Boston-based artist, Jonatha Brooke, grew up dancing. She also grew up loving music, taking choir in school, playing bass in her 8th grade rock band and she even joined an a cappella group. But it wasn’t until her junior year in college that she got the urge to write songs – a feeling that has since remained throughout her life, from early successes in the 90s to more substantial ones later on. Brooke, who has co-written with stars like Katy Perry and composed songs for Disney and TV show-runner, Joss Whedon, continues to challenge herself. The work can always be better, she says. Hers is a mentality that has propelled her to a prolific and fruitful career. And Brooke’s latest achievement is the release of her forthcoming LP, The Sweetwater Sessions, out tomorrow (July 10th).
“I took a song composition course in college and it felt like I got hit by lightning,” Brooke says. “I found that I could have my own voice and so I really honed in on it. I’d always been a dancer and I’d assumed that I was going to college and go back to dancing and move to New York City to dance. But music kept encroaching. Then I got a record deal and, I thought, that’s going to make the decision for me.”
As a dancer, Brooke already had success. She performed in multiple companies in Boston. At the time, she wasn’t looking for a new creative identity. But, nevertheless, songwriting chose her. Brooke began to write more and more songs. She soon experienced some high-highs, signing with three different major labels in her young career. But, like many in the era, Brooke experienced some equally low-lows, finding stagnation and some failed promises in areas she explored. Yet, she continued to push and reinvent and work.
“You have to pick yourself up each time when there’s an obstacle,” Brooke says. “You have to recalibrate and redefine what success is for you. I had to do that a lot. Often, it was more about not wanting to repeat myself and wanting to be engaged in something that was creatively meaningful.”
Part of Brooke’s reinvention came with an early understanding of the internet. Fed up with major labels, she connected directly with fans by staring her own, Bad Dog Records. She fostered her fan base and grew it. She formed lifelong connections with people who loved her work most. While the efforts increased, so did her reward. She wrote more, experimented with songs and guitar tuning, sharing it all with fans. Part of her draw was her closeness and willingness to show herself in-process.
“In the early days,” says Brooke, who has 14 albums to her name, “I wanted everything to be absolutely perfect and pristine. We would do a gazillion takes. Lately, I’ve gotten a little less stupid about it. When you’re recording and writing, it’s really like a time capsule. That moment, that time, that song is really specific to that particular day. I love that about what we do.”
In 2012, Brooke achieved a life goal many would consider an untouchable feat. Brooke, who says she shares a number of mutual friends with the “Roar” pop star, Katy Perry, says the two musicians finally got together after some early discussions and worked on two songs in the studio. One of which, “Choose Your Battles,” made it on Perry’s 2013 record, Prism.
“When I was on the road in the early 2000s,” says Brooke, “I had a record called, Steady Pull, that was doing well for me. There’s actually a picture of me signing a CD for Katy! She did an interview somewhere and somehow that picture came up. That was the last straw and got us together to write something.”
Brooke has also contributed work to Joss Whedon’s TV show, Dollhouse, and several Disney movies, including the sequel to Peter Pan, Return to Never Land. But amongst her many musical achievements came one that she never would have expected. In 2014, Brooke opened a one-woman off-Broadway show, My Mother Has 4 Noses, which garnered praise from outlets like The New York Times. The show, about Brooke’s relationship with her mom and the care she gave her at the end of her life, changed Brooke’s life.
“That was a huge and terrifying achievement for me,” she says. “It changed me as a performer. It made me more solid on my feet in front of an audience and taught me had to be ready for anything, seven-nights-a-week.”
With her new record, Brooke is ready to take yet another step forward. The 11-track album, which was borne from a Masterclass teaching experience Brooke conducted, is home to songs both new and several decades old. The bright LP weaves between peppy quips and deep thoughts, including some significant grappling with Brooke’s religious upbringing. One of the album’s standout tracks, “The Angel in the House,” speaks of temptation and its ill affects.
But no matter the number of successes or achievements in the rearview mirror, Brooke always aims to move forward with whatever she does. And she does so with pizzazz. Amidst the COVID-19 health scare, Brooke has been hosting regular kitchen concerts. She’s also enjoyed teaching the tricks of the songwriting trade she’s learned along her way to students. Brooke has seen and done so much in her cornucopia-like career but, as one might expect, there’s still more out there for her and she’s ready to grab it.
“I’m never really contented,” Brooke says. “But I’m so grateful for my fans who have been with me along the way. Nothing’s ever enough but today I’m perfectly happy.”