We spoke with folky singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke, formerly of The Story, about her new album, My Mother Has Four Noses, e.e. cummings, current issues in copyright enforcement, co-writing with Katy Perry and more.
How would you describe My Mother Has Four Noses?
The new album is raw and intimate. I’ve kept it very honest and many of the performances are live takes with the core band. For me that’s been the best way to capture the breath, the give-and-take. I am NOT a “sing a hundred takes” artist. If I can’t nail the song in three takes, it’s not the right day, and I move on.
The arrangements are purposely chamber-like. I wanted it to feel like you were eavesdropping on something precious and sacred in the room next door.
How would you compare it to your last album?
The last album had a little more pace to it and not a lot of complex arrangements. It was really a band – Joe Sample, Christian McBride, Steve Gadd — making a record. We did the basic tracks in just two days, and it felt like the album was pretty complete. After that it was really a test to see what the songs would let us add… not much as it turned out!
You recently co-wrote a song with Katy Perry. How did it that work? Did you learn anything from it?
Katy is actually a fan of mine. There is a picture floating around somewhere of her in the CD autograph line for my record “Steady Pull!” She’s mentioned me in a bunch of interviews, so finally my friend Brendan Okrent from ASCAP put a call in to her manager to say, “Hey, why don’t we get these two together. Might be a cool idea.”
It finally worked out last May. We spent three days in Greg Wells’ studio in LA, and had a blast. The three of us came up with two really great, very different kinds of songs. “Choose Your Battles” was the one she chose to put on her record. It’s dark and deep, a very exciting evolution for her I think. And it’s in 3/4 time which is where I LIVE!
We had such a good time. She is a badass. She knows exactly what she wants, and doesn’t waste time on baloney. And she sings her butt off. Really, it was a great collaboration. I brought in my little kalimba and started jamming on this weird rhythmic/melodic progression, and the ideas just started ping-ponging from there.
I wouldn’t be surprised if our other song came out at some point too. It’s a little pop treacle party animal! I’m not at liberty to say much more!
According to the band’s Wikipedia entry, you’ve “downplayed” your work in The Story. Is this true? Please explain.
Actually that’s quite a surprise…. I should go and edit that. I still play and adore the songs from the Story records. They’re like my children, so I can’t imagine downplaying any one of them. I think any artist has moments where they dwell on the flaws in their earlier work. You imagine how you might produce those records now — how your approach, even your instrument has changed. But I do love it all. It’s part of me. The Story was a really rich musical beginning.
Where do you fall on the streaming music debate. Do companies like Spotify help promote you? Do you feel they need to be paying you more money?
The debate is almost a waste of breath at this point. Music is, for all intents and purposes, free. We’ve done a terrible job defending copyright and instilling a sense of the value of this art form with the public. The real trick is finding new ways to be heard, and more importantly to be paid. No one wants to hear me whine about the good old days when we could make a living. I don’t think Spotify helps in the end. They’re just building a business and making money on our “content.” Perhaps a few people discover new artists that way. But it still doesn’t pay. It doesn’t make it any easier to pay the rent.
To give you a clearer picture… if someone streams one of my songs 1 million times on Pandora, I might make 380 dollars. The owners of these sites cry the blues about their overhead, but if they had come up with a good business model to begin with, it wouldn’t be an issue. You have to pay the piper.
How about the recent lyric site lawsuit? Do you think lyric sites should pay artists royalties, or is that wishful thinking? Have your lyrics ever been misinterpreted online?
Again, I think the cats out of the bag and we just have to get more and more creative about what people WILL pay for. I’ve searched for lyrics many times, and have been thrilled to find them when I needed them. To try to get people to pay “posthumously…” It’s just going to piss people off. We have to keep looking for new ideas. What is an enhanced experience that CAN’T be streamed or downloaded. What WILL people pay for?
I think the internet has afforded us a new relationship with our listeners and fans. That’s where the future is. It’s uncomfortable in some ways. You really have to involve yourself. But the beautiful surprise is finding an incredible bunch of people out there that will come to the table when you cook a good meal.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
I think Paul Simon is pretty great. The Brazilians — ok I don’t know what they’re saying most of the time, so I have to speak to melody and chord progressions, but they are KING. Rickie Lee Jones will always be a favorite. Stevie Wonder. Radiohead.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I wrote intense songs right away. Not necessarily good! Some of them were so pretentious I hope never to hear them again. Very urgent and self-righteous. UGH.
I think the musical structure was interesting from the very beginning. I was drawn to dissonance and complexity. The execution and the lyrics are where I cringe. I’ve become a better singer as I’ve matured and toured and worked at it. And that old adage: “less is more” really is true for me. Some of those early songs had every single possible vocal idea you could have come up with… all at once. You really DON’T need the kitchen sink.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I still adore my very first song. It was a college composition class assignment sophomore year at Amherst College. “love is more thicker than forget” — an e. e. cummings poem I set to music. It’s on Grace In Gravity and on my Live in New York DVD. It’s linear, incredibly dissonant, really hard to sing, but it is sweet and has an innocence that still moves me.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I started this song months ago after I read a friend’s TV pilot. I flipped about the story, and I am determined I will write that theme song. I LOVE the guitar riff, and the opening line and first verse are killer…. now I’m STUCK. But I am going to chip away at this thing until I get it right.
How do you go about writing songs?
I wish I had a formula. I’m still superstitious about it. Half of it is not forcing the thing. Climbing onto a good idea, but not running it off the road. You try until you’re stuck, then walk away. Do laundry, make toast, go to a yoga class. You have to trick yourself to let it go, and then in bits and pieces it will make itself apparent. But you can’t force stuff or you will hate it later.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I’m often happiest when the lyric comes first. Poetry formed and finished. A little mysterious. “Is This All?” was like that. Those are gifts. If the lyric appears first, then the words can so clearly tell you how they should be sung. The cadence, time signature, where the emphasis must fall. I am a militant believer that you must sing it the way you would say it. I can’t stand songs that put the emphasis on the wrong syllables — just a purist I guess.
What’s a song on My Mother you’re particularly proud of?
“My Misery” may be an all time favorite. I love how theatrical it is. Growing from small to big in a circus-y way. I love the lyrics and I’m really proud of the message and the abandon of the performance. I feel like it gets at this deep kind of prayer (and I am not religious) … a guttural, existential cry.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
Well, I guess that same song… it opens with: “My misery doesn’t like company, I can do this by myself…I can ride the undertow – I don’t need your help.”
And then closes with: “Life’s hit or miss, we can handle this, no one needs to know. It’s that old adage, it’s love sweet triage, and it just might steal the show… and my misery just might need company after all.”
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It’s always been hard, it always will be. That’s why I keep trying.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I love the word “maudlin.” But I would never use it in a song. I love the word “armistice,” and I’m on the fence about putting in a song I’m working on. I hate the word “baby,” although I’m sure I’m guilty of using it somewhere. But I will admit to a keen thrill when Tommy Lipuma (he signed me to my very first record deal) first called me “Babe.” It was confirmation. I was in the club.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Because I Told You So,” “Inconsolable” and “West Point” are the big emotional faves. People often tell me those are the songs that have gotten them through the bleakest stretches in their lives.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Maybe back to Paul Simon. I don’t think there’s a smarter writer around!
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Katy Perry! I think people write her off because she’s so successful and she’s located herself in this mega-pop market. But I think she’s going to surprise us going forward. She is super sharp and I think she’s already exploring a richer spectrum of ways to express herself.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
(With the caveat that this changes pretty frequently….) Today? “Pretending to Care” by Todd Rundgren. It rips my heart out every time. The a cappella arrangement is crazy and powerful. I love how his voice is on the edge in the chorus. All the things I crave are there.
On the other end of the spectrum, “You Get the Best of my Love” — I think the guys of Earth Wind and Fire may have written it… and The Emotions rocked it up. It is perfect. It never fails to get people to their feet. Everyone knows those words and those melodies. It is dramatic and perfectly arranged and executed. Less is MORE!