CD Times meets... Jonatha Brooke

It’s less than 24 hours into Jonatha Brooke’s campaign to conquer the UK and she’s still acclimatising to the cold as we talk in a pub in Balham, where she is to play her first date of a campaign to promote her new record, Back In The Circus, and it’s oddly appropriate. You see, for some reason, Britain has yet to acclimatise to Jonatha, despite recent years having seen sold out dates for contemporaries like Sarah McLachlan, Jewel and Natalie Merchant, and despite her songwriting being easily the equal of any of them. Unfortunately we’ve missed out on her last few releases for practical reasons… “We just couldn’t. We lost our shirt in the States and kinda ran out of steam.”

Her story is becoming a familiar one. After an initial major label album, she has moved on to become her own label. This has been successful in the US, but the UK is new territory, and so she’s paired up with Instant Karma records, to bring a slightly different version of Back In The Circus (a record released last year in the States) to stores in April, which omits the cover versions, and instead is strengthened by a couple of tracks from a previous stateside release, Steady Pull. “The greatest thing is to have a partner. They’re helping with publicity and radio promotion, TV promotion. That’s more than we’ve had since we went independent. Especially in a place like London where you can generate a buzz much quicker than in the States. If you can get things going, you get to see the results quickly.”

She refuses to name a favourite on the album, “I love them all”, but will talk about the idea behind the record. “The idea was generated by this character that I created on my very first record. I wrote a song about this carnie girl, when I had a band called The Story, there’s a song called ‘Damn Everything But The Circus’ which is about a girl who runs away and joins the circus. She’s struggling with her life in the circus. So when I started writing for this album, I decided to give myself an assignment and revisit her character and find out what she was doing ten years later. It’s coming full circle, checking in with the carnie girl and it was a great way to start the writing. It was a theme that I loved revisiting, and that inspired the last song, ‘No Net Below’, I just love the metaphors that the circus gives you, the trapeze and the strongman. I went to trapeze school just to research the character! I thought I was gonna die! There was a net, luckily, it’s a gas, and I recommend trapeze school to anybody. Those songs I’m very attached to because they’re so rich with metaphor.”

She has plans for the future, too, mind - “I’m starting to work on songs for the next record. Hopefully I’ll be able to record over the summer or fall and maybe put out a record next year in the States and bring it over here after that. Maybe finish the DVD if we can make enough money. We had five cameras for two nights. There’s actually a net hanging above the stage and I’m wearing what I wore on the album cover, I’m the ringmaster of my own show. I really went for a vibe, and the songs that I chose for the show really cover my whole career. Intimate and huge. It’ll be a good smattering of everything that I’ve done, especially for people who haven’t ever heard of me. It covers all the territory.”

We discuss the recent Maria Schneider internet-only release winning a Grammy, and I suggest it’s a vindication for independent artists, Jonatha counters that, “It’s great, but it doesn’t mean the artist is making enough money to stay alive. You make more of the net, but you’ve got to pay the band, and pay for the package and the publicist and the radio promotion… it’s tough. We did a live show in New York, we did ten nights at a small theatre in New York which was really dreamy. We filmed the last few nights, and recorded it to multitrack we’re trying to make a live DVD and trying to raise funds for that on my website.”
Jonatha is no stranger to the world of DVD, having been a pioneer of the DVD-Audio format. “We did one for Steady Pull. We did DVD-Audio and video on the other side. When we mixed the record, I produced the record with Bob Clearmountain, and he always does 5.1 mixes when he mixes. He just does it automatically. His control room is set up so he’s got the surround speakers, so he just does it no matter what. We didn’t have to go back in and re-do it.”

Then there’s the other musical revolution - “The nice thing about iTunes is they have their own editorial staff and you can’t pay them off. They choose the content, so they liked me and so I got in. The exciting thing is that if you have a track – I’ve produced a few tracks for film & television that I may not want to put on a record, but I can put them on iTunes and they can become this exclusive, cool thing.”

As a child, Jonatha lived in England, when she was six, for a three year period. “I can’t remember a thing. I remember Frances Holland School for Girls, and SW8. We had this little apartment and I just remember loving it, loving school and that’s where I started taking ballet classes and really got addicted. When we moved back to the States I became a full on dancer. Until the music took over when I was about thirty, I was a straight ahead dancer. It all started in London. I still remember some of my friends. I remember getting back to the States and being miserable. I missed London so much, missed the discipline. We had to curtsey every morning as we came in the door. I remember just being miserable in fourth grade in the States because you could do whatever you wanted. Free study, free reign, you didn’t have to study a language. I studied French when I was six here! I missed that. It was a great time.”

By the end of the second half of this evening’s two part showcase, the buzz has arrived rather quicker than anyone anticipated. Jonatha has mysteriously found herself at the top of the running order, a record number have watched the webcast for the show, a request for an encore has been answered, and the only chills are those down the spines of audience members. On tonight's evidence, the UK is surely hers for the taking.

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Jonatha plays in London at Betsey Trotwood on 23rd February, 12 Bar on the 8th, 15th and 22nd of March, and The Bedford in Balham on March 10th.

Back In The Circus is due for release on Instant Karma records on April 4th.

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