"I think that this is the most intimate, honest, cohesive set of songs I've ever done," says Jonatha Brooke of Back in the Circus, her third album on her own Bad Dog label. "Maybe I say that every time I make a record, because I love every record I've made, and every one has its own story. But this one really feels special to me."
Since the early 1990s, the vivacious singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has won immense critical acclaim and built a remarkably devoted fan base with a series of beguiling albums showcasing her supple, expressive voice and adventurous, insightful songwriting. Those qualities are particularly impressive on Back in the Circus, on which such haunting, personally-charged tunes as "Back in the Circus," "Everything I Wanted," "Sally," "Sleeping with the Light On" and "Less Than Love Is Nothing (the latter co-written and co-produced by Eric Bazilian of Hooters/Joan Osborne fame) signal the start of a compelling new chapter in Brooke's unique career.
"This is the first time I've consciously tried to make a record that would have a beginning, middle and end," she explains. "I wanted this album to feel like a journey, because that's what making it felt like to me."
The new collection, produced by Brooke, is the much-anticipated follow up to her well-received 2001 release Steady Pull, which achieved a remarkable level of sales success and media exposure without the benefit of major-label support. While her new songs exemplify the same standards of lyrical honesty and melodic craft that have long endeared her to her fans, Back in the Circus also finds Brooke exploring some challenging new sonic territory.
Brooke took a distinctly hands-on approach to the album's birth cycle, using digital technology to layer a variety of instruments and vocal harmonies on her own. This homespun application of state-of-the art gadgetry has yielded a personalized sound that intensifies the emotional resonance to Brooke's literate, reflective storytelling.
"The whole process was the opposite of the way I've made records in the past," Brooke notes. "It was very organic and inspiring for me. Working with Pro Tools and M-Audio I was able to keep the impact of some of the original performances in my demos and use that as the foundation for the actual tracks. And I love the irony of using technology to make things sound more gritty and spontaneous. I had fully intended to again produce the record with Bob Clearmountain, who co-produced Steady Pull with me. But at one point we got together to listen to the “demos” I had been working on. After listening to the tracks Bob looked at me and said, “...wow, sounds like you’re already done to me!” He was right. The songs already had everything they needed, and most importantly I’d created a very particular sound – an evocative landscape - and I didn’t want to do anything to affect that.”
While Back in the Circus' sonic focus is ideally suited to the emotional intensity of Brooke's new compositions, it also provides an exquisite framework for her first-ever attempts at tackling outside material. Bravely applying her interpretive gifts to a pair of larger-than-life pop classics, Brooke emerges with fresh, poignant re-workings of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" and The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." The album also includes a seemingly unlikely but unmistakably expressive reading of the Alan Parsons Project hit "Eye in the Sky."
The blend of craft and commitment that drives Back in the Circus has long been a constant in Jonatha Brooke's work. She started playing guitar and writing songs while in her teens, and began performing with fellow student Jennifer Kimball while both were attending western Massachusetts’ Amherst College. As The Story, the duo became a regionally popular live act, and in 1991 released an acclaimed debut album, Grace In Gravity, on the independent folk label Green Linnet. The album's grass-roots success won The Story a major-label deal with Elektra, which reissued Grace In Gravity and released the pair's 1993 sophomore effort The Angel in the House.
Brooke then launched a consistently compelling solo career, signing with MCA/Blue Thumb for 1995's Plumb and 1997's 10 Cent Wings, which saw her original folk-pop style evolve towards a more expansive, hard-to-pigeonhole sound. After splitting with MCA, she took charge of her career by launching Bad Dog Records for 1999's Jonatha Brooke Live and 2001's Steady Pull. Despite the lack of corporate clout and major-label cash, those indie releases achieved substantial success, significantly expanding Brooke's audience and confirming her firmly held conviction that "there's still a huge audience out there of people who want to hear something that's honest and real."
The experience of financing her own recording and touring efforts, Brooke says, has been exhilarating and educational. "I went into the label thing with my eyes open, and I was prepared to lose my shirt and hope that something positive came of it. It turned out to be a good gamble. We were really aggressive with Steady Pull, and we achieved some amazing things on our own. The single “Linger” was in the top 5 at AAA radio and one of the most played songs of the year.
Back in the Circus' title inspired the album's striking cover design, which features a series of photos in which former dancer Brooke assumes the role of the trapeze artist who's the protagonist of the title tune. The big-top metaphor is a particularly apt one for the life changes that were the impetus for many of Brooke's new compositions. "I got remarried, and I moved cross-country from Malibu to New York," she notes, "and I think that all of those changes are reflected in these songs.”
"The first three songs I demoed for this record were 'Back in the Circus,' 'Sally' and 'Everything I Wanted,' and they kind of became the template for the sound and feel that I wanted to get," Brooke explains. "I had demoed them with these little cheesy Casio loops and some funky samples, and I got really attached to that sound; it felt intimate, and it didn't overwhelm the song or my voice, and that was really inspiring to me. The beauty of making a record using ProTools is that you can screw around and experiment; try out dumb ideas that may or may not work. Being able to do that easily and cheaply opened up a lot of options for me."
"I think I've come to a place in my life where I'm really centered and not concerned with what anybody else thinks," Brooke states. "It feels great to have made a couple of records on my own, and to have achieved a certain level of success with them. I've learned to trust that feeling in the pit of my stomach, and to know what's right for each song. I have amazing fans and I get to do this for a living. That's a gift, and I guess the tone of this record has to do with feeling like I've arrived somewhere as a person, confident and accepting about who I am."
Brooke is planning an ambitious concert presentation for a limited run of dates in a New York off Broadway theatre to launch the record. After that she’ll take as much of that show on the road as she can afford. "I think that 2004 is going to be an exciting year," she concludes. "I'm a little scared, and that's always a good sign."