By Eleni P. Austin
“Some things I earn, some things I steal there’s an angel on my shoulder, but the devil’s got the wheel/I toe the line, but then I fall, cuz heaven knows I like the taste of danger most of all.”
That’s Jonatha Brooke charting the temptations, pitfalls and rewards of following your muse on her song “Taste Of Danger.”
Jonatha has been making music on her own terms since she was a kid. Born in 1964, she grew up primarily in Massachusetts with her parents and two older brothers. Expecting a third son, her folks slightly modified their chosen name, Jonathan, when their daughter arrived.
She grew up in an artistic household, her parents were both writers and committed Christian Scientists. Although she never completely understood the religion’s strict tenets, despite the rigid restrictions it taught her to be self-reliant. Music was a constant companion, the soundtrack that accompanied her childhood included the usual ‘60s/early ‘70s suspects; the Beatles, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Mamas And The Papas, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, as well as soundtracks from “Sound Of Music” and “Godspell,” and a healthy dose of Jethro Tull courtesy her older brothers.
Dancing was her first love, and from the time she could walk, Jonatha studied tap, ballet and modern styles. Before she fully grasped long-division she was strapped into toe shoes, enduring years of endless practice and self-sacrifice. By age 15, she received a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet.
Even as dance consumed her days, music was rapidly becoming an obsession. At age 12, she received a guitar for Christmas and quickly taught herself most of the songs contained in her family’s record collection. By the time she came of age, she had already written a few of her own songs. While attending Amherst College, she met Jennifer Kimbell at a choir audition. Teaming up, the pair played campus coffee houses and nearby venues as Jonatha and Jennifer. Their musical alliance lasted until graduation. At that point, Jonatha joined a dance troupe and Jennifer started working in graphic design.
By the late ‘80s, the pair reconnected and recorded a clutch of demos as The Story. They ended up signing with the well-respected Folk label, Green Linnet, and released their debut, Grace In Gravity in 1991.
Their sound seemed completely in step with the introspection of Rickie Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega, the sly, whimsical humor of the Roches and the symbiotic harmonies of Indigo Girls. Although Jonatha wrote all the songs, together they created their trademark dissonant vocal blend. Enthusiastic reviews prompted Elektra Records to add the Story to their label. Partnering with Green Linnet, they re-released Grace… in 1992, reaching a wider audience.
The following year the Story recorded their second album, The Angel In The House. This time a big name producer was behind the boards. Tommy LiPuma had recently had massive success with Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable,” which topped the charts and netted five Grammy Awards. A well-respected Jazz/MOR producer, he added a spicy Latin flavor to the Story’s sound. Response from fans and critics were lukewarm at best, prompting Jonatha and Jennifer to amicably part ways.
In 1995 Jonatha embarked on a solo career. Signing with Blue Thumb, a boutique imprint of MCA she released Plumb, an album that blended biting social commentary, incisive introspection and catchy melodies that rocked a little harder than her Story songs.
Her second solo album 10 Cent Wings expanded her horizons without sacrificing her emblematic intimacy. Even though it arrived in late 1997, just as archetypal, feminist alt.Folk singers were unpacking their little black backpacks of angst, it never gained any commercial traction. Other female singer-songwriters had moved out of the margins and were hitting center stage at Lillith Fair, but for Jonatha, everything skidded to a halt. Her shortsighted label dropped her in the midst of a national tour. Gobsmacked, she managed to complete the tour. But rather than retreat, she regrouped and roared back stronger than ever.
Realizing she couldn’t be at the mercy of mercurial record companies, she followed Ani DiFranco’s example and started her own label, Bad Dog Records. By the end of the 20th century, she released Jonatha Brooke Live. The stripped-down live set showcased her literate songs and self-deprecating wit.
Despite limited distribution, she received positive press in mainstream publications like People and Billboard.
Having recently married music manager Patrick Rains, she relocated to Los Angeles and hunkered down to write her next album. She played plenty of smaller local venues like the Roxy and Largo, refining newer songs with the help of her tight touring band. Her relentless woodshedding paid off. Released in 2001, her third studio album, Steady Pull, paired lively and inventive melodies with brisk instrumentation and sharp, trenchant lyrics.
The album was a hit, relatively speaking. The following year Disney studios tapped Jonatha to write a couple of songs for their “Peter Pan” sequel, “Return To Neverland.” In 2004 she released the sprightly Back In The Circus and followed up two years recording a live set, aptly entitled Live In New York City.
Her next couple of albums couldn’t have been more different. 2007’s Careful What You Wish For seemed to aim for mainstream success with diminished returns. The next year, for The Works, Norah Guthrie gave Jonatha access to a cache of her dad, Woody’s unpublished lyrics. The experiment paid off and led to songwriting opportunities writing for Courtyard Hounds, Katy Perry and the Dixie Chicks. She also created music for Josh Whedon’s “Dollhouse” TV series. But it was her next project that proved to be the most personal and cathartic.
The final years of her life, her mother, Darren Stone Nelson, struggled with dementia, she moved in with her daughter, who became her primary care-giver. When her mom passed away in 2012, Jonatha channeled her grief by creating a theatrical production, My Mother Has 4 Noses. An evocative one-woman musical memoir, she was the sole creator, writing the book, music and lyrics for the show.
It was a sharply observed dive into mother-daughter dynamics, that inevitable moment when parents and children reverse roles. A tough and tender chronicle of their intense years together, the show played Off Broadway in 2014, receiving rapturous reviews. The songs made it onto a companion CD of the same name.
Three years later she returned with a more conventional effort, her 10th most excellent long-player, Midnight Hallelujah. Another winner, it featured her usual combination of complex emotion themes, straightforward melodies and crisp instrumentation.
2019 saw the release of the five-song Imposter EP. Even though Jonatha has a couple of musicals in the pipeline, she leapt at the opportunity to helm a recording workshop at Sweetwater Studios in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The state of the art facility is also a huge retailer for instruments and gear.
Along with her guitarist, Sean Driscoll, Jonatha corralled a wolf-pack of players and under the guidance of studio head Mark Hornsby provided the workshop attendees a master class in the art of recording live in the studio. Tracking the takes live, keeping the instruments and vocals separate, the results were so great that they opted to expand the session and record an entire album.
Sweetwater Sessions opens with the aforementioned “Taste Of Danger,” it is one of two songs from The Works that didn’t rely on Woody Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics. A fearless piano ballad, its sound is fleshed out with tensile bass, feathery guitars and a see-saw beat. Airy and expansive, lyrics like “It all comes down to this, there’s a million souls out there, dying for a wish, living for a kiss, searching for someone to care/On any given day you can hear their songs and cries, kneeling down to pray, wishing they could say they never compromised,” reinforce the notion that there’s no reward without sacrifice.
The set hopscotches back and forth through time, dipping all the back to the Story era with “The Angel In The House” as well as including “Twilight” from her latest effort, the Imposter EP. The former blends burnished piano notes and painterly guitars and bare-bones percussion. Pensive and wistful, the lyrics speak to deferred dreams, dampened desires and missed opportunities. Jonatha’s vocals are suffused with longing and regret.
The latter is a Country-flavored shuffle anchored by stinging guitar, bloopy keys, pinwheeling bass lines and a propulsive rhythm. The lyrics were inspired by a father’s heartfelt apologia, during a celebration for his 60th birthday; “Maybe now’s the time to ask for forgiveness, I will beg for yours and I’ll leave you mine/Weaving a tapestry of things unspoken, we’ll lay it down at the feet of all the promises we’ve broken.” The disarming melody and arrangement nearly camouflages possibly her most beautifully nuanced lyrics.
Jonatha manages to rescue and rehabilitate a “Careful What You Wish For” cut, “Prodigal Daughter.” In this live-ish setting, she strips away the bombastic arrangement of the original, latticing jagged guitars, echo-y keys and angular bass over a rattle-trap beat. The lyrics are Impenitent and rebellious; “I am searching the heavens, I’m living in hell, I’ve squandered the blessing, I am the never-do-well/I walked on a wire, I tried every trick that I dared, broke every promise to whoever cared, burned all my bridges, like a lamb to the slaughter, I am the prodigal daughter.”
Conversely on “Scars” from “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” the live take is much more plush and ornate, tapering the sharp angles of the original. A wash of keys, throbbing bass, angular guitars and a pliant backbeat cushion lyrics that chart the push-pull of the mother/daughter dynamic, made more bitter and sweet through the prism of Alzheimer’s and dementia. “Scars,” she notes “are there to prove you’ve healed, cause no one sees what’s there beneath the surface/There beneath the surface, underneath the skin, is where you start again.” A scorching guitar solo on the break underscores the lyrics’ frustrations.
In an album filled with sardonic delights, it’s hard to pick out favorites, but stand-out tracks include “Back In The Circus,” “Midnight Hallelujah” and “Full Fledged Strangers.” “Back..,” the title track from her fifth solo album, is a winsome, minor-key waltz powered by wheezy keys, nimble guitars, chugging bass and clanky, mechanical percussion. Here Jonatha unspools a vivid narrative that equates life under the big top with the commedia dell’arte that defines romance; “Back in the circus, but at least I know the routine, got back-to-back matinees, me and the drag queens/We are queens of the fun house Kings of the real house of games, yeah princes of darkness and we’re all on first name bases.”
“Midnight…” is also a title-track from her most recent long-player. A kissin’ cousin to the sharp melodicism of Sting’s “Shape Of My Heart,” the song offers a heady brew of lush chroma keys, ticklish bass lines, piquant guitars and a fluttery beat. Playful lyrics juxtapose spirituality and carnality. Opting for sin over the salvation of organized religion, she blithely admits “I’m a tongue-tied black belt sinner and I’m running with the saints.”
Meanwhile, even though “Full-Fledged Strangers” is a quarter of a century old, it hasn’t aged a day. Cascading acoustic arpeggios connect with keening lead guitar, quiescent keys are shaded by spidery bass lines and an in-the-pocket backbeat. A brittle meditation on a broken romance, the lyrics perfectly limn the feelings of alienation that can send even the most sentient adult into an emotional tailspin. The yearning is palpable as she wrestles with ghosts, “…You think you know me-think it’s just a matter of time, ‘til you make me see the depth of your sincerity, but I can’t shake this.”
Other interesting tracks include the restless defiance of “Glass Half Empty,” from “10 Cent Wings” and a buoyant take of the Beatles’ “Hide Your Love Away.” The album closes with “I’ll Try.” Originally, this haunting piano ballad was written specifically for Disney’s 2002 “Peter Pan” sequel, “Return To Never Land.” Although it was tailor-made to illustrate the angst we all experience growing up, lyrics like “My whole world is changing, I don’t know where to turn, I can’t leave you waiting, but I can’t stay and watch the city burn,” resonate with the raging dumpster fire that has become 2020.
Jonatha was accompanied here by Sean Driscol on acoustic and electric guitars, Nick D’Virgillo on drums and percussion, Dave Martin on bass and Phil Naish on keys, piano, Hammond B3 and Wurlitzer.
Although this project was created in an effort to educate and instruct workshop students, the end result accomplishes that and much more. Sweetwater Sessions is a luminous reminder of Jonatha’s protean talents. Always wry and insightful, she weds erudite, richly evocative lyrics to indelible melodies. Her music is compelling, sophisticated and refreshingly honest.