Jeff Pearlman

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Jonatha Brooke

#106
Anyone who has the guts to cover the Alan Parsons Project's "Eye In the Sky" can't be too bad. This supreme singer/songwriter explains the thinking behind the music. POSTED June 11, 2013

Back in the lord’s year of 1989, I had an enormous crush on Theresa McClure, keyboardist/singer in Illusion, Mahopac High School’s rock band.

Why? I’m not entirely certain. Theresa was cute, but not drop-dead gorgeous. Theresa was friendly, but not perky. Theresa was polite, but, ahem, ignored my advances. I suppose—when I really think about it—what did it for me was Theresa’s voice. It reminded me of wind chimes and bells; peaceful, soft, soothing, happy.

I get this same feeling listening to Jonatha Brooke.

For those who don’t know, Jonatha is one of the most unique and accomplished female singer/songwriters of our era. She gained initial notoriety performing in the duo, The Story, and has since released nine solo discs. Her cover of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye In the Sky” happens to be one of my favorite songs—ever.

As we speak, Jonatha’s first musical play, “My Mother Has Four Noses,” is readying for its June 29 debut at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, Connecticut. It is inspired by her late mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. And one can help Jonatha get her next release off the ground by visiting her Pledge Music page.

Jonatha Brooke, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Jonatha, I’m gonna start with a weird one. I’ve listened to a bunch of your interviews from the past years, and you often talk about crafting a song, the feel of an album, how what you’re going through in life impacts the music, etc … etc. I’m wondering, though, do music buyers care? I DON’T mean this rudely AT ALL. I can appreciate what one goes through putting herself out there via song. But, come day’s end, do most people just wanna be entertained while listening to the radio on the drive to work? Do you ever wonder whether all the heart and pain and oomph you surely put into your music is rightly received by the masses?

JONATHA BROOKE: I love this question. It’s everything. All of the above. People don’t give a shit, but then they care beyond belief. They want to be entertained, and then … luckily for me, they crave something that moves them deeply. To dance, to weep, to thrash around. So far I’ve done OK without the masses! The heart, pain and oomph are received in precisely the right way by the ones who receive it!

When I heard Charlie Winston’s “Boxes” I almost drove off the road in Manchester, England. When I heard Lianne La Havas at a fundraiser for WXPN in Philly, I just cried, she was so good. Dark, moody, broken.

But I’ll also be the first one dancing whenever “Teenage Dream” comes on … I know it might not be considered deep, but it is … just different deep. And I just love her, that Katy Perry.

I’m always amazed, and I think it’s so funny that the dudes in the audience that I might type-cast as … dudes—they are always the ones that want to hear “Inconsolable” (my saddest song ever!). People that I would never ever peg for softies, are the ones that get all mushy over the tiny song “I’ll Try” that I wrote for a Disney movie. And then the waif-like pushover in the back wants my gnarlier ones—“How Deep is Your Love” or “Careful What You Wish For!”

This is why I will never stop doing what I do. People take whatever it is they need at the time from music. OK, albums may not be selling like they used to and that sucks. But people are consuming music as voraciously as ever on more platforms than ever. There’s something for everyone. And luckily, I’m just as happy crafting a ridiculous trashy pop treacle as a suicidal dirge. I just love writing songs.

J.P.: So I first came to know of your music via your cover of “Eye In the Sky.” I consider it to be one of the best covers of all time—A. Because it’s gorgeous; B. Because it’s so … improbable. I mean, the Alan Parsons Project? Where the heck did that come from? How did you choose that song to cover? And how, when one covers a song, does an artist walk the fine line of singing a familiar song without simply karaoke-ing it?

J.B.: I think it was my husband’s idea. I’d always avoided covers mostly because any song I truly adored … is too sacred to me and I would never want to mess it up. This one snuck up on me. The original production is so cold and square, that I wasn’t precious about it. And once I actually listened to the lyrics it was a no-brainer to take it in a completely acoustic, dark direction. I kind of read into it like that song, “I’m Not in Love.” Creepy and sad.

I think that’s the only way to cover a song. You must make it completely your own. Change the production, the harmonic approach, even the time signature! Otherwise why bother?

J.P.: Here’s what I know of your roots: You graduated from the Commonwealth School in Boston, you moved on to Amherst College. But how did you REALLY get into music? What pushed you? Drove you? When did you first realize you were good? And when did you decide, “This is the career I want?”

J.B.: I really got into music when I started writing. That’s when I had an inkling that I was good. Not necessarily as a singer yet, but that I had something really unique in how I heard things and wanted to express them. It was sophomore year of college at Amherst. David Reck, a professor in the music department, had us write songs in his composition class. The assignment was to choose any e.e. cummings poem and set it to music. I got an A. “love is more thicker than forget”—it’s on the first Story album.

The next semester he gave me an independent study for a full course credit to write songs for a concert. A full evening. Jennifer Kimball and I (we later became “The Story”) put on the show and got another A.

The rest is a little circuitous. I had always been a dancer although I was in bands, and sang and played. Dancing was my first love, so after college I moved back to Boston, then New York to dance professionally … Jennifer and I were gigging on the weekends, and getting a little bit of a following around Boston. But I was juggling weird jobs just to stay afloat and and dancing with three different modern companies when … we got a record deal.

It was a tough transition, going from dancing six hours a day to, cold turkey, getting on a tour bus. But I’ve never regretted it. I am so lucky to do what I do. I truly love my job. And I think I’m still getting better at it.

I miss dancing once in a while. But I just had to get a new hip because of all that ballet—imagine how much gimpier I’d be if I hadn’t stopped!

J.P.: As you just mentioned, you and Jennifer Kimball joined together to perform as The Story. You guys put out some fantastic music. I’m wondering whether, ultimately, being part of a duo is more joy or pain? I mean, Hall and Oates have spoken pretty openly over their semi-dislike for one another; most duos don’t last long; etc. What are the complications that come with being part of a musical team? What are the rewards? And why did you break up?

J.B.: We only made two records together. And our friendship definitely suffered for the musical partnership. But we were also totally different people. I was driven and writing constantly. Jennifer was not as fond of the road as I, and not really writing, and feeling less and less a creative part of the process. It was inevitable. I think we were smart to call it when we did. Actually Jennifer was the braver of the two of us, and realized she couldn’t do it and said so first.

I was feeling trapped by the preciousness of the duo sound. And the pressure of having to write for two voices. The songs I started writing after the second “Story” record were so singular. It would have been miserable for both of us to try to force the old sound on the songs on “Plumb.”

Jennifer’s made two beautiful records since the Story days. She’s stayed closer to home, had a kid, and another career in landscaping. I didn’t want kids, and still have that road wanderlust. I think it all worked out for the best.

J.P.: You’ve discussed the crap moment when—mid-tour for 10 Cent Wings—you were dumped by MCA, but continued to play. What was that like, finding out your record company was letting you go? How did you take the news? And I’m sorta curious, now that the record industry is getting thumped across the skull by the confusing digital age, whether you feel any sweet taste of revenge?

J.B.: I suppose there have been flashes of the sweet-tasting of revenge, but the confusing digital age has given us all a skull-thumping run for our money.

Burning any bridges at all is a really dumb idea. Every person you ever work with in my world will keep turning up in new and interesting places. So you button your lip and take the high road!!

That said, it totally sucked getting dropped when “Secrets and Lies” was just beginning to chart at Triple A radio … MCA actually called the stations that were playing me and told them to stop.

I decided (OK, after moping for a week and a half) to throw a party. Meshell N’Degeocello came over  … Wendy and Lisa … and we had a grand old time, and lots of good wine commiserating, yes, and then making plans. We’d all been dropped at least twice from major labels. It became our badge of honor. We were that special!! 😉

That’s when I decided to start my own label, BAD DOG RECORDS. I finished my tour, released a live record of it, and tested the indie waters. Haven’t looked back since.

J.P.: What, in your mind, separates a great song from just a meh song? I mean, is there a factual thing as a “great” song? Are the Beatles factually great, for example, or can someone legitimately make the case they suck? Do you feel like you’re a, factually, great singer?

J.B.: I have many theories! Some of them have to do with actual keys and chord progressions … so “Great” may not apply. I whisper about the particular training of the American ear … but mostly, a great song is a subjective and personal thing. Again, it’s all about emotion for me. I got that from my mother. A “great” song is one that moves me. The Beatles move me. Rachmaninoff moves me. Eminem and Katy Perry, too! The Brazilians—though I don’t understand a word—write great songs!

Factually, I don’t consider myself a “great singer.” I am, indeed, the product of my own limitations. But I will venture that it’s a good thing. No one else has my particular limitations! So I’m great at my songs. And I sing in a very particular way that is unique, to me. Sometimes I think that’s why very few people have covered my songs, even though so many profess to love them. They’re actually really hard to sing unless you’re … me!

J.P.: This might sound like I’m kissing up—I assure you, I’m not. I think your stuff is brilliant. I really do. Great voice, great songwriting. Just fantastic. You’ve had a terrific career, but not a superstar, everyone-in-the-world-knows-your-songs career, a la a Justin Bieber or One Direction or stuff like that. Do you care? Did you ever seek that? Want that? Was it ever a goal, simply, to be famous via music? And is fame overrated?

J.B.: I’d by a total liar if I said I didn’t have that little flicker in my belly every time I put out an album—the hope, certainty I dare say that it might connect in some more major way. That the “masses” would finally “get” a song like “Because I Told you So”—even “Careful What You Wish For!” (which I thought was a SMASH!). Then year after year I see the roadkill. And I am so very grateful for my slow steady career. I love my anonymity. I love my husband—the life we’ve built. I love the respect I’ve garnered from my peers, and strangely and most awesomely, from some major playahs ….

Luckily, I’ve done this long enough to see that fame is way overrated—too many people learn the hard priorities after such excruciating lessons. I’m grateful to have figured out a few things early.

I still have great expectations and hope for every single thing I do. I’m still a dreamer. And I’ll always be ambitious, competitive. But if anything major really happens? I’ll be so ready, and a grain of salt will be first and foremost in my mind.

J.P.: How do you go about writing a song? Soup to nuts? Does the music come first? The lyrics? Where do the ideas begin? Etc … etc.

J.B.: On a good day? It’s magic. It descends. All I can do is get out of the way. Write it down quick. Find the chords. Don’t blow it. Thank God, those gifts keep coming.

On other days it is needle in a haystack work. I chip away at a melody, the chords. I’ve got the first line, the rest is shit. So I go make toast, I do the laundry. Re-organize the closets. Knit. Any idle busy work to suspend the “I suck” factor.

In the musical play I wrote and am performing now (“My Mother Has Four Noses”) I reference a poem of my mother’s called “Words to a Writer.” She talks about poetry in the same way. It’s like a wild animal, you must coax it, leave crumbs, never get too close. Wait. And “Start again, more than you ever dreamed you could.”

I stole that line for the chorus of a song in the play and on the new record. It’s called, “Scars.”

J.P.: You’re approaching your 50th birthday. I’ve heard musicians take two stances on aging. Jay-Z has noted that it becomes increasingly harder to write lyrics, because you’re not as hungry and driven as you once were. John Oates, however, told me he thinks he’s much more worldly than he once was, and therefore a superior songwriter. How about you? How has aging impacted your music? Your lyrics?

J.B.: LOVE the Hall and the Oates!!!!

Fifty years? I’m still 12! I get hungrier. To get it right. I’m hungrier and hungrier, because it gets harder. Nothing is certain. No groceries for granted.

I am driven because I have to be. I am more worldly. But I’m also more cautious of bullshit. That’s why in some ways, it’s better I didn’t have kids. I hate to say it, but I feel like some people lose their edge when they start having kids. Everyone has to write a friggin’ “mommy” song—and it just kills me. I just want to make it better deeper richer, more literate, more elliptical. Harder is better. It just forces the issue. ( I hope I don’t get in trouble for that!)

J.P.: I have to ask—and I’ll be the 8,000,000th to do so? Where’s the N? And what’s the story behind it?

J.B.: It’s such a bummer that my parents didn’t come up with a better story. They borrowed the name from friends that feminized the “Jonathan” from the Bible. Apparently he was a peacemaker. Blah, blah, blah.

I met the original Jonatha at a gig in Santa Barbara. Luckily she was very cool. But since then I’ve learned that there are two or three more. I am a peacemaker. And I did like being the only one of us I knew … until just four years ago.

But no, my parents didn’t want a boy—I have two older brothers. And no, my dad’s name wasn’t Jonathan. It was Robert. So that’s all I’ve got. Peacemaker.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JONATHA BROOKE:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. I felt strangely good, that I’d done plenty, was happy with my life, and was ready. (Weird, because I’d never felt that way before that very moment. I’d always thought I would be super fearful).

• Does KISS belong in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame? Why or why not?: Yes. Because they’re KISS for chrissakes. No one else thought that shit up.

• Five greatest songwriters of your lifetime?: Not fair. It changes week to week. This week? Billy Joel. Joe Sample. Billy Strayhorn. Antonio Carlos Jobim, hmmmmmm. Rickie Lee Jones. Joni Mitchell … Stevie Wonder etc …

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mark Sanchez, Back in the Circus, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Richard Gere, Dixie Chicks, fried chicken, Twitter, the Wall Street Journal, Liz Cheney, the number 18, bottled water, Hawaii, Public Enemy, Oreo Cookies, wedding toasts: Back in the Circus, Lethal Weapon III, Hawaii, (alas, never been there) bottled water (I know, not cool), Richard Gere, Public Enemy, the number 18, Liz Cheney, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dixie Chicks, wedding toasts, Oreo Cookies, The Wall Street Journal, fried chicken, Mark Sanchez, Twitter

• On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you worry about death?: 8. Since I was six. I think about it all the time. It’s always there. That’s why it was so weird when I actually truly thought I was dying, that I was so OK with it! What the hell? I was at peace!

Tupac hologram—cool or cheesy?: WAAAAAAY cheesy!

• Celine Dion offers your $4 million annually to move to Las Vegas and join her new show, “Celine and Jonatha Sing Motley Crue Naked While Eating Raisins.” You in?: ABSOLUTELY!  What a great idea!

• Three songs that you’d absolutely love to cover?: “I Touch Myself” (Chrissy just died, so I’d do it in her honor); “Nights on Broadway” (Bee Gees); “Where’s the Orchestra?” (Billy Joel)

• Best piece of advice you’d give a young aspiring singer?: Go back to school! Are you crazy?

• What does it feel like, standing before an audience and forgetting the lyrics?: Terrible and then awesome, because they love it. They love that you are human and hopefully cracking up with them at your own shortcomings!!

JB
  • Dan

    Great Quaz – and just to make sure you hit your requisite Hall & Oates reference quota (isn’t three the magic number?) I’ll just link to the following Google commercial (one of their better ones): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0hHaQgdypI

  • Todd

    I’ve seen Jonatha Brooke perform live maybe 20+ times, have all her albums and read her blog. But this was my favorite interview of her – ever! I’m now stuck here reading your other interviews. You ask great questions.

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