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Circus stories
The ongoing tale of Jonatha Brooke

Jonatha Brooke’s vocal precision and crafty songwriting have been a matter of record since the release of Grace in Gravity (Elektra), her debut as one-half of the folk-pop duo the Story with Jennifer Kimball. Despite critical acclaim and a voracious fan base, however, she’s had a bumpy ride. After the Story’s sophomore release, The Angel in the House (Elektra), a CD that moved more than 100,000 copies, Brooke embarked on her solo career, turning out two solid efforts for MCA that didn’t enjoy much commercial success, 1995’s Plumb and 1997’s Ten Cent Wings. Three months into promoting Wings, MCA dropped Brooke after she declined to renegotiate the label’s financial commitment.

And so begins the tale of Bad Dog Records, the label she started for herself. The 1999 release of Live generated a buzz; 2001’s musically ambitious and funky Steady Pull generated enough AAA airplay to sell 80,000 copies. Now Brooke has signed a distribution deal for Bad Dog with the mostly jazz label Verve, and that’s given her access to a broader audience for her new Back in the Circus, which finds her challenging herself and her audience as she continues to move away from the folk-pop conventions of the Story. "It’s like that feeling of wondering what’s under the tree on Christmas Eve," she says over the phone from New York. "You want to look, but then again, you almost don’t want to know."

"Back in the Circus" revisits a character from an older composition, "Damn Everything But the Circus," which had been inspired by a dance piece from Brooke’s theater-oriented college days. The images she conjures in her reference to the "small-town big top" are appropriate given her recent relocation from the Boston area to Manhattan. She describes the protagonist’s return as "a weird musing brought on by a particularly strong cup of coffee. By checking in with her, I also get to check in with me. She’s a little world weary, but there’s irony and humor in the piece too. What can I say . . . I love heartbreaking beauty."

For Back in the Circus, Brooke had every intention of once again collaborating with producer Bob Clearmountain. But when he arrived, he told her he thought the album was already finished. "I started out trying to get a vibe with Pro-Tools, to create a texturally and sonically intimate ambiance. Working that way, I have the luxury of being spontaneous. I can try things quickly, as opposed to having to try each idea with a band, which is a much more painstaking and costly process. I love being able to cut and paste with technology, and I also adore the irony of using state-of-the-art gadgets to make a grittier-sounding record."

Although some of the album’s numbers are a bit dense — the title track, for example, has a slightly off-key calliope sound running through it that’s juxtaposed against a brushed snare and keyboard riff — the overall feel is earthier than that of Steady Pull. This is also the first time Brooke has covered other artists’ material on CD: she does the Beach Boys’ "God Only Knows," the Alan Parsons Project’s "Eye in the Sky," and James Taylor’s "Fire and Rain." "None of that was planned," she admits, "but I ended up really enjoying the way we reapproached those songs. I’ve never been much for the Beach Boys; it was my husband [producer/keyboardist Alain Mallet] who called my attention to how beautiful a song ‘God Only Knows’ really is. He also suggested ‘Eye in the Sky,’ which I played in Germany last summer while opening for the Hooters. ‘Fire and Rain’ was my guitarist Geoffrey Moore’s idea."

Brooke also collaborated with Eric Bazilian of the Hooters on "Less Than Love Is Nothing," which features a frenzied, David Gray–style drum pattern underscoring her urgent vocals. Her voice is so high in the mix, it sounds as if she were belting it out right next to you.

As for whether the Verve deal will bring that voice to a larger audience, she acknowledges, "I’ve been around long enough to know that nothing about what I do is easy, comfortable, or certain. But I’d love to be able to breathe easier about money someday. The major labels have become so age-ist, when the reality of the situation is that artists in their 30s are making music that’s very real and interesting. But I think audiences are starting to demand more substance in their music. I truly believe that we are the product of our own limitations."

Issue Date: May 14 - 20, 2004
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