“We wouldn’t have a career if we didn’t have each other.”
Mark and Jay O’Shea are driving from Toowoomba to Brisbane when they catch up with The Music. They’ve just done the first show of their Australian tour, a sold-out gig in Goondiwindi, where they also helped to launch the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
Mark and Jay are Australian ambassadors for the program, which gives free books to children. If a parent signs up when their child is born, a new book will land in their letterbox every month until the child is five.
“I didn’t have any books when I was growing up,” Jay reveals. “And even as an adult, I didn’t understand the importance of early literacy. That’s the reason I wanted to be an ambassador.” Jay signed up their daughters when they were born: Finley, who’s now 10, and August, 9. “They’re now both avid readers, so we’re very grateful.”
Australia was the fourth nation in the world to adopt the program. “Dolly Parton is such a legend,” Jay says. “The program is all over the world now and we’re always spruiking it because we really believe in it.”
If O’Shea were a children’s book it would probably be The Little Engine That Could. An unlikely duo, they have managed to forge a career in country music’s toughest market, Nashville, Tennessee, and their fifth album, Neon Soul, is released this week.
It’s been no easy road, as Mark acknowledges in Nashville, Indiana. “It takes a lot to keep this whole thing goin’,” he sings. “And it’s a grand façade to keep the scars from showin’.”
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Jay doubts they would have survived in the music business if not for each other. “I feel really sorry for those artists who don’t have that support. This industry is one of the toughest in the world – it’s up and down and all over. From one album to the next, you never know how things are going to go. To have each other – to celebrate in the good times and to commiserate in those bad times – is everything.”
Jay, originally from Adelaide, was working as a backing singer with INXS and Gina Jeffreys when she met Mark, who grew up in Dalby in Queensland and released a solo album in 1996 before starting a band, Zinc, with his brother John (they released one album, Making Sense Of Madness, in 2005).
The couple relocated to Nashville in 2007, working initially as songwriters. It was Kim Carnes – who became a worldwide star with the 1981 smash Bette Davis Eyes – who convinced them to become a duo. During a writing session, Carnes noted their creative chemistry and said simply, “You guys need to be a duo.”
Jay thought it was “a terrible idea”, but now acknowledges it was the best move they could have made. “When we decided to get married and have children, we realised we had to play together if we wanted to continue our careers in music. Otherwise, it’s just too hard to keep a marriage together with children – if you’re on the road 24/7, you can’t do it. So we decided to give the duo thing a go and, fifth record, we haven’t looked back.”
The title track of the new album sets the scene. With its shout-outs to Aretha, James Brown, Charley Pride and Bonnie Raitt, it indicates that this is not going to be a conventional country record. “It’s a mix of my soulful roots and Mark’s cowboy sensibility,” Jay explains. “It’s really just meant to make you feel good and dance. We have a lot of other songs that are thought-provoking and deep … this is not one of them.”
Jay and Mark have one songwriting rule: to make the listener feel something. “Whether that’s sorrow or nostalgia or anger or wanting to get up and dance … it’s got to evoke some big emotion. The idea is to write big thoughts.”
Watch Me Quit is a song about how hard it is being a parent. “I wrote that during the Covid period and I think every parent was going through the same thing. I was homeschooling the girls for eight months and you often feel like you’re not doing a good job and you’re failing as a mum. I went to the bottom of my soul to get those lyrics out. I think I cried for about six hours writing that, it was really tough. But when it was released, I got beautiful messages from parents all over the world, saying, ‘That’s exactly how I felt.’”
Nashville, Indiana is a celebration of being comfortable in your own skin and never having to apologise for who you are or where you come from. Mark got the idea for the song when they discovered a town called Nashville in Indiana. “We were about four hours from Nashville, Tennessee when we saw the Nashville sign,” he explains. “We thought we’d gone into the Midwest Bermuda Triangle – we had no idea what was going on.”
O’Shea went to Nashville, Indiana to film a video for the song and the local council has now invited them to play a gig in the town, which they will do after their Australian tour, along with US shows supporting country superstar Tim McGraw.
Neon Soul also includes Thoughts And Prayers, a song that sadly arrives after the gun tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed. “It’s horrible that the song is really relevant right now,” Mark says. “I wish there was a time when that sort of song didn’t need to be heard.”
Mark is aware that it’s “such a polarising conversation in the States, such a partisan issue” and says he didn’t set out to write a political song. “But clearly what is currently happening is not working. We need to get on the same page with an end result. We want our children to be safe.”
“More than just flying flags at half-mast,” Mark sings. “More than a minute of silence to pass, more than just feeling sorry for the mothers, more than just blaming each other. There’s gotta be more than just thoughts and prayers.”
For now, Franklin, Tennessee is home for the O’Shea family. Mark misses the Australian coffee – “they still haven’t got the coffee thing right over there” – while Jay misses many things, including Cheezels, Burger Rings, Wagon Wheels and Tim Tams. And just before our chat, she has fed their daughters a Bubble O’Bill ice cream. “I told them I used to love the Bubble O’Bill when I was their age. They looked at me as if to say, ‘What on earth is this?’”
It’s been a long and winding road for Mark and Jay O’Shea. I first interviewed Mark more than 25 years ago when he was being managed by Australian Crawl’s Brad Robinson and touted as the next big thing in Australian country music.
“I have nothing but beautiful memories of my time with Brad,” Mark says when reminded of that encounter. “What a beautiful human being he was. He was a great example of how you could get stuff done in the music business and still be a good human.”
Mark laughs when he recalls his teenage dreams. “I thought I was gonna be Elvis back then. It’s a strange old business; I’m fortunate to have such a great family. Between LA and Sydney and London and Nashville, I would have lost my way if not for Jay. We wouldn’t have a career if we didn’t have each other.”
Struck by the fact that he’s been making music for a long time, Mark pauses before saying, “It has definitely been a long road, and it hasn’t ended yet.
“We’re gonna keep riding this sucker all the way.”
Neon Soul is released on Friday through Sony. For tour dates, click here.