Past and Present: Jonatha Brooke journeys into both with “The Sweetwater Sessions”

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When Jonatha Brooke entered Sweetwater Studios to record her new album, appropriately titled The Sweetwater Sessions, it wasn’t her first time tracking at the facility—her 2016 release, Midnight. Hallelujah., was recorded there—but it was a first for several reasons. One: she made this album as part of the studio’s Master Class Sessions, meaning that tracking took place in front of a group of students who attended a three-day workshop—held November 21-23, 2019—to learn first-hand about the recording process. Two: the new material is, in fact, old material that she re-recorded and rearranged with producer Mark Hornsby. It was a revisiting process filled with emotions and memories, and an exploration that lent itself more to creation rather than actual re-creation of songs from her past.

Brooke is a veteran singer-songwriter with over a dozen albums to her credit. Her professional music career began in the 1980s, while a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, when she partnered with classmate Jennifer Kimball as The Story and began playing in coffeehouses. The pair were signed to an independent label and eventually to Elektra Records. Following their second album, The Angel in the House, Brooke moved on to a solo career, signed with MCA Records, for whom she recorded two records, Plumb and 10 Cent Wings, was dropped from the label, launched her own Bad Dog Records, and has since released albums, toured, and maintained a loyal and growing fan base.

She also expanded her creative palette to include teaching and holding workshops, writing and touring a one-woman play in 2014 called My Mother Has 4 Noses, detailing her relationship with her mother, who suffered from dementia, and licensing her music for film and numerous television series, among them Once and Again, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dollhouse.

Her career has not been without challenges. Like most artists, she feels the effects of streaming services and the pittance they pay, drastic decreases in licensing fees, and now, of course, the complete halt of live performances in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While waiting it out, she performs her Kitchen Covid Concerts every Monday at 2 p.m. CDT on her Facebook page and Instagram, where she also connects closely with her fans.

Jonatha Brooke spoke candidly with Guitar Girl about her new album, the art of songwriting, the recording process, and the state of the industry. 

“. . . I love the vibe of
recording live . . .”

What prompted the idea to make a new record as part of Sweetwater’s Master Class Sessions?

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It was a collaborative, organic idea that happened all at once. We had a meeting with Mark Hornsby. He was in Minneapolis and he came over for breakfast, and we were talking about ideas and lamenting the fact that one of my all-time beloved records, 10 Cent Wings, had, at the time, been disappeared by MCA. You couldn’t stream it or buy it. After many, many calls and emails to various entities at MCA, 10 Cent Wings—for now—seems to be available again. So we were lamenting that because it’s one of Mark’s favorite records, and then we started talking about how maybe it would be fun to re-record it. That expanded into what about not trying to recreate that, but just going back over the catalog and choosing songs that are powerful and meaningful to the fans and to me, combining that with a workshop, and seeing what happens. He knows that I love the vibe of recording live, where it has the energy of being in a room with a bunch of people, playing music, and that’s the take. We both love the immediacy and energy of that kind of recording.

“. . . it’s a world-class studio.”

You recorded Midnight. Hallelujah. at Sweetwater, which is a remarkable recording facility. What made you want to go back?

It’s a pretty amazing place. It has become a destination for people because, number one, it’s a world-class studio. Number two, there are world-class musicians just sort of hanging out while they’re all working at Sweetwater and doing other tasks. So besides having this gorgeous facility, you also have access to these killer players. And, of course, any instrument you want to try, they’ll just go get it from the warehouse.

This album revisits some of your older material. What was it like to re-record those songs?

It revisits older songs that maybe people didn’t have a chance to hear, or that have never been on a live record, or had never been re-recorded, including “I’ll Try,” which I wrote for the Peter Pan movie Return to Never Land. Disney owns that master, so Mark again had this great idea to re-record it so that at least I would own this version. We tried to pick one song per album of mine as a retrospective.

Was it recorded with Sweetwater musicians?

Yes, with Phil Naish on keyboards, Dave Martin on bass, and Nick D’Virgilio playing drums. And I brought my guitar player, Sean Driscoll. I’ve been touring with him for the past five years, and he made up so many tasty parts that he was essential to this project. Sean first came on board with me in 2014 as part of My Mother Has 4 Noses.

How did Mark Hornsby become involved with your music?

Nick D’Virgilio and I toured together in the late 1990s. I would go out on the road as a trio, and Nick was my drummer and bass player. A few summers ago, after I finished my off-Broadway excursions, I went on the road to get back to my real life and see if anyone remembered me from my touring career. And sure enough, they did! I was on the road with Nick, and he said, “My friend Mark is a big fan, and he wants to come out for a few shows.” So Mark came out on the road with Nick for a few West Coast dates and pitched this idea of doing a session at Sweetwater and seeing what happened. That was my first time meeting Mark, and it gelled into a great working relationship. His style is to let things evolve organically, and he’s an amazing engineer. Half the battle of recording is not killing the vibe by trying to get the mic in the perfect position, and rather letting the musicians play and get it while they’re in the zone. Mark is great at that balance.

What was it like to re-record the material with a different producer and with this producer?

No matter who you’re doing it with, it’s always hard because you have the ghosts of what worked and didn’t work originally, or you don’t want it to sound like the original, but you don’t know where to go with it. On one song in particular, “Taste of Danger,” I went a completely different direction, and that was exciting. The point was more to make the songs feel immediate and live and organic and acoustic almost, to just go for it and not embellish, not add overdubs, and stay true to four people in a room making music.

You had three days to record, and while the songs were obviously complete, were they still works in progress as far as new arrangements or was everything demoed and ready to cut?

It was definitely a work in progress and “What if we tried this groove?” or “What if the bass part were busier?” Sean and I did a bit of pre-production. He came over to my house for a couple of days, and we homed in on guitar parts. That was the biggest part of fleshing out different approaches, and different melodic and rhythmic ideas for the guitar, because the thing that changed the most was the electric guitar stuff. We came in with lots of new ideas, and during the recording, you realize what’s too much and what’s going to work. But we really were close on a lot of it.

“I’m in love with my Olson guitar, so there’s not a lot that can top the sound of that for me.”

With so much gear available in the Sweetwater warehouse, what did you bring?

Over the past few years, I’ve been playing the mandolin quite a bit more, so I brought my mandolin, and that was exciting. I’m in love with my Olson guitar, so there’s not a lot that can top the sound of that for me. That’s my main guitar. I, of course, used their gorgeous piano for a couple of songs that I played on. I didn’t try anything crazy. There wasn’t a lot of time for that when you’re recording eleven songs in three days. On the one hand, you’re like, “Oh, I wish I had more time” to try this or that. On the other hand, it’s awesome to just be like, “Let it go. It is what it is.” We did three takes. We’re pros; we’ve been around long enough to know that beating it to a bloody pulp isn’t going to make it sound better. So luckily, we got some really great stuff painlessly.

How long have you played Olsons? What makes them right for you and your music?

I have two cedar-top guitars. They have custom necks because I have very small hands. I have a Guild Jumbo that I love the neck on, and Jim Olson copied that neck. The guitars have a real richness and evenness, especially the one that I use the most. I use a lot of open tunings, so I sent him the strings that I use and the tunings that I would be using the most for that particular guitar. I said, “Can you temper it for these strings and this tuning?” And he did. Whenever it’s in that particular tuning, it sounds like a million bucks. There’s just nothing like it.

What led you to Olson?

David Wilcox told me to buy one. Back in the day, the way-early days, I was touring with Jennifer, and we did a bunch of shows with David Wilcox. We sang background vocals on a couple of his records, and he was playing Olson guitars. He said, “You’re not going to do any better than that. You’ve got to get this guitar,” so Patty Larkin bought one and I bought one. David has such an amazing sound, and he’s such a brilliant guitar player, that we were like, “Whatever Wilcox says.”

Was it immediate as soon as you picked up the instrument? You mentioned the neck size, but what bonded you with the Olson? The relationship with a guitar is so personal for many people.

Number one, it’s a smaller body than my Guild Jumbo. I’m a small person, and the Olson is a little bit smaller but still big enough to really put out a sound. What I get so excited about every time I pick it up is when you tune the low strings down to D or C, which is what I usually do, or E-flat, it just resonates. There’s something about when that guitar is in my tuning that’s like, “Oh, this is home.” And the lows are what really spoke to me.

“We love that song, and you’re a brilliant songwriter!”

What was it like recording a studio album in front of an audience, and what was the audience like?

I think there were twelve or thirteen people and all middle-aged or older dudes. The good part is that you don’t really see them because of the way Sweetwater is set up. They could see us, but the control room is a little bit dark, so they’re kind of hidden away. You’re not necessarily aware that you’re being watched. And also, thank goodness, most of them were fans of mine, so they were just tickled to be a part of it at all. They were so supportive, and the feedback was lovely. At the end of one day, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident about especially my vocals. They were like, “We love that song, and you’re a brilliant songwriter! Don’t worry; you’re going to get it!”

Once again, we’re made aware of the small percentage of women in pro audio.

I know. Maybe they’re not yet in that circle of Sweetwater gear geeks. I think Mark went out of his way to get women into the studio. The two assistant producers were women. They dealt with all of the setup and miking, and they were awesome. But there is a dearth of women doing what we’re doing, and there’s no good reason for it.

Was the audience hands-on in any way?

They got to mix one of the songs on the last day. They took turns comping a vocal of mine and putting together a mix of “Glass Half Empty.”

You’re a prolific writer and could easily have recorded an album of new songs. Instead, you opted for a retrospective. Where does this fall into the timeline, if thinking of each album as a chapter of your life story?

Part of it is that I want to keep moving and making new work. And I didn’t have twelve brand-new songs ready to go. I’ve been working on two new musicals, so most of my creative output and energy have gone into the musical theater songs. It’s almost like all of my collective ideas have gone that direction, and I haven’t really spent any time writing Jonatha songs. So this was a way to move forward and do something new and fresh while also honoring these songs that I think got passed over through the years.

“I have gravitas to my voice, and
I have low notes that I didn’t
have twenty years ago.”

Does it take you back to where you were when you wrote and recorded them the first time? Are you revisiting those emotions, or is it “new experience, new songs” because of different musicians, different setting, and in some cases, different arrangements?

Both. There were moments of feeling all the feelings, good and bad, of what was happening as I recorded these songs the first time. With “Angel In The House,” I had flashbacks and memories of the fraught time between Jennifer and me around that recording of that song, and “Full-Fledged Strangers” was one of the hardest songs I ever recorded.

With “Full-Fledged Strangers,” most of the track that I was singing to was keyboards. A weird thing happens when you’re wearing headphones and trying to center your pitch. Some instruments are much easier to center yourself with, and some are not, and for some reason, the keyboards threw my pitch. I would sound absolutely in tune in the headphones, but when I’d go into the control room, I would be ten cents sharp. As a singer, it’s a psychological minefield anyway, but when you start doubting your sense of pitch … I was crying. It was so crazy. I made Alain Mallet, the producer, come into the vocal booth and put the headphones on, and he confirmed I was absolutely in tune in the headphones. We took all of the keyboards out of my headphones, I sang only to the acoustic guitar and the natural instruments, and all of a sudden I was fine.

So all of those memories came back from recording the songs the first time. But it was also really exciting because they sound so different now. I have gravitas to my voice, and I have low notes that I didn’t have twenty years ago.

You’ve been doing this for a while—a dozen albums, working in theater, holding songwriting workshops. Best and worst changes you’ve seen in the music industry over the years? 

I think the thing that is best and worst at the same time is technology. The Internet and computers and Pro Tools have made creating art so accessible and so amazingly fun and exciting. So, on the one hand, anyone can make music now, which is an awesome entrée into this world. But, on the other hand, everyone is making music, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Hopefully, there are some gatekeepers that are at least allowing the good stuff to rise to the top, but it’s such a glut out there that I feel like that’s one of the drawbacks. There’s just too much stuff, so how will anyone find you? I’m so happy I’m not starting out right now. How would I find my way? How would I find my audience? The major labels are doing their best for 19-year-olds that they can mold, and the indies are struggling to stay alive.

The downside of it all is there are no record sales. That used to be half of my income. I would sell CDs every time I made a new record. That’s gone. And streaming is useless as income, at least for what I would call the middle class of artists. So a lot of my friends are quitting. They’re just like, “I can’t do this. I can’t sustain this.” If you can’t tour, and if you can’t tour solo, you’re screwed. Luckily I still love my job, and I love touring because that’s really my main source of income.

You have also branched into other revenue streams.

Thank goodness. I teach, and someday these musicals are going to make me some money! I’m being facetious!

It’s not quite lucrative at the moment, but I’ve written some beautiful stuff with a couple of other playwrights, and that’s exciting. It’s a very new skill, and I love that I’m being pushed in this new direction that is challenging. I like to get my ass kicked!

There’s also been soundtrack and television work.

Yes. At a certain point, everybody started whoring themselves on the television placements, and then the revenue went down for everybody in that. I lament the day that we didn’t all just form a union and make a path to say, “No one’s going to sell their stuff for less than ‘this,’ or we’re all going to really suffer,” because they’ve got the money. They have the money, but they will nickel and dime you. We used to get ten grand a side for television placements. Now you’re lucky to get five hundred bucks or your name in the credits at the end. What are you going to do about it? I mean, it’s our job, but it is devastating.

“More women at the
helm would be great.”

You’ve discussed the best and worst changes. Which ones are you waiting for or hoping for?

More women at the helm would be great. More women in the studio. I don’t know if there’s any way to remonetize what we do. The cat’s out of the bag, and I’m not savvy enough to figure out a way for us to get paid better for our work. But that’s something I wish we could address. For example, I wrote a song with Katy Perry. I get statements that show a million streams on Pandora or one of those platforms, and I make $4.87, whereas ten years ago, if a million people actually bought that song from iTunes, I would have netted three cents per download—and that’s real money.

I hope there’s some way that there will be some leveling and recognition, but for people who’ve grown up with nothing but streaming and instant access to any song, anytime, on any gadget, how do you explain what happened to us? And how do you find other ways to make a living or modify … how are we going to survive? I just don’t know. I don’t have ten million YouTube followers. It just doesn’t make sense, and it’s not sustainable.

Now, the happy side of this is I look at the access I have to my fans, and it’s great. It’s work; it’s an extra full-time job because you have to be on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and answer as many things as you can. It’s an honor and a responsibility, and it’s a whole other job, but it is a great way to have access to your fans. If you’re smart and savvy, you can probably get more people to know about you and come out to shows.ut you’ve always got to be nimble because things are changing every day, and you have to figure out the next thing that comes, the next app, you’ve got to do Instagram stories now, and you have to do Facebook Live. But it’s OK; I’m going to keep trying. And the fans love it, so there’s that. You have this amazing connectivity now, for better or for worse, and for the most part, it’s actually a great thing.

Producer Mark Hornsby on recording Jonatha Brooke

“Anytime you have an artist and you have the public — fans, customers, or whatever the situation is — artists are either extroverted and organically blend well with people, or artists can be very introverted and just do not do well at all when it comes interfacing with the public.

Jonatha is certainly in that first camp. She lights up the room when she walks in. She’s a delight to be around. She can talk to anybody. She’s very down to earth. There are no false pretenses with Jonatha, and she’s not a diva.

As an established artist who’s been doing this for over 30 years, she knows what she’s doing. She plays in odd guitar tunings, she makes up some of those tunings, and she’s articulate at communicating and talking about that in terms of how she hears chords and how she hears harmony. She likes dissonance, but she doesn’t do it just for the sake of being different or unique. She’s got musical goals in-between all those modes. She’s creating a sonic landscape of what she’s doing on the guitar and what she does with a lot of her background vocals.

Because she’s a cool person to hang out with, and the fact that she’s very knowledgeable about what she’s doing musically, how she’s executing that as an artist and a songwriter and what her process is, that makes her a natural fit to put her in a room full of people that are seeking knowledge.

The technical part of recording really becomes second nature to me. I’m always paying attention to it, but that’s probably the one part of my job that I think about the least, because I hear something and immediately go, ‘Oh, it’s this, X, Y, Z, boom, boom, boom,’ and I’m off to the next thing. I don’t have to focus on that.

Every artist is different, but as it pertains to Jonatha, I’m not worried. Jonatha knows what she wants and she delivers 110 percent. She also will beat herself up faster than anybody because she has a very high bar of excellence that she holds herself to, not only in performance, but in songwriting and everything she does. Most importantly with that, when she’s not sure, she asks. She says, ‘What do you think about this?’ If three people automatically say, ‘That’s good,’ she’s like, ‘OK, great.’ If three people say, ‘Ehhh …,’ she’s like, ‘All right, let’s kill it.’ She doesn’t waste time in the minutia, and that is awesome to have when you’re working with someone. She’s very easy to work with, she knows what she wants, and you have to respect that.

The biggest job for me is dealing with everything around her and how’s it all fitting together. That’s not only from a recording and musical point of view; that’s from a coordination point of view, like an executive producer: Who else is playing on this record? What overdubs are we going to do later? We’re all in the room right now. What do we need to worry about right now? What are we going to worry about later? What’s coming down the road? What schedule are we on?

The rest of it is preserving what she’s bringing to the table, because first and foremost, she is the artist. Her name is on the record. It’s her record. And being very careful and couth about what are we wrapping around her to paint this picture that is interesting, that helps tell the story, but is not distracting from her.”

Photos provided by management.

 

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