have to look at it all and become a part of it because it's the world that we live in.

The Producer's Chair: What is the first and foremost thing on your mind, when it comes to producing?

Jamie O'Neal: If I could say anything about what I do now's about the vocals. When you are a singer in the booth it's one thing to have the producer focusing on the musicians and what they want the track to sound like. But a lot of producers can't sing. So they can't tell you how to phrase something. I think for me the number one thing I would say that I'm best at is how to phrase something or sing an ad lib. A lot of these young girls will say "oh, I don't think I can reach that note and I say I think you can but you gotta try. If an artist were to say something about me I would hope it would be that I made them better vocally. That I bring out the best vocal in someone. I'm going to make you sing your butt off when you're out there in the booth because I think that's what it's all about. You have to dig deep and have energy. Sometimes it's really hard because a singer who'a used to singing lightly or have been in musicals only have learned to sing in their falsetto and you have to try and re-train them, throw all that out. I think in the studio that's my main thing...the vocals.

For me it's not just helping people pick songs and co-write with them, it's also arranging the songs and doing arrangements to bring out the best vocal. Some young girls are not there yet and haven't found thir voice. I didn't discover a whole new octave until my mid twenties. I tell young artists "the way you sing right now is not the way you're going to sing in three years. Your voice develops and hanges, it lowers in pitch and you find new notes you never thought you could reach. And emotionally, well life and passion adds a whole new element. The things you go through in life just add to the richness of your voice.

The Producer's Chair: Considering the amount of talent to choose from, what was it about Rachele Lynae that made you want to sign her as your flagship artist?

Jamie O'Neal: I think number one, her voice. She's got a really big voice. I love big, belting voices. You know people who sing with passion and energy. And she just came in, this itty bitty teeny tiny girl with a big huge voice and a guitar. She wasn't scared. Again, that fearlessness always gets me. Reba and Martina, they walk into a room and it just lights up. Rachele has that personality. She wants you to know her. She has that spark and that electricity. She's one of those people who you know is going to go somewhere.

The Producer's Chair: Did Rachele require a great deal of development?

Jamie O'Neal: Not as far as knowing who she was and what she wanted to do with her voice. I feel like in the studio I help her find the best that she can be, bring the best vocal out of her. Taking her shopping...she had never been a big shopper. She wasn't really into her looks and style. She's very down to earth. I took her shopping and introduced her to different stylists. She'd never colored her hair, never put highlights in her hair. So that's the kind of development...I enjoy A&R and coaching, everything that comes with it. There is so much development in the early stages. Also with Rachele's family we all work together very closely with her career. Her sister sings with her. Her Mom is very hands on in her day to day.

The Producer's Chair: What is the most important thing that young artists should look for when considering signing with a label?

Jamie O'Neal: I would say freedom. As I say to Dad...sometimes you can give artists enough rope to hang themselves. One thing I have learned, there's good and bad in making all the choices...there might mistakes made along the bumpy path. I remember saying to Keith Steagall about the song Frantic...I just don't love this song. Then he said; "You should have never played it for the label then." He was always on the artist's side because he was an artist himself. I was playing them anything just to get my album done and wanted to get people excited about my music. But what he was saying was it's too late. Once a label hears a song if they like it, they're going to want you to record it. An artist needs to know who they are instead of asking label heads who they think they are. I really didn't want that song Frantic to come out. I wanted Sanctuary to be my next single, especially after 9/11. But Mercury was determined. That single was the worst message at the worst time and was my major stumbling block in my career at that time being at Mercury. It was a write off. It was a bad choice. And it comes back to him saying; "If you don't like something as an artist, don't do it."

The Producer's Chair: What do you think about the music on the radio today?

Jamie O'Neal: There are things I may not like about it but there are also things that I love. I love some of the production sounds of today. I love Joey Moi and Jay Joyce. I think they're using vintage type of throw back sounds and rock guitars but it's all new to country. It's kind of cool because it's putting a new fresh sound on something that we never used to do here in Nashville. There's no longer a rock genre on pop radio. Nashville is becoming full of hipsters and guys wearing the man bun and skinny jeans. We've got Kings of Leon, Jack White and all kinds of rockers and it's like we are becoming a little Seattle or Portland which is kinda cool. So these guys are coming here and creating a fresh sound for country because they can't do it anywhere else. There's good and bad with all of it. I only wish Music Row and the country music we loved to have to go away for the new sounds and people to be here. I appreciate some of it and dread some of it at the same time.

The Producer's Chair: What's it been like working with your husband Rodney in the studio every day since you started Momentum in 2012?

Jamie O'Neal: It's almost like I took out a Craigslist ad...looking for someone sweet and good looking who can play guitar on the road, sing harmonies and be a co-producer and engineer in the studio. And it's like he answered because he is all those things plus a great dad. In the studio he is amazing. He really does the hard work. I think a lot of engineers don't get the credit that they deserve. In the studio, 'producer' is such a loose term. There are those kinds of Producers that really get into the meat of the track. And there's Producers who completely rely on their engineers to do everything.

We are a Mom and Pop operation. It's just the two of us. I do everything from booking the musicians, talking to the artists and working out arrangements, things like that. In the studio when it comes to comping and tuning vocals, I do not sit down there with him. He does all that himself. We are really a team. But one thing that everybody does as a producer is rely heavily on the engineers to have their backs and Rod really has mine.

The Producer's Chair: How do you balance your time between being a wife, mother, artist, songwriter, producer, label head and have the responsibility of the artists lives on your label?

Jamie O'Neal: A lot of help. It takes a village to raise a kid. I think it's prioritizing. And my number one thing is my daughter. When it comes to things like running the label, my dad is much more hands on than I am. I'm weighing my opinion in and I'll go with Rachele to things like the Hank Williams "I Saw The Light" premiere. Also if Rachele is doing a show in Nashville I'm front and center. If she's doing photos or video. I'm very opinionated about everything from fashion, to hair, to song choice, and plus she and I write together.

When it comes to the day to day things with the label, my dad pulls it all together. We have a great promotion team In Tune. We have our publicist and a great social media group of people. They're all amazing at what they do. There's a real art to it. And Trey Fanjoy is executive producing Rachele's new video for Quicksand, Rachele's new single at radio now.

The Producer's Chair: If you could produce anybody that you wanted on the planet who would it be?

Jamie O'Neal: Somebody that has been in the studio and knows so much who I could just sit in awe of and swoon over? I'm going to have to say Sting.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tony Brown

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Forest Glen Whitehead

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Scott Hendricks

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Trey Fanjoy

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The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jay DeMarcus

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Shane McAnally

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Doug Johnson

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Jeff and Jody Stevens

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The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Noah Gordon

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