Jonatha Brooke -- Happy Songs, Grace and Skepticism
- Matthew Turner Music and Entertainment Editor
- 2001 7 May
Jonatha Brooke is happy. She is writing songs that sound happy. She even wrote a love song on her new album Steady Pull. I know that many of you don't care but, for those of us who have followed Jonatha through her days with The Story and then her much-anticipated solo albums, we've lived through her sad, somewhat sobering outlook on life. She wanted this new album to be different. I had the amazing opportunity to speak with Jonatha while she was spending time in Europe. Here is my interview.
Matthew: Are you having fun in Europe?
Jonatha: I'm having a great time in Denmark. I'm in Copenhagen. I just love it here. It is such a great city, it's so gorgeous, it's so old, there is so much history, and I get to teach a writing seminar at the University Conservatory.
Matthew: Well, how cool is that?
Jonatha: It's looking scary. Like, the first day ... I'm, like, what am I going to talk about? What could I possibly teach these people? I mean, I know this is what I do for a living and stuff, but I can't -- there's theory to it, you know? I don't have a method or something. I could say, OK, do this and you'll be writing songs. So, I'm just kind of winging it, but it's turned out to be really fun.
Matthew: Do they ask questions, is it interactive in that way?
Jonatha: Yeah, I've made it that way.
Matthew: Have you had the chance to perform for them?
Jonatha: It was the most amazing audience; it was really incredible. There had to be at least 200 people in the room, maybe more. In this little coffeehouse setting, you couldn't have asked for a more rapt audience.
Matthew: Oh, that's awesome.
Jonatha: They were so sweet, and they knew the songs. It was so crazy.
Matthew: While you're on the road, what drives you? Is it the music, is it the people, is it a combination of everything going on? You're on the road a lot.
Jonatha: I'm on the road a lot, I just, you know, I like hotels (laughter). I like the fact that someone's changing my sheets every day. That's a good thing! You know, I get clean towels, someone else cleans the bathtub. And I do love the audience every night. It was so interesting last night, because I found so many new things in the songs. Just singing them in a foreign place with these brand new ears, you know? I found all of these new dynamics in songs that I've sung hundreds of times, but I found myself getting excited because everything was different. And that's the beauty of my job. I just love that about it, that it is different every night and, you know, the energy in the room can change a song from being incredibly intimate and almost whispered, to you know, if you're laying in a different kind of space, you have to take it more trashy and rock it out, and that's how it comes across best and you kind of just go with it.
Matthew: Let's talk about the new album a little bit. All the interviews and all the stories that I've read have alluded to this album being happier and different from past albums. Did you go into the studio pursuing that, or did it just come out that way?
Jonatha: No, I made a really conscious effort to get the really tragic, dark, angry songs mostly out of my system, and let them go, before I chose what I would record. You know, there are a couple angry, dark songs on the record, you know. There have to be. But I did consciously decide that, OK, I really also want to go with a new direction. I want to try new things musically. So there are some, really romantic songs, there are some kind of sexy, up-tempo, rompy songs, and it was really exciting to challenge myself to, OK, come on, get happy! I have these two nieces who've been nagging me for years, "Come on, can't you just write a happy song? Come on, we'll give you some ideas."
Matthew: How did you go into writing a happy song, What did you have to do?
Jonatha: Well, I think the first sort of rompy one was How Deep is Your Love? And I had the bass riff, I'd been working on that when I went away to write some songs in Colorado, and so I had that bass riff for that song. And I had the idea of just this percussive harmony part. You know (singing) "the room for two, food for thought, my new dress, stockings caught." And I just wanted it to be funky that way and a little bit elliptical, you know, these little phrases that would imply something, but you could make up your own story behind it. And then, just the idea of (singing) How Deep is Your Love and the love part being this swoop from one note to the other, you know that sliding malissma note. I don't know how that happened, but it was just, "OK, this is where this needs to go, and that's plenty, and its done." It was one of those kind of painless, really fun experiences, and then, you know, figuring out the arrangement and how we would funk it up was really fun.
Matthew: Do you think your songs have an intended message, or do you kind of let the listener get what they want out of it?
Jonatha: It's kind of funny, because I was talking about that with my class today. We were talking about all the range of different kinds of songs that you write in a career. Even on this record there are some that are very elliptical, and I intentionally left them that way. I didn't want the listener to know everything. I wanted there to be a kind of mystery to, say, a song like Lullaby, or something like Walking. So, there are those songs that I have very deep emotions about what I was intending, and who I was sort of pointing at when I was writing it, but I didn't want that to be in the song, I wanted that to remain poetic and a little bit mysterious, for the audience to just kind of fill it in. And then for songs like Linger, which is pretty clear, and Red Dress, which is pretty clear, and you know that was great for me, too, to write a really clear song or Out of your Mind, you know, "look at you, you're out of your mind again! you're high as a kite again."
Matthew: So when it comes to people, Jonatha, are you a skeptic?
Jonatha: People in general?
Matthew: Yeah, because I sense skepticism in your songs.
Jonatha: Well, I mean, I'm constantly disappointed (laughter). No, I'm skeptical, but I'm also constantly amazed. You know, I think a song like Your House refutes the skepticism, because it's just so loving and, you know it's so simple and clear and pretty and it's just this waltz of dreaminess. And also New Dress, I mean, there's a little bit of darkness in the verses, but could you get more romantic in the chorus?
Matthew: Is there something symbolic about "dress"? You use it three times that I've counted, two in the title and then once again in How Deep is Your Love?
Jonatha: Well, there was. I think that definitely, my theme of the record is this kind of idea of putting on new clothing, you know, of shaking off the old and really stepping into the new, and so that's why the dress thing kept coming up. And in Red Dress it's like, "OK, you have this picture of me, and you think I'm evil, and I've done wrong but I'm out of here." And thenNew Dress is just, I had this image and I thought, "OK, maybe this is too obvious" and I'm a little squeamish about it, but I couldn't get it out of my head, this idea of, you know, your lover, someone that you're just passionately in love with. Being that comfortable with someone that you're standing in front of the window with the light on and they take off your uniform ... you'll have to hear the song. It's beautiful.
Matthew: Tell me about the photo shoot.
Jonatha: (Laughter) The photo shoot was just the most wild experience I've ever had. I had worked with the photographer before for some of the publicity shots for 10-Cent Wings, so I loved her. I was really comfortable with her, and she's wacky and wild and fun, and the stylist is too, and so I met with them again for this shoot, and I said, "Hey, you know, I just want it to be fun, and I want tons of color, I just want crazy color."
Matthew: Did she pull out the Boy George look?
Jonatha: She pulled out everything, man. I just, I think we went a little too far. I mean, when we pulled out the shots, we were just like, "Who is this? I don't even look like anyone I know. And can we even use this stuff? Will people even recognize me?" Because I don't quite have the perspective in those situations to step back and say, "Well, I need a few that look like me." So I just went with it, and we went nuts.
Matthew: Jonatha, we speak of artists being discovered. Do you think you've been discovered?
Jonatha: (Laughter) That's a good psychological question. Well, you know, I'm not a household name as of yet. But I've been discovered by a lot of people. It's really an honor to know that they know who I am, so you know, yeah, and I think that I've discovered myself which, -- that sounds so hokey -- but I think that's really part of the journey, really, the self-discovery of, "OK, this is who I am and this is how I want to express myself now, and that may change. But this record is a real reckoning with, you know, discovering the power of really taking things into your own hands and going a new direction and trying new things and actually producing and writing the arrangements and the charts and coming up with a lot of the ideas, the musical ideas, that was just a really huge part of me discovering myself and my own will and my own direction.
Matthew: What's your take on the current music scene?
Jonatha: No comment (laughter).
Matthew: Do you think we're doing today's listener a disservice?
Matthew: By giving them shiny pop, pretty music?
Jonatha: Totally, and I think its only a matter of time before people are like, "Just give me a song, please!" You know, "Give me something to sink my teeth into!" And I do think it's cyclical, I mean, if you look at the history of music, it's, you know, it definitely goes in cycles of disposable vacuous pop, and then people get hungry for something substantial and they have a meal and then they go back to maybe disco or something really party-scene-ish
Matthew: And, also, now that we have a Republican president, art gets better when we have a Republican president, because everyone's ticked (Laughter).
Jonatha: It was so funny last night, on stage in front of these Danish people, I'm like, "So what do you think of George Dubya?" and they hissed and they booed. It was scary.
Matthew: So, you started your own label?
Jonatha: I did!
Matthew: You did! Is that scary?
Jonatha: It's wicked scary (laughter). How're we gonna pay the bills? It's wicked scary, but it's so wicked great right now. You know, the state of the industry is not ideal for the singer-songwriter chick over what, 19?
Jonatha: So if you're not, you know, flaunting your navel and charging around the stage with -- Fred Durst? Is that his name?
Matthew: Yeah (laughter).
Jonatha: Then you'd better do your own thing, and for me, it's just been an amazing step, and a very empowering one. It's such a clichd word right now, but it's true and, you know, to be making my own decisions, and, you know, implementing them when I want to and not having to ask anyone - anything, is a great freedom. I recommend it
Matthew: Do you have your own distribution deal with somebody bigger to get the album out there? Are we going to go all-Internet? Or what?
Jonatha: Oh, no, no we've got national distribution. We made a deal with Kotch Distribution and they're great. They've done a great job with the live record, and, I think they distribute Ani DeFranco, and I think they also do the WWF, so, you know, they're getting it out there (laughter).
Matthew: In the song Walking, you ask the question "Where the hell is grace?" What is grace to you?"
Jonatha: Yeah, Who is grace? Grace, yeah. Grace is peace, grace is compassion and empathy and classiness and chivalry and consistency and charm and panache and grace is all those things that seem to be getting lost. And I'm finding them in Denmark! There's something about America where we really have lost that sense of grace.
Matthew: With each other, with ourselves. And it doesn't give us the freedom to have grace with ourselves, because you know we have very little grace with each other.
Jonatha: Yeah, I really think it's a selfish time.
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