Answering millions of queries a day and getting travellers to where they want to go is all in a moment's work for Karen Jacobsen. She is the familiar voice of Apple's Siri as well as leading GPS technologies, and her route to disembodied fame has Griffith University right in the middle.
“People will talk to me like they know me, and that we’ve taken all sorts of lovely trips together,” Karen says.
She is now known as the GPS girl, transforming a one-off audition years ago into her all-encompassing brand.
“My speaking voice has ended up in more than a billion devices, GPS, smart phones, cruise ships, elevators, software applications, all around the world, telling people where to go and what to do,” she says.
“They were looking for a native Australian voice-over artist living in the United States, which was a description of me; I went to the audition, and I got the job, and before I knew it I was recording 50 hours of script to create a voice system that was chopped up and made into this text-to-speech voice system.”
That one-off audition changed the trajectory of her career altogether, with ramifications for years afterwards.
“It’s a totally mind-blowing development in my singer-songwriter career,” she says. “Even all these years later I’m still stunned by it.”
“If you have a desire to go for something that seems completely unreasonable and unfathomable to others, go for it.”
She says the intimacy of the connection that people get from hearing her voice means that many people approach her thinking they know her.
“Children have written songs in my honour,” she says.
“I got a letter from a 12-year-old girl; it was beautiful, and she said, ‘You’ve been with my family for four years now we’ve taken lots of great trips in the car. We know your name is Karen but we call you Zoe after our pet bird who died.’ I mean, how beautiful and sweet and unbelievable is that?”
Karen knew she singing and performing would be her life from an early age.
“At the age of seven, on the telly, I saw Olivia Newton-John and I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.
“I wanted to become a professional singer and move to America. It was crystal clear.
“I am from Mackay in North Queensland, and I would tell everybody what I wanted to do when I grew up, and they would say, `Oh, she’ll grow out of it’, or, `What do you want to do that for?’ or, `Who does she think she is?’
“It was a very interesting reaction, usually negative or aghast from people. Not my parents, but a lot of other people. And I just knew that that was what I wanted to do.”
Her transformation from the kid from Mackay, to Dreamworld performer, to living her dream in New York is one she says would not have been possible without her training at Griffith University’s Conservatorium of Music.
Her journey will soon be transformed on stage in her new show, Mackay to Manhattan.
“It will come to Australia, I will be at the piano and sing about how I recalculated,” she says.
“A musical memoir, I’m referring to it as.”
Karen says she is still amazed by the intimacy and powerful connection created by the human voice, particularly on her latest project, where she voiced an audio book about domestic violence.
“The non-profit organisation Broken to Brilliant, this group of phenomenal women and men, have started this project, and have put together this book of ten survivors, women who’ve been in really horrendous situations and come out the other side,” she says.
“This book is really powerful. And I was really privileged to record the audio book, which was not for the faint-of-heart to retell. Not saying I relived it, but it was a difficult experience to even record it.
“That was released in early 2018, so there’s a hard-copy book and this audio book was released and is available; it’s a book that can be bought and donated to somebody as they arrive in their safehouse room. It’s been a tremendous experience.”
Karen still regularly returns to Australia but loves living in New York, in the beating heart of Broadway in New York.
“I’m a huge musical theatre lover, and to live right in the theatre district is super dreamy,” she says.
“People say to me, ‘Oh, why don’t you come back to Australia?’ and that is one of the reasons; I say the energy here suits my energy.”
Karen now enjoys connecting with people all over the world and encouraging them to believe in, and pursue, their dreams.
“I like to say to listen to your inner GPS, because I really think we do all know,” she says. “Sometimes, even when we’re at uni, we think, ‘I don’t know what I want to do.’ The more you tell yourself you don’t know what to do, the more you stay in that confusion.
“It’s allowing ourselves to see it, and hear it and know it.
“If you have a desire to go for something that seems completely unreasonable and unfathomable to others, go for it.
“There are other people out there who will want to help you, and having the courage to express it, to acknowledge it to yourself and then to express it to people who you think will help you through that is key.”