The music industry destroys most people. At one point, nine out of 10 bands signed to a major label went broke. Artists, after having thousands of dollars handed to them only to watch their records sell handfuls, suddenly find themselves cut loose and drowning in debt. Their dreams are as battered as a WTO protester; it’s hard not to feel used. Most just give up, shuffling off like a beaten dog back to the work-a-day world, dragging their dignity behind them.
Jonatha Brooke decided to fight back. After MCA dropped her in ’97, just after the release of her critically lauded sophomore disc 10 Cent Wings, she could have just quit. But she’d been performing for over 15 years, first as half of the acoustic duo The Story and then as a solo artist. She’d toured the country, built up a loyal fanbase. The only thing she knew how to do was write songs. “What else was I going to do?” Brooke says.
So rather than roll over, Brooke decided to go it alone, setting up her own record label, Bad Dog Records. It was a smart move. In ’99 she released her first independent album, Live, selling it exclusively on her website, JonathaBrooke.com. Within a couple of months Brooke had sold more copies of Live just on the Internet than 10 Cent Wings had in standard brick-and-mortar stores. The press started building up; comparisons to folk queen Ani DiFranco weren’t far behind. Suddenly Brooke was getting more attention for standing against the industry than she ever had being a part of it. Her dismissal became a personal badge of honor.
“I remember awhile after MCA let me go, I had a dinner party,” Brooke says. “It was me, Me’Shell Ndegecello and Wendy & Lisa—you know, Prince’s Wendy & Lisa. We just sat around joking about how many times we’d all been dropped, trading stupid stories about how the stereotypes are true. You know, I’ve been dropped twice, first with The Story and then by myself. I must be really good to have been dropped twice.”
Brooke is about to prove how damn good she really is—the singer-songwriter is gearing up for the release of her first studio album in four years. It’s going to be an uphill climb. While Steady Pull is readymade for radio consumption, continuing on the Lilith Fair tradition just with a bit more bite, few independent albums have ever made a dent in the Top 200. Brooke is hoping that she might pull off a miracle. She scored distribution for the disc, getting it in stores across the U.S. For the last month she’s been personally travelling to radio stations across the country, talking up the record, trying to score some airplay. She has a video she’s trying to get played. And the next few months will be spent touring, playing anywhere she can get a gig.
Even before she hits the road, Brooke is already getting a serious response. The first single off the record, “Linger,” is starting to get some radio spins. The press is more than eager to hype anyone willing to fight the good fight. Brooke says she can already feel the momentum going her way.
“It’s great to be out there and feel the groundswell of support for me,” Brooke says. “People are really rooting for me. They want to see me win. It’s just me and my manager coming up with ideas and figuring out how to do it. All we ask ourselves is if we’re going to lose our shirt. Usually we do, but we say screw it, we’ll get another.”
Yet even with all the buzz surrounding Brooke’s solo stance, it still comes down to the songs. Brooke had that part covered a long time ago. Slowly growing from a standard folkie playing footsy with her dark side, Brooke has become the confidant and concise songwriter Jewel would give her good teeth to be. Sure, most of the songs deal with dashed relationships and emotional dismay—bread and butter for any former coffeehouse girl worth the foam on her cappuccino. But while most come off sounding like high schoolers trafficking in study hall anguish, Brooke laces her lyrics with the subtle sophistication of a woman who might have been kicked down more than a few times, but always found a way to get a couple shots of her own in before hitting the floor.
Steady Pull covers familiar ground lyrically, but Brooke has given herself a serious sonic makeover. Though always working to leave the folkie feel behind, moving between dusty acoustic rock and delicate ballads, Steady Pull is the first time Brooke has really flirted with her funky side. The loop-laced “How Deep is Your Love” is two steps away from Portishead. “Out of Your Mind” is Brooke’s version of Bonnie Raitt boogie blues. And the soulful title track, featuring Spearhead’s Michael Franti doing his best Barry White impersonation, is meant for some serious booty knocking. Brooke says it’s the song she’s been wanting to write since she was a kid.
“I’ve always been this huge R&B fan,” Brooke says. “I used to sing along to Chaka Khan songs until I was blue in the face, and I think—I hope—some of that rubbed off on me. ‘Steady Pull’ was the first time I tried to do that, and I think it turned out really good.”
Even with all the chaos and uncertainty churning around her at the moment, Brooke is trying to keep things in perspective—not get too caught up in all the drama and speculation. In fact, for the moment she’s focused on something that has absolutely nothing to do with music: her pants collection.
“Yeah, I collect pants,” she shyly admits. “They just fit me right. I’m a pants girl. I recently got two new pairs I love: a pair of bright red leather pants—how can you go wrong?—and this pair of bright daisy pants. I look like I was on Laugh In with these things. It’s great.”
Jonatha Brooke. The Zephyr Club, 301 S. West Temple (355-CLUB), Monday April 9, 9:30 p.m.