Interview with folk rock singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke

Jonatha Brooke is a folk rock singer-songwriter who has been writing songs and making records since the early 90’s. Since starting her own independent label, Bad Dog Records, she has released six albums on top of the four she already released with other labels. She recently opened her one-woman show My Mother Has 4 Noses at The Duke on 42nd street. This musical play is written and performed by Brooke herself and is about the emotional journey of the last two years she spent with her mother who was battling dementia. The full album “My Mother Has 4 Noses,” which is her first in five years, is what the play is based off of and was released last month. The album is all about the experiences she shared while taking care of her mother and it’s extremely heart warming and touching. Jonatha spoke with about the play and new album, which are already huge successes. So this is your first album in five years. Was it hard getting back into it?

Jonatha Brooke: Yeah it is. No, it was like breathing, it was like riding a bicycle. It was so much fun to be back in the studio and playing with the incredible musicians that were on the record. And I had the amazing experience of doing the Pledge Music Campaign, so I had this great wellspring support of my fans and I was able to pay for the record with their contributions. It was very cool because there was no way I was going to be able to pay for it I hadn’t worked in so many years.

TCC: Is it the same musicians you always worked with or were these all new musicians?

JB: Many of them were on my last record, so Steve Gadd, drummer of all time, we played on the last record. And James Genus, I hadn’t worked with him before but he was incredible and played a great bass. Ben Butler played guitar he’s my MD in the show as well and he’s been playing in my bad for like 10 year so he’s on the record he’s amazing.

TCC: In what ways was this album different than the others? Obviously this one was very personal and very emotional. Have any of your other albums been like this where you’ve used your experiences?

JB: Not quite as thoroughly. The other albums, you know, I tend to make stuff up. You know I tell stories and I might embellish here and there. This is the most probably close to the bone, the most emotional and the most, some of it is more poetic maybe a little more elliptical than past ones.

TCC: It seems like this one is really from the heart.

JB: Yeah, and I allowed myself to not try to say everything. I like to leave a little mystery so that people are filling in the spaces.

TCC: So you worked with Katy Perry on her new album, what was it like working with her?

JB: It was fun! I love her I think she’s the bomb. We wrote two songs, we spent two days in the studio together in LA and it was really fun. I have to say, she’s a badass. And she’s a great writer. She knows exactly what she wants. She sings her butt off and we had a really good time. And she didn’t hold back, I mean she was just like, we were already sort of condoling each other and she’d be making fun of me and then I would make fun of her and we came up with two great songs and I’m just psyched that one of them actually made it to her record.

TCC: That’s amazing. Would you say you are as big of a fan of her work as she is of yours?

JB: Oh absolutely. I mean “Teenage Dream” is one of my favorite songs of all time. I just love that song.

TCC: Would you ever consider putting one of the songs with Katy on your own albums?

JB: I would love to! There’s another one that we wrote together but, you know, I’m hoping she’ll put it out first.

TCC: What other artists would you enjoy working with?

JB: It might be fun to work with Elvis Costello, I think our voices would be really interesting together. Bonnie Raitt, I love her so much. I would love to work with Coldplay or Radiohead, they need a chick in there.

TCC: So which song from your newest album would you say is your favorite?

JB: “My Misery.”

TCC: Would you say that’s the most meaningful to you? Or just your favorite?

JB: Well, “Are You Getting This Down,” is the most meaningful and it chokes me up every time just talking about it. But “My Misery” I just love the dramatic arc of it. I just love that it starts really small, it’s very cinematic in a way. I love the picture that it contours for me, at least, and it’s just goes into this crazy circus town at the end and I just love how it turned out.

TCC: Did your mother ever get to hear the songs as you were writing them?

JB: She heard the kalimba song. I played her, it’s a song called “Time.” She loved it, she was fascinated by this little kalimba thing. It’s like a little wooden box with metal tines and she just couldn’t figure out how it made the sound that it made. It was very pretty and wasn’t I clever to figure that out.

TCC: Do you find that your songs typically touch people as much as they touch you?

JB: I do find that. And it’s really gratifying. And I think that its, I don’t know if this happens to you as a writer, but the more I create songs the more I realize how much I really leave in them. I’m down to the bone, you know? It’s almost after it’s too late and they’re out in the world that I realize, ‘Wow, I really said a lot here.’ People really get that and that’s what they respond to.

TCC: My best friend passed away and as a writer I always find myself writing about him in any writing assignment I get at school and it’s crazy how much people know about him just through what I’ve written. It’s a great feeling and it’s nice to have everything written. It’s the memory in a very different way.

JB: Exactly. You’re vulnerable but there also is great power in that deep truth telling.

TCC: So how much longer is the show going to go for? It will be performed at the Duke until May, right?

JB: Yeah, through May 4th. And if we’re doing well, we have an option to extend it. That would be amazing. It’s like this weird heady time of these incredible reviews and you know, we’re waiting for that tipping point until we actually start selling out.

TCC: I’m sure the summer is always a great time for shows.

JB: Yeah, it is. More tourists, more curiosity.

TCC: Do you have any plans for after the show weather its renewed or not?

JB: We’re getting all sorts of interest from theatres all over the country. Which is really sweet to sort of see what’s happening with it. We have a few friends in Chicago and San Francisco and Minneapolis, so we may end up taking it to theatres in those cities.

TCC: That’d be awesome to travel.

JB: It would be great. And we purposely kept it kind of lean and mean so it’s producible and we could do that, we could tour it.

TCC: Have you ever done anything like that?

JB: Not with a show like this. I mean, I’ve been touring for 20 years but that’s just a bunch of people in a van or on a bus schlepping around the country. This is a little bit harder to build so we would want to do a two to three week run to make it worthwhile.

TCC: Would you say that the show is the tour for the album? Or would there ever be a specific tour for the new album?

JB: That’s a really good question! I don’t think we’ve even figured that out yet. I think it really does depend on how well we do with the play.

TCC: Yeah, because in a way this is the tour.

JB: Yeah it is the tour. On the other hand, you know, it’s a lot more cost effective for me to just go around the country with a guitar and do concerts. But it’s kind of fun that we’re trying this very new, very scary thing so for now the focus is doing this different thing.

TCC: Would you say that a lot of your fans are coming to see the show or do you find it to be people who aren’t familiar with your work and are just interested in it?

JB: That’s a great question because I think it’s been a way more mixed crowd then I ever had. I think yes, my fans are coming because they love the music and want to know what I do next but it’s opened up this whole new audience. Some of them are caregivers, or children of people who have had Alzheimer’s or dementia and this whole other world has sort of embraced this piece as a community. And the theatre world! I had no idea how many fans I had in the theatre world, they’re coming out of the woodwork! It’s nuts.

TCC: It sounds like such an incredible experience to be sharing something so personal, it must be very nice.

JB: It is really nice and it feels like the story is bigger than me and I’m hoping it has a bigger reach than just the record. Just talking about caregiving and dementia and you know, it’s an epidemic. It’s really affecting all of us.

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