Brooke savors life as an independent artist in 'Circus'

She's coming to Rams Head with 'Back in the Circus'

Music: in concert, CDs

March 18, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

The sista is doing it for herself.

As Jonatha Brooke discusses her new album, Back in the Circus, and its promotional tour, she sits in her New York City apartment, stuffing envelopes with autographed CDs.

"I'm surrounded by foam mail packaging," the independent folk-pop artist says on the phone. "I personally sign the Web site orders I get."

That's a lot of scribbling. Her last CD, Steady Pull, was a success on her Bad Dog label, moving 80,000 units without the push of a major label. Not bad at all for a company operating out of Brooke's living room. For the past five years, she has been on her own -- writing, recording, arranging, producing, promoting her music. The singer-songwriter will play Rams Head Tavern Wednesday night.

"I don't have any bitterness toward major labels," says Brooke, 39. "I've gained a sense of possibility and strength, doing something with little money and seeing it turn out beautifully. As hard as it was to figure out how to pay for everything, it was great when it all worked out."

Her last major-label album was 10 Cent Wings, released by MCA in 1997. The next year, the company dropped her. Brooke, who was in the middle of a tour when she got the news, was devastated. But the artist soon realized that her situation wasn't as bad as it seemed. There was still music to make, and she had amassed a decent following. So Brooke formed her own label in '99 and, in the same year, put out the critically lauded Jonatha Brooke Live, which sold more copies via mail order (about 90,000 units) than 10 Cent Wings sold in stores. The Boston native recently signed a distribution deal with Verve, and Back in the Circus is the first release under the new agreement; it's also her first album in three years. In her time away from the studio, Brooke has been settling into married life and the busy pace of New York. For six years, she was based in Malibu, Calif. "It just seemed like it was time to move," Brooke says with a sigh. "It was so isolated and comfortable in Malibu. I wanted to be back in the thick of things here in New York. I wanted to get my [butt] kicked."

The personal changes inform the sparkling vocals and progressive arrangements on Back in the Circus. Hybrid electronic programming bubbles under accordions and acoustic guitars. Brooke's signature folk sound floats in a bright pool of jazzy chords, sophisticated rhythms and insightful lyrics. As usual, the artist's vocals are pleasant and breezy -- never overselling a song. Highlights include the haunting "Sleeping With the Light On" and the crystalline title track.

"I love this new record," Brooke says. "I feel like I've done a good thing. It's really intimate. It feels like a unit, a sit-down-and-listen kind of thing. It feels like a piece of where I am right now."

The artist began her recording career as part of the folk duo The Story. She and college buddy Jennifer Kimball released their debut, Grace in Gravity, on the independent Green Linnet label in 1991. The success of the album caught the attention of Elektra Records, which put out the act's well-received sophomore effort, 1993's The Angel in the House. Two years later, Brooke launched her solo career with Plumb.

Since taking the independent route, the singer-guitarist's work has strengthened significantly. The gloss of 10 Cent Wings has been stripped away on subsequent releases, revealing thoughtfully organic arrangements and compelling lyrics. Plus, Brooke has become more musically adventurous, shining throughout Back in the Circus.

"The title is a metaphor about life, I guess," she says. "You just jump out on that trapeze and you're biding your time. But at some point, you got to let go, and there may be a net below and maybe not. It's about finding your way in a place that doesn't guarantee a safety net."

It's about making a way for yourself.

Jonatha Brooke plays Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, Wednesday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35. For more information, visit www.ramshead tavern.com.

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