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An Ode to Independence

Who needs a major label? Not Jonatha Brooke, as her latest albums prove.

March 29, 2001|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke's music-biz story is an all-too-familiar tale of woe these days. Four years ago, while she was in the middle of a tour supporting her major-label solo debut, "10 Wings," MCA Records informed her that it wasn't planning to renew her contract.

"In a way I'm lucky, because they just let me go," says Brooke, 37, citing the struggles Aimee Mann and other acts endured while extricating themselves from frustrating record-company relationships.

Still, Brooke, who performs at the Coach House tonight and the El Rey Theatre on Friday, was at first hurt and confused. "It's so crazy," she says. "One second you're a princess on the throne, and the next week no one will return your phone calls."

The Boston native, who has lived in Malibu since 1997, ultimately decided to continue with her own label, Bad Dog Records. In 1999 she released "Jonatha Brooke Live" and in February she put out a studio album, "Steady Pull."

Brooke is so cheerful and friendly in person that it's hard to believe her reputation was built on a catalog of introspective, sometimes bleak Joni Mitchell-esque compositions amassed as both a solo act and a member of '90s folk-pop duo the Story.

Although she's clearly a resilient and resourceful person, her move toward independence also was bolstered by the fan enthusiasm she encountered while completing the last month of that tour.

"It was actually great, because I realized nothing had changed in my world," she says. "I still had all these sold-out theater shows and this amazing audience. They didn't [care] whether I had a label or not."

Releasing "Live" allowed her to gain perspective before recording new material. "I wanted time to look on the brighter side, so I wouldn't make really bitter, angry songs," she says, laughing.

It worked. The songs on "Steady Pull" reflect the relief and optimism of a person who has put professional setbacks and some ensuing personal travails behind her.

"There are still plenty of dark corners on this record, but I wanted to push boundaries," she says. Though intimate, her songs weren't usually directly about herself. On "Steady Pull," however, she risked opening up more.

"[It's] the closest to home I've ever dared to go," she says. "Especially the falling-in-love songs, like 'How Deep Is Your Love?' and 'New Dress,' " which she says convey a newfound romantic bliss.

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She wanted to lighten up the recording process as well. Working with her band and her co-producer, veteran engineer-mixer Bob Clearmountain, she crafted a more spontaneous guitar-oriented sound and carefully blended gentle hip-hop beats and soul influences into her folk-flavored mix.

"It was very free, and way more fun," she says. "I wanted that visceral sense of a performance, not just a polished, squared-off, perfected studio thing."

Despite her experience, Brooke isn't completely soured on major labels. "They're still signing interesting artists," she says, citing such examples as singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado. Still, she is realistic about her opportunities in today's youth-crazed climate.

"A lot of [label] people we sent this record to were like, 'Well, how old is she?' And my manager, Patrick Rains, would ask, 'Did you listen to it?' And they'd say, 'No, but how old is she?' " Brooke says, laughing.

"So it was like, 'OK, we don't need to bother here.' "

She believes "Steady Pull" has fared better than it would have with a big company, largely because she and Rains spent months mapping out a marketing strategy akin to a major label's. They courted appropriate radio and retail outlets, promoted her Web site (http://www.jonathabrooke.com), set up a three-month tour and recorded video footage for every song, to be included on an upcoming DVD version of the album.

Again, however, she was most heartened by a more personal connection, when "Steady Pull" won over her 15-year-old niece.

"For years she was like, 'Would you just write some happy songs?' " Brooke says, chuckling. "After I sent this record to my brother, she called me. It was blasting in the background, and she said, 'You did it, man! It's not depressing!' "

Smiling broadly, Brooke says, "A lot of people out there, including the 19-year-olds, want to hear substantial music. And I'm gonna give it to them."

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* Jonatha Brooke, tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $18.50. (949) 496-8927. Also Friday at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., 7 p.m. $20 in advance, $22 at door. (323) 936-4790.

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