A group of 20 students sits by the red rock cliffs in Lyons, Colorado hanging on Jonatha Brooke’s every word. She’s about to play “You and I,” a song she wrote based on lyrics from Woody Guthrie’s archives. Brooke was one of few artists – and the only woman – invited by the family to set his words to song.
She went through 2,200 poems. “There was this one I wanted wicked bad,” Brooke says, revealing roots in Boston, where she came up playing music 15 years ago. It’s a love poem to Woody’s wife. “I have to have that,” she thought, but Conor Oberst had already laid claim. So every week, she’d call Woody’s daughter, devilishly asking, “How’s Conor doing with that song?” Finally, it was hers.
She lowers the guitar to CGDGBD, a strange tuning she most likely discovered by accident, throws a partial capo on and strums. The song pours out in a waterfall of emotion, dissonant chords and a relentless strum propelling lyrics so sexy you can hardly believe they’re Guthrie’s. Thirty verses reduced to three minutes of pure desire.
“I am your midnight, midnight, dark knight,
I am your heaven, I am your hell.
You are my dreams and you are my visions.
I live in steeples. You live in bells.
You and I, You and I”
There are cheers when she’s done. The song will probably be on her next record, the one she’s struggling to write now. “There is no f*ckin’ secret,” Brooke admits. “I’m tortured in the writing process. There’s no way to coddle the muse.”
Writing songs is hard. Finding your voice, developing a following, jumping in the tour bus night after night is hard. But there are tricks to unleashing your creative self. And Brooke has come to the Rocky Mountain Song School to share hers.
The week-long event costs $450, a month’s rent for many artists scraping by. Nearly 200 songwriters pitch tents on the Planet Bluegrass ranch, rising at 9 a.m. for coffee and a packed day of workshops on melody, guitar, story, rhyme. Teachers come from Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, Boston’s Berklee College of Music. They’ve had Tim McGraw record their songs, they’ve earned Grammys and toured the world.
But it’s inspiration they come for. That’s what makes Song School sell out year after year.
Brooke’s advice: Write often. Don’t be precious. Let ideas percolate. Paul McCartney, she likes to point out, walked around for weeks singing “scrambled eggs, scrambled eggs, she’s got such great legs” to the tune of Yesterday before finding the right words.
Above all, don’t be afraid to throw yourself into the deep end of the ocean. This is Brook’s ace. “A couple of people have said they’re so grateful I’m untrained. They thought, without going to school, they couldn’t play music. They’re like, ‘I’m so glad you’re so dumb’,” she laughs.
She fell into using strange tunings because standard was too hard. She started turning knobs and lowering strings without any clue what she was doing or where she was headed. It was simply the quickest way to get that hurts-so-good sound she was after.
Her dark, emotional sound has earned her a cult following. “I just hear it that way,” she replies, when asked about theory. “I was definitely a product of my own limitations. And I didn’t want to sound like all the stuff I heard. I just didn’t.”
She’s a songwriter’s songwriter – one other great writers look up to – and one many audiences who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to folk, adore. Fans snatch capos from the stage during shows. “I’ve had a pair of my glasses stolen,” she complains. It’s like everyone wants a piece of that feeling.
If Brooke’s a DIY poster girl, it’s because she really has done it herself, from running her own label to pioneering sound all her own. Of course, every artist – trained or not – is inspired by others. Brooke’s mother was a poet, her first husband a pianist who held jazz jam sessions in the house. “I’m a sponge,” she says. “And I do like drama,” having worked as a modern dancer and acted in summer stock before her music career took off.
Still, songwriting is a lonely pursuit, “the big waiting game.” When she’s in her Spanish Harlem apartment writing, the routine goes: Hope to hell she wakes up with a melody in her head. Plunk it down on the Wurlitzer ‘til she gets stuck. Make toast. Do laundry. Knit. “Anything to keep the brain occupied,” she sighs. Take a walk in Central Park. Repeat.
“I’m very superstitious about it,” she says. “Every time I start a new record, I get really dark and think I will not be able to pull it off.” Some days, the muse proves elusive. She worries about the future of the industry. “Labels have been really short-sighted about slashing prices and devaluing the price of art.” And a culture obsessed with constant Tweets and celebrity leaves little room for the mystery of songwriting.
But Brooke – in the thick of writing her 6th record – has proven a survivor. In the last year, Disney’s hired her to write songs for Tinkerbelle, a French pop artist recorded three of Brooke’s songs, and she started work on a musical about a New Orleans love triangle set in the 1830’s. “One day I’ll be writing a song for a Tinkerbelle CD… and then I’m trying to write a pimp song. It’s terrifying, but great.”
These days, a great song may be all any artist has to lean on. So she picks up her guitar, channels a New Orleans nun, Peter Pan, Woody Guthrie – or maybe even Jonatha Brooke – and waits for songs to fall like stars from the sky.