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Finding her own success

Jamie O'Neal got her start singing demos and writing songs for other performers. Now she's earned two Country Music Award nominations.

By PAMELA DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 6, 2001


photo
[Publicity photo]
Jamie O’Neal
So what does one do after getting one's first Country Music Association nomination?

"One goes to Starbucks and gets coffee," Jamie O'Neal, 33, says on the phone from Nashville the day the nominations were announced.

It was a hectic time for the singer, as she juggled a move from an apartment to a house with the euphoria of the nomination.

"Your mind moves on to other things. I'm trying to find boxes and wrapping glasses and have been running around all over the city, so when people say congratulations, I'm like, "What for? Oh, yeah.' "

The singer recently was nominated for the Horizon award, which recognizes an artist's growth in country music over the previous year. She scored another CMA nomination for the video of her hit There Is No Arizona.

After performing in her family's musical group, singing on demos and writing songs for such stars as LeAnn Rimes, Tammy Cochran and Chely Wright, O'Neal broke through last October with her debut album, Shiver.

Hubba Da Hula? Why the heck not?
The name Hubba Da Hula means nothing to country fans in the Tampa Bay area, but it's a fairly common term in California.
Even non-country fans are getting turned on to O'Neal, who opens the Hubba Da Hula concert at Clearwater's Coachman Park on Saturday.

That was her singing All by Myself in the movie Bridget Jones's Diary.

"Talk about falling into my lap. I just lucked out," she says about the song getting such prominence in the movie. "The great thing is I've gotten a lot of letters from people who don't run out to buy country CDs but really like that."

All in all, it's been an amazing year for O'Neal.

"I'm just thrilled. Everything is new to me as far as the awards and the nominations and things like that, so I'm just having a great time and trying to enjoy every minute of it, because you don't know how long it's going to last."

Chances are she will be around for a while. Beyond her impressive vocal talents and good looks, O'Neal co-wrote nine of the songs on Shiver.

"Songwriting is one of my loves. I like to be able to go where I want to go and have the song be challenging and have a big range. If you want to have a hand in that, you have to write it yourself," she says.

Writing the songs also helps an artist, she said, because, "You're not going to get played the best songs when you're just starting out."

Like Trisha Yearwood, O'Neal got her start in Nashville singing demos for other songwriters. It was O'Neal's voice that caught the ear of Reba McEntire on So Good Together and Faith Hill on If My Heart Had Wings and This Kiss.

In fact, This Kiss had been sung by three other women on three other demos and after being pitched around a few times didn't get a bite. Two days after O'Neal made a demo of it, the song was cut. Anne Roboff, who wrote This Kiss, hired O'Neal to sing on the demos of all of her songs.

Earlier in her career, before moving to Nashville, O'Neal sang backup for Australian pop star Kylie Minogue (The Loco Motion), but she never had a desire to be a pop singer herself.

"I always wanted to do country. I started out singing country music, and I think the fans are so loyal and your career is so much longer," she says. "I would never be interested crossing over and leaving country music. The word crossover bothers me anyway because it means a line has been drawn. Why can't there be several different kinds of country music like there are in pop?"

Though born in Australia, O'Neal moved to the United States when she was 2 years old, hence she lacks the Aussie accent of country acts Keith Urban and Sherrie Austin, who were born and raised Down Under.

After working with Minogue, O'Neal changed course and sang backup for country artists such as Clay Davidson, Mindy McCready and Ronnie Milsap. The success of her first album has propelled her into a field filled with popular female country singers.

"I try not to think about it in a competitive way," O'Neal said. "Everybody is doing their own thing, and you're obviously hoping that you are going to be higher (on the charts) than anyone one or else you wouldn't do it. What I've always set out to do is just be myself and to write songs that I believe in."

There Is No Arizona, her first single and a song she co-wrote, touched many female listeners.

"I think all women can relate to having their heart broken wanting to believe what a man is telling them," O'Neal says. "My fans can relate and that's the biggest compliment you can get. All you can hope for when you sit down to write a song is that someone goes, "Yeah, me too.'

"That's what makes this style of music different from other styles where it's more obscure what they're singing about. In country music we're telling a story."

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