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Kiwi songstress Jamie McDell may be lauded as the nation’s answer to Taylor Swift, but she’s certainly not letting it go to her head. “Growing up with some amount of fame in New Zealand is probably quite different from most countries,” she says. “Not only because of our population, but mainly because of our attitudes. Kiwis find it natural to be grounded and I think I’ve just been lucky to have been surrounded by great friends and family who are all reminders of both my values and where I’ve come from.”


Where she did come from is a somewhat unusual — and beautiful — place. Before attending Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls and, later, King’s College, Jamie spent a great chunk of her childhood aboard a boat on the Mediterranean Sea. “I’ll always be thankful to my parents for letting my sister and I have that experience growing up,” says Jamie. “I was around seven when my dad had the idea of heading overseas and living a different kind of life.” McDell recounts idyllic memories of sailing to new islands daily, where the family would explore ruins and kick back on beaches. “We were supposed to be doing correspondence school, but, as you can imagine, the allure of the clear blue water was quite the distraction. That’s really where I started to write songs. I had a lot of time to think and was always writing tales about the ocean.”


It’s a love affair that continues to this day. The singer-songwriter is not only a keen conservationist, but in 2012 became the first female ambassador of Surf Life Saving New Zealand. The beach, she tells me, she considers ‘home’, but if she had to choose between the ocean and music? “I don’t think I could, they’ve always worked together for me. The ocean gives me inspiration to write and music gives me the ability to talk about conservation issues in a different way. While I don’t always write songs about the ocean, I do try to make sure it’s incorporated into my music career, whether it be part of my ‘image’ or working with different organisations. It’s a great way to inspire young people to take some interest in the outdoors or even learn about how to protect our environment.”


Jamie, now 22, was just 16 when she was snapped up by EMI Music New Zealand, having already gained a sizeable fan base online. Her first album, Six Strings and a Sailboat, released in 2012, spawned the chart-topping single You’ll Never Take That Away and has since gone gold. “I’ve been able to use social media to really carry my career,” says the songwriter. “When you’re making albums there are always restrictions around when you can release new material, but having online platforms means I can always be creating content for my fans so that they can be part of the process.” I wonder how difficult it is to balance her need for privacy with the need to share at least part of her life online. “Setting up some guidelines for yourself is important,” she says. “I’m a strong believer in having that time for yourself away from your phone, the internet and technology. It should be like writing a training programme. Set yourself some goals and organise the time you’re willing to spend on them then stick to it.”


With the ever expanding online universe making it ever easier to get ‘followed’, Jamie has some words of warning for would-be stars. “It is much easier to develop a bigger platform, fast, and sometimes that can get overwhelming as a teenager,” she says. “With more interest comes both positive and negative responses and it can be difficult to deal with negative comments. I grew up knowing that I should only listen to the opinions of people that I respect and that’s what kept my head in the right place.”


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“With more interest comes both positive and negative responses and it can be difficult to deal with negative comments. I grew up knowing that I should only listen to the opinions of people that I respect and that’s what kept my head in the right place.”

– Jamie McDell –


Even having signed a record contract at such a relatively young age, Jamie had the maturity to continue with her studies and go on to complete a degree in graphic design. It must surely have been tricky to balance studying and singing success. “It had its moments, but I always really wanted to do both so it was about making sure I was organised and motivated to make it work,” she says. “My lecturers were very understanding of what I was trying to achieve with my music and my record label also understood that I wanted to get through my degree. I’m so grateful to them all.” It also means Jamie gets to put her degree to good use, having an input in both the design of her record sleeves and concepts for her music videos: “It makes sense if you’ve written the song to have a vision of how it should be displayed. The majority of my videos have been filmed at the beach so it’s probably time to get some more ‘outside the box’ ideas! I’m currently working on some graphic design projects outside of music so it’s really useful to work with new perspectives as well.”


She also recently concluded her first nationwide tour to promote her latest album, Ask Me Anything. “It was an experience-and-a-half,” beams Jamie. “I really loved everything from the actual performances to just hanging out with my band. It was exhausting, I won’t deny that, but getting to the point in my music career where I can build a set that’s dynamic and interesting and have it come across well live is a real achievement for me.” Her favourite thing about the tour, she says, was getting the chance to meet the fans: “It’s fascinating to have conversations with people about what my songs mean to them or how my music has affected their life in a big or small way.” Jamie feels a strong bond with them for their ages, combined with her love of social media interaction, means that they have almost grown up together. “There are a few fans I could name who have come to every show, even from when I used to play in the park to about ten people,” she says. “I really believe a lot of those fans that have been supporting me from the start have now become friends. They’re aware of my personality and the way I like to write music so it’s great to get feedback from them about new songs.”


Jamie adds that her ultimate goal is to create a conservational organisation whose message is championed through design and great music: “I know I’ll always be writing songs so I’d love to keep writing albums for as long as it’s fun. The dream to buy a boat and go sailing will always be on my mind as well, so there’s a few things on the cards.”


As for the immediate future, Jamie has some material for a new album and she hopes to find further inspiration from an upcoming conservation trip. “I’ve always wanted to create a record with a country-folk influence,” she says. “So, we’ll see how we go!”


Jamie McDell’s new album, Ask Me Anything, is out now.


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces