By Eleni P. Austin
Back in the ‘90s, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting some Female Alt. Folk-Singer toting her guitar and unpacking her little black backpack full of angst. They railed about fellatio, mis-characterized irony, thanking India and saving souls. There was such a surfeit that Sarah McLachlan created the travelling distaff concert series, Lillith Fair. Jonatha Brooke was around during that era, but never seemed a part of that tribe.
Jonatha was born in 1964 and grew up primarily in Massachusetts. Both her parents were writers and already had two sons. Completely convinced she would be a boy, they slightly amended their chosen name, Jonathan to suit her surprising gender.
Originally, she planned to be a dancer. From the time she could walk she studied ballet, tap and modern styles. Before Jonatha mastered multiplication she was strapped into toe-shoes. She endured the endless practice and self-sacrifice, dazzled by the grace and gravity of dance. At age 15 she had a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet.
Her family were committed Christian Scientists, something Jonatha grew up not quite understanding, but accepting. It taught self-reliance but also imposed rigid restrictions. Music was an early escape. Luckily her parents loved music too, the soundtrack of her childhood included the Mamas And The Papas, Neil Young, the “Sound Of Music” and “Godspell,” as well as the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and a lot of Jethro Tull (courtesy her older brothers).
For her 12th Christmas, Jonatha received a guitar and managed to teach herself how to play the songs she heard in her family’s record collection. By the time she headed off to Amherst College she had become a budding songwriter. Once at school she quickly teamed up with Jennifer Kimball and the pair played campus coffee houses and local venues as Jonatha And Jennifer. The partnership lasted through graduation, then Jonatha was ready to begin her dance career and Jennifer went to work in publishing.
By the end of the ‘80s, the duo reconvened and recorded some demos, they changed their name to The Story and signed with the tiny Folk label, Green Linnet Records. Their debut, Grace And Gravity arrived in 1991.
Their sound seemed right in step with the introspection of Rickie Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega, the whimsy and sly humor of the Roches and symbiotic harmonies of Indigo Girls. Jonatha wrote all the songs and together they created their trademark dissonant blend. Rave reviews motivated Elektra Records to sign the Story. They partnered with Green Linnet and re-released the album in 1992.
A year later the Story followed up their sophomore effort, “Angel In The House.” Produced by Tommy LiPuma (at this point, an Executive Vice President at Elektra), he was best known for Natalie Cole’s Grammy winning musical necrophilia, “Unforgettable.” Although he came from a Jazz background, he was primarily responsible for MOR hits from Barbra Streisand, Michael Franks and Anita Baker. “Angel…” scrubbed away the duo’s rough edges and added an incongruous Latin lilt to the songs. The album received a tepid response from critics and fans, and motivated Jonatha and Jennifer to go their separate ways.
Two years later Jonatha emerged as a solo artist and hasn’t looked back. She was signed to Blue Thumb, a boutique imprint of MCA Records. Her debut, Plumb, rocked harder than expected, sometimes veering into Bonnie Raitt territory, but her songwriting was on always point, mixing introspection with surprising social commentary, framing it all with indelible melodies.
Her second album, 10 Cent Wings, doubled down on the winning formula of her debut, and her career was gaining momentum…until everything screeched to a halt. She was in the midst of a national tour when MCA dropped her. Stunned, she still finished the tour, but rather than retreat, Jonatha roared back stronger than ever.
Taking a page from Ani DiFranco’s D.I.Y. playbook, she started her own label, Bad Dog Records. Then, at the end of the 20th century, she released Jonatha Brooke Live. Initially only available through mail-order, the album proved to be a great success, showcasing her excellent songcraft and wry wit. Despite limited distribution, it garnered positive notices in mainstream publications like “People” and “Billboard.”
The next couple of years were spent woodshedding. Jonatha had relocated to Los Angeles after marrying music manager, Patrick Rains. She played local venues like the Roxy and Largo, honing her latest batch of songs with her crack touring band. The result was her watershed third studio album, Steady Pull. Produced by Bob Clearmountain, (Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones), the melodies and instrumentation were crisp and inventive and the lyrics were witty, reflective and concise.
The album was a hit, relatively speaking, even the folks at Disney took notice and Jonatha was asked to write a song for their animated “Peter Pan” sequel, “Return To Neverland.” 2004 saw the release of the excellent Back In The Circus, and two years later she recorded a live CD/DVD collection, Live In New York.
After years of uniform excellence, there was bound to be a misstep; that came in the form of Jonatha’s seventh record, Careful What You Wish For. Big and bombastic, it sacrificed her trademark intimacy for unsubtle arrangements and boisterous melodies more suited to ‘80s era Heart or Pat Benatar.
But she was back on track with her next album, The Works. Much like the late ‘90s collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco, Norah Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, gave Jonatha access to her father’s previously unpublished lyrics. She matched them to her trenchant melodies. It was an ambitious effort that paid off and led to songwriting opportunities writing for Katy Perry, Courtyard Hounds and the Dixie Chicks. She also created music for Joss Whedon’s TV series, “Dollhouse.” But it was her next project that proved to be the most personal and cathartic.
Her mother struggled with dementia in the last years of her life and Jonatha was her primary caregiver. When her mother passed away in 2012 she channeled her grief into the theatrical production “My Mother Has 4 Noses.” An expressionistic one-woman musical memoir, she was sole creator, writing the book, music and lyrics. The show focused their tough but tender final years together. Poignant, humorous and heart-breaking the show played Off-Broadway and was recorded for a CD that came out in 2014.
Now she is back with a more conventional effort, her 10th solo album, Midnight Hallelujah. The record opens with the one-two punch of “Put The Gun Down” and “Hashtag Lullaby,” each song makes the political personal. “…Gun” features sweet acoustic arpeggios layered over wiry electric riffs, plangent piano and snap-back snare drum/high hat rhythm. The lyrics have that ripped-from-the-headlines quality as Jonatha tries to talk down a narcissist with a gun, by trying to understand his issues; “Was your daddy mean, your mama couldn’t be saved/No one keeping you clean, or is it just attention that you crave?”
On “Hashtag…” skronky guitar and honking Jews-harp dovetail over tinkling piano and a rock-steady beat. The lyrics were inspired by Jill Leovy’s book, “Ghettoside,” which chronicled the work of L.A. detectives trying to solve drug murders, kid murders, and gang killings. A detective on the case explains his dedication by noting every criminal started as a baby. Jonatha expands on that thought with this cogent couplet: “Everybody was somebody’s baby, every baby’s got some kind of destiny/Who we once were is not who we may be, everybody is somebody’s baby.”
This album is suffused with joy and sorrow, but it’s obvious that the passing of her mom, Nancy Lee Stone, still cuts close to the bone. “Light Years” unfurls like a sonata of filial heartbreak. Rippling piano notes connects with a string section that swoops and soars as she parses her mother’s legacy. “In a blue folder addressed to me you left your final statement/All the despair and complicity, you finally said the things you really meant.” She breaks down the contradictions of grief, concluding we never really fully let go of a parent, even as they’ve slipped the temporal bonds of earth.
As slow as molasses, “I’ve Got Nothing” also (to paraphrase Mr. Mojo-Risin from the Doors), wallows in the mire. Hushed acoustic guitar feels so close, the fingers on frets is audible. Soon lush Hammond B3, whispery backing vocals and smoky harmonica chime in. Sparring with an ex, over their broken relationship, she holds her sadness close, like emotional armor. But a glimmer of hope escapes; “Someday I’ll turn this wreck around, I’ll wear bright colors make a joyful sound/I’ll call you ‘just because,’ sometime, we’ll reminisce and say it’s fine that I was yours and you were mine, won’t that be something.”
The tender lament of “Nothing Hurts Like Love Hurts” cloaks the melancholy in a wistful melody. Here she dissects the dichotomy of love over shimmery cello, lilting accordion and lowing clarinet; “There’s not a day I don’t miss you, not a day I don’t hate you too/My toxic, exquisite, desperate mess it was always you.”
It’s clear that organized religion continues to confound and mystify Jonatha. On two songs, “Mean Looking Jesus” and “Midnight Hallelujah,” she juxtaposes humor and sensuality to underscore her ambivalence.
“…. Jesus” is anchored by a jack-boot stomp, growly bass lines, bleating organ and blistering guitar. The melody is uncharacteristically flat-footed, but that serves to accentuate the black and white nature of blind faith, there’s really no room for gray areas. “In the darkness, in the end despair, everything you learned by rote will leave you hanging there/Yes he is mysterious he never saved you yet, why he is forsaking you is anybody’s guess/That’s a mean looking Jesus hanging on your wall…hanging from that marble cross, glaring down the hall.”
The title track is a little more playful, the opening notes of the pliant melody share some musical DNA with Sting’s “Shape Of My Heart.” Over sprightly banjo, a wash of keys, Gospel-y backing vocals and a boomerang beat she equates carnality with spirituality. Sex=salvation, well almost, as she easily admits “I’m a tongue-tied Black-Belt sinner running with the saints.”
Two tracks here, “You & I” and “Too Much Happiness,” feel flat-out joyful. The former is sleek and propulsive, a wheezy accordion and tick-tock rhythm gives the song a loping Chanson quality. As she revels in a yin-yang relationship, “you are my north wind, I am your south wind, you be my teardrop, I’ll be your cloud/You kiss my future I’ll kiss your past,” the tempo accelerates, gathering speed. It’s a giddy ride.
The latter is more bare bones, but still ethereal. Delicate acoustic guitar chords wrap around spiraling electric riffs and a walking bass line. A sweet encomium to her marriage, it seems almost too good to be true. “Life’s too short for this much love, so I’ll swear it on the stars, I’ll be here forever, wherever you are.”
Occasionally Jonatha will address a song to old (imaginary?) friends, a framing device Joni Mitchell used on “Song For Sharon.” On “10 Cent Wings” there was “Annie,” addressing an old friend who has fallen on hard times. With “Sally,” from the Back In The Circus album, she measures her artistic accomplishments with her friend’s more conventional arc, (“Sally you’ll have another sweet baby, and Sally I’ll write another 10 songs…”).
On “Alice” she addresses a friend’s struggle with addiction. Over a click-clack rhythm, supple guitar licks and a wash of keys she notes “the currency of your sweet will is lost behind a little pill.” Offering love and understanding, she ponders the nature of addiction; “And who do you blame, the moth or the flame, the gun or the shooter/The pill or the pain?” It’s a vicious circle.
The album closes with the airy, swinging shuffle of “Really Really Love.” A low-key charmer, the lyrics offer a frisky ode to her longtime marriage; “You’re my favorite flavor, you’re the taste I savor, you’re my missing puzzle piece.” Breezy and Beatlesque it blends Carnival keys, kaleidoscopic guitars and a jaunty whistle solo.
Midnight Hallelujah is particularly wonderful, joining a long line of stellar Jonatha Brooke albums. Maybe it’s just as well that she was never part of the Lillith tribe, that ‘90s music seems weirdly calcified, too earnest and somewhat obsolete. She may not be a household name, but 25 years after her Story debut, her music remains engaging, complex and true.