Talks with Jonatha Brooke

 

Jonatha Brooke

 

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Careful What You Wish For

 

 

 

 

 

 

CEV:  When was it that music became an important aspect of your life and how  did you first go about exploring this new dimension of your life?  

JB:  Music was always an important part of my life. My mom played the piano badly, my oldest brother played the Scottish bagpipes, my other brother played the piano really well, my dad the trumpet. I’m the youngest, so everyone else really dominated the hallways and the turntable, (yup, I grew up on RECORDS) but I was passionate about everything they brought home. Schumann, Rachmaninoff, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell.

Anyway, the first time music really hit me as an emotional whammy was hearing the Rolling Stones’ “Angie”. I must have been ten and I found myself in tears and didn’t quite know why. This was my first really personal connection with that power music has. After that, I was in all the choirs at school, a cappella groups, I got a guitar for Christmas when I was twelve. I was in a little rock band in 8th grade called “Science Function” (the science teacher loaned me his Paul McCartney bass and taught us “She’s got a ticket to ride” and “My love is alive” we also co-wrote “She’s a Fool to be cool.”) I picked out songs off of records by ear and sang to myself in my room.

It wasn’t until college that I took that step further and started to really write songs. That was when lightning struck and I knew this would be huge for me. Writing allowed me to find my own voice and not just imitate what I was hearing.

CEV:  What artists did you used to listen to just for fun and did any of these artists influence or give you some direction as to where your own musical output would eventually go? 

JB:  I used to listen to Rickie Lee Jones a lot when I was first starting. Chaka Khan too. Stevie Wonder. I think they all influenced me. Hopefully you don’t really hear it because I morphed what I learned into my own way of saying and singing things. A few of my very early songs were a little bit Suzanne Vega ish. I really related to her precision. But I was very drawn to my own sense of harmony and dissonance from the beginning.

CEV:  Was there any formal musical training for you at some point in your life?

JB:  My mom made me take piano lessons from about 7 to nine years old. But I was terrified of my teacher. So I would cry every time I had to go. I think it was because I played by ear, and never really learned how to sight read and that made the teachers angry. I just couldn’t make the notes make sense, when I could kind of get it by trial and error without the music on the page. I’m self-taught on guitar and vocally, for better or for worse. But I think that’s what makes me unique. I’m the product of my own limitations!

CEV:  At what point in your life did you realize that music was going to be a career for you? 

JB:  It was after college, when I moved back toBoston with my singing partner Jennifer Kimball. We started to get gigs. I was dancing professionally, (modern dance) cleaning people’s houses, painting, I was a nanny for a while, but we got a record deal with one of our first demos and that seemed like a good indication that I better take this thing seriously!! Plus dancing is a hard career, even if your hips and your knees hold out.

CEV:  I've always been curious about that point of transition when an artist decides that yes music is going to be my career and then how that is translated into a tangible thing. Once you made the decision what did you do  about pursuing this goal?           

JB:  The biggest gift at the time was being laid off from one of my ‘straight jobs” editing textbooks for Houghton Mifflin Publishing!! ( I got a degree in English from Amherst College) So I had the luxury of 6 months of unemployment. That really allowed me to pursue the music, demos, gigs, writing, full time without having to worry every second about cash. That’s when the record deal came.

CEV:  Tell me about The Story and how that came about. How would you describe the music that you created as The Story?           

JB:  The “story” as a name, sounded better to me than “Jonatha and Jennifer” which is what we’d been calling ourselves since Jennifer Kimball and I started singing together in college. And when we were actually recording for a label it seemed pretty important to find a name that would encompass whatever form we’d take, --duo, band, acoustic, electric. “The Story” had a really complicated eclectic pop sound. Lots of intricate vocal harmonies and counterpoints. And especially on the second record “The Angel in the House” I was really getting into Brazilian and afro-cuban music so you can hear the influences and quirks that that gave some of the songs.

CEV:  What went through your mind when the two of you were signed by Elektra  records? Did you think that you had "made" it at that point?            

JB:  I think at first I didn’t really realize it was a big deal. Then when we met everyone at the label and made that second record and started touring our butts off and made a video, and started getting airplay… Then it became real. I think we were so busy working that we didn’t think too hard about “making it.” We were just trying to stay healthy!

CEV:  When the two of you parted ways in 1994 were you prepared to embark on a solo career?

JB:  I was prepared but terrified. It was definitely time to break out of the rigid duo identity, and it had been getting harder and harder to write with the two voices in mind. My newer songs were much more  and linear. So I had to redefine myself, and find and fill that singular space with my voice. I had the songs, and luckily a new record deal, so that helped push me to figure it out!! You know what they say about necessity.

CEV:  How has your music evolved over the years? Are you able to look back from where you are now as a singer/songwriter and see the various stages of your writing and performing? Tell us about some of the evolutions your music has gone through.           

JB:  I think I keep learning that less is more, and that imperfection can be magic.

I don’t think I could have written a song like “Because I Told You So” early on. I would have complicated it too much. Or perhaps added more verses or a third section. I’ve learned to let things be. And that song is one of my most favorite. And the fans’ favorite too.

Early on, I was so excited to be doing what I was doing that I made everything elaborate and hard, and sometimes lost sight of just a clear delivery.

I still like unexpected harmonies and weird chords, don’t get me wrong, but there is a  relief from having done this long enough to have the confidence to know when something is done.

I’ve also learned to leave the creaks and shplangs if there’s a vibe. There’s a song on the new record called “Never Too Late for Love” that I had just finished the night I recorded it. The second take just had a vibe. Even though I was still uncertain of the chords and you can hear it, and my voice cracks, and you can hear it. I really couldn’t top whatever happened in the air as I sang it. So that’s what’s on the record.

CEV:  Once you went solo other than your latest release how many solo CD's  have you put out since The Story broke up? Did any of those CD's stand out to you more than the others as a high point in what you were hoping to accomplish with your music? In what ways?           

JB:  I’ve put out 7 solo CD’s since the Story’s 2. They’re all high points really!! Like little children you send out into the world and you hope they remember to put on a clean shirt.

Perhaps “ten cent wings” felt like a real arrival, an accomplishment. I certainly thought that would explode into the world!! Record deals are tricky though, so it never really had its chance. And when MCA wasted that one, it was a real turning point for me. I had to reassess, and make a decision to take the reins. That’s when I started BAD DOG RECORDS. When you start your own label, you really do need to re-calibrate your expectations. Of course you never stop believing that you’ll sell a gazillion records because you do beautiful work, but you have to deal with economics and set your mark a little lower to begin with. Will 100,000 records be ok to sell? Will that be enough “success” -- satisfying as a career? My answer was, absolutely, because I’ll call the shots, and the day to day won’t be someone else’s whim.

CEV:  You've got a brand new CD that just came out in April 2007 called Careful What You Wish For. Any specific message contained in the title of the CD and the song that goes with it?           

JB:  I’m trying to get at the crass way we’ve become obsessed with celebrity as opposed to reality. The fact that hollow is hollow. But the interesting part for me is the way that song pokes its fun. The sarcasm in the sections. It’s a new persona I discovered this time out!


CEV:  Is there a theme that ties the songs together that make up Careful What You Wish For?

JB:  This record traverses a few themes and comes home with a little tender resolution at the end. (“Never too late for Love”) Celebrity, waste, lost love, lost faith, redemption. It’s all in there. But there is a journey from the lighter to the darker brooding and then back.

CEV:  Was Careful a departure in any way for you from what you have done in the past?

JB:  “The genesis for the record was the departure!  A friend had asked me to try and write songs for a couple of other singers.  I had these great ideas but really wanted to get out of "my zone", so I called Eric Bazilian to join me on the assignment inLos Angeles.  It became this really exciting collaboration for us and I ended up falling in love with the songs. I think it was the abandon that they took on because I was writing from a different persona. I just had a gas putting myself in a completely other  head space.  Those four songs became the template for what would follow.”

CEV:  Did you write all of the music for this CD? For the music that you write where do you draw your inspiration from? Personal life or observing life around you?

JB:  I wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the record. I’d say that most of my songs are some kind of hybrid of personal and make-believe. It’s always more interesting to embellish, and, who really needs to hear all about my life? It’s more fun to make some stuff up. I live in New York, so there are a million stories out there every day, you just have to be ready!

CEV:  Do you like to mix and produce your music as well as perform it when you headed for the studio to create the music on Careful? 

JB:  I’m definitely not a mixer. But I do love more and more getting involved in production. To me that’s everything from casting the characters that will play on a  record, choosing songs, arranging parts, and seeing the process through from beginning to mastering.

CEV:  Was there any one song on Careful that captures where you are musically at this point in your career?

JB:  “Careful what You Wish for” is the most adventurous song I’ve done. I’m so proud of that one. I think it takes a lot of chances and gets me out of where I’m safe and comfortable. On the edge, that’s where I like to be. I don’t want to make the same record every time, so this one was no exception.

CEV:  Are you happy with the finished product that is Careful What You Wish For?  

JB:  I absolutely love this record. And had a blast making it. I didn’t want it to be finished. I think Bob Clearmountain, my main co-producer felt the same way! We kept looking for more stuff to do so that we could keep going

CEV
:  Who else worked with you as musicians or behind the mixing boards to make this CD possible?
           

JB:  My biggest best partner was Bob Clearmountain, who recorded and mixed and co-produced the record. He’s been my champion and brilliant co-hort since he mixed “ten cent wings’ back in 1997. He’s just a genius of sound. Then there’s Eric Bazilian my guitar god, who worked on those first four songs with me and sang on two songs on the record. (Eric of the Hooters and “What if God was one of us” fame)

Then there’s my long time band. Goffrey Moore on electric guitar, Darren Embry on bass, and Rich Mercurio on drums. We tracked eight songs in four days. Basically I would play the guys the song on my acoustic, and then we’d go record it. So there was an immediacy and instinct in the basics that I adore. We didn’t overthink anything.

CEV:  Do you look forward to heading out on the road when it comes time tour and bring your music to a live audience? 

JB:  I do love the road, even though it can be stressful and exhausting. There’s something about bringing it to the audience that is the reward for everything you’ve done. Otherwise you’re in the studio vacuum or the bookkeeping vacuum or the promotion vacuum. The road is where you re-live the songs because you’re telling the story live in a room, and seeing how people react. And they keep evolving. I’m still learning from even my earliest songs. I’ts so lovely.

CEV:  Where will fans be able to find you during 2007 if they want to see Jonatha live?           

JB:  Check the tour page. I can only think a couple days ahead!! Right now I’m inDenmark until Sunday, but I can’t really remember further than that. I always go to my own website when I need to remember my schedule.

CEV:  Any final thoughts for your fans as we close out this interview and you head off to Europe?        

JB:  Buy the records, they sound way better than MP3s. Come to the shows. Keep touring, recording, musicians alive!! The business part of the music business is more complicated than ever, so we rely on the fans more than ever to help us do what we do!!