Full steam ahead
April 13, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Although she started her career on MCA--first as half of the folk duo the Story, then
as a solo artist--Boston native Jonatha Brooke is now following in the footsteps of Ani
DiFranco as one of the most successful independent singer-songwriters in America.
There was a brief period when Brooke felt out some of the major labels before deciding
to release her new album "Steady Pull" on her own Bad Dog Records, the artist
says. (She's phoning from her tour bus, which is parked at a truck stop outside San
Francisco the day after playing a triumphant show at the Fillmore.)
"I certainly didn't rule out any options," Brooke says. "We took the
record around to a few people, and before they even heard it, they wanted to know how old
I was. They would tell my manager, `You know, we're really not looking at anyone over
20 right now.' And he would say, `Well, did you listen to the album?' And they'd say, `No.
How old is she?' It was nothing else except for Britney and Christina--those are the ones
selling all the records, so they're gonna just keep cloning that!"
It's no surprise that Brooke decided she could do a better job on her own, especially
after the success of her last independent release, 1999's "Live."
"It's certainly a short-sighted attitude, but I can't dis the majors," the
singer says. "If you're lucky enough to have someone at the top pushing the green
button, you've won the lottery. But there's this kind of hunger that I feel out there for
substantial music, and I felt we'd be much better able to focus the marketing and
promotion to make some waves and get through the big machinery. We decided to put the
album out on Bad Dog, and it's actually doing better than I've ever done on a major label.
We've already outsold two times over the last record on MCA."
"Steady Pull" boasts many of the hallmarks that Brooke's fans have come to
expect in her songwriting, including the emotional honesty, the literate lyrics and
sophisticated arrangements that border on chamber-pop. But her fourth solo outing also
finds a new spring in her step, and a previously uncharacteristic lyrical optimism.
"I very consciously decided to really try some new things, break into some new
territory, play some funky R&B kind of grooves, and also write a little more
straightforwardly," Brooke says. "And honestly, I was just feeling great. I was
falling in love, and some of the songs reflect that kind of buoyant infatuation. There are
a couple of dark tunes on there, just so I could make the transition. You have to be a
little dark--I love darkness and I live in darkness sometimes; it's awfully inspiring--but
overall, I definitely wanted this album to have a rocking buoyancy to it."
To that end, Brooke worked with veteran producer Bob Clearmountain (Bryan Adams, Hall
& Oates, Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The U.S.A.") and solicited cameos from
members of two of her favorite bands, Crowded House and Spearhead. "It was my dream
team, but it happened really organically, which was even more exciting," she says.
"I had all the songs already, but when I went into the studio and started working
with Bob, I hadn't arranged anything or started dictating what it was going to be. The one
thing we knew we wanted was to get very live-feeling performances, and so a lot of the
vocals are rough tracks, but we kept them because they had an energy and a visceral
quality. And we'd just sort of say, `Hey wouldn't Neil Finn sound great on this song?' So
we called him up and he came by. Same with Michael Franti. Things just kind of unfolded in
this `Let's try it' way."
Brooke plans to keep things upbeat onstage. "We are romping and rocking and it's
really just a fun and exciting show," she says. If fans are lucky, she might even
wear the Starsky & Hutch T-shirt she sports in the [do-it-yourself] video for the
effervescent "Linger," which is rapidly becoming a surprising indie hit at
"Now we've got the major labels calling us saying, `How the hell did you make this
happen for you at Triple-A radio? How did you get People magazine and the Wall Street
Journal?'" Brooke says. Success is always sweeter when the effort is D.I.Y.
* * *
Leave it to Jake Austen, rock 'n' roll scholar, editor of Roctober fanzine and leader
of Chicago's Goblins, to come up with the brilliant idea of a punk musical paying
Easter-time homage to the "God rock" genre of the early '70s.
From Mr. Austen's press release: " `He Is My Rock' tells the story of a young rock
performer who has found religion and feels there is no longer room in his life for his
rock 'n' rolling ways. Divine intervention then leads him on a musical journey that
spotlights the masterpieces of the late '60s/early '70s God-Rock movement. These include
passages from `Jesus Christ Superstar' and `Godspell,' and pop-gospel songs made famous by
artists from Elvis Presley to the Cowsills."
Taking part in these theatrical shenanigans: Bobby Conn as the Saviour, Damon Locks of
Trenchmouth and the Eternals as Judas, Neko Case and Kelly Hogan sideman Rudy Day as the
Disciple, and Chris Ligon as the Light, with musical accompaniment from the Goblins and
the Cattivo Brass.
The show starts at 10 tonight at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. The cover is $8,
which includes post-show champagne and cake. Call (773) 276-3600.