A new story for Jonatha Brooke

Jonatha Brooke

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 8, 2003) – It’s been nearly 15 years since the folk duo The Story released its first album, and a full eight years since Story founder Jonatha Brooke has been performing as a solo artist. But it’s only recently that Brooke, the chief creative force and main songwriter behind The Story, has fully given herself over to the idea that she’s going to be a musician for life.

“I know now really truly in my heart that there’s nothing else I’d rather do than this,” said Brooke -- who performs solo on Friday, June 13, at Club Helsinki at 8 – speaking in a recent phone interview from her New York City apartment.

“As hard as it is to get through the creative impasses and write another record, once the dam breaks and the muse loosens up it’s just so exciting.”

Fans of Brooke’s music have shared the excitement of the loosening of her muse since she first began performing at coffeehouses in and around Northampton while attending Amherst College in the early-1980s. With her duo partner Jennifer Kimball, the two performed frequently there and after graduation in Boston, where they were known as Jonatha and Jennifer.

But for most of the ‘80s, English major Brooke was working a day job at a publishing company and rehearsing nights as a member of several dance companies. It was only after Jonatha and Jennifer released their first album as The Story, “Grace in Gravity,” that music won out over publishing and dance.

The Story enjoyed a brief taste of fame when its second album, “The Angel in the House,” was released on Elektra Records in 1993. The timing was right, too, as they came to national attention just as similar-minded, female singer-songwriters like Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole were garnering attention for their “coffeehouse pop” stylings that would eventually result in the annual LilithFair tours celebrating female artists.

But The Story turned out to be a short one. By 1994, Brooke and Kimball had parted ways, as the latter reportedly wanted to pursue her own solo career. Brooke regrouped, in a manner of speaking, and returned a year later with the first of her four solo albums, “Plumb.”

While it took a while for her to get used to writing for her solo voice and performing on her own, eventually the move proved to be for the best, as can be heard on her most recent album, “Steady Pull,” on which her singing is a lot more soulful, jazzy and fluid than it was early on.

“As much as it was terrifying for both of us, once each of us got used to the idea of being up there alone, it was really exciting and very freeing to have all that space and not being worried about screwing up someone’s entrance or part,” said Brooke.

“It’s been great for me as a singer. I love singing, and to have that freedom to experiment every night with where a song might go, and to take it a little further, and to really push myself higher or farther or louder as a singer. Live especially it’s gotten way way more experimental.”

Going solo wasn’t the only big change for Brooke in the mid-‘90s. To jump-start her solo career she moved to Los Angeles, which seemed like an unusual move for this serious-minded, lifelong Easterner who was nurtured by the Boston and New York folk scenes.

“When I moved to L.A., I lost track a little bit of the singer-songwriter scene,” said Brooke, who at one time was a perennial presence at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. “Also, I’ve toured so much in the last five years with a band and an edgier sound. I’m still a singer-songwriter, but it’s not necessarily a conscious thing.”

Brooke admits the move to Los Angeles was uncharacteristic, but in retrospect she views it positively. “I was in L.A. for six years, and it was great. It’s easier in so many ways to live there and to pay your rent and to find good food and to exist. At the time it’s what I needed.”

But when Brooke and her long-time manager, Patrick Rains, tied the knot last fall, they decided to relocate back east and moved back to New York City.

Throughout Brooke’s geographic moves and format changes, she has been able to maintain her fundamental identity and sound. Although her more recent recordings, like those of fellow singer-songwriters such as Patty Larkin and Ani DiFranco, make use of state-of-the-art loops and effects, there is no mistaking that “Steady Pull” is the work of the same artist who created “Grace in Gravity.”

While Brooke can’t pinpoint just how she came upon her own distinctive style, she acknowledges its existence.

“Every record is different in its own way, but you can tell it’s all the same writer and the same soul,” she said.

“It came from just craving something that wasn’t the same old sound. Part of
that happened in finding all these open tunings on the guitar, but also wanting to challenge myself as a vocalist and as a listener.

“As a listener I craved great melodies and cool lyrics that really twist my heart. That’s what inspired me to do it myself. From the beginning I was looking for the odd chord and the dissonant twist of harmony, and the lyric that would just amplify an emotion, a lyric that would kick your butt and make you cry.

“If it makes me cry, it must be a good one.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 13, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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