A few years ago, acclaimed singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke had to
put her career and life on hold when her mother was afflicted with
Alzheimer's and dementia. For two years, Brooke, her husband
and a cousin took on the full-time positions of caretaker and
watched as her mother Darren Stone Nelson, a respected poet and
author, was robbed of her eccentric and funny life force.
However, despite the tragic implications of everything which was
happening, Brooke and her mother could not help noticing the beauty
and humor of the situation as well. In her more lucid moments,
Brooke's mother would ask "Are you getting this down, Boolie?
This is pure gold." [Boolie was Brooke's mother's nickname for
her daughter.] Even as she was dying, Brooke's mother was
inspiring her creatively.
The experience led to Brooke's provocatively-named one-woman musical
play My Mother Has 4 Noses, which Brooke is currently
performing at The Duke on 42nd in New York. The play is a
rumination of death and disease, but it is also a loving and funny
tribute to the life and eventual passing of her irrepressible
The title is not as impressionistic as it would immediately seem.
In fact, in a very real way, Brooke's mother did have four noses –
prosthetic ones. A devout lifelong Christian Scientist, Nelson
had refused to seek medical help, in keeping with the church's
dictates, in an earlier case of cancer on her face. By the
time the pain forced her to finally give in to medical treatment,
the cancer had spread and Nelson had to lose her nose. For the
rest of her life, she wore false noses.
Still, Brooke's mother was not the type to wallow in self-pity.
The situation just became one more thing for the irrepressible woman
to joke about. Years later, Alzheimer's might steal her mind
and her life, but it could not take her sense of flair and humor.
After decades as an acclaimed and popular singer and songwriter,
first popping onto the music scene as half of the beloved late 80s
folk duo The Story, Brooke has much performing experience on stage.
Still, it did not totally prepare her for the idea of Broadway
theater. However, Brooke created the book and twelve songs for
the play and took it on the road, doing successful readings in New
York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This
led to the first actual stagings of the show in Connecticut and
Minneapolis and at the Fringe Festival back in Philadelphia.
Now the New York resident has come full circle, bringing the show
back home to Broadway for a long stint. The music from the
play has also become Brooke's latest CD release.
Soon after My Mother Has 4 Noses opened at the Duke at 42nd
Street in the heart of Manhattan's Times Square area, we caught up
with Brooke to discuss her show, her career and her mother.
My Mother Has 4 Noses tells a very personal, difficult story.
Was it daunting to get it all out and how hard is it to share some
very dark stuff on a daily basis?
It's very daunting to get it all out. It's funny,
because every time I embark on a new project, whether it's a record
or some kind of written blog or whatever, I do write it and I just
get it out. Often it's only after the fact that I realize how much
I've said. (chuckles) So, there is a little bit of that,
but there is a little bit of "Well, I have to tell the truth." This
is my story and this is how it needed to be told. This is how it
feels most natural to me. That's the yin and the yang of creating
art. You just have to be truthful and go to the mat for it.
You bring a good
deal of humor to the story, in particular in the first act. Was it
difficult to lightly celebrate her life at the same time as you have
to tell about her physical and mental decline?
Yeah. I think that was one of the most essential
parts of it for me. To balance it out and find that fine line of
how much is too much on either side. It's part of my nature. I've
always been a storyteller on stage, so even as a touring recording
artist for the last 20 years I have tried to break up the songs with
crazy stories and vignettes and being funny. I've been more and
more drawn to that. Mom was hysterically funny, so I really wanted
to amplify that. Also, amplify that crazy... I don't know if
dichotomy is the word... but crazy, funny stuff happens in the most
despairing and dark moments. I have that kind of brain that splits
into two. On the one hand I think I'm going down with grief, on the
other hand half of me is watching the cremation guy come in with the
gurney and thinking oh my God, this is so crazy funny. (laughs)
How could this actually exist? This is happening. I think that by
telling those stories on stage, it gives the audience
permission to laugh at these horrible things. Because you have to,
or you will go down.
Both your mother
and father were professional writers. Do you think artistic temperaments can be
passed down in families? Or perhaps just being immersed in it so much can
get you into writing?
I think, yeah, that's my suspicion. My brothers and I are all
creative types. My brothers – one is an actor and a teacher and
the other is also a teacher and an incredible writer. Essayist. So
I think we certainly share this incredible love and respect for
language, telling a story and trying to write as capably and
evocatively as we can. Certainly our parents would correct every
grammatical error, no matter what, all through our lives. Even
into her late dementia, mom was correcting us on our pronouns.
have lots of your mother's possessions on stage with you when you do
the performance. You also show lots of old pictures on Power Point
slides. Does that help it feel that she is there with you?
Definitely. It helps me reconnect to the emotion
when I'm accessing those intense moments of the vigil, or reading
her poems. That's a very intense way to reanimate the emotions that
I need to act now, because it isn't as fresh. It's not like I'm
reliving it every night. I am accessing the actor part of myself.
Her possessions really help to do that.
In the play you
have a clever line about when you finally left the Christian
Scientist religion behind, when you discovered that Advil works.
However, I'm sure in real life it was a lot more difficult decision
to move on from a belief you had been brought up in. How did you
really decide you had to move on?
It was very gradual and kind of crept up on me. I
have to say that, I mean, the Advil is a great gag, but it's kind of
true. That was this definitive moment. I had very severe
menstrual cramps my entire life. Like really, really
severe. My friends would beg me, "Please, would you just try?
Please just take this. Please." When I finally relented, it really
was like the heavens parted and the sun shone down. There was this
incredible hum of relief. I thought: Oh my God, they weren't
kidding. (laughs) I had poo-pooed it all those years. But
the real evolution was gradual and kind of like a default, because
Christian Science was all I knew for so long. Even though I wasn't
following its tenets, I wasn't going to church, I wasn't reading the
lessons, I didn't really go anywhere else. Whenever there was a
crisis, even until I was about 30, I would kind of run home and go
back to church, in a way. Because I didn't know any better. Then
once I started finding my own way, and Advil, and had a couple of
medical crises that I did choose to deal with with medicine, it was
really intense. I felt like I had to confess to my parents, look
I'm going to go to a surgeon for this. And they were lovely. They
said of course, it's your choice.
mother resisted it for a long time. How difficult was it to get her
to finally realize that she had to get medical help or she was going
to probably die?
Yeah. I think it became this "oh my goodness"
moment for her. She really didn't want to die. It felt imminent to
her. The pain was so excruciating that the conversation started
with, "Hey, mom, I totally respect and I adore the fact that you are
so steadfast. Could we just talk about pain relief? You're not
even able to focus and pray in the way that you might when you're
faced with this awful, awful pain." That was the beginning of the
opening of the door that eventually became the rescue. But it was
about, "Can we just talk about pain relief?" That allowed her to
say, "You know what? Maybe I need to do something about this."
As a songwriter,
how tricky was it to write songs that tell the story in the show,
but would also work out of context for the album?
That's a great question. I guess that I'm just a
songwriter that writes the song that has to be written. I have
never been a literal, telling-the-story kind of songwriter. I
didn't want to do that for this theater piece. I wanted to kind of
over-estimate the audience. That's what I love as a listener. I
want to be challenged. I want to find my own story in the songs. I
want there to be ellipsis and mystery. So the songwriting was very
natural. My little bit of trepidation was: okay, this is not
musical theater kind of songwriting. Are people going to accept
it? They have embraced it wholly, which has been so lovely, because
the songs are a little mysterious. In a way I wrote them to be a
clue into what's really happening with me as the character telling
this story. The songs... okay I'm not saying a lot about myself, my
career, Jonatha. The songs are telling you what's going on in my
heart. The rest of the time I'm telling you more about my mom.
been on stage for decades now, but this is a very different animal
than the music you have done before.
Yes it is. (laughs)
What are some
challenges you find in theatrical acting and do you feel your
musical background sort of readied you for it?
I was a dancer until I was about 30. So I think
that has helped me physically inhabit a comfortable persona onstage
all these years. I do think that as a singer touring behind my
albums, I would find the acting in the songs. I would often really
invest myself in each song. They would change each night. They
would take on a different hue or timbre. That's always been
exciting about singing for me. So in a way, this is perhaps a
natural extension of the storytelling of the songs and my persona as
a dancer. This is just one more leap to a little fuller
incarnation, in a way. (laughs) Not that it's not
daunting. It's terribly daunting. I would joke over the years when
people would say, "Oh, you're such a great storyteller, you should
do theater." I would be like: No, no, no, no, no. I just want to
make records and tour. So this is a leap and I have learned so
much. I am evermore humbled and in awe of actors, for whom this is
their first thing, because I am learning so much about acting. And
loving it, actually.
Yes, it's almost
like the opposite of a concert: in a concert you use the words to
set up the music, but here you use the music to comment on the
Right. Yeah. It is. It's crazy. But I'm kind of
particularly of a certain age, eventually has to deal with the death
of a loved one. Obviously it is a universal story, but it's also
one that is difficult to deal with. Were you worried about whether
there would be an audience for this? Or did you just need to do
this and hope that people would follow you?
That's so interesting. I never even thought about
it. I never thought: oh, this may be not a topic people will want
to come see. From the very, very first readings, when I didn't know
what the hell I was doing... Our first reading was six months after
mom died. I had this deadline. I had this friend in Pittsburgh at
City Theater who had said, "Hey, I want to work on something with
you. Let's do this thing." Because I had told her about my idea.
So I did this reading, and even from the early days, people got that
it was a love story. They got that it wasn't just about the end of
life or dementia. It was a love story and there was such great
humor in it. So I think from that moment on that gave me
confidence. Wow, people are really getting the crazy balance of
tragedy and comedy in this thing. I just have to trust that that is
a good thing, because the response has been pretty... what's the
Your career was
really thriving and then you had to take time off to come home and
care for your mother. Was that a difficult decision to make?
The decision wasn't difficult, because it was just
imperative. It felt like this incredible existential cry. This
call of: "Well of course you will do this. She is your mother.
Look at this love." So the decision was a no-brainer. (laughs)
It was the actual implementation and surviving it that was tough at
times. I think anyone who is in this position of care giving knows
that fatigue and that drain and those moments where you are just
wondering if you will survive this. There I times I think that any
caregiver thinks, "Oh my God, I'm going down. How am I going to
continue?" Then there is always some sort of break in the clouds
and you figure out ways to save yourself and take a break. I went
to Malibu and I wrote songs, so I did get these few breaks. It's a tough thing to do, but I'm so grateful for that opportunity.
Did writing the
play help you come to terms with everything which happened?
It did. It helped me put it in perspective. It
helped me frame it and settle my unresolved conflicts, like did I do
the right thing? Should we have done this? Could I have avoided
that? It really helped me calm all of those unavoidable regrets and
champion all of the good that happened.
What do you think
your mother would think of the final outcome? How about your dad?
Besides that I didn't end up taking the Christian
Science route, I think they would just be tickled. They were my
biggest fans. They really were. I think my brothers would echo
this, from the time we were little kids, they made us feel we could
do anything. They were just thrilled at each of our tiny
successes. Whenever something good would happen for one of us, they
would just be over the moon. So I'm hoping they are tap dancing up
In the 80s when
you started The Story, did you have any idea you'd still be working
in music all these years later?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I knew this is it. This is the
thing. I love writing songs. I love singing. I love touring. I
love making records. I could only have hoped that I'd still be
doing this. So it didn't occur to me that [I wouldn't]. I mean,
although the music business has changed drastically and it is a
daunting task to actually make a living doing what we do, it still
so fuels me. It just makes my heart happy.
With the music
industry in such bad shape, do you think more and more musicians
will find alternative outlets like theater to get their work out
I think it's happening more and more. It's a tough
transition to make. I didn't do it on purpose. (laughs) It
kind of happened to me. I have to give mom credit. Even though she
was goofing around in her somewhat demented persona, it really was
her idea. Then I just kept thinking, wow, mom I think you are
right. I am getting this down. Wow, this really could turn into
something. Thank you. (laughs)
You started out
on a major label, and were on that for a long while, but you've also
had your own label for your last several albums. What is the
difference between labels and indies? How does being in control
make things better for you as an artist?
Well, I am lucky to have had the major label support
early on. As much as it never quite ended well, because there were
all these regime changes that would happen right when my album was
starting to chart, but I had the luxury of some pretty deep pockets
for the early days. That allowed me to transition to really
transition into an independent successfully, because I had that fan
base as a result of the marketing and promotion. At one point, when
I got dropped in the middle of a national tour, right as the single
from 10 Cent Wings was charting, we just thought, "All right,
we can do better than this." Nothing has really changed. My fans
are still coming to the shows. I have this base. If we can just
capitalize on it, we can do this. So that's when we started Bad
Dog. The pros are that we are nimble, we make all our own
decisions, we control – for better or for worse – the artwork, the
songs, the production. We also have to pay for it. (laughs)
That's the really daunting part. You don't have $50,000 just to
blow on a video. You don't have a quarter of a million dollars to
go into a gorgeous studio and hang out for a month. You've got to
make a record for, if you're smart, 25 grand tops. Then you've got
to figure out how to market it. There aren't any record stores
anymore, so what are you going to do? How much are you going to
spend on trying to fight the big boys?
Well, speaking of
the big boys, you recently did some writing with Katy Perry for her
new album. How did that come about? What was it like?
Isn't that crazy? (laughs) People would
send me these interviews over the last seven or eight years of Katy
Perry always citing me as an influence. You know, when people would
ask her "who are your influences?" I was like, wow, that is just so
cool. I love it. I would comment on it. People who knew her
through her management and stuff, like my friend Brendan Okrent from
ASCAP, would always call her manager and say, "Hey, Katy mentioned
Jonatha again, maybe we should hook them up. That might be kind of
cool." So it finally happened last May. We met and spent three
days in the studio hanging out. We had an incredible time. I think
she's a bad ass. We wrote two songs and one of them ("Choose Your
Battles") made it to her record (Prism), so I just
couldn't be more thrilled. I think she is tremendous. She's an
incredible singer. She is really smart writer. I can't wait to see
how she evolves.
The play is
certainly about looking back. What kind of things make you
Oh, goodness. Well, any of those things of mom.
Her hat and those tchotchkes on the table. Those are
definitely nostalgia. Some of it is in such a great, wistful good
way. Happier times. Seeing that picture at the end of the show, of
me when I was six, whispering in mom's ear, that's a great
nostalgia. I really do choose to remember her at her best, most
silly, goofball time. Music is the thing that makes me most
nostalgic. When I hear songs that inspired me in the early days, or
even older songs of mine. It's kind of like: aww, there's that.
Oh, wow. I don't know what else makes me nostalgic. (laughs)
I'm trying to look forward and stay afloat.
You mention in
the play that you live in New York. What is it like as a New Yorker
doing a show right on 42nd Street in the middle of Times Square and
the Broadway district? Your first play and it's right in the middle
of everything. How cool is that?
It's pretty much the coolest thing ever. I'm
holding my breath because I can't believe it. The reviews have
been really lovely. So I keep waking up every morning and thinking
it might go away, or be a dream, or I may not really be this
fortunate. Then it's still true and I still get to do this show
that I adore. I still get to sing these songs that I adore. Good
things are happening. I guess the most exciting thing about it
we're an independent. We're just as indie as my record label. It's
me and my husband. We are the mom and pop of this operation.
(laughs) We just went for it. We didn't want to wait around
and hope that some theater company would pick us up. We were just
like: You know, this feels like we really have something that is
connecting. Let's make it happen. So we did and it happened to be
that the Duke Theater was free in the time that we were hoping to
mount it. And we went for it. We just went for it.
Do you think
you'll do more theater now in conjunction with your music?
I have no idea what's next. My director Jeremy
Cohen, who has been so lovely, we were joking at previews. [He
said,] "Hey, if this goes well, maybe you can get a gig at Once.
You can stand in for the lead of Once if they need a sub."
(laughs) I was like, okay, that might be fun. I don't
know. I just want to make this thing the best that it can possibly
be. Fill those seats and hope that it reaches as many people as it
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