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Aimsel Ponti

Aimsel Ponti is a Content Producer at MaineToday.com and a music writer for MaineToday.com and the Portland Press Herald. She has been obsessed with - and inspired by - music since she listened to Monkees records borrowed from the town library when she was six years old. She bought her first Rolling Stones record at a flea market when she was in 7th grade and discovered David Bowie a year later. She's a HUGE fan of the local music scene and covers it along with national musical happenings in her "Face the Music" column and with artist interviews that appear in print in the Portland Press Herald and online at Mainetoday.com. You'll also find her out and about absorbing live music like a sponge and roaming around local record shops and flea markets. Aimsel is also the host of Music from 207 on 98.9 WCLZ and appears monthly on the WCHS TV show “207” to talk about...music of course.

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Posted: September 18, 2017

Jonatha Brooke is bringing her heart-rending and political tunes to Ogunquit

Written by: Aimsel Ponti
Photo by Linda Hansen

Photo by Linda Hansen

I hope to never get trapped in an elevator with anyone but should it happen and should we start talking about favorite singer-songwriters to pass the time before rescue, it’s going to take me about nine seconds to work Jonatha Brooke into the conversation.

Her music has been as constant to me as Joni Mitchell’s northern star, and it dates back to when her band, The Story, released its debut album “Grace in Gravity” back in 1991. This was followed by “The Angel in the House” in 1993 and then The Story shifted into a solo thing for Brooke, and I’ve been hanging on every word ever since.

The reasons why Brooke has held my attention for so long are fairly simple: She writes incredibly moving songs and sings them with a voice that both breaks my heart and lifts my spirits. I’ve compared her to Judy Garland before, not because they sound alike, because they don’t, but because both vocalists have this thing that can’t really be identified. John Gorka comes close in his song about Garland called “Heart Upon Demand” with the lines “Judy has that catch in her voice, that puts your heart into her hands.” And he’s right. And the same can be said for Jonatha Brooke. Add to this the level of songwriting that Brooke has mastered over the years and you will come to understand why I’m an absolute uber fan and why you should consider catching her Ogunquit show on Saturday night. On 1995’s “Plumb,” there’s “Inconsolable” and “West Point.” On “Ten Cent Wings,” there’s “Annie” and “Because I Told You So.” On “Steady Pull,” there’s “Digging” and the list continues.

Then in 2013, Brooke wrote a one-woman show called “My Mother Has 4 Noses.” It’s a musical about Brooke’s 2010 move to New York City to care for her mother who was in the mid stages of Alzheimer’s. The show and accompanying album is an exquisite love story between a mother and a daughter and also a devastating look at how merciless Alzheimer’s is. In 2015, I went to New York to see the performance, and like everyone else at The Duke on 42nd Street, I walked out of there drying my eyes but a better person for it. I dare you to listen to the songs “My Misery,”  “Are You Getting This Down” and especially “Time.”

Here’s “Time” from “My Mother Has 4 Noses”

Last October, Brooke released the album “Midnight.Hallelujah.” Along with exploring the anatomy of the human heart on tracks like “Light Years,” “You and I” “Too Much Happiness” and “Nothing Hurts Like Love Hurts,” Brooke has ventured into the most political waters of her career. She comes out swinging with the album opener “Put the Gun Down” and said during our telephone conversation from her home in Minneapolis that she hopes to make some kind of impact. “I try to talk about smaller stories inside the bigger story, and so If I can sing ‘Put the Gun Down’ and catch the ear of the NRA right-winger who happens to be in the audience because someone dragged him there, all the better, because it’s a smaller piece of the picture and maybe it’s sympathetic and maybe there’s some kind of conversation because I feel like we’re just shouting at each other and no one’s really wanting to listen.” Brooke said that it’s her responsibility as a musician to at least get at stories that could break through and start other conversations that might be productive.

358998 album cover

Brooke also tackles religion and faith on the track “Mean Looking Jesus,” which she said was inspired by a photograph she saw by Robert Polidori of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. That image is in fact the “Midnight.Hallelujah.” album cover. “Mean Looking Jesus” was kind of a post-Katrina ran,t and it’s my personal rant against religion and that’s my own problem, but it was inspired by this really nasty looking Jesus on the wall of one of the completely devastated shotgun shacks after Katrina and thinking ‘Oh my god, where were you?’ ”

“Hashtag Lullaby” was written after Brooke read Los Angeles journalist Jill Leovy’s book “Ghettocide” about her 10-year journey following police around Compton. One of the officers said to Leovy, “Everybody was somebody’s baby,” and that line is in the refrain of Brooke’s song.

Take a listen to “Hashtag Lullaby”

Another track on “Midnight.Hallelujah.” that Brooke talked about was “I’ve Got Nothing” with the lines “Nothing is as nothing does/I can’t remember who I was/I used to be so kind and tender/Now I’m on a nothing nowhere bender.” Brooke said the song feels apropos of what’s happening in the world. “I feel this anxious despair of where we are. There’s such despair, and, of course, I’m going to get involved and send the letters and vote and all that, but it just feels so desperate and scary right now. Then the song also speaks to that sense of how I’ve become more selfish and more tired. I don’t have anything leftover to help people that are right around me that might need more attention, that might need a helping hand. I’m just so out of gas.”

As for the album’s gorgeous title track, Brooke looks no further than her mother. “I had the song percolating for a bit, and then when I finished it, it took on a very different kind of cast because my mom had passed on and I had dealt with a lot. Anyone who knows caregiving knows that it can be really harrowing. It can be awesome because it’s its own love story, and you learn to love someone in a totally selfless, unconditional way that you didn’t know you had in you, but there are some really, really dark moments. And for me the dark moments came around religion and the failure for me and for her. It kind of abandoned her in the darkest hours and what remained was music and love and the good smelling lotion and singing ‘How much is that doggie in the window?’ So that’s where the dark side of the midnight came in, and the hallelujah took on this more religious kind of fervor, so it all kind of merged into this somewhat questioning, somewhat angry, hopefully sexy song and record.”

Here’s “Midnight.Hallelujah.”

Before we hung up, I flung a question to her out of left field about what her thoughts are on Taylor Swift because there’s been so much negative press about Swift and her new material these past few weeks. Although Brooke hasn’t listened to the new Swift tunes, she’s actually a big fan and was quick to jump to her defense. “Give her a break because she’s doing a lot of really amazing stuff, and she’s standing up for a lot of things that she’s got the platform to stand up for that the rest of us don’t, so God bless her. Especially for that groping trial, I really respect her for that ,and I respect her for most often doing the right thing and trying to do the right thing, and if she screws up her message, look a little deeper and see if there’s a great motive behind it.”

Jonatha Brooke will have guitarist Sean Driscoll with her along with singer Jo Lawry. Lawry’s got a lovely voice and has been singing with Sting for several years. You can expect some “Midnight.Hallelujah.” songs, as well as several from Brooke’s catalog. Having seen her probably a dozen times since the early ’90s I can tell you that Brooke is always charming, always a compelling performer and always puts our hearts right into her hands. You can trust me on this.

Jonatha Brooke

8 p.m. Saturday. Jonathan’s, 92 Bourne Lane, Ogunquit, $32.50. jonathansogunquit.com

 

 

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