Popdose Interview: Jonatha Brooke
Jonatha Brooke is one of those artists whose name always sounds familiar – if only because, really, how many people named “Jonatha” do you know? – but whose music you may not be familiar with…though, frankly, you really should be. She’s a talented singer-songwriter who first got her career rolling in the early ’90s as a member of a duo called The Story, with collaborator Jennifer Kimball, but Brooke soon stood on her own two feet and has trotted out album after album … some on major labels, some on indies … to critical acclaim and a decidedly diehard following. Popdose had the opportunity to speak with Brooke, and we took full advantage of it, asking her about as much of her back catalog as time allowed, quizzing her about how she recently came to collaborate with the late Woody Guthrie (and whether she could even concentrate with the awareness of what Billy Bragg and Wilco had already done with the man’s lyrics), and wondering where she stands on the state of the music industry today.
JB: Hi, Will!
PD: Hey, Jonatha, how are you?
JB: Good, how are you?
PD: Not bad!
JB: Where are you?
PD: I am in Chesapeake, Virginia.
JB: Oh, I was there this summer … roasting!
PD: Right, sorry about that. So how are you doing today?
JB: I’m doing pretty well!
PD: And where are you today?
JB: I’m in New York City, about to go to Portland, Maine.
JB: Home of my fore bearers.
PD: Oh, very nice. I originally had been scheduled to talk with you before one of our other writers, Jason, went to see you play at The Concert Hall at the Society for Ethical Culture…
JB: Oh, cool!
PD: …where you were originally scheduled to co-headline with the accident-prone Glen Phillips.
JB: Yeah, I guess! Is he accident-prone? ‘Cause I haven’t known him for that long…
PD: Well, I don’t think he really is, but he certainly was that day, apparently.
JB: Well, what a hairy … that’s just scary!
PD: Have you talked to him since his coffee table incident?
JB: (Laughs) I did, actually, and he sounded kinda looped on painkillers … he was having a good time!
JB: Yeah, we were talking about what we would sing together when he does actually join the tour, and he’s like (imitates someone who sounds extremely drugged up and happy), “Sure! I’ll sing on anything! Whatever!” I think he was feeling no pain at that point!
PD: (Laughs) Well, I don’t know if you saw Jason’s review of your show that night, but he referred to your arrival as “gliding onstage with some of the dance moves inspired by her previous ballet training.”
JB: Oooh, I didn’t see that! I better check it out!
PD: Do you make a conscious effort to “glide” or is this something you do without thinking? (Laughs)
JB: I kinda don’t think about it! In fact, if I probably saw it back on film, I’d probably be mortified. I think it just kinda happens, ’cause … if there’s open space, I tend to go into “dancer mode.”
PD: So when you do live shows, how do you go about doing your set list? Obviously you focus on the most recent album, but beyond that …
JB: It’s kind of torture, actually, because I have written so many songs in different tunings. I’m not a real … I don’t play in “standard” very often. I think I know two songs in standard tuning. The set list is kind of dictated by how retarded the tuning sequence is. So certain songs will have to be clumped together just because they’re closest together in tuning.
PD: Oh, okay.
JB: Yeah, it’s kind of as boring as that!
PD: Do you have any songs that don’t readily translate to a live medium?
JB: That’s a good question! You know, there are a couple of really big, “epic” ones that I always thought wouldn’t translate, and then once in a while, someone will yell them out, and I’ll try to do them solo, and I’ll sort of fall in love with them again because they have a real poignancy just, y’know, trying to cover an “epic” with a Wurlitzer and a voice. I find it’s actually kind of exciting to try to do a large, large song, at least that’s, y’know, very “produced” on a record in a tiny way, and it kind of …it’s endearing.
PD: To talk of your most recent album, when you went into The Works, is it safe to say that you were very conscious of the fact that you were walking where Billy Bragg and Wilco had already once trod?
JB: Yeah, although I was kind of ignorant about it in a blissful way. I didn’t really know that much about Mermaid Avenue and when I was in the archives, I … (Laughs) it’s kind of funny, ’cause as I was going through the lyrics, the first 12 that I was really drawn to were actually on Mermaid Avenue (Laughs), so I kept getting miffed that Billy and Jeff [Tweedy] had basically taken the ones I wanted! But then I delved further and I found my own set that was just more apropos to me anyway, but … luckily, I hadn’t really heard their record, so I didn’t have any sort of monkey on my shoulder and I was kind of a little ignorant about Woody Guthrie as well, and I think that allowed me the freedom to just really find what really spoke to me and not sort of feel the pressure of his history and their history, and I just did my own thing. And actually, Nora [Guthrie, Woody's daughter] made it really clear that that’s what I should do — she kept encouraging me and saying, “Don’t worry about Woody, y’know, he’ll be fine. This is about you. Make this record about you.”
PD: Well, given the challenge of — his work was kind of limited, how did the project come to pass in the first place?
JB: I know, it was really weird. I got a call out of the blue — I was on tour in England, and I got a call to just go in there and find maybe a couple of lyrics for a benefit concert they were putting on in Philly, and Philly’s a big town for me, so I think I sell tickets at these kind of things, so that was really why they called me. I don’t know that Nora had any prior notion of who I was or what I did, and so again, it was kind of a fluke-y thing, and then it was love at first sight. (Laughs)
PD: (Laughs) So how intimidating was it to be aware that you were creating something that would find you inextricably linked to one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century? Not to downplay your work from the’80s and ’90s, you understand…
JB: That was cool! It was like, oh my God, I’m gonna co-own a copyright with Woody Guthrie? That sounds really … that’s really cool! That’s forever, you know? This is a real honor and … kind of history-making in a way, and … that was really exciting. But again, I think that it just was more exciting than anything, it wasn’t so intimidating or daunting, I just really worked hard to find the things that really spoke to me so that I could really do them justice, that would give them my language, musically, to bring them to the world.
PD: And there’s a pair of your own songs that are on the album, but I know I read somewhere that one of them you had said you had felt like it was a gift from Woody to begin with.
JB: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I was walking home — I live in Spanish Harlem — and I was walking home one day and I saw this tree that was full of these little birds. It was cold, the end of December or something and they were just chirping away, and it just made me think, “That’s what he does,” y’know, he’s unstoppable. You look at the archives and you see it. You see that he just never edited himself, or turned into that lifeless, “I suck, I’ll never do another creative thing” person. He just didn’t have that element to him, and I found that so refreshing, that he was that un-precious. He just wrote everything down, even if it was stupid or it wasn’t gonna be, y’know, the next “This Land is Your Land.” He just wrote it down and he did it. There’s tons of stream-of-consciousness stuff. There was crazy, sort of, like, almost pornographic stuff … like, crazy letters that he wrote as if he were Arlo to the babysitter, he just never stopped, and it was just such an example and so inspiring for me to see that with someone who is such an icon, to see that he just wasn’t precious about it. It so inspired me and that’s when that song “Little Bird” came out.
PD: Some of your other albums, you’ve worked with Bob Clearmountain a couple of times in the past, as far back as Ten Cent Wings, right?
JB: Yeah, when we first met, he mixed Ten Cent Wings and we just became really good friends since then, and he’s been my champion and partner ever since. We did Steady Pull together, and he was my first call on this one. He hadn’t even heard a note — I hadn’t played him anything, I just said, “I think you’re gonna dig this, these are the musicians, here are the two days, can you do it?” And he said, “I’m in.” And he showed up — he flew from Berlin. The night before we tracked this record, he was in Berlin with the premiere of the Rolling Stones movie, which he did all the engineering and mixing for … and he flew in to do my little Woody Guthrie record! It was awesome!
PD: On paper, it seems like it would be an odd combination but clearly it’s worked for y’all.
JB: Oh, definitely.
PD: Were you surprised the first time, given his history — Bryan Adams, and as you said, The Stones…
JB: I actually didn’t know his history. I seem to go into these situations blissfully ignorant! It was my husband who knew him and knew his work and just thought “this is gonna be the guy,” and we had already tried mixing with someone else and it just wasn’t right … the second I heard what he did with my vocal, the second I heard where he put it in the mix and how intimate it felt even in the middle of a very complicated production, I was sold. I just thought, “Wow, this guy’s really listening. He digs songs, and it’s not about him, it’s about the singer,” and I just fell in love with what he does.
PD: Well, if we’re talking about Clearmountain, I’ve got some questions about the various albums he has worked on. Actually, the first one being Ten Cent Wings, where Jon Brion added guitar to at least one song on that album …
JB: Yeah, he played that really funky weird out riff on “Secrets and Lies.” That was trippy!
PD: And did you know him from the L.A. scene, or how did you …
JB: I knew him a little bit from the L.A. scene, and I was very familiar with Aimee Mann’s record, Whatever, which is still my favorite record of hers. He was an obvious call.
PD: And on Steady Pull you had both Michael Franti and Neil Finn.
JB: That didn’t suck at all!
PD: No, not at all! It in no way would’ve surprised me if you’d been a Finn fan for a while, but Michael Franti seems like, at least, again, on the surface, an odd choice, but …
JB: That was a fluke-y thing too. When I was writing Steady Pull, I was in Colorado, holed up on the side of a mountain, just trying to get some space, and I one day got kind of lonely and I went down to the local record store and I said, “What are you guys listening to?” and they handed me Home, the Michael Franti record, and I just fell in love with him. And so I started writing that song with him in mind, the “Steady Pull” song, and I just was trying to come up with something that would pair our two voices, because his is so low and groovy and sexy, and mine is, y’know, more pure and high and I just thought, “What a great combination.” And that’s how that song happened.
PD: And with Neil Finn, I know Mitchell Froom has been on a couple of your albums. Which acquaintanceship came up first, Mitchell or Neil?
JB: Neil was first, because again, Bob knew … well, Bob’s been friends with Mitchell forever and ever and also with Neil, so that was Bob’s call. He just happened to be in L.A. at the time that we were recording Steady Pull and Bob called him up and he came over, and (Laughs) he turned out a vocal!
PD: Did that freak you out? I presume you had been aware of his stuff for quite some time before that …
JB: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I’m a big fan. And Mitchell, he’s kind of our … we call him every time, he’s part of the family now, so he has to be on something on every record, ’cause he’s Mitchell Froom! I’m a big Mitchell fan, I love what he did with Suzanne Vega’s records.
PD: Oh, absolutely, 99.9…
JB: Yeah, that was such a great combination, with her sort of flinty reserve and his wild production, it was just brilliant.
PD: And also on that record, Marcus Miller and Joe Sample …
JB: I know, can you believe it?
PD: What’s your jazz background?
JB: I was married to a jazz pianist for a few years before it didn’t work anymore …
PD: Fair enough …
JB: And my husband actually was managing Marcus at the time and still manages Joe, and I’ve come to really be a friend of Joe’s and just a huge fan of his work.
PD: And how did their jazz stylings fit into your music, because I guess yours is at least a little bit more folky than jazz …
JB: Yeah, I mean, they’re both such tremendous musicians that they could play anything … Joe’s been part of the pop world and the R&B world forever, y’know, he’s been an amazing … he’s played on so many sessions over the years that you’d be hard-pressed to find a great record that he’s not on. So I think he knows what to do in any given situation. And Marcus is just a musical monster, a genius, and again, he can do anything in any style, so I don’t think either of them as sort of “pigeoned” into the jazz corner.
PD: I read a review of Careful What You Wish For that used the simile “Like an Alanis Morissette record wanting to be latter-day Pat Benatar.”
PD: Now that does a comparison like that make you wanna laugh or go find the critic and give him a punch in the face?
JB: Both, because I just love that record and it was so fun to make, and I just went for it, which was a very different, sort of pop/rock abandon, and I loved playing … it was almost like entering a different persona for me, it was just so visceral and fun and again, I had a great time with Bob making it, that was pretty much … well, these last two records were the funnest ever. We just have such a great relationship now that it’s like finishing each other’s sentences. I still don’t understand quite why that record got snubbed so roundly because I adore it, but … y’know, timing is everything.
PD: Oh, yeah. Especially now, when people’s memories are shorter than ever.
JB: God, yeah. There’s just so much out there, clogging the ear and airwaves.
PD: And you worked with Eric Bazilian on that album, as well as Back in the Circus …
PD: But I’m not sure how the timeline goes. Was it before or after you toured Europe with the Hooters that you first linked up with him?
JB: That’s a good question … I think it was after the Hooters tour that we actually wrote together and produced a couple things together.
PD: Now, was that a case where you approached him, or he approached you, or …
JB: I think we were both kind of approaching each other and trying to figure out a time when we could actually make it work, and then finally I just drove down to Philly and showed up, and we started doing some stuff. And now, we’re just like, okay, whenever we can, we get together and try to write something else, ’cause it’s way too much fun! We just actually wrote a theme song for a new TV show on Fox.
PD: Oh! Which show?
JB: It’s a Joss Whedon show called Dollhouse…
PD: Oh, absolutely! I actually got to tour the set this summer!
JB: Nice! Yeah, well, we wrote the theme song, and I hope it runs for ten million years!
PD: I’m sure you do!
JB: Like the new sci-fi Friends!
PD: I guess I’ll jump ahead to another question I was going to ask, about the Goodyear commercial that you did. I guess that put a few bucks in your pocket for a few years …
JB: Oh my God, it saved my life for two years! It absolutely saved my life. It was such a fluke that I got the gig, because I had never sung a jingle before. I was just there to meet my friend for coffee, and at the last minute they were just like, “Oh, let’s get Jonatha to try it.” So I sang it, whatever, and I disappeared, and then I got the major campaign for a major company! And it ran for three years, so yeah, it was like winning the lottery!
PD: How did you enjoy working with Bruce Cockburn?
JB: I loved working with Bruce Cockburn. I still think his song “Pacing the Cage” is one of the all time best-written songs.
PD: Do you have a personal favorite collaboration that you did with another artist that appeared on their record rather than yours?
JB: I love the song “Forgiven” that’s on Chris Botti’s record. Although I didn’t write it, it feels very close to home. It’s a beautiful song.
PD: I can see covering James Taylor and the Beach Boys, but how did you come to cover The Alan Parsons Project? And have you ever heard back from anyone whose songs you’ve covered?
JB: I haven’t ever heard back from people I’ve covered, but the Parsons song was a conscious idea for pulling European audiences in. When I was touring with Joe Cocker, solo in front of 10,000 strangers every night, it was great watching their faces as they puzzled over that song. They knew they knew it, but it drove them crazy until I told them at the end what it was. But I got their attention, and I definitely won them over with it!!
PD: What’s the backstory on how Nick Lachey came to cover “Because I Told You So”?
JB: His A&R person is a friend and big fan of mine, and loves, loves, loves that song, and Eric and I had written a couple of songs for him, for that record, that he didn’t end up putting on the record, but I think it was probably his A&R person, Teresa LaBarbera Whites, that insisted that he put it on the record. I mean, it’s kind of a classic song as far as I’m concerned, and I’m really thrilled he did it.
PD: And as far as the Joss Whedon connection …. “Inconsolable” was also on Buffy …
JB: I know! That’s when I found out that he was a fan of mine! So when he was doing Dollhouse, he told the people at Fox, “Okay, my fantasy would be to have Jonatha Brooke singing a mixture of ‘Careful What You Wish For’ and ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.'”
JB: So they hooked us up on a conference call, and we totally hit it off, so Eric and I wrote him a theme song.
PD: You released the Live in New York album and DVD a few years ago, but you had done a live album in ’99. Now, in the case of the first one, was it a case of “everybody’s gotta do a live album sometime,” or you wanted a fresh start on your own label, or …
JB: It was a case of testing the waters of starting my own label. I was already in the middle of a national tour, and I had just released Ten Cent Wings, so I wasn’t quite in the mood to go back in the studio and write a whole new record. And people had been clamoring for a live record for years, so I figured, I’m going to make lemonade here: record some shows, start my label, say goodbye to these major label disasters, and see what happens. And so that seemed to be the best way to move forward quickly and productively, and it turned out to be a great way to start my label.
PD: You’ve done a couple of major label stints over the years: Elektra and MCA. When you first threw off those shackles and went indie, were you freaking out, or did you feel like it was just the best route? And, nowadays, do you feel maybe just the tiniest bit smug that you got out while the getting was good?
JB: When I first went indie, it was a little freaky. And it was a very conscious adjustment as to where that brass ring was. How much “success” would constitute enough? The odds were pretty much impossible that I would suddenly sell 3 million records. It was the best route, although probably the hardest. And I don’t feel smug, just grateful that I had those few rocky starts at three different majors; those little stretches…although they ended up disastrously each time…did expand my audience and afford me a successful transition to indie. I just don’t know where I would start today!! There are no majors, really, no artist development, and trying to navigate through the massive sea of the internet – the supposed level playing field, ha! – where there’s just so much stuff is unfathomable to me.
PD: There was a 2001 interview I read where you had mixed feelings about Napster and file-sharing at that time. What are your thoughts on the online music culture nowadays?
JB: Well, it still breaks my heart that music has been so devalued and I think labels — especially the majors — are the worst culprits at not defending the value of art, of music. And because songs are the easiest, tiniest files to steal at this point, the cat’s out of the bag. But I think it comes down to no one being educated as to what really goes into doing what someone like me does. And so it breaks my heart a little bit every day, because the business is gone as we knew it, and yeah, there are tons of opportunities and great ways to network and share stuff on the Internet, but it’s hard making a living. It’s very daunting these days, and you have to seek out gazillions of other revenue streams because records just don’t sell the way they used to. And that’s kinda freaky.
PD: A flashback as we start to wrap up: do you remember the reason why you and Jennifer Kimball made the decision to change the name of your duo from Jonatha and Jennifer to The Story?
JB: The Story just hit me one day driving through a toll booth in Boston. My songs are sometimes like little stories. And we were singing the different characters in the stories. Jonatha and Jennifer was just way too precious for me, and people usually got my name wrong anyway! Although one time we drove up to a marquis and they had even botched The Story and put The Storm instead.
PD: And I admit that I don’t really know the story behind why the two of you went your separate ways … though the old chestnut of “creative differences” is always my initial instinct … but do you and she have any relationship nowadays?
JB: Jenn is doing great. She has a little three year old boy, and is in a program at Harvard for Landscape Design. She’s always loved the outdoors, and done a fair amount of work for people, so is now making it official. We speak every once in a while. No problems. We just both moved on!
PD: And, lastly, what’s the best Jonatha Brooke studio album for someone who’s never heard Jonatha Brooke?
JB: Take your pick. I love them all, and they all represent a lot of the different sides of me, and no two are alike at ALL.
PD: (Laughs) Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you!
JB: Likewise! Thank you so much!
PD: Thank you!