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Do-It-Yourself Career

Setbacks Can't Stop Singer Jonatha Brooke From Reaching Her Fans

April 21, 1999|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Dylan's maxim "To live outside the law you must be honest" speaks loudly to the plight of the musician hoping to succeed with creative voice intact, especially given the sell-or-perish demands of the leaner, meaner record industry.

Jonatha Brooke's recent career might be taken as an addendum to Dylan's rule: to live outside the industry, you must be industrious.

Brooke, 35, is part of the cutting-edge world of do-it-yourself record companies experimenting with the Internet as a way to reach out and touch a fan base. But not by choice.

The singer-songwriter, who plays Saturday at the Coach House, had connected with fans since 1991 via traditional means--four albums on major labels.

She had won critical acclaim for subtle, restless melodies that harked back to Joni Mitchell's "Hejira" period, when Mitchell made it clear she was no longer interested in the addictive folk-pop sweets that had made her a big star.

Brooke's lyrics offer insightful but fragmentary looks into the gummed-up inner workings of relationships dogged by psychological wounds, dishonesty and blunted desire.

With the good reviews came a degree of success, and Brooke's 1997 album, "10 Wings," was a lavishly produced, and melodically simpler and more accessible release that looked like a bid for a Sarah McLachlan-like breakthrough.

But instead of cruising smoothly ahead, Brooke's life grew complicated. Her marriage to Alain Mallet, who had produced three of her records, came apart. She uprooted herself from Boston, where she had grown up, and moved to Los Angeles, looking for fresh inspiration and figuring she could benefit from closer proximity to her record company. Then her label, MCA, dumped her as "10 Wings" failed to sell.

Brooke, who chats and laughs easily, chuckled when asked how she kept her balance as all that change was thrown at her about a year and a half ago.

"Yoga," she said. "I think I survived because I was focused at least for that hour-and-a-half a day on something else" than her personal and career turmoil. "Life goes on, and it turned out to be a chance to make something positive out of [setbacks]."

In fact, Brooke said, she realized that, when it came to the essentials of making music and being heard, "Nothing had really changed. My fans were still there, I was selling out shows, performing and writing and doing what I love, and no label can affect that."

Brooke recorded some gigs and last year put out "Jonatha Brooke Live" on her own label, Bad Dog Records. At first, as she sold it only via the Internet, it was truly do-it-yourself. Brooke reckons that she packaged and mailed about 2,500 copies, autographing them for a personal touch.

She has since branched out with more traditional means, setting up a distribution deal with an established independent label, Koch International. Brooke said that sales, now totaling about 27,000, have taken off since the album reached record stores in mid-February.

"I don't think the Internet is something you can do exclusively, but it's a good way to test the waters," she said. And for artists just starting out, the do-it-yourself approach probably wouldn't click as readily as it did for her, with her existing fan base.

Business Intrudes on Creative Time

Unlike a lot of do-it-yourselfers, Brooke is able to tour with a four-member backing band, including Ingrid Graudins, who plays keyboards and provides the airy harmony vocals that have been a signature of Brooke's work since she debuted in 1991 with Story, a folk-pop duo. As songwriter and lead singer, she played Paul Simon to sidekick Jennifer Kimball's Art Garfunkel.

But the workload that comes with living outside the industry is omnipresent.

"I have a good business head, but I resent it half the time because it clouds my creative head," Brooke said. "I tend to take care of business before I will shut off everything and sit down at the keyboard or guitar and work [on songs]. Invariably, the business day will snowball into a whole day, instead of just three phone calls. I know now I have to build [time] in" to do music.

Brooke is used to juggling competing demands. Her first artistic passion was dance, which she studied from the age of 6. She and Kimball started Story during their student days at Amherst College. As the duo emerged on the Northeastern music scene, Brooke clung to her dancing, performing in a swing revue and with a modern-dance troupe.

When Story began to tour extensively, she had to give up dancing. "It was rough, like going cold turkey with some addiction."

Brooke says that onstage she doesn't go in for any Paula Cole-type frenzied stomping. She trots out her old modern dance moves only to inject some tongue-in-cheek fun.

But there is a more serious carry-over between her two arts: "I think of the voice as a kind of body that I will choreograph. My melodies tend to be a little more flexible than a nondancer's."

Brooke's musical flexibility allows her to touch on such sources as Mitchell, the Roches (for airy harmonies), early Suzanne Vega (for chilly soundscapes) and, in a surprisingly earthy about-face, on Bonnie Raitt-style R&B.

'Leave the Mystery' in Song Lyrics

Most of her work isn't easily digested, but her voice carries a breathy urgency as she sings about characters trapped in fear and isolation ("Annie"), of her own knotted relationship with her writer-poet mother ("Blood From a Stone") and of a woman's loss of self as she puts husband and family first ("Amelia"). On repeated listening, appealing melodic refrains begin to stick in the mind.

"I like for there to be sort of unexplainable ellipses in the lyrics, and in the music as well," Brooke said. "I like to get at the underbelly of things, but to some extent leave the mystery intact."

* Jonatha Brooke and Big Dumb Love play Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15-$17. (949) 496-8930.

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