Seasoned songwriters understand the power of an unexpected twist, the thing that elevates a good song to something instantly memorable. Jamie O’Neal has long been this type of songwriter, as she demonstrates with her new single, “The World Goes On,” which will be released on May 29 (pre-order/pre-save). At a time when many songs addressing the pandemic are coming out, she made sure that hers has an unexpected style that sets it apart from the rest.
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“Someone was saying to me, ‘When I saw the title, I thought it was going to maybe be a slower song, and then when it came on, it was like sunshine and happiness, and it took me to this other place,’” O’Neal says, calling from her Brentwood, Tennessee home. “I said, ‘Yeah, because to me we need help right now. We need to feel good again and try to feel like we felt before all this happened.’ I hope people get that feeling when they listen to the song.”
“The World Goes On” is the first single from Now and Then, O’Neal’s solo album that’s set for release in the fall. But the song actually came into being long before that album (or the pandemic). O’Neal says she started writing it nine years ago, with her longtime friends Shaye Smith (who has written songs for Kenny Chesney and Martina McBride) and Ilya Toshinsky (who has played guitar, banjo, and mandolin for the likes of Keith Urban and Halsey, among others).
“We started with the melody,” O’Neal recalls. “Ilya was playing guitar and banjo and it was feeling really happy and uplifting – but yet, Shaye and I talked about different times when we felt down, and how easy it is to get sucked into that if you let yourself.” As they wrote the lyrics, “We wanted it to be uplifting and helpful, and have a light, sunshiny vibe to it. But yet we wanted it to be real – trying to find that feeling of, ‘Life does go on, and you get past whatever you’re going through.’ The storms pass, the sun comes back out, and we all have to find that faith and hope within us.”
Although she loved the song, O’Neal let it sit on the shelf after that initial writing session because it simply didn’t seem to fit with her then-current project, her 2014 album, Eternal, which was a collection of cover songs. But then the pandemic hit. “When that happened, I was thinking, ‘I want to put something out that resonates with people,’ so I rewrote the lyrics to fit what’s going on right now.”
While “The World Goes On” is overwhelmingly optimistic, O’Neal says the song is meant to let people know that it’s all right to wrestle with difficult emotions during such stressful times. “I don’t see anything wrong with really touching on real feelings of grief and depression. I don’t understand why we have to act like everything’s okay.”
O’Neal knows from personal experience how hard it can be when feelings are disregarded. “My grandfather and my aunt passed away, both of cancer, at the same time when my first album [2000’s Shiver] was coming out,” she says. “Everybody at the label was like, ‘Don’t talk about it, don’t focus on anything negative. You’ve got to get your record out there and you need to focus on the music.’
“But at that time, I was so sad I could have cried at the drop of a hat,” she continues. “I never forgot that feeling of somebody wanting me to just sweep it under the rug. It made it harder because I felt like I had to be fake. I definitely didn’t like that feeling. I thought, ‘This is why feelings and emotions never go away if you keep shoving them down.’”
That may have been a hard time for O’Neal personally, but her career did in fact take off. She had back-to-back #1 singles, “There Is No Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels,” which led her to platinum-selling status. She followed that up with further hits like “Shiver,” “Trying to Find Atlantis” and “Somebody’s Hero.” Along the way, she was nominated for three Grammy awards, won an ACM Award for Top New Female Vocalist, and also won a Billboard Award for New Country Artist.
From there, O’Neal found more success working with others, writing hits for Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Cece Winans, and Idina Menzel, among others. But this collaborative phase had a price: “I was finding that I was working with other people so much, in the studio finishing their projects, that I could never get anything finished for myself,” she says. “Being able to put new music out is a dream come true, and I haven’t been able to do that as much as I would like.”
Determined to make a change, O’Neal decided to switch gears. “Last year, I really made a concerted effort to just work on my own music. Now I’m not going to look back – I’m going to go forward and keep putting new music out there.” Her new album, Now and Then, is the outcome of this recommitment to her own work. The album will feature original songs, and also reworked versions of some of her previous hits.
O’Neal is clearly happy to get back to focusing on her own musical path – a trajectory that she says she felt destined to follow ever since she was growing up in Sydney, Australia. Her parents, Jimmy and Julie Murphy, were professional musicians, and she remembers “watching them from the side of the stage every night performing, and finally saying, ‘Well, I want to be out there, too!’”
When she was eight years old, O’Neal says, “I guess my dad felt like I had the natural talent of having a good ear, being able to listen and figure out harmonies and melodies.” Soon after, she and her younger sister began singing onstage with their parents under the band name The Murphy Family. “Once I was in it, I never looked back. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I love being on stage!”
O’Neal admits it’s been hard staying away from performing during this pandemic, especially because she’s been feeling so ready to get back to doing shows again. “It’s been hard during this quarantine. But I’m not walking around the house belting it out like I would do in a 90-minute show. If I did, I’d probably drive everyone crazy!” she says with a laugh.
Until she can get back out in front of audiences again, O’Neal says she’s glad she’s still able to release new music – especially if it can be uplifting for others. “I am hearing so many sad songs right now, and I just don’t think we need to be sadder than we’ve already been during this time.” With “The World Goes On,” she says, “My wish is that everyone finds some hope in it, and it makes them feel good.”