LAist Interview: Jonatha Brooke
On her sixth solo studio album, The Works, Jonatha Brooke lends her unmistakable timbre and solid songwriting skills to lyrics penned by Woody Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land") more than 50 years ago. With the blessing and assistance of Guthrie's daughter, Nora, Brooke scoured the Guthrie archives to create one of the most intriguing albums of the year. Throughout the 13 tracks, Brooke’s style intertwines with Guthrie's words to reveal a man who was at once passionate and flawed, frightened and brash.
LAist recently sat down with Brooke to chat over breakfast at Cora's Coffee Shop in Santa Monica. It became obvious throughout the conversation that she fell in love with this American icon, and it would be hard for anyone who listens to this album not to do the same.
LAist: Do you feel that Guthrie’s lyrics are just as relevant today as they were then, or perhaps were they a bit ahead of their time and thus even more relevant now?
Jonatha Brooke: Both, I think. There’s such beauty in it, and you don’t find that kind of poetry in lyrics today. I’m thinking specifically of "Sweet and Bitter Bowl":
I am your battles still to fight
I’ll be your roughest day and night
I’ll take from you your hardest sweat
And pay you in words not sung or said.
I think that maybe, poetically, the words were more apropos for the day, but to hear them now is just stunning. That attention to detail and those words you wouldn’t necessarily choose today—how cool to hear something said that way!
Nora told me a story, and I’ve probably completely embellished it, but she said that when Woody and her mom first met, it was sort of love at first sight across the room. He realized that this was really special. He’d had tons of experience and she was already married, but not particularly happy or fulfilled. She was kind of uncomfortable, physically, with herself even though she was a dancer. And Nora told me that the first night they ever spent together, Woody didn’t touch her. They held hands, and that’s what drove her crazy. I think she realized, "This guy knows how to treat a woman." And I honestly think that’s why he wrote "Sweet and Bitter Bowl." Cause how did he figure that out? I didn’t re-gender the lyrics of that song. It’s from a girl’s perspective of "When will my prince come—the one who figures me out and knows how to pull this out of me and knows how to touch me?" It’s so deep.
How did you first come into contact with Nora?
It started with Gene Shay and Michaela Majoun, who are DJs in WXPN in Philly, which is one of my champion stations. Gene was looking for one more artist to include in last year’s Philadelphia Folksong benefit, and Michaela suggested me. So Gene made the initial contact when I was in England on tour. It was the weirdest call, because it was so out of the blue. He asked me, "Would you like to co-write a song with Woody Guthrie?" And I asked him, "What do you mean? Didn’t he die a long time ago?" But after he explained it, I thought, "What an amazing and fun opportunity!"
Which songs did you perform at the benefit?
Well, I wrote four songs even though they only needed one or two from me for the event. I ended up performing three of them, because one of the other artists dropped out at the last moment due to a family emergency. I performed "New Star," "No More Letters" and "All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me."
I got kinda greedy and voracious once I saw what was in the archives. Plus I loved Nora so much and I hit it off so well with her that that’s when I thought, "I want to do more…"
"All You Gotta Do Is Touch Me" [which features guest vocals by Keb’ Mo’] is one hot song.
I’d actually written an earlier version of it before I found the journal pieces that became the bridges of that song. They didn’t exist in the original—the original was one of the songs Nora first handed to me. She said, "I thought you might be interested in this because it’s really sexy and I’ve always wanted someone to do it." But it was just basically, "All you gotta do is touch me, all you gotta do is touch me good, all you gotta do is kiss me …" and so forth.
And actually, at the bottom, Woody himself had actually written the words, "Finish later." (laughs) So I thought, "All right. I’ll take that as permission." Then I asked Nora about pulling the other prose from his notebooks to complete the song and it made it a little juicier.
Who knew that the guy who wrote "This Land Is Your Land" was so sensual?
That’s the other thing Nora was so pleased with—that I was drawn to these very different kinds of songs that she knew existed, but I don’t know that anyone else had ever really heard this side of him.
Guthrie really covered a lot of territory—at times he was playful, unfaithful, passionate—did Nora feel uncomfortable at all about revealing his flaws, as well as his passion, to the world?
That was the great thing about Nora. She embraced that side of him, too. She was like, "You know what? He was Woody. He loved everybody and women loved him and he loved them back. And yes, my mom was the love of his life, but he was uncontainable. That’s the truth about him."
The Making of "The Works"
How many Guthrie songs did you have to search through to find the lyrics you chose?
I have this three-ring binder with, I don’t know, 60 or 70 lyrics in it. It was like my little candy store, and every day I would go into my room, sit down and shuffle through them. The page would open to something, and suddenly there would just be a melody. It seemed really effortless—meant to be.
Did you find that you pulled lyrics more from a specific period of his life or did you cover a pretty good span?
It was a total hodgepodge, but a couple of them were from around the same time. "New Star" and "My Battle" were from 1954. He was already in the hospital, I think, with Huntington’s disease. You could tell his handwriting had really deteriorated by then—even that was compelling to me.
Did it almost feel like you were singing with a new voice or taking on the role of a new character as you were recording these songs?
It was different. In some ways I felt more pressure and felt like I needed to kick ass. I needed to just sing better—sing my ass off, partly because I was in the studio with these world-class amazing musicians, and I wanted to be strong enough to really lead the band. That’s a huge feat with these guys, because they’ve played with every single icon in the whole world.
I wasn’t a different person, but it did feel like I did the singing of my life in a way. I was so prepared, so ready and so in love with what I was singing that I wasn’t self-conscious. I wasn’t thinking. It just sang me.
How long did it take you to record the whole album?
Well, we did 13 songs in two days. It was old-school. It was that magical. And again, I can’t say enough about the band—usually by the second or third take, it was so obvious that we had it.
There are only two songs on the album for which you wrote the lyrics as well as the music, "Little Bird" and "Taste of Danger." They fit so well in the record that if you didn’t know it, you’d think that Guthrie wrote the words for those, too. Did you intentionally write the lyrics in a style that fit with Guthrie’s?
I wasn’t really intending to put originals in there, but "Little Bird" was one of the first songs I wrote. But I’m convinced it came from Woody. There had been this little crisis moment of, "Is this album going to be able to happen?" Then that song just came out and it was like him saying, "Everything’s cool. It’s going to be fine. Just do like I do. Just stop thinking about it and don’t be so precious with your damn self. Just sing it, girl."
"Taste of Danger" was about the other side of Woody. It was inspired by him and I thought, "That’s the guy, too, you know?"
I loved the liner note you included at the end of "There’s More True Lovers Than One." Judging by what Guthrie wrote, it appears that he had performed it before. Did you ever hear the original melody?
As far as I know, I don’t think there’s any existing record of how he sang it. So it’s crazy…
I don’t think I’ve admitted this to anybody, but I wasn’t really a Woody Guthrie aficionado before this project. I knew "This Land Is Your Land," of course, and heard about the Dust Bowl Ballads and his political beauty, but I don’t think I’d actually heard a recording of him.
And I consciously didn’t listen to anything—musically—when starting this project. I read about his life, I read his biography and I read the art book. I wanted to know that kind of thing and get a feel for the man.
So it was about his words more than copying the style of music…
Yeah, I certainly didn’t want to copy the style of music, because I wanted it to be really contemporary—and musically me.
Did you listen to his music after you finished the album?
I’ve listened in little bits. I’ve bought all his CDs but I haven’t listened to them all yet. It’s weird, I don’t want my version of him to change. I want him to stay "my Woody." (laughs)
You now know him better than most people—you’re a Guthrie historian as it were—what do you think would surprise people most about him?
I think the kind of spiritual yearning he had. Like in "My Battle," he says, "Show me how to fight my battle…" It’s almost religious. It reveals his uncertain side, because he was so blustery and certain and political. He wasn’t afraid to write about anything. But "New Star" and "My Battle," they’re songs that are really searching. He’s asking, "What do I do? How do I win? How do I love?" You see the words "Brooklyn State Hospital, 1954" written on the bottom of the lyrics page and it just hits you.
You’ve said that you work from a longstanding belief that a song should exude a sense of mystery, rather than being nakedly autobiographical. Where does Guthrie’s writing fall within this spectrum?
It’s probably telling that the songs I was drawn to are probably a little more mysterious and a little less topical. I need there to be a little ellipsis between the lines. I mean, "My Sweet and Bitter Bowl," was there a sexier song ever written? I still cry when I hear it. It’s unprecious in a way, because most of the songs are live takes. They went down like that and we didn’t "fix" them. For the most part it was immediate; there was magic in the room and we didn’t want to mess it up.
You can’t tell that it was just one take.
Well, the musicians were just beyond any expectation I could ever have had.
Were they fans of Woody Guthrie already?
I had to sort of re-explain to them who he was in the canon of American music. This was the original singer-songwriter of all singer-songwriters. We all come down from him so it was like, "take notice guys." I would show them little funny scribbly things I had photocopied from the archives.
How would you summarize the album in a few words?
Maybe I say this every time, but it just felt like this is the love of my life. It’s so complete and there are so many facets to it, and yet it really feels like a whole. It’s honest and organic and we really stayed true to what the music wanted. I kept trying to do more overdubs and background vocals, and it just spat them right back at me. It just did not want any crap on it. The performances are visceral and complete and there’s so much space for the vocal, which a lot of people are commenting on. That’s what the record wanted.
And when you think about it, you really recorded the album the way that Woody would have back in the day.
That was also the point of calling these particular musicians and tracking it the way we did. It was like, "How do I stay true to what it would have been like and yet bring it to the modern day?" I’ve been in love with the guys who played on the record for a long time. I’m glad I didn’t call them until now. It had to he right moment and the right project. This was it and they were ready.
Do you think you could have still made an album like The Works if you had been with a major label?
Probably not. I don’t know if it would have even come about because I approach things so organically now. It’s hard to do that on a major label because there’s all this pressure. And if I were on a major label, they probably would not have wanted me to release it at the end of the summer and I’d have to wait four or five months. So I guess I just love the independence. I can make decisions right now instead of having to ask 10 guys in New York who don’t give a shit about me.
What’s the story behind the Bad Dog/Naughty Puppy names [of your label]?
Well, on my very first record, there is a song called "Dog Dreams," which is the bane of my existence, actually. It’s one of those goofy songs that’s funny the first hundred times you sing it, and then you just don’t want to ever have to sing it again. And of course, people just love it.
We called my first publishing entity Dog Dream Music, so all of the songs through Ten Cent Wings were published under that. Then when I started my own label, I thought, "Why don’t we keep it all in the dog family since I’m a total dog fanatic?" So we called the label Bad Dog Records. Then we needed a new publishing entity to cover my independent stuff, and that became Naughty Puppy.
You’ll be playing Largo at the Coronet in November—have you ever performed there before?
I used to play at Largo all the time when I lived here. I can’t wait to see the new place.
Do you have any favorite restaurants or shops that you like to visit when you come to LA?
Well, I usually have to get my big dose of coffee at Peet’s in the morning. And there’s a great restaurant in Santa Monica called Capo that I love. And there’s a cute little store on Abbot Kinney called Minnie T’s where I can always find a cute unusual fashiony thing that you won’t find anywhere else.
What’s up next for you?
I wrote a song for Disney that’s coming out this month. It’s a Tinkerbell song. It’s so cute, they have this new onslaught of Tinkerbell movies, four in total, and they’ve created four new fairies along with it. So they’ve decided to release a compilation album on Oct. 14 with music from the first two movies, and my song is called "Be True."
Also, Eric Bazilian and I wrote the theme song for "Dollhouse," Joss Whedon’s new show coming out in January. I can’t wait for that.
And I’ve been writing with this singer, Nolwenn Leroy, for her next album.
Have you started writing songs for your next album?
I’m writing so many songs that I’m on a roll. I can’t stop writing. Maybe that’s the beauty of The Works. My little bird is really on my shoulder now. Usually, when I go to write one of my own albums, I have to go to this really dark, despairing place where I’m ready to slit my wrists and I think I’m never going to come up with another song. It takes me weeks to get off the couch and it’s really stupid. I see it coming every time and there’s just nothing I can do.
How can you ever look forward to something like that?
That’s the thing—you avoid it like the plague. "I have to go through that again? I don’t think so…I’ll go write for Disney." (laughs) But because I’ve been writing nonstop and these projects keep coming my way, it's kept the muscle working.
I learned a lot from Woody and working with his lyrics. Some of the songs are traditionally cadenced, and there was something great about adhering to that sort of structure. Then there was something even greater about mixing that up and really pulling—there were four or five songs where I pulled lyrics from here and there and merged things to make them a little less square musically. It was a great lesson, though, to not try to be clever or complicated or go to the weird chord all the time. It can be straight ahead and still be really good and meaningful.
Jonatha Brooke (feat. Eric Bazilian) - "There's More True Lovers Than One"
Can you give us an example of that?
I remember working on "More True Lovers Than One," and I always tend to go to the minor chord at some point, because that’s where I live. I love minor mode. So I was working on the chorus and my husband was standing in the doorway and said, "No, don’t do that minor thing! Can you just pretend you’re Bruce Springsteen and you have a whole stadium of people in front of you? They need to be able to sing it immediately, over and over again."
My husband never sings, but right then, he started singing, "More true lovers than one! More true lovers than one!" Then I said, "OK, this one’s for you, honey." So that’s why the end of the chorus is the same as the beginning of the chorus—because, first of all, I was pretending to be Bruce Springsteen. But also, my husband was just too cute standing in the doorway singing it to me with a fake lighter in his hand.
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Jonatha!
Don’t miss Jonatha Brooke next month at Largo at the Coronet (Nov. 12 at 8:30 p.m.) where she’ll be co-headlining with Glen Phillips. Tickets are available by calling (310) 855-0350. To hear more of The Works, visit Brooke's myspace page.
Photo by Sadrine Lee