Jon Brooks’ new album is modeled after an Elizabethan corona of sonnets
No One Travels Alone, Jon Brooks’ new disk, his sixth, has arrived. Knocking on his own guitar, he has let himself in. The space within is airy and ruminative. It is full of examinations of the reality of reality, and of the meaning of meaning. It’s an ethical travelogue, an essay on transience, and a cycle of linked lyrics, in the classical Elizabethan corona format, with the last line in each tune predicting the first line of the next. And it is full of words – abundant and luxurious words. It contains ragas, raps, astral projections, lists, hymns, histories, laments, and a few folk songs.
No matter what nominative category you wish to award him, Brooks will evade the category of “folk singer,” even though he is cut and sewn from troubadour-grade denim. As in all good folk tunes, there are good melodies here, populist perspectives and rich acoustic underpinnings. However, the music is often couched in drone and tangled in deep reverb, tapping some veins of blue crystal that Tim Buckley or Fred Neil might have once explored. Ed Hanley’s tabla flutters, John Showman’s fiddle enunciates overtones of hope and dread, and Jon’s long-time guitar spar and fellow King City native Neil Cruikshank slides in and out of the songs’ transitive wormholes, while Jon himself takes on piano, organ and a banjitar. It has all been expertly baked and boxed “in an old dancehall somewhere in Hamilton” by producer/bassist Alec Fraser and delivered carefully by the mastering magic of Peter J. Moore.
Many experiential contributions have guided him to explore these wilder states of sound. A stay in Key West, Florida provided germination time for his palette to coalesce, culminating in a state of meditation with a focused purpose: “the re-establishment of the truth.” A tragically painful five-month convalescent period as the result of an epileptic seizure followed. During this time, the songs were re-repurposed to an intent not so much insurrectional as instructional. Story and imagery fell away to a great extent. Subtle shifts of attitude ensued. Rising to the demands of our often disconsolate era, the classic rasp of his voice has been modified into a more conciliatory and a more warmly whispery tone than on his last outing, the terrifyingly ironic The Smiling and Beautiful Countryside. Change is in the air, and Jon continues to progress in his concept of song. He let loose on his goals and motivations in a recent interview on Radio Regent.
Corby: Quite a splendid record. I listened through it a lot.
JB: Thank you sir.
Corby: The point they make in the promotions is that it is a Corona.
JB: Yes. It’s based on an old Elizabethan sonnet form, uh, it first I think appeared in the poetry of George Gascoigne, an English poet, but it was popularized, about half a century later by John Donne in his series of sonnets called The Corona Sonnets.
In the Corona, Spanish for crown, the idea is to link every song by last lines and first lines so the last line of the first song becomes the first line of the second song and the last line of the second becomes the first line of the third until you get to the very end of the album, and the last line of the album becomes the first line of the album, completing the crown, or some call it a ring of songs, a circle.
The theme of the album concerns our essential interconnectedness, and the neat thing is that the format of the songs themselves reflect the theme. I don’t, I can’t think of an example of this being done with songs before. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t been tried or done, but I’ve never been able to find an example.
Corby: So “The WOW Signal” starts with “most things don’t work out,” and the song I played last week entitled “Most Things Don’t Work Out” ends with that and backwards and forwards, and it’s sorta’ like one big song!
JB: Well, this is an interesting thing to ponder. I think it was Dylan said that song-writers are all working on one song, and I’ve always looked at everything I’ve done as one big song. In this particular case, it’s a bit more obvious, but in every CD that I’ve released there are thematic links, and sometimes the songs even share characters, and they talk to each other.
This album actually has a song that talks to a song from 2007. On the war stories album, there’s a song called “The Latest Great Embarrassment,” which is about the U.N.’s failure to act in Bosnia, and there’s a song on this album called “The Later Greater Embarrassment.”
So, I love … I always see the business of songwriting as really just one giant song. They all, each individual song, kind of fills a different chapter, need, colour.
Corby: Yeah now on this album in particular, maybe you can correct me on this if I’m wrong, but it seems to be more a lot of first person plural going on in an attempt to sort of bring people into some sort of consensus.
JB: Absolutely, for sure. I was conscious about that. One thing that’s a change in this album is that, with the exception of maybe a song called “Gulfport Mississippi,” there’s no linear first person ballads, there’s no kind of overt linear storytelling.
Corby: Well, everything on here sort of stands up on its own as a different way of looking at things, and you start off with a digital sort of consciousness … and then you did get into some lists; you go all Walt Whitman on us
JB: I love the list songs, and why not cite Dylan again? That’s his favourite song style, apparently. I mean, our favourites of course change too with time, like the river I step in is not the river I stand in, and I mean we are always free to change our minds and have our tastes alter over the course of a career, but I love the list song, and I love performing the list song because I see how compelling it is to an audience. After maybe one or two or three verses you can see them leaning in.
Corby: Yup and actually you have two list songs…
JB: “Todos Caminamos Por Este Caminito” and “Proxima B,” though I always think in “Proxima B” there’s a little bit more going on there but I’m not going to argue about calling that a list song. And it’s unfortunate that they are back to back but such is the nature of recording.
Corby: Yes but it’s sort of fortunate too because it gets you into a continuum that …
JB: Yeah that’s true too, and why not? They are dramatically different sonically.
But that was the challenge of this album, and it took a long time to figure out. It was almost more mathematical than anything else. Ten songs was the aim. It turned out that there were eleven, but how do you get that many songs together linked by last and first lines without being repetitive?
Corby: And still holding on to the inspiration…
JB: Also the other strange thing about this one is, it also had to be really constructed for the live performance, which isn’t something we typically worry about a whole lot with albums. You can put them wherever you want, generally, you know? But on this one, there are a few sequences where they really work well live, and for that to happen you have to be conscious of it. Otherwise, you get too many songs in a row that are, you know, mid-tempo, and that doesn’t work. I don’t care about keys too much. I think that’s an overrated thing for people to be afraid of. Keys don’t bother me. It’s all about the groove and the mood of the song – that’s what’s important to change if you’re gonna play a bunch consecutively. As long as the ideas develop as it moves along.
And that’s by design too. I mean, the age always has an effect on the arts that come from within that age, and we’re no longer in that age where songs are needed as pure reportage the way we did when Woody was out there telling everybody about the union busters or whatever, you know? We’ve got 24/7 news ad nauseum, we’ve got Wikipedia and the internet doing a good enough job at telling us the informational data of the age, and now as songwriters in the 21st century, I think we’re free to leave that linear style behind and investigate other ways of telling a story…
Corby: …take a larger perspective on the issues…
Corby: It’s difficult to see the dark side of things side by side with the wondrous possibilities.
JB: It’s rough stuff, and it’s not to be taken lightly or dismissed. We have every reason to be afraid of a lot of things going on right now, but I don’t believe it’s the worst that things have ever been.
And the question – to whom may we appeal for the re-establishment of the truth – is certainly a relevant one that seems bizarre to even ask. But I do believe that there is such a thing as truth, and I am hopeful for its future, actually.
I just got back from touring the States, and I remember the album before this, when I was distracting myself with murder ballads, one of the songs I did was a song about the gun problem in the States called “Gun Dealer.” It was another list song (chuckles). I can only sing that song using the classic unreliable narrator. There’s no point in writing a song telling people that guns are bad, don’t kill each other. So, I just took it from the point of view as a guy who sells guns.
It was written because I was asked to do a song inspired by Sandy Hook. Anyway, the point I’m taking forever at making here is that unlike Sandy Hook, the school shootings that happened recently down there, whereas two, three, four years ago the adults would go quickly onto their devices and say good things on Facebook and re-tweet things. Unlike those days – today the kids hit the streets, and that’s a hopeful thing.
So yeah, this is – I’ve made every conscious effort to make this a hopeful album. Even the song “Most Things Don’t Work Out,” I mean, no they don’t, but if they did, we’d never have met each other.
And you know, I’m being a bit playful there too. There’s another thing I really try to do is, and it’s not for everybody, I understand that, but it’s for my 138 super fans in the GTA, and that’s the idea that there’s humour in these songs too if you listen close enough. Even things as subtle as hyper-enunciating.
Corby: You’re a dark comic.
JB: I think so. I think that the humourist is an underrated writer.
I mean, what use is anything without humour? Humour is the greatest relational tactic we have. That’s what connects us, and somebody once said, try to think of any great work of art, and I guarantee you it won’t be devoid of humour.
Corby: …and Cohen.
JB: Cohen, Cave, Cash and the Clash. Those are ones, those are the C’s that I always cite as influences, and in each and every one of those, there’s examples of humour in a lot of what they do, particularly with Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.
JB: Hilarity! And yet…
Corby: They are laughing so much at the things we want to take seriously.
JB: Exactly. What are you supposed to do on stage? Make everyone want to shoot themselves? No! I want them to laugh. You know what? I wish more people would dance. Unfortunately, I’ve got that awful folk tag going on, and it’s hard to get a folk audience to move.
Corby: Well you’ve got the opportunity down at the Cameron in October. (Brooks will be at the Cameron House in Toronto from 6:00 ‘til 8:00 p.m. every Monday in October for a concert series entitled Sad Mondays.)
JB: Someone told me once the only way to combat your critics or to be successful is to hang your hat on what the worst thing anybody said about you was. And when I first started out, it was a CD called War Stories, which I mentioned earlier. I don’t think the songs were particularly sad. I don’t understand that response, to be quite honest. It’s a common modern response to songs that make you think, unfortunately. People think they are sad. Well, guess what? There will be a tinge of sadness. BUT! Think about your favourite songs, dear listeners. They are gonna be tinged with some sort of sadness. Otherwise, why would you write a song? Anyway …
Nothing that I do is sad, I don’t believe.