Although she is a folk singer, before a couple of years ago Jonatha Brooke wasn’t really intimately knowledgeable about the music of Woody Guthrie.
She learned quickly, however. Brooke’s latest record, “The Works,” is a collection of songs written by, or inspired by, Guthrie.
“I was actually in the middle of a UK tour, and Gene Shay (iconic folk-music radio host of WXPN-FM in Philadelphia) called me and asked me how I’d like to co-own a copyright with Woody Guthrie,” she says in a phone interview from Blacksburg, VA, where she was playing on tour. “So after I fell off the chair, I asked him what he meant, and he said, ‘I can hook you up with Nora Guthrie, his daughter, and you can go in the archives and choose a couple of lyrics that no one’s ever seen before, and premier them at this big concert we’re putting on.’ I said, ‘Well, count me in, that’s an honor.’ So that’s how I first got introduced to the archives, and Woody, and Nora.”
Now she is on tour, promoting “The Works.” She appears on Friday, April 17, at Grounds For Sculpture.
“It’s been going great. I still love my job, playing for these audiences and finding inspiration in the songs,” says Brooke. “I’m a lucky girl.”
Brooke’s tour is a solo tour — just her, her guitar, and a piano in every stop. “I’m by my lonesome on the stage,” she says. Does she enjoy that? “I’m kind of split on that,” she says. “I love the possibilities that it allows, that I can change things up, that I can segue, or get chatty if I want to, and I don’t have to worry about the band getting bored. On the other hand, I love the dynamics that having a band provides. There’s that much more `umph’ that you can give it in the big sections of the song. I love both equally. Of course, it’s easier to make money if you’re touring solo.”
Brooke, 45, was born in Chicago and raised in Boston, the daughter of a newspaper reporter and editor father and a mother who was a poet and professor. Both parents encouraged her and her two brothers to become involved in the arts. It wasn’t until the late ’60s and early ’70s, when her father, Robert Nelson, was posted in London by the Christian Science Monitor, that Brooke became interested in her first artistic love, the ballet.
“I was six when I started, in London,” says Brooke. “I was basically infatuated with it, fell in love with ballet, and I was dancing until I was 30 and got a record deal. I had to decide which path I would take, and I chose music. It just seemed like a much richer kind of future, and I am not just talking financially. It seemed like there would be a bigger reach and a bigger audience, and it was so fulfilling to me as a writer, singer, and performer.”
Brooke said she was always musical, singing in school choirs and other groups, and when she was in high school in Dartmouth, MA, near Cape Cod, she had her own rock bands. After graduating from the Commonwealth School in 1981, she went to Amherst College, where she began playing as a solo artist as well as in a duo, the Story, with fellow student Jennifer Kimball. It was in a music composition class sophomore year, says Brooke, that she was “struck by lightning” and realized that she had a talent for composition. “My first assignment was to take an e.e. cummings poem and set it to music. After that, I was a kid in a candy store. I found that I could move people by writing things my own way, and it was really a revelation.”
After college, Brooke played with Kimball, as well as solo, and it was in 1992, with the record “Grace In Gravity,” that Brooke and Kimball first became known in the folk-pop world. In 1995, Brooke and Kimball went their separate ways, performing as solo artists exclusively.
Brooke’s preparation for “The Works,” her Woody Guthrie album, revealed to her a side of the singer she had never known. “I was kind of ignorant. I knew `This Land Is Your Land,’ and I knew that he had written some really political songs, and that he had championed migrant workers and the unions, but I really didn’t know how multifaceted he was,” Brooke says. She spent days at Guthrie’s archives in Manhattan, looking through notebooks, journals, correspondence and other minutiae related to Guthrie.
“Little by little, I really got infatuated with aspects of his personality that I hadn’t known about, and that most of us didn’t know about,” she says. “Nora was excited that I was drawn to his more romantic lyrics, and we got psyched about doing this project.”
One of the more interesting songs was “All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me,” a collaboration with contemporary bluesman Keb’ Mo.’ “It wasn’t finished. At the bottom of the page, it said, ‘Finish later.’ I kind of took that as an invitation and merged that unfinished lyric with some of the poems I found in a journal that dated from 1946. So that’s where the bridges came from. Again, Nora was very trusting and intuitive about letting me cut and paste things, to bring them more into my world.”
Brooke also brought in great jazz players such as keyboardist Joe Sample, drummer Steve Gadd, and bassist Christian McBride, as well as producer extraordinaire Bob Clearmountain. “It was incredible,” she says. “I’ve known these musicians for a long time, and I know that we are great fans of each other. I’ve been hoping to come up with the kind of project that would warrant calling them, and this is the perfect record, because they brought in all of their experience and history, and they had so much more musical know-how than maybe others I would have called. They intuitively knew just what to do to keep it in an acoustic world but just make it very funky and contemporary.”
She has been the leader on eight other albums, and Brooke’s music has appeared on many television shows and films shows such as Disney’s “Return to Neverland” and the TV shows “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Ally McBeal,” “Dollhouse,” and “The Hills.”
Brooke says it was the Philadelphia region, and by extension the Trenton/Princeton area, that was one of the first areas that gave her airplay, publicity, and a fan base. “My first record that hit it big was “The Angel in the House,” and there was a song called “So Much Mind,” she says. “That was the time that AAA [Adult Album Alternative] radio was just becoming a format, and that record was really big for AAA, and the guys at ‘XPN have been really supportive of me ever since. Guys like Bruce Warren [program director] are good friends, and big fans. I think he might be my biggest fan. I owe it to them. They have championed me over the years, and Philadelphia is a great town for me.”
Brooke now lives in New York with her husband/manager Patrick Rains. She is putting together a musical with Sample (“that’s exciting and terrifying at the same time,” she says) and writing for and producing a young French singer, Nolwenn Leroy. She also is writing and arranging songs for a new disc she wants to record later this year.
“I’m working on about 10 million things right now.”
Jonatha Brooke, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Friday, April 17, 8 p.m. Singer songwriter presents works from her newest CD, “The Works,” a collection of songs with never-before-heard lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Brooke. $27. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.