No pearl exists without the sandy grit that acts as both an agitator and a catalyst for the solid, iridescent beauty that results. So it is with the thirteen lovingly crafted tracks on Jamie McDell’s self-titled fourth album, pearls of wisdom and wonder formed by an adventurous childhood, early music stardom, and a series of migrations across three countries. Released February 25th, the latest LP from the New Zealand singer-songwriter celebrates the blessings alongside the burdens, delving into unexpectedly personal territory for the artist.
McDell spent some of her early years adrift – quite literally. Aged seven, she lived on a yacht with her parents and her younger sister, as her father helmed an exploration of the Mediterranean; it would be the first of many impulsive decisions that would consequently leave the family in financial peril. “It’s been quite a strong narrative throughout our entire relationship,” admits McDell, who is currently living in Papamoa in the North Island, New Zealand. “It probably wasn’t until I was in my late teens and early 20s that I understood the impacts that [taking off in a boat] had on their life.”
But McDell’s song “Poor Boy” is a reassurance and a thank you to her father for providing his daughters with revelatory experiences, and a sense that the world is large, wonderful and available to them if they breach the safety of the limits imposed on them by society, media and their own fears.
The song opened a dialogue between herself and her family that had been coursing below the surface for decades. Before releasing the single, McDell played “Poor Boy” for her dad on acoustic guitar, unsure what to expect.
“He did cry. I must say, I wasn’t entirely sure what the complex theme might have been of what he was feeling. I think my parents still hold quite a bit of shame and, absolutely, before I release something like this I definitely talk it through with them,” she says
“Poor Boy,” too, enabled her to consider the weight of shame in her own life and to alleviate some of its burden, something that she hopes will adjust the dynamic of her relationship with her parents, perhaps recasting their shared memories as formative, not damaging.
“I’m in an interesting stage of life where I’m learning, myself, not to carry so much guilt and shame for some of the decisions I’ve made,” she says. “My parents’ generation, they don’t necessarily have those same tools. I think we’re on a journey to develop our relationship and have it not be based so much around what they consider mistakes, but I consider moments in my life that have given me strength and made me more adaptable as a young woman.”
Now 28, she has known a truly peripatetic life, providing artistic manna ripe for shaping into song. Whisked off to sea when her father gave up his lucrative position within an Auckland law firm, most of what she listened to growing up was her parents’ collection of cassette tapes. The country-folk-rock soundtrack to their sea life was built upon days of Jimmy Buffett, John Denver and James Taylor. Enthused by her parents’ regular duets, young McDell sang along and began to teach herself guitar with the aid of her father’s John Denver chord books.
The experience coloured her 2012 debut album Six Strings and a Sailboat, which won the 16-year-old McDell gold album sales and New Zealand Music Award’s Best Pop Album of 2013.
She takes a deep breath in before discussing her debut.
“I really had an internal struggle with that [album]. It’s something I’m really trying to still feel proud of and what I fought to achieve as a young woman, because I can see that – at the end of the day – I’d gone into the studio, I was able to command these musicians so young, and we recorded a record that is entirely mine, no collaborations. Everything was written by me, no intervention, and I do think that’s really amazing,” she concedes. “I was young and didn’t know how to articulate all the kinds of sounds that I wanted. The aim was definitely to create radio singles and that was quite a different process to what I’m enjoying about music now.”
Her second album, Ask Me Anything, followed in 2015, and tracks like “Dumb,” “Falling,” “Crash,” and “Luck” give a sense of the emotional terrain she was feeling lost in. “My history in the music industry, to me had felt very commercial,” she reflects. “I got into the music industry really young and had one of those kind of dream stories where you sign a record deal and you record this album and it goes out into the universe and somehow all the singles get picked up and do really well. [I was] oblivious to the struggles of being a musician.”
The memories of Americana and country that permeated her childhood beckoned her to Nashville, and in 2017, she moved to the musical mecca, just after releasing her first independent, self-titled record with her sister Tess under the moniker Dunes. “Once I left my record label [EMI], I felt that I’d seen how a successful album campaign worked and there must be options out there for me to set up an independent release. I was really excited about that. I was quite business-minded, really enjoyed marketing and was excited to take it on myself,” she remembers.
In Nashville, seeking to reconnect with the country and roots music she’d loved as a child, she met and bonded with Australian expat Nash Chambers after she sent him a couple of tracks via email.
“I had this big spiel to him about my commercial history and how I wanted to move into a more country-folk sound and he said okay, cool, let’s stop talking about genres now and just worry about songs,” she recalls with a laugh. “I was dancing around what was important about this whole thing and I just think from there, I felt like we had similar values and he was going to be really good for me and getting down to the grounded songwriter that I wanted to be.”
Her third album Extraordinary Girl resulted from that journey. Funded by the renowned producer (and brother to internationally reputed country singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers, who features on opening track “Tori”), it was recorded in Nashville over two days at House of Blues studio, and she proceeded to tour and promote it through Australia and New Zealand throughout 2018.
“Coming from quite a pop background and having Auto-Tune playing on everything, that works for some people. But for me, that’s not how I like to hear my voice,” says McDell. “There’s an imperfection in many of my recordings, whether it’s a chord that goes off, something I’ve played wrong, something I’ve sung wrong, and I love those. I love that part. Nash has been such an amazing producer to work with in that regard because he really celebrates that.”
Seeking a change of scenery but still wanting to be within easy range of Nashville and Chambers, she moved to Toronto in 2019 with her partner. The Visa process was significantly simpler than trying to move to the US, she explains. It also took the pressure off her to be a full-time, hustling musician in Nashville. On the floor of her tiny apartment, she penned “Botox” as a way of expunging the frustration of witnessing a friend’s problematic relationship and her own sense of powerlessness. Released on The Botox EP that same year, the song reappears on her latest album.
McDell didn’t last long in Toronto, though. “Looking back now, we were definitely just surviving in Toronto. There was nothing that we could relate to back home in terms of the landscape, apartment living, a lot of concrete, not much nature, not really knowing anybody. I don’t associate it with a positive experience,” she says. “I did feel like I was running uphill all the time because I was trying to so hard to find a music community… I just wasn’t finding any pathways there.”
That community opened up for her in Vancouver, which proved a vastly more nourishing base for the couple. “Vancouver is like a different New Zealand in terms of landscape and nature; it’s very similar. We’re such outdoorsy people and it had all of that for us so we related to home a lot more and we had new friends there, we immediately felt a sense of community.”
From Vancouver, she had gone on the road, before dedicating herself to the making of her self-titled album. After opening a US tour for Texas Piano Man Robert Ellis in early 2020, she returned to Nashville to work with Chambers in his Eastside studio, joined by a coterie of enviably talented musicians: Dan Dugmore, Jedd Hughes, Dennis Crouch, Shawn Fichter, Jerry Roe, Jimmy Wallace, Tony Lucido, the McCrary Sisters, Erin Rae and Tom Busby (Busby Marou).
“My biggest fear comes from that dreaded imposter syndrome that I get from working in a studio in Nashville with really accomplished studio musicians,” she recalls. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to that. Because I’m not technically trained, there’s this sense of unworthiness. Going into the studio I’m always super nervous that someone is going to say ‘what key is this?’ and I won’t know the answer. I’m much more about feel and that’s how I write songs.”
The songs on this latest album are, indeed, brimming and bubbling with feeling. McDell is more open than she’s ever been about the moments that have shaped her life. “I’ve recorded a handful of albums now, and it’s very unlike me to go into it with some kind of theme or whole picture in mind. I definitely write more ballads than I do upbeat tracks and with this album, we had such depth lyrically – so many moving moments – because a lot of the writing did become about my family and some of those personal stories,” she says.
The songs on this record are both poetic and humble in theme and delivery, able to disarm the hardest of hearts. Says McDell, “The balance to the imposter syndrome is that I have such belief in what I’ve written and I rarely feel the need to go in and change things around.”