Growing up in a musical family in Auckland in the 1990s, McDell’s introduction to music began at an early age, in the form of old-school country icons such as John Denver and Jimmy Buffett.
When she was seven years old, Jamie’s father quit his job at a law firm to pursue his passion for sailing, moving the whole family onto a yacht, where they explored the Mediterranean for a significant portion of her childhood. There were only two cassette tapes on the yacht, John Denver’s 1971 album Poems, Prayers & Promises, and Jimmy Buffett’s Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes (1977).
“These were the artists that introduced me to storytelling and surrounded my journey then and for many years following,” said McDell in a 2019 interview with The Bluegrass Situation. “These were the artists that my mum and dad used to cover during boat drinks while I would take note of the three important chords my dad would strum.”
Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ was the first song she learnt to play on guitar, and the influence of these artists has stayed with her to this day – she has expressed her admiration for them extensively in interviews. “In an ideal world I’d try to make myself a female Jimmy Buffett!” she said in a 2016 NZ Musician interview.
It was during this extended sailing trip that McDell made her first foray into songwriting, at the age of seven. Her first song was about a dolphin. “Looking back, the lyrics were mine but the melody I ripped off the Flipper movie theme song,” McDell confessed to The Country Note in 2019.
McDell continued writing songs right through her teenage years. At 16, she sent a demo tape to EMI Records, who were impressed by the young girl’s songwriting abilities. The label watched over her for the next few years while she finished high school.
In 2011, McDell jumped on an emerging trend by starting a YouTube channel. She uploaded regular videos of her playing original and cover songs on the beach, and started to gain a following.
McDell’s debut single ‘You’ll Never Take That Away’ was a light, breezy piece of reggae-tinged folk pop.
McDell released her debut single, ‘You’ll Never Take That Away’, in March 2012, aged 19. By that time, she had just begun studying towards a Bachelor of Design at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). The single, a light, breezy piece of reggae-tinged folk pop, was accompanied by a DIY-style music video featuring McDell frolicking on the beach and having fun with her friends. The video feels like an authentic slice of life – a window into Jamie McDell’s world, displaying her carefree disposition.
The song’s lyrics, about staying honest and true to yourself and your values despite outside influences, strengthen this image. “Don’t you know I’ll go my own way, no surprise that I don’t really care what you say,” McDell sings. “I’ve got a dream that’s bigger than me, I’ve got rhyme, rhythm and time on the sea, you’ll never take that away from me.”
McDell has made sure to emphasise this point when telling the story behind the song. “I choose not to let that stuff get to me,” she said on her YouTube channel. “I just think it’s a waste of time, and life is so much more fun when you don’t care what people think … people can say mean things, but I’m always gonna be able to go to the beach and gonna be able to write songs, and that’s what’s important to me. I really hope that I can spread that attitude around.”
It caught on. ‘You’ll Never Take That Away’ debuted at No.11 on the main Top 20 NZ singles charts the week it was released, and stayed on the chart for 21 weeks. On the chart for singles by New Zealanders, it peaked at No.1 on 30 April 2012, remaining there for three weeks. The single was certified gold after 13 weeks of its release.
McDell also enjoyed chart success with her next two singles, ‘Rewind’ and ‘Life In Sunshine’, the latter of which was also certified gold 14 weeks after its release, and is one of McDell’s most widely recognised songs. Both songs, and their music videos, furthered McDell’s fun-loving surfer girl persona and a light, warm-tinged country pop musical vibe which evokes the sun, the beach and summertime. In May 2022, McDell released an acoustic EP called All That I Wanted, containing acoustic versions of some of her singles as well as two new tracks.
McDell released her debut album, Six Strings And A Sailboat, in November 2012. The album, recorded at York Street and accompanied by the studio’s inhouse band, was entirely self-written and featured all her previous hit singles. On the night of its release, McDell opened for synth pop icon Owl City at the Powerstation. The album entered the Top 20 NZ albums chart a week after its release at No.2, spending 28 weeks on the chart and being certified gold after 21 weeks. It also spent 10 weeks on the NZ Top 40 Albums chart, debuting and peaking at No.8.
Six Strings And A Sailboat gained three nominations at what was then the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards, and took home the Tui for Best Pop Album. McDell attended the awards dressed as a shark, in an attempt to raise awareness against shark finning, and to change public opinion of these “misunderstood” animals.
McDell’s ocean activism has been extensive – in addition to raising awareness for sharks, she wrote a song, ‘Without A Voice’, inspired by the plight of Maui dolphins, and performed it at an Auckland Council meeting.
EMI suggested McDell collaborate with other songwriters.
“We’d write them but they weren’t songs I believed in.”
Following the success of Six Strings And A Sailboat, EMI began sending McDell into co-writing sessions, which she found challenging. “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!” she told NZ Musician in 2015. “I had to take the opportunity and realise that people weren’t trying to ruin my life … We’d write them but they weren’t songs I believed in … 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.”
Although the co-writing sessions didn’t produce many songs, it was through them that McDell met Stuart Crichton. Originally from Scotland and now based in Australia, Crichton’s production history includes producer/writer credits for names such as Selena Gomez, Brian McFadden and Kylie Minogue. McDell and Crichton bonded creatively, and Crichton produced McDell’s second album, Ask Me Anything. As McDell was still studying at the time, the album was worked on between semesters, in two-week blocks at Brian McFadden’s home studio.
McDell graduated from AUT in 2014, and Ask Me Anything was released the following year. The album continued in the guitar-driven, confessional country-pop vein of Six Strings And A Sailboat, but was darker and edgier than its predecessor, probably due in large part to the influence of Crichton, whose production background is synth-pop and the 90s progressive house sound. You can also hear the development and maturing of McDell’s songwriting.
The album’s lead single, ‘Dumb,’ was released in August 2014, and enjoyed some chart success, staying in the Top 20 NZ singles chart for 10 weeks and entering the NZ Top 40 for one week at No.37. McDell cowrote the song with Esther Sparks and Mitch Kenny.
“‘Dumb’ was one of my first co-writing experiences,” McDell said in her “track-by-track” video for Ask Me Anything. “I think it actually came through a lot more than I thought, that I was quite uncomfortable in the situation I was in. The song is exactly about just because I’m a little younger and I don’t know as much, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have anything innovative to bring to the table.”
The music video for ‘Dumb’ and follow-up single ‘Crash’ maintain the playful, youthful energy of McDell’s previous videos, while still taking a darker tone. The album included a collaboration with Rai Thistlethwayte of Thirsty Merc. The song, ‘Back Of My Mind’, was co-written with Thistlethwayte and Crichton, and released as the third single.
Ask Me Anything earned McDell her first sync placement, with the emotive, piano deep cut ‘Moon Shines Red’ being featured on the TV series Pretty Little Liars. She toured the album in April and May 2015. It was her first official tour, with a new live band including Thomas Healy, Scotty Pearson (Elemeno P), and Cass Basil (Tiny Ruins).
For McDell, 2017 was a year of many new directions. In May she released ‘Horses’, the haunting, colourful first single from Dunes, McDell’s new collaboration project with her sister Tessa. Combining Jamie’s country and Tessa’s pop and R&B influences, Dunes’ sound is noticeably more synth driven than Jamie’s solo material, with the sisters’ harmony vocals taking centre stage. More singles followed, and the duo’s self-titled debut album emerged the following year.
At the end of 2017, Jamie McDell flew to Nashville to record her next solo album. Her decision was spurred by a desire to transition into a more organic, rootsy country sound – a sound closer to that of her biggest musical inspirations, John Denver and Jimmy Buffett.
McDell felt the need to go to Nashville to make music. “It’s almost like I had no choice.”
“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,” McDell explained when I interviewed her for NZ Musician in 2022. “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.”
While in Nashville, McDell met producer Nash Chambers. They connected musically and began working together on new music. The resulting album, Extraordinary Girl, was released in 2018. Recorded live with a session band at Nashville, House Of Blues Studio D, over two days, the album was a much rawer, unpolished offering than any of McDell’s previous work. Once again entirely self-written, the album has strong themes of female empowerment, especially in regards to relationships – this is especially exemplified by the intimate and emotive title track, which, as McDell has discussed in interviews, was written about a friend’s abusive relationship.
Chambers is the brother of Australian country star Kasey Chambers, and through that connection, Kasey is featured on ‘Tori’, Extraordinary Girl’s lead single and opening track. Other notable collaborations include Bill Chambers on ‘Paint On A Sign’ and Canadian/New Zealand country icon Tami Neilson on ‘No Woman’s Land’.
Following the release of Extraordinary Girl, McDell moved to Toronto, Canada, with her partner, Jake Smith. During that time, she kept working with Nash Chambers on new music. The first taste arrived in 2019 with the upbeat self-written single ‘Botox’, closely followed an EP of the same name in October of that year. The EP featured two more original songs and a cover of Jimmy Buffett’s ‘He Went To Paris’.
McDell’s fourth full-length album arrived in February 2022, by which time she had returned home to New Zealand, settled in Papamoa and married Jake. The self-titled album contains ‘Botox’ and another track from The Botox EP, the moving Robert Ellis duet ‘Worst Crime’. Once again produced by Nash Chambers, the album is her most traditional country sounding release.
“I think it probably just comes from, to be honest, the pride I feel for this record,” she told me. “I guess a cheesy way of saying it would be [I] found myself and my sound, and the music that I really wanna create. It's just to do with being super proud.”
It’s clear that more time was spent on production than on Extraordinary Girl, but Jamie McDell still goes for a more homegrown, organic sound. Once again, the maturing of McDell’s songwriting is noticeable, this album containing her most vulnerable and personal material yet. It has strong themes of coming of age, with a lot of lyrical reminiscing on her younger days, the lives of her parents, and that sailing trip that defined her childhood, and subsequently her life.
McDell’s own career trajectory matches that of her father’s – choosing passion and honesty over commercial success. The album contains a song, ‘Mother’s Daughter’, co- written with Thomas Healy, Heather Morgan, and fellow New Zealand country artist Jenny Mitchell. A line in that song could just as well be Jamie McDell’s mission statement: “If I lose in the long run, at least I lost it my own way.”