When most of her peers were buying cassettes at the mall, Oona Mitchell had the run of Beale Street, splitting free time between her family’s club there and their Royal Studios in Soulsville. The granddaughter of legendary musician and producer Willie Mitchell, Oona (pronounced AH-nah) and her brother Lawrence (better known as Boo) have taken over the family recording business and are continuing its 60-year legacy. In addition to handling the studio’s daily operations, Oona runs their internet-based Royal Radio station, coordinates a stream of interns and builds the Royal legacy with her two sons, Ethan and Daniel. After a mind-blowing tour of the studio that has welcomed artists from Al Green to Bruno Mars, we sat down in Royal Radio’s production booth to discuss growing up as Memphis musical royalty and empowering the city’s next generation of artists. Welcome our newest FACE of Memphis, Oona Mitchell.
Your upbringing is part of Memphis’ history, but what was your own childhood like at a personal level?
Growing up in “the Royal family” was very interesting. At 5 years old, you wake up and see The Temptations playing poker in the living room, and you’re like, I just want these people to get out of my house right now. I just want to sleep.
But life was pretty normal. My grandfather and my grandmother really kept the whole family grounded and down to earth. My grandmother, coming up, would say, “You have to give back. I don’t care what you have, but you have to give back.” So every weekend I was doing charity work. That all came from my grandmother.
What did the Soulsville community feel like as you were growing up?
Growing up, I was seeing and knowing all the people that were on Stax and Sun and all these other people in Memphis that made the history in Memphis. My grandfather worked very well with everybody. Back then they didn’t have studio beefs; everybody tried to work together. I still do try — I work with everybody. If anybody needs me for anything, I try to help them.
Memphis is now seeing the second and third generations of our historic music families rise to new roles. What is your relationship like with the other multi-generational music families in Memphis?
It’s pretty much like family. Halley [Phillips, of the Sun Records/Phillips Recording Services family] is super cool, I love her. Me and Wes [Phillips] and his wife — I’m actually supposed to have dinner with them tonight. We laugh at each other; we completely relate to each other and everything going on. We’re super close.
How did you pursue your own interests in such a heavily influential atmosphere?
At first, I didn’t. At first I was like, you know, I’m not going to do music. I was doing copyrights at 12. My granddad had his own publishing company, so I was trying to figure out who gets paid what, doing accounting kind of work. So I went to culinary school, got out of there, did some catering for a while and then I was like, you know what? Cooking isn’t fun when you’re doing it for everybody else. And everything kept drawing me back to music.
What is your day-to-day role at the studio?
My brother and I co-own the Royal brand together. I started “Royal Radio,” which we both own, I just pretty much run it and program it and do everything with it. I’m the administrator and running the place. Boo is always in a session or out of town. Like right now, he’s on tour, so I handle events, admin work, copyrights, all the publishing — all the stuff that nobody wants to do is what I do.
What is your mission with the radio station?
I play nothing but Memphis music. If it’s another artist being played, it’s because that song had something to do with Memphis. I like to deal with independent artists as well, because I feel like I’m building a platform for Memphis where indie artists can have a way to be heard. My main goal is to showcase Memphis.
What is it like to have your family business connected to a worldwide phenomenon?
Memphis is part of the world. I just have to say that. It’s fascinating for me to even be a part of something that was so great, that my granddad had a huge part in. So to be able to continue that, and continuously give the world Memphis music — that’s what fascinates me, being able to give the world what we do here.
What are your goals for the studio and the label?
My brother always says, “You know my sister’s kind of like an alien; she thinks outside the atmosphere and then brings it back down.” I have a lot of thoughts of what we should add to the Royal family to be able to keep our claim in this historical city.
I’m interested in teaching kids, first off. I really want to get these music programs in Memphis together. And if Royal Studios can be part of that, I would love to be able to help. Anything that has to do with music and kids, I’m all down for it. That’s something I would love to add to what we do here.
How are you involved with the next generation of Memphis musicians?
Memphis, we don’t just have musicians here. We breed them. It’s in them. And a lot of people don’t know how to get it out. Trying to get these kids that don’t have that way of being able to express what they have musically inside of them, being able to help them to get that out is something that I would love to have here.
There aren’t a lot of women in many realms in the music industry. Did you have any role models or have the opportunity to be one?
I would love to be considered a role model. That’s an honor. But my mentors were my mom and my aunt. They grew up in the studio during the heyday with everybody coming through and my granddad recording.
What makes you proud of Memphis?
The heritage, the rich musical heritage makes me proud. The history that we have here. The people. The food, oh my gosh. The city itself — the vibe of Memphis is like no other place in the world. I’ve been to all those places, and, trust me, it’s not like Memphis. When you get here, you feel it. You feel the soul of Memphis.
What are your favorite restaurants?
Barbecue-wise, Cozy Corner and Rendezvous‘ lamb ribs. Their lamb ribs are amazing. I go to Casablanca a lot. I go to Blues City — that’s the best late-night. And Alex’s is my super-late-night spot. Even if we’ve been down at the studio until 4 a.m., I’m at Alex’s getting wings.
What is your best advice?
Don’t let anybody discourage you from getting to where you want to be. Just keep pushing. You’re going to get turned down — everybody major has been turned down in their lives. So don’t let anybody or anything discourage you from meeting your goals.
What are three things you can’t live without?
My Keurig, some kind of hot food every day and this studio.
Thank you to Micki Martin for today’s beautiful photos of Oona.
Get to know more inspiring Memphis women in our FACES section.