Hello, I have a treat for you all today – this is the first in a series of interviews I'm going to be doing for this blog, imaginatively titled My Creative Life. I'll be talking to writers and artists, poets and designers, photographers and all-round visionaries, to find out what feeds their creative fire. And we start with a profession that has fascinated me ever since my I bought my first 7" single: the singer-songwriter.
Jonatha Brooke doesn't need much of an introduction in our corner of the blogosphere. She has eight solo albums under her belt, plus two from her days as one half of The Story; her latest CD is called The Works, a gorgeous blend of Woody Guthrie's words set to JB's music. She's just spent the last month touring Europe and will be playing gigs across the States in April; if you're attending Squam in September be sure to sign up for her songwriting class!
Last month she came, she sang and she won my heart, and as I watched her play her guitar while she sat on my living room floor i knew i wanted to dig a little deeper into her melodious world; as songwriting exists so close to poetry, I figured she'd have a few gems to share…
SC: When writing a song, what comes first – the melody or the lyrics?
JB: On a really lucky day? It all tumbles out together, or at least a really chunky part. My French song, Je n’peux pas te plaire, plunked right down on me while I was having a bath in this lovely little hotel in Paris. Full lyrics, melody, the works – I had to jump out and write it down and find the chords (and look up some of the words!). Often if I’m taking a walk, I’ll get a melody going with the pace of my footsteps, then the search for the words that fit is on. It’s like excavating really, searching for missing pieces. And it’s constant; I think I’m always looking for the song in any given moment. How can I turn this story into a verse and a chorus? Then there’s a song like Is This All? where I had all the words, like a little poem, and then had to go hunting for that delicate melody to make it hit home.
What's your favourite part of your job?
My job has three really distinct parts: writing, recording, and touring (well, there’s the businessy, trying to stay afloat part too, but that’s no fun at all). It’s a really sturdy triangle for me. I don’t know that I could give up any of the three. There are sublime moments in the writing where I am overwhelmed by the mystery still, of where ideas actually come from. It is truly magic when you’ve suddenly got another song, and you’re absolutely in love with it. You get this belly tingle, like a delicious secret. Sometimes is just makes me cry for the beauty. I know that sounds so maudlin, but it’s true, the really good ones make me cry, and then I know it’s a keeper!
Recording is its own tantalizing candy store. It’s an art to know how much is enough, when you’re done, when the performance has a magic even if there are technical flaws. I love seeking that balance. Because of course in the studio you could flush out any imperfections, but lose the soul. I love that hunt.
Then there are moments on stage that are utterly out-of-body transporting. Almost like something else is singing through you. Your whole body resonates and it is electric. And the audience is different every night; there’s a different give and take, there’s a spontaneity with the repartee that I crave and adore. Ooh, don’t make me choose!
Do you ever get nervous before going on stage?
Every single damned time. REALLY NERVOUS
Who and what inspires you?
My husband inspires me. He is patient, tireless, ever coming up with
great ideas, generous to a fault, brutally honest even when it hurts,
beautiful, an incredible father, the love of my life. He’s also a GREAT
Books inspire me, more than other music; it's weird but WORDS just rock my day. Good stories. Poetry. Could be a photo, something in the paper, a great movie. I'm now obsessed with the guy that jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and lived and is now passionate about saving other potential suicides. Contrasted to the guy that just jumped over Niagara Falls and still resisted rescue and still lived. One man's baptism/resurrection is another man's new hell. How do I make that into a song that's not drippy and preachy? Also just got off the subway in NYC – the metal-on-metal sound the wheels make as each train gains speed is the first few notes of Somewhere from West Side Story. How did that happen – is it physics? Or some engineer's sublime message? I've heard the same melody on the Paris subway. Maybe it's a short story, maybe it's a song. My mind will try to unwrap all these details like a Christmas present. Hopefully there's a gift there in these stories.
How has being a woman influenced (or affected) your career path?
I have only really felt the bite of gender hell a few times. Once, when we were about to release Steady Pull and we were trying to decide whether to stay independent on my label, Bad Dog, or try one more time for that major label brass ring. I’d been around long enough that I knew the heads of most of the majors. So, what the hell, we sent the record around. To a MAN, and of course they were all men (but women can be even more ageist/sexist, sorry but true). They LOVED the record, but all asked how old I was. I think I was 36, and they all said, 'awww, too bad, we’re really not interested in signing anyone over 21. It’s just too much work.' ???
Then oddly enough, I was snubbed from the Lilith Fair extravaganza. That one really flummoxed me. It was around the time when I was one of the most visible chick singer-songwriters out there. Kind of seemed like a no-brainer, especially as the whole mission statement was about being inclusive, and hitting back at the misogynist notion that you can’t have more than one woman on a show.
On the other hand, like it or not, there have probably been great advantages to being a good-looking woman – it sounds crass, but every little bit helps. It’s just like in A Chorus Line, baby: Tits and Ass.
What 3 songs are you most proud of, and why?
Because I Told You So: I just got this one right. It was one of those gift songs. Simple, straightforward, I was crying as I wrote it. The guitar part provides this lovely counterpoint to the melody. The bridge just sends me, still. To me a bridge should be transcendent, you should crave to hear it again. But the beauty is that it just happens once, and leaves you wanting more.
I'll Try: Again, there’s something so plaintive and straightforward about this, and it was able to reach a HUGE audience because it was in the Disney movie Return to Neverland. There’s something universal in the feeling in this song – 'all these precious stories, the whole world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.' We all want goodness, and truth and light.
So Much Mine (live): This grew out of the fierce love I developed for two little girls I nannied. I love the harmonies and counterpoints; I love the version on the Live In New York DVD/CD. I had sooo wanted to re-record this song, as it has evolved into a much more passionate experience for me over the years. It’s just a really great story, all entwined with the ideas from Somewhere Over The Rainbow and the wrenching realities of how I imagined it might feel to be a parent.
How do you handle the photography side of your profession – do you feel comfortable in front of the camera?
I have gotten very comfortable in front of cameras over the years. But as much as I think I’ve figured out which angles work, and how to relax, I still do this stupid crinkly thing with my mouth that looks terrible and drives me crazy when I see it one more time in photos. It’s also strange watching yourself age. I’m absolutely not complaining, but it’s wild when you still feel 12 inside, but you really start looking very grown-up in photos.
Do you have a motto?
Just don’t be an asshole. That usually covers it. It’s crass, and there are nicer ways to say it, but I just try always to be nice. It’s not that hard, and some days it can mean the WORLD to someone without you even knowing it.
What's your favourite book (or writer)?
I just picked up this book of poetry called Failure by Philip Schultz. Titles always get me! When I’m stressed for time and too hyper to fully plunge into a book, I gobble up poetry. They're perfect little candy bars to get me through! This one is killing me in the best way. I’m a huge fan of Wislawa Szymborska, and the last book I LOVED was David Carr’s The Night of the Gun.
If you weren't a singer, what would you be?
I’d probably still be a modern dancer, although I’d probably be in a wheelchair at this point. The joints just don’t like it when you keep throwing yourself into walls, lifting your dance partners and hanging from ropes by your feet.
You're having a dinner party and can choose six famous people from the past or present – who would you invite?
This is sooo hard. Do they have to be famous? I’d like to have dinner with my dad again. He was famous in a few journalisty circles. And I miss him. Billy Collins, the poet. Baryshnikov, the dancer. Edie Falco, the actress. Chopin, so he could play me the ballades the way he heard them. Michelle Obama.
Can you tell me a bit more about why and how you turned an e.e. cummings poem into a song?
Well, I took a music composition course on a whim, during my sophomore year at Amherst College. Our first assignment was to choose any e.e. cummings poem (not sure why it had to be him) and put it to music. This was my lightning bolt moment. I had of course always been a singer, I had been in bands, the acappella group, the school choir, got a guitar for Christmas when I was thirteen, blah blah blah. But CREATING MY OWN SONGS? Wow. I was like a kid in a candy store, with all the sweets at my fingertips. So many directions I could take at any given moment, the opportunities for word painting, the potential for conveying such deep emotion by using two voices in counterpoint or in tight harmony. This was HEAVEN. And I’m still at it.
So when did you know you know that singing was your path?
Funny, it wasn't until I wrote that e.e. cummings song that I started to feel singing/writing was my path. It was something about the ownership and pride of creation that made it clear. Singing is one thing, but finding your own voice through the writing, that's the real deal for me. If you'd heard me sing in college? You'd have laughed me off the stage. I'm actually way more qualified as a dancer. Trained since I was six! The music really took over little by little, and the fact that it is my beloved career now still surprises and delights me.