The modern folk-rock great reveals another side to her Story
As one half of The Story, her duo with Jennifer Kimball, Jonatha Brooke’s songwriting pioneered a dark, folk rock sound, full of entrancing melodies and dissonant harmonies. During their collaboration, they made two innovative albums – Grace in Gravity (1991) and Angel in the House (1993) – but Brooke started writing songs by accident.
“When I was 13, I wanted to be a rock star, so I got a guitar for Christmas,” Brooke said. “I took piano lessons as a kid, but never learned to read music. I played by ear, listening to records by Karla Bonoff, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, picking them out on guitar or piano. In my sophomore year of college, I took a music composition course and set a poem by e e cummings to music. It was like being hit my lightening.” Brooke was in the class with Kimbal. The teacher gave them permission to do a concert of Brooke’s original songs for their final exam. “That was the clincher. We got an A.”
After years of touring, The Story broke up and Brooke launched a solo career. So far, she’s made four albums for major labels, as well as nine on her own small indie logo, Bad Dog Records. Her new EP, Imposter, is another showcase for her punchy melodies and literary word play. It will be released digitally and physically on April 19th.
“This EP will be a good toe in the water of what’s coming next in the music business,” Brooke said. “It may be all digital after this. They don’t make cars with CD players in them anymore. You don’t get a CD player in your computer, you have to buy an attachment. The biggest aspect of this change is song streaming.”
Until recently, the royalties an artist made when songs were played on the radio generated significant income, as did the sales of albums. That has changed. “I used to sell 30 to 50 thousand CDs when I put out an album,” Brooke says. “Now I sell 3,000 to 5,000 in the course of the cycle of touring behind new work. Streaming has replaced radio play. It’s allegedly a more level playing field, but there’s no business model that works yet. You stream a song a million times and maybe make four dollars. I co-wrote a song with Katy Perry, (‘Choose Your Battles’ on 2013’s Prism). It’s probably the biggest streaming song I’ve had. The royalty check from Pandora was $4.87. I couldn’t even afford to go to Starbucks for a cup of coffee with that money.”
Undaunted, Brooke said she’ll continue to make music. She put significant effort into the Imposter EP. “The songs are adventurous and tell stories, with arrangements that are crazier and more cinematic than I’ve ever done before. Adi Yeshaya, she did these gorgeous, whimsical things for horns and strings. It was like Sgt. Pepper came to visit my recording session. He brought a whole new palette to these songs. I’d been working on them for a couple of years, writing a bit outside of my own dumb experiences and writing more about characters.
“I moved to Minneapolis a few years ago – we got priced out of New York – so this session for the Imposter EP was a great introduction to my new city’s musicians. They play with the opera, ballet and classical orchestras. There’s an amazing caliber of musicians here.
“The songs were cut pretty much live, in two days, with the orchestra in the studio. I had a grant from the McKnight Foundation that helped finance it, so I couldn’t justify spending a ton of money. I used to get a quarter of a million dollars from a label that let me take my time making an album. Now you have to get it done in two days, ‘cause you don’t have the time or the money.”
The tunes on Imposter move in unexpected directions. The title track has verses with a reggae-like rhythm that slides into funk on the chorus. It features fiddle, banjo and a horn section and describes the fears we have of proving inadequate to the ups and downs of everyday life. On “Twilight,” the singer considers the end of a relationship, asking forgiveness for feelings that went unexpressed. Dark cello and a string section out of “Eleanor Rigby” augment Brooke’s somber vocal. Sparse piano and despondent strings fill “True to You,” with an almost religious sense of longing. “‘True to You’ is a co-write with Joe Sample from the Jazz Crusaders,” Brooke said. “We were working on a musical called Quadroon together, when he passed in 2014. You can hear his influence in the voicing and arrangement.”
Brooke said she’s been working on musicals since she composed the songs for My Mother Has Four Noses, a play about her mother, Darren Stone Nelson, and her decline into dementia. The one-woman show ran on Broadway for three months in 2014. “During the last years of her life, my mother lived with me and my husband. I cared for her for two years, until she passed away. That turned into a musical and record. I went through an amazing journey with her. The piece has ten songs weaving in and out of my memories and my mother’s writing.
“Right now I’m working on another musical called Switched, with (playwright) Geoffrey Nauffts. I’ve written 25 songs for it. It’s about two women who were switched at birth. They get a letter from their birth mom on their 40th birthdays, telling them what happened. We’re working on putting together a 29-hour reading of the piece. We’re hoping to generate interest from theaters that may want to take it to the next level, production wise. The union rules are such that you can pay extraordinary actors and singers to help you bring your piece to life. You can see how the music is integrating with the text. We pulled the reading together in a week.”
After she’s done with Switched, Brooke said she’s hoping to get back to Quadroon, the play she was working on with Joe Sample. “It’s on the back burner right now, but I’m hoping to get it back on the front burner. It was a blow when he passed away. It was really a passionate project for him.
“Writing for the theater has been a great education for me. I had to learn how to write songs that poetically and musically move the plot along. By the end of a song, something has to happen to change the story arch. I like to write pop songs and let the audience make up what’s happening as they listen. In musical theater, you have to say it for the audience. That’s been a really great challenge.”